[In keeping with last week’s “Writer’s Journal” and the idea that the Last Push on a project is always the hardest (with the possible exception of the First Push … or is it the Middle Push?), I thought it might make sense to bring back this earlier post entitled “Sticking Points.”
[Two facts that all artists and entrepreneurs can agree upon is that sticking points inevitably occur–and at thoroughly predictable times in the process. Part of being a professional is being mentally prepared for these rough patches. I did an interview earlier this year with Gen. Hal G. Moore, who knows a little about life-and-death combat, and he made the point that he always prepared himself and his soldiers mentally for all possible Worst Case Scenarios, so that his troopers “could stay in problem-solving mode and not go into panic mode.” Herewith some Sticking Points for us non-rifle-toters to be ready for–so we, too, can stay out of panic mode.]
Have you ever hit the wall? I have. Over and over. On any project–I don’t care how dazzlingly it starts out–inevitably the truck runs into a lake of goo.
Here’s what I’ve learned about sticking points.
First, though they feel like defeats, sticking points are actually good signs. A sticking point means we’ve arrived at a threshold. We’re on the brink of moving to a higher level. That’s the good news. The bad news is that when Resistance gets wind of our impending advancement, it races ahead of us and strews our path with Krazy Glue and thumbtacks.
Second, sticking points are real. There’s a reason why we’re stuck and it’s usually that we’re not good enough yet to get over the particular hump that’s facing us. We need to grow. We need to learn. We’re faced with a real problem and we really have to solve it.
Third, sticking points are about fear. Yes, we are struggling with a real problem in the real world–but what makes it worse is the multiplier effect of fear. What are we afraid of? We’re afraid of growth. We’re terrified of exposure. Remember, nothing scares the crap out of us more than advancing, because to advance is to move from the known to the unknown.
Fourth, sticking points do not respond well to emotion. Resistance wants us to take getting stuck personally; it wants us to blame ourselves, freak out and begin racing around madly revising, rehashing, second-guessing. The reason these knee-jerk, emotion-spawned responses don’t work is that we’ve become stuck for a real reason. What we need now is patience, objectivity and professionalism. Our jalopy has broken down by the side of the road; we won’t get it started again except by coolly assessing the situation, finding the problem, then fixing it.
Six sticking points
Here are six predictable sticking points for writers (these apply, by the way, to all other aspects of art, life–and love):
1) Before we begin. We’re afraid to launch, to commit.
2) An eighth of the way through. The honeymoon rush of enthusiasm wears off. We start having second thoughts. “What have I done? Where did I get the crazy idea that I could pull this thing off?”
3) In the thick of the action. We’ve committed so much that we can’t go back–but we can’t see the end either. Befuddlement strikes, the fog of war. Paralysis.
4) Nine-tenths of the way through. We suddenly discover our whole premise is faulty; we must scrap 65% and start over. Arrrggggh.
5) In sight of the end. Can we close the deal? Will we freeze? Will we choke?
6) When we’re actually done. Now we’ll be judged. We are struck by fear of failure, fear of success, “the full catastrophe,” as Zorba the Greek once said.
Keep calm and carry on
Have you seen the British poster above? It’s been reproduced on bumper stickers, T-shirts, you name it. According to Wikipedia, “Keep Calm and Carry On” was written by the Home Ministry for use in tube stations and other bomb shelters where Brits took shelter during the blitz in WWII. The poster was never actually used, alas. No matter; its philosophy is still brilliant for overcoming any kind of fear.
How to beat sticking points
We do it by keeping calm and carrying on.
Remember, sticking points are good; they mean we’re at the brink of a breakthrough. Resist the urge to respond with haste or emotion. Stay calm.
Then the critical part: carry on. Keep working. Don’t stop. In the Marine Corps, they have a phrase: “work the problem.” That’s our mantra now. Find what’s wrong. Remain cool. Fix it.
Beyond a sticking point
On the other side of every sticking point is blessed progress. We move to a higher level. We get better. One increment at a time, we learn our craft, we face our demons, we pocket some good juju for next time–the next sticking point.
Keep calm and carry on.