Slaughtering the Goat

If you’re a squeamish, goat- loving vegan this blog may not be for you.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from a writer friend. The email, which was sent to a group of us, mentioned the phenomenal productivity of another writer who produces – wait for it – 100,000 words a month.

Yes, a month, and he has the books to prove it.

To which one of the group replied that the only way that would happen for her is if she slaughtered a goat and made a pact with the devil. So from now on I’ve decided to refer to my daily output or writing my words as ‘slaughtering the goat.’

Why is it that we’re never happy with our own pace of slaughtering the goat? Why do we beat ourselves up for being too slow (usually) or too fast (rarely; in fact I’ve never heard anyone complain about writing too fast)? When I stop and think about it, we all slaughter the goat differently and at our own pace. But the goat does get slaughtered. We get there in the end.

I beat myself up for a day or two after reading that email. Why don’t I write faster, why can’t I be more prolific? It didn’t take long for me to stop being so ridiculous. Traveling from one place to another takes time. Seeds grow when they’re ready to grow. Creating anything – needlepoint, art, a sculpted body – takes time too. I don’t expect instant results most of the time.

So why should I when it comes to slaughtering that damned goat?

I shouldn’t, except my writing friends are slaughtering their own goats and I’m peering over my fence watching how they’re doing it and I’m comparing their method to my method and worrying that I’m doing it wrong and being too messy and probably inefficient too. Mostly I worry, like a lot of writers do, that I’m not slaughtering the goat fast enough.

Because you know what they say: if you slaughter the goat slowly, it suffers. And nobody wants to make a goat suffer. That’s bad karma and God knows we don’t need more bad karma.

So what to do? The only thing you can do, I guess. Approach the goat with love. Treat it kindly. Carry out the slaughter the best way you can. And don’t compare how you do it to anybody else. In the end, it’s not about anybody else. It’s a deal between you and the goat.

Every Writer Needs a Lizard

Every writer needs a lizard. Or maybe a frog or a spider or, in my case, a golden ladybug.

We need a mythic animal or a symbolic touchstone where we can park our doubts when they get in the way of our writing. My friend Rachel has a lizard painted on the wall of her office. Lise has a stained glass frog hanging in her window. I have a golden ladybug. She sits on my desk as a symbol of luck. One day when luck seemed about as attainable as a trip to Mars, I looked down and there she was: benign yet strong, a little hopeful even. And perfectly capable of swallowing my doubts like her live counterpart swallows aphids in the garden.

Doubt is different than disappointment. In the aftermath of an immediate bad news moment like a rejection or poor sales figures or a difficult conversation with an editor, chocolate is a quick fix. So is triple cream brie or a bracing gin and tonic or a head-pounding workout if you have no hedonistic qualities at all. A walk & talk with a writer friend or a good movie help too.

I’m not talking about disappointing news. I’m talking about those ugly doubts that linger like the nasty cough that won’t go away after the cold is gone.  The doubts that say ‘you aren’t good enough,’ ‘this story bites,’ ‘the odds aren’t in your favor,’ or ‘find a real job.’

Doubt like that doesn’t belong at the desk.

In his outstanding book ‘Writing from the Inside Out’ Dennis Palumbo says writers need doubt in the same way we need faith.  It’s a mistake, he says, to strive to banish doubt, to see it as the enemy. “Just as courage has no meaning without fear, faith has no meaning without doubt. They’re the yin and yang of all aspiration,” Palumbo writes.

Most of us, however, want faith to win over doubt. We’ll take whispers of inspiration, encouragement, and hope over shouts of doubt any day of the week.  Not so fast, says Palumbo.  The more willing we are to mine our doubts, the truer and more recognizably human our characters will be

He has me there. Anything for the writing, right?

Okay, not so fast, Dennis. There’s a fine line between doubt and despair. And despair, taken to the extreme, doesn’t serve me.

Although, I have to be honest, doubt does serve me sometimes. That niggling seed of doubt telling me the plot twist isn’t quite right or the character motivation isn’t strong enough, that’s healthy doubt. Welcome doubt. But when doubt is so strong that faith is a distant memory, I have a problem.

That’s when I hand it over to my ladybug. ‘Take it and hold it and let me write,’ I say. ‘Just for today, let me have faith.’