Saturday, October 11, 2008

Back in the Land of the Living

Or, more accurately, somewhere just short of it. These are the times, tales warn us, when you need to be most cautious. One glance back and your beloved may disappear, or you yourself might turn into a pillar of salt.

Foolish boy that I am, I'm going to risk one quick peek over my shoulder nonetheless. One long rant and then I'll move on. Promise.

As most of you know, writing has brought me unimaginable wealth, and when I'm not riding to hounds or loaning JK Rowling money, I spend much of the day coiled atop my riches like a dragon guarding his hoard. Yet for some reason--a sense of civic duty, I suppose--I still spend much of my time working as a consultant.

I believe the word "consultant" derives from the Latin for "one who has no idea what he'll be working on next, if anything at all." (Or something like that. My Latin is limited and a bit rusty--'rust' being from the Old English for "reddish." It would be useful to know more, as we are quite close to Latin America.)

I recently found myself working on a computer model of massive complexity. I undertook the task for not much money, because I was promised I would have eager, skilled people working for me, and cooperation in procuring all the obscure data needed.

The first thing that went wrong was stall after stall in delivery of the data. Then I was informed by my supposed staff that the venerable software we used was not up to the scale of the task, so at a late date I set about writing a complex computer program--one I originally helped design, but which I had last set eyes on in 1988. It only took about nine months to write it originally, but why shouldn't it be a matter of just moments when you already know what you're doing? (Did I have the original code on hand to translate to a different platform? I did not. My coworker from long ago decided it was his personal property twenty years ago, and abbsconded with it.)

Writing a complex piece of code under time pressure is a terrible thing--unless you're Microsoft, and don't really give a damn if it works correctly. With something like this project, it is literally gut-wrenching: you have thousands of carefully vetted lines of code, you run it, holding your breath, and then your stomach plummets. There's another mistake in there. Somewhere. This is a 12-to-14 hours a day process that lasts weeks, and by the end of it you're exhausted...yet not sleeping well.

To move along, I disocvered that in the interim my colleagues had not done their jobs. They hadn't used such data as had arrived to get the models working, and although they had assured me we would meet our twice-extended deadline, they had done precious little work--and most of the work they had done was wrong. In the manner of the Little Red Hen, but with much less pleasure and without her smug attitude, I took over the entirety of the problem and spent the last few weeks hammering it out.

And I'm a wreck. I've been sitting so many hours a day my feet have swollen and look rather creepy. I haven't slept through an entire night in a couple of months; I wake up in a panic, convinced that I've either thought of a problem or that I need another approach to a problem, and downstairs I stumble to the computer. Our house is a mess, and yesterday I shaved for the first time in weeks. The once-fashionable but now-outdated term 'nervous breakdown' made sense to me for the first time. I'm a quivering mass of synaptic misfires.

It's been a bit like cleaning the Augean stables, but without the strength to reroute rivers; it takes far longer than a day, and when you're done you don't smell nice at all.

I usually do well under pressure. I was one for all-nighters in college, and I've worked on any number of urgent, can-you-believe-it, Mission-Impossible projects. But never one that has bashed me about this severely.

Because of this, blog posts have been rare recently. Worst of all, though, I haven't written a line on my Work-Not-In-Progress for a couple of months. At first I thought of it with longing; then with resignation and despair. But in the last couple of weeks it got to the point where I couldn't even remember it. It isn't as though my mind has been wiped clean, though; instead it's as if so much utter crap has been pumped into it that everything of value has been squeezed out.

Tell me: have any of you had your skull squished with such force that your book came out of your ears along with the pulverized brain tissue?

If so, how do you pump it back in?


Tim Stretton said...

I have had similar--although not so extreme, and not so wittily retailed--occasions where I have had to set writing aside through other pressures and, quite literally, lost the plot.

For instance, the organisation I work for thought, since it had a little spare cash, it would be a good idea to lend it to those nice banks in Iceland which were a bit hard up. In hindsight, this was not the wisest move, and an extended game of "pin the tail on the donkey" has ensued, the tail in question being a king-sized portion of blame...

There's only one way of getting back into a work in progress after this sort of thing that works for me: read what you've written from the beginning...sometimes more than once. Any background notes and scribbles made at an earlier time of imaginative fecundity now seem like tablets of stone. I find that without capturing that sense of total immersion in the story it's very hard to get going.

But the story is in there somewhere, like a kitten hiding under the sofa on Bonfire Night. It just needs a little time and coaxing to come out...

Unknown said...

I've found that the act of childbirth and ensuing panic attack totally wiped my WIP from my brain for a good year or so. But it turned out fine. I picked up the first five chapters of Light Reading again once my Munchie went to creche (14 months later) and wrote the rest over the next few months with a much better sense of what it needed to work.

So it could be a good thing.

Jeremy James said...


I can't pretend to have gone through something this severe, although in grad school, I probably felt like it when three team mates on my database systems project dropped the class a week before it was due...

I'm just writing to wish you well, and to wish you luck. That sounds hellish. Hope you can rest up and get back to your WIP soon.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

You give me hope!

Here, kitty kitty...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Aliya--

I thought everything possible had gone wrong on this one, but you remind me that at least I wasn't pregnant. Even if my feet are swollen.

Light Reading worked out quite nicely, so I'll cling to your conjecture that this is an opportunity rather than a problem.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Jeremy--

Yep, this thing is very much like what you describe, except longer. So you've been there before.

Thanks for the wishes.

Creative A said...

I've been through some crazies before that, while not as severe as your experience (this seems to be a unifying theme here) were pretty screwed up in their own way. What worked for me was to first get rid of the stress, and then spend some time completely recharging. A few weeks works great. Then yeah, I read the story, went back to my notes, and sort of teetered back into action.

Good luck :)

-CA Web Admin said...

Hi, David

I'm glad you're back in the land of the real. I can't really add to the great advice above, except to give you some encouragement myself. I went into the local WHSmiths this weekend and found that Shock and Awe had broken into the top 100 bestselling paperbacks for that month! As far as I know, that's a first for any Macmillan New Writer.

Take care, mate

Tim Stretton said...

Top-selling paperback! That's brilliant and deserved news.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Creative--

A few weeks recharging?

Ah, that sounds like a lovely idea...

David Isaak said...

Thanks, Matt! (and Tim too). That bucked me up amazingly.

Jen Ster said...

My friend, you tell the tale of my life, though I can't say as I write code. Yes, there have been occasions where I've totally forgotten my WIP. But there's been other occasions when I've been working on the WIP and forgotten about the rest of the planet. I hope it all balances out.