Sunday, August 1, 2010

Trapped By My Great Expectations

Trapped. In a rut. Caught in the grind.
James Houston Turner feels trapped by Great Expectations

This pretty much describes how I've been feeling lately. I have an editing deadline I'm trying to meet and the last few days haven't been going all that well. The reason: my Great Expectations.

And the harder I try to meet those expectations, the harder it gets, and the harder it gets, the harder I try, which means it gets even harder!

Stuff like this happens on occasion. I set unreasonable goals, get tunnel vision, forget to take breaks and find myself working longer and harder in an effort to finish.

But longer and harder doesn't always cut it.

So I decided to make pizza. I knew I needed a break and making pizza is this hands-on, romantic tango between me and this pile of raw ingredients. And it is a romance: a coaxing and teasing out of flavors ... a whisper of hints and subtleties from just the right spices. I get flour and dough up to my elbows, millet iseverywhere (those little buggers can sure roll a long way), and the kitchen is this insane war zone, with utensils all over the place, onions and vegetables sizzling in a century-old, four-generation blackened cast iron skillet, music blaring, and me -- occasionally -- swearing because I never follow a recipe and things -- occasionally -- go awry. It's a zany adventure into uncharted culinary territory each and every time. Which is why I love it!

Writing, on the other hand, is quiet, solitary work. Which is a good thing because I like working on my own. I like my own company and I'm a disciplined self-starter. I get up every day at 5:15, check emails, do my exercise, take a shower, eat my breakfast, then show up for work at my laptop by 8:30 or so.

But the very nature of writing means it's hard to share progress reports. There are no visible cues as in, say, cooking pizza.

"How's it going?" my wife, Wendy, asks.
"I'm at the fifty-six-thousand word mark! Only forty-nine thousand to go. That's using a twelve-point Times New Roman font, double-spaced, which equals about 370 pages, at about 272 words per---"
"Stop!" she says, her eyes glazing over. "You lost me at fifty-six thousand."

So I tend to push on so that I can finally announce, "I am done!" Those are the words Wendy likes to hear. Those are the words I like to hear. They are words to celebrate, even if we both know another edit may be just around the corner. I am done!

And this is what gets me into trouble.

The reason: writing, like pizza making, is a romance between me and this pile of raw ingredients. Sure, it's work, and there are days I don't feel like working. But I do because that's just the way it is when you've got deadlines and people are waiting. You suck it up and do what needs to be done. That's the business of writing.

But writing is not like house cleaning (and I have done my fair share of house cleaning over the years to support my passion to write). It's an art as well as a discipline. And there's a huge element of creativity that goes into it. It is not simply physical labor. So I must nourish my creative side, and that means hitting the "refresh" button now and then. It means taking a break.

I was reminded of this when I was standing in the kitchen with flour all over my face. I was on a break and loving it. I was refreshed and rejuvenated ... I was singing and dancing and throwing large disks of dough up in the air. When Wendy came in to see what the commotion was all about, I began talking about my story with excitement and animation. (That was after she got over the shock of seeing the kitchen.)

It's such a simple and obvious lesson -- taking a break -- but one I had forgotten in my Great Expectation to be more of a writing machine than I am. The romance had slipped away. I needed to get it back. So I stepped away from the laptop and made a massive mess that was more satisfying than I can fully articulate here. (Yes, I cleaned it up!)

And guess what: when I sat down again at my laptop, the romance had returned.

Which goes to show what a miraculous food a good millet pizza can be.

Like I said, working longer and harder is not always the answer. Working smarter is what I need to keep doing. And that means taking time to live and laugh (and bake) "in between the lines" of my writing.

Hence, when the time comes to celebrate the release of my latest book, you can guess what I'll be doing.

Let's see: will that be pepperoni or picadillo...?

Originally from Kansas and a self-confessed pizza fanatic, author James Houston Turner writes thrillers and bakes pizza in his home in Adelaide, South Australia. You may visit him at