Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Dip: Jenni's Story

Recently Jenni was talking about whether to keep writing a novel she'd just started:

I don’t know if it’s because I’m starting a new project, but I am overwhelmed with doubt about my new novel.

I keep coming up with different arguments in my head for why I shouldn’t even bother trying. I formulated a sentence or two while in my bath, but when I sat down to actually write the thing, my Inner Critic said “What are you thinking, writing this?”

I’m like “Well, I thought it would be an interesting idea.”

Inner Critic said, “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re writing about a woman going to the hairdresser. It’s really boring and mundane.”

Me: “Oh, but…I kind of thought it was an interesting relationship, because there’s this level of intimacy-”

IC: “No, trust me: boring. Like reading about someone going to the dairy for milk.”

Jenni talks about how this inner dialogue continued its combination of critique and sabotage, and how this conversation is not a new thing for her. She struggled with it while writing her first book, too.

While she wondered if it was self sabotage or a lack of confidence or writer’s block, in the end Jenni decided to ignore her inner critic altogether, and just write her hairdresser story down. But:

"It’s not easy when the inner critic is so loud and convincing. She really plays off my insecurities."

Later, Jenni decided to quit that novel and take up a new one she was more excited by:

... I know this sounds bad. Like, oh this one’s too hard so I’ll start an exciting new project.

I’m frightened of this mind frame because it can lead to me just continuing to abandon things when they get boring and never getting anything finished. So why am I letting myself do it this time? I’m not excited about book A. I don’t want to sit down and write it, and when I do make myself sit down I get distracted, my inner critic won’t shut up and I’m consumed with doubt.

... By comparison, book B (kid’s book) is exciting. I want to sit down and write it, and when I do the words flow out of me like iodised table salt (see how it runs!) My inner critic is silent, I am connecting with all this stuff from my childhood and it’s a dynamic feeling. This to me makes it a simple choice. Keep writing book B.
Jenni has since finished the first draft of Book B.

I take a couple of things from Jenni's story. First: the way she describes her Inner Critic resonates with me. It's something I've been through too, and I imagine it seems familiar to you as well. Its attacks are vivid and precise, and calculated to undermine the whole idea of working on that story. The Inner Critic was trying to make Jenni quit; the question Jenni was struggling with was whether the Inner Critic was right.

And that brings me to Seth Godin. He's one of my top reads on the internet (here's his blog). His book, 'The Dip: a little book that teaches you when to quit (and when to stick)', has been intriguing me for a couple of years.

Jenni's story is a perfect example of what Seth's book is about: a Dip.

For me, the key sentences in Jenni's story are:

"... I know this sounds bad. Like, oh this one’s too hard so I’ll start an
exciting new project. I’m frightened of this mind frame because it can lead to me just continuing to abandon things when they get boring and never getting anything finished."

The Dip is the moment when you feel like giving up on something, even if it's something that seemed like a great idea when you started it. This is how Seth describes the lead-up to that moment:

At the beginning, when you first start something, it's fun. You could be taking up golf or acupuncture or piloting a plane or doing chemistry - it doesn't matter; it's interesting and you get plenty of good feedback from the people around you.

Over the next few days and weeks the rapid learning you experience keeps you going. Whatever your new thing is, it's easy to stay engaged in it.

And then the Dip happens.
The stuff that seemed worthwhile and rewarding when you began starts becoming harder. You're feeling bogged down, like you're not making any progress or enjoying what you're doing. That's the Dip.

The Dip is what makes people quit. They get discouraged, give up, abandon projects or dreams. It happens to everybody with everything, and it means that only a few people make it through to the level of mastering a skill like architecture, graphic design, writing, or the ability to effectively use social networks without them sucking up most of your life.

From the book:

The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastery.

It's the combination of bureaucracy and busy work you must deal with in order to get certified in scuba diving.

The Dip is the difference between the easy "beginner" technique and the more useful "expert" approach in skiing or fashion design.
It's the moment when you realise exactly how much effort it's going to take to be great at something. The question is: Will you stick with it until you've gone from good to great? Or will you quit?

I'm going to be taking about The Dip over the next four posts. I recommend the book; it's in Wellington Library (if you're local), and at 80 pages it's a quick read. You can get a taste of it here.

In the meantime, what about you? Can you relate to Jenni's story? What dips have you experienced?


debbie said...

Wow, this is the post I've been waiting for for a long time. I shall definitely have to get hold of this Dip book.

From my experience, I spend most of my life in The Dip. I quickly achieve the basic level (what I think of as enough competence to fool most other people that I sort of know what I'm doing) and then struggle for years to reach the mastery level (where I actually feel like I know what I'm doing and everything isn't a total disaster waiting to collaspe all around me).

It pretty much applies to writing (both in general and each individual project) every job I've ever had (from working in pet shops, cafes, movie theatres, admin to teaching), driving, every hobby or interest, learning other languages and recently parenthood.

I spent most of my life being a quitter - I probably have done a few months (and sometimes years) of just about every hobby and sport there is. I liked to think of myself as someone who just liked to try new things because I resented being called a quitter by my mum and teachers etc. Somewhere around my late twenties though I decided that I wanted to be person that stuck at things. I tried to change my thinking that it was a worthier goal to be someone who kept trying than it was be someone who was good at something and found it easy. I think this was helped by the fact that in teaching I saw many students who were diligent and strived to improve generally outperform those lazier students who had more natural ability. I figured if I just keep writing/teaching etc eventually I'll end up overtaking those who are more talented but less committed. Sort of a hare and tortoise thing.

It still can be a daily struggle to keep plodding if you're the tortoise though. Part of your brain always will wonder why you should, as a creature who is not one of nature's sprinters, bother to race at all. You just have to really want to win, or at the very least, finish the race.

matt said...

With long writing projects I've had a mix of Dip and Not Dip experiences. The only difference I can see through the misty rose-tinted 20/20 glasses of history is this:

Dip -> project took a decent chunk of time and wasn't the main thing I had to concentrate on each day (job, parenting etc take up a fair whack of head space)

Non Dip -> project was fast (1 month) AND a near total obsession. Like, writing for several hours a day at work. And my job was a no-brainer (projectionish) and Debbie was working on her own novel to the same deadline so we could co-obsess. We had a writing jar and each time the other person wrote 1000 words we put a dollar in. This was used for treats like dinner at KKs (which, at about $14, was almost a weekly option).

We were poor but happy in them days, living in our shoebox in middle 't road :-)

matt said...

It's probably worth noting that the full extent of the editing that we did on those manuscripts was a readthrough for typos. So while we never really moved on from the 'beginner' step of writing the first drafts, we THOUGHT we'd mastered the art of novel writing and were bitterly disappointed not to become famous in our early 20s.

But it was a Dipless first draft, unlike the first drafts of the two things I've most recently written...

hix said...

Debbie, great comments. It was in my late 20s that I read a book about NOT quitting which really struck home with me. The thing about both that book and the Dip, though, is that they both urge you to be very selective about what it is you DO decide to stick with.

Like you, I think stubbornness has a lot to recommend it. It's basically the original reason for why my movie ended up getting made: my stubbornness attracted other people to the project.

@Matt: yeah, I can see how the time you take to do something can influence how much you're affected by the Dip. This is a series of posts, and the one in about 4 posts' time is kind of about your Dipless first draft. It's about the idea that there are the projects you're working on (individual novels, say) and the market you're trying to influence (getting novels published).

It's getting through the Dip on the market you're trying to influence that's the really important thing.