This is not a post about writing (except insofar as it is my work.) even if it seems to be so at first.
Over the last twenty years I’ve mentored maybe 30 people. Now the quality of mentoring went to heck 10 years ago, because of life. But usually I try to read at least a few pieces by people I mentor, and try to figure out what is holding them back. Because that’s what mentors do.
When I was younger and took raw newbies, one of the hardest things to get them to see — and something that drove me nuts because I struggled with it myself, back in pre-history — is that you can’t have character in solitude, aside and apart from plot.
Sure, I said I get characters for free — a lot of newbies do — but that means I know who they are, how they talk, their strengths and weaknesses; their fears; their sore spots.
That’s great so long as I want to have imaginary friends I take out when I’m alone to play with. But if I’m writing a book with these characters, I have to give them something to do.
What I first wrote (though perhaps not that bad, because ADD, and I bore easily) and what these people are writing is this: Peter the Paladin gets up in the morning and shaves. Then he exercises his horse, goes for a walk where people cheer him for his outstanding courage. Comes home where his wife tells him she loves his unwavering morals. Goes to the palace to get a commendation for his bravery.
Well, good for Peter, but I was yawning while his wife was praising. And that’s not in any way a story. And why are all these people saying things for which there is no evidence whatsoever?
Because, of course, for Peter to prove he’s a Paladin, and to make him interesting at all, he must do the work of a paladin. He must get up off his exquisite chair given to him by Sir Grateful in gratitude for saving his daughter from the Dread Dragon and do something to prove he still deserves the chair. Or at least we must see him fighting the dread dragon.
Okay, so how is this not about writing. It’s not, because it’s about us, and the times we live in.
In a private group, a friend who has sudden piercing insights asked how it would affect society that we took people out of work for a year, smashed their routine with a hammer and set them adrift.
I immediately panicked, because I have reason to have extra insight into this kind of situation.
Look, much sh*t has been talked about millenials. Don’t wind younger son up. We’ve had screaming arguments with me defending millenials while he condemns them. I won’t say I don’t get it, because part of it was going through public school in a high-left area.
I will say though that from the things no one talks about, like the real voting pattern, not the one ascribed to them, the people I meet on the street and coming to my house to do work, and a million other little things, they were shaping up d*mn nicely. Or as I express it “the kids are all right.”
The point being that if you come out of the continuous indoctrination factory and face the real world, in a halfway healthy nation and economy, you’re going to lose a lot of the indoctrination. The ones that don’t are usually the wealthy ones (it’s no accident the most strident lefties are pampered females) or those who are too smart to think their way to reality.
I do have some special insight into this, because in the mid seventies the Portuguese economy went…. odd. I won’t say it was wonderful before — hey, it was national socialist and all socialism kills. Fast or slow — but it was predictable.
In the mid seventies it became completely unpredictable, with the government arrogating to itself the right to promulgate rules for prices, salaries, and how many bottles of oil you could own. (Frying oil. It’s a precious commodity in a Latin country, particularly one were natural gas — the main fuel for cooking — is going through the roof, so baking is a rare and precious luxury.) And hyperinflation struck.
Remember I was a kid. My range of interests was even more limited than other kids, because mostly I read. So how hyper was the inflation? Well, science fiction paperbacks went from the equivalent (look, I don’t remember the prices in escudos anymore) of maybe $2.50 to $200 in a period of six/seven years. No, the prices weren’t in dollar, and the exchange rate wasn’t that. But if you visualize an asset taking that kind of hike (yes, I’m afraid it will be all too easy in five years) you can see what I mean by hyperinflation.
Which brings us to…. uncertainty. In that climate, who the heck is going to start a business, when any minute the government could regulate you out of existence and/or your need for materials/machinery might hit at the wrong time in the cycle and strip you of all your capital?
So, while a brave souls did start or continue jobs, there were very few new jobs, and a lot of companies/factories/etc shut their doors.
This means a generation (the one before me) left school and found themselves adrift, sometimes for years, before they could find a job. (Incidentally this is one of the reasons — not the only — I ended up in languages and teaching, despite a complete and utter lack of interest in the actual work. I’d seen what prolonged unemployment did to people. I figured that as Portugal opened to the world, and started to recover from the hammer to the gears, languages would pay well (they did) but until then, or if things went pear shaped again, I could teach, because there were always jobs for teachers. Yes, my dears, when you make plans, G-d laughs.)
Now a lot of people started businesses of some kind, and whether they were flipping houses, starting crops on abandoned fields to sell on the black market, or making crafts to sell on the black market (the black market or at least grey was everywhere. Either you knew someone, or people set up stalls on the street corners that were foldable into a bag, so they could run away when the police showed up. My first independent purchases, be it for gifts or for myself were from such people, usually selling groceries, clothes, and seriously IP violating books.)
I daresay those people were okay long term. Well, maybe not, because the work is…. different. But looking back there was an explosion of creativity and artistry among young people, and I bet a lot of them are fine.
OTOH a lot of them had no interest in arts and crafts and couldn’t do much. Oh, there was a lot of teaching/tutoring/ doing this one job “under the table.” But nothing regular or sustained.
I know several people who went through that later situation. And the ones who were excellent workers, dedicated, driven, emerged from the experience curiously maimed. (For the others you couldn’t tell.) In the end, when jobs came back, they did the minimum necessary, because the habits of their time out of work had shaped them. And most of them never went anywhere.
Now this is nowhere near the level of — pardon me — f*ckery the country just endured (the world, actually.)
Look, it’s closer to what happened to me. I used to do six books a year, without much trouble, while tutoring my younger son in one year. And then–
My health went South.
The amazing thing is how fast you lose habits that enforce productivity.
None of us likes working. Well, no. That’s not precisely true. I love my job, and I enjoy working. The problem is that I don’t enjoy working productively EVERY DAY. Sometimes — say twice a year — an idea strikes, and I will wake up from bed and write something, from 2k to 30k words, at one go. And that’s great. But one doesn’t make a living that way. Nice, hobby you’ve got there…
Getting up, rain or shine, brain fog or worry about a kid, a friend or a pet, and sitting down and writing is difficult. Okay, not as difficult as dancing on a broken ankle, or going to work in the sleet and the rain with chest congestion and worry about the bills. I’m not making myself a victim or a martyr. I’m quite aware I have it easy.
My biggest difficulty is grabbing myself by the ear and making myself produce words. And since my work habits were hit with a hammer twice — first by health, then by a very complex move — it’s been hard, bordering on the impossible. Not the writing itself, but sitting down to write. On time. And producing the required words.
Guys, the me from fifteen years ago, despises the me now, and wants to kick her butt.
But a habit that’s broken is very hard to get back, just like a muscle that withers has trouble getting back. (And sometimes can’t.)
And we just put people in enforced idleness for a year and change. They’ll go back to work when they need to, but will their productivity ever be what it was?
My experience suggests not. You see, productivity is an habit, too.
I’ve told here, half in jest, about how I started taking a laptop on our big glitzy weekend vacations. (It’s a joke, folks. While raising the kids, our great vacations were two and a half days in Denver — we lived in Manitou and then in Colorado Springs — where we haunted museums and Greek diners and painted the town a mild pink. If we were lucky, we had three and a half days. I still remember those.) My husband, understandably had a “don’t work while on vacation” rule, made all the more important as at the time I was either not getting paid, or I was getting paid peanuts. And working like a madwoman. So, of course “leave the laptop at home on vacation.”
The problem is I had an habit. Only slightly less demanding than the reading habit. You see, when the younger kid was in school (his being the important one because pre-school was only 3 hours) I sat my butt on the chair and wrote. Produced pages and pages of words.
Then when they came home, I was mommy. Though I might be plotting the next scene in my head.
(Some of my most productive years, btw.)
Saturdays were different only in that our writers’ group met at my house at 3. And our writers’ group was composed of insane people. At least in 95, we decided that novel or no novel in progress, to remain a member in good standing you had to bring in a short story a week.
Well, I normally didn’t do that during the week. Because I was doing novels. So, on Saturday, I cleaned 1800 sq feet in a couple of hours (took that long because kiddies) and then sat at my computer and pounded out a 2k to 6k story in an hour or three. Did spell check, and threw it at the group. (It’s amazing how many of those, de-typoed, sold.)
The problem while on vacation, is that characters and ideas for shorts showed up right on time either Friday night or Saturday morning. I wrote many a story on hotel note pads, napkins and even toilet paper. (Started novels, too, because my brain has no sense of proportion.) Until Dan sighed and told me I could bring the laptop. Which I MOSTLY used to pound out a story before they woke up on Saturday.
I no longer get the story of the week. (Which might be a habit worth getting back, as it would improve my numbers greatly.) In fact, I’ve limited the short story invites I accept, because writing a short can take me the better part of a week, as I’m no longer in the habit.
It’s not that I don’t try. It’s that I’m no longer used to sit at the keyboard and concentrate. And trust me, it’s a matter of habit.
The monasteries of old, being communal living amid people raised in more violent environments that most of us, kept the whole thing harnessed tight with habit. “At this house you do this. At this hour this.” It’s a trick borrowed by boarding schools and heck, even public schools. And yes, definitely factories.
For most people work is not a “career.” It is “That which pays the bills.” The actions of working (as I was prepared to accept with my degree choice) aren’t in themselves pleasurable, or even overly interesting, but you do it the best you can, and you earn a living. And habit lubricates that and makes it easier. I mean, I didn’t want to write a short story on vacation, but the habit compelled me to.
What happens when you have most of the world broken of the habit of working?
I know — because I’m struggling with it — how hard it is to rebuild the habit, so that you can work at your best when you’re supposed to. (And working from home is not necessarily “work hours” but the hours that you need to work.) So that you’re not fighting yourself just to get to the desk/workbench/whatever and do what you have to do.
Because there’s always other things that need doing. There’s always distractions.
In addition to throwing a massive wrench of uncertainty (and almost for sure hyperinflation to come) into our economy, the last year and a half has destroyed work and study habits of a vast portion of the population. Can they get them back? Will they even realize they need to? Or that they’re not working at their best?
Breaking an habit is the easiest thing in the world. Building a new one…. not so much.
This might be the biggest damage from the covidiocy. And it will blight more lives than the virus ever could.
Other than the fact it’s a textbook example of why government needs to be small, starved and limited, what can we do about it?
I don’t know. I know what I can do about me, and about everyone I know who is having issues. And that’s encourage you to form new habits as fast as you can. To harness yourself tightly to work standards, and to struggle to regain the habit of productivity.
Because regardless of natural gifts and abilities, if people don’t get that habit back, they’ll be very poor.
And so will society.
Go to work. I’ll do likewise.