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Why the “Nano Method” Works: Silencing that Inner Critic

I think the ever popular Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month, for all you noobs) and its sister event, Camp Nanowrimo produces a lot of shitty writing. I also happen to think that that is fantastic. Now, before you get all frazzled and prepare to comment sixteen reasons why your Nano writing doesn’t suck, hear me out.

When I was fifteen, I wrote a book from damn near start to finish. That’s pretty awesome for a kid in the tenth grade who took on extracurriculars like an addict to coke. For a while after that, I found myself starting projects and not being able to finish them. One after another, I’d give up and toss my material out because, well, frankly, it was godawful, and I knew it. It’s only been recently that I’ve been able to push through to the end of projects satisfied with myself.

So what happened? What was the difference between five years ago and now?

The difference is this: at fifteen, I actually thought I was a good writer. Oh, not just good, I thought I was bloody fantastic, the next Margaret Atwood right out of high school. Then, when I wrote things, I just shot them out as they happened in my brain, and to me, whatever I put to paper was pure gold. King Midas with a laptop, yo.

Now, jump ahead three years, multiple small town publications and a glowing review from my local university’s writer-in-residence. I had gained a single, valuable piece of knowledge that changed the way I wrote astronomically. One day, as I sat in a creative writing class with thirteen or so other “great writers,” I discovered that I wasn’t nearly as much of a prodigy as I thought I was. It was simultaneously the best and the worst thing that has ever happened to my work.

It was the worst thing for a few reasons. I got it at the wrong time, for one. An eighteen year old kid with self-esteem issues to begin with isn’t going to like realizing that one of the things she thought didn’t suck about herself, kind of, well sucked. I started second guessing everything I wrote, unable to string three words together without deleting and rewriting them in different variations six more times; I wanted everything to be perfect, bringing out the editing pen before I’d even gotten the story down. Secondly, I don’t think I was at the point where I could understand that sucking is just another stepping stone to being freaking awesome at something.

After the revelation, I spent another year and a half starting projects and not finishing them, scrutinizing my work paragraph by paragraph as I trudged along, never making any progress (or so I thought) and then getting tired or bored and giving up.

It was the best thing, because it allowed me to eventually understand that everyone sucks at writing when they first start a story. And I have Kate DiCamillo to thank for that.

If you don’t remember who that is, DiCamillo is the author of one of the staple books of my elementary school years: Because of Winn Dixie. It’s a pretty good book, but we only know that it’s good because we just get to see the heavily revised, beautiful final manuscript that the author brought forth with all of the brain power she could muster. I don’t know if you’ll believe me, but let me prove it to you; the first draft of that book was an absolute turd pie.

One day, I was messing around on the internet, and I came across a document from Scholastic Books comparing the first pages of the many drafts of Winn Dixie, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read this monster:

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Welcome to draft one of a John Newbery Medal Winner. It’s a jumbled mess of choppy sentences and poor word choice, and yet it was exactly where it needed to be at that moment. Without that initial vomiting of ideas and bits of dialogue, the author would have a pretty difficult time forming a story. It’s like trying to cram for a Chemistry exam, but focusing carefully on every little chapter instead of the bigger picture. By the time you get to the end, you’re bound to forget half of the things you shoved into your brain from the first six units, and you can’t even do the seventh unit, because you can’t get the base knowledge to finish a titration equation anyway.

I’ve run into this problem so many times: I’ll get a semi-rough first chapter down, and I’ll have all of these awesome ideas that seem to work perfectly with it. Except, I waste three days chipping away until that first chapter is exactly how I want it, telling my ideas to hush, and be patient and please hold on for another twenty freaking minutes and I’ll write you down, okay? By the time I’m ready to move on, the ideas have gone stale, and I’m left with what I’m assuming is the writer’s version of blue balls.

I’ve got this beautiful first chapter, and nowhere to put it.

The “shitty first draft,” as Anne Lamott calls it, is important. It’s not about proper grammar or flawless plot lines. It’s about spewing out everything you need to create the fantasta-crazy-beautiful story living in your imagination. You can’t carve a bust without stone, and as a writer, sorry to tell you, but that lumpy grey slab has got to come from your brain. So bring it up.

This brings me back to Nanowrimo, and why I love it and its awful story creating so much. Above anything else, this hectic push to fire out 50,000 words in thirty or so days has taught me to be okay with my shitty draft, mainly because I don’t have time to fart around and make everything look pretty. Not if I want to keep on track, anyway. And if you’ve committed to Nano and actually told people you were doing it (stupid,stupid, idea, that one), your ego automatically requires you to finish. So, for sanity’s sake, you’ve got to try and keep a constant flow of words, even if you can’t think of the right title for your super spy organization, and have to call it “lkasjdfhlasd” for the first three weeks. Believe me, it’s no fun having to catch up on a four thousand word deficit on top of your daily 2000 word goal at two am. So skjfhdj webrksjd gasudi away, friends.

Thanks to Nano, writers with all of the potential in the world are forced to bite the bullet, stomp on the muzzle of that reptilian critic in their brains, and tell the damn story, already. Nano is about producing material; if it were about making things perfect, it would be National Novel Writing Year.

So, aspiring authors, regardless of whether you choose to participate in Nanowrimo or not, learn to love your bad work, because your bad work is still material, and it still, from time to time, produces lumps of absolute genius. But you can’t make material pretty if it isn’t there to work with in the first place, ya feel me? Spew first. Shoot it all out. Build a routine and stick to it; keep your momentum up. And then, only when you’re sure there isn’t a story left to tell, then you can attack it with a jackhammer.

I shall leave you with a mantra, courtesy of Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Repeat after me: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Now go write shitty novels so you can make them bestsellers, you wonderful creatures.

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Once more for good measure.

3

Performance Anxiety

There’s always a period of time before I start a project where I’m afraid of what I’m about to do. I’ll have everything planned out– unless it’s one of those woah where’d you come from, let’s get you over with quickly then, ideas– and I’ll be excited to get to work so I can see my quiet thoughts live and in colour in front of me. Except, the closer I get to my start date, the more I balk.

I feel like anyone who’s serious about writing doubts their ability; I have days where I’m like, psh, I’m so good at this, I was born to do this, why did I ever want to do anything else? Those are the rare days, if I’m speaking honestly; the other ninety percent of the time I’m left scrutinizing ideas or already written works and thinking about how hard this stuff is. For every good sentence I write, there’s about sixteen more awful ones, and if I’m not tearing my hair out at that point, there’s likely a screw loose. But then I suppose every author has felt like that before they really got going, and continued to deal with that apprehension after they discovered that they could make a living from their scribbles.

I know that with enough elbow (knuckle?) grease I can write good stories, ones that people will read and talk about. It’s just that it’s easier to imagine success than it is to actively achieve it, and that scares the hell out of me. I’m not afraid of the work, believe it or not. There’s nothing I love more than a good heavy writing session (editing is a completely different story; editing is a process Satan himself invented, I’m sure). I also revel in the rush I get when I finish a large project. (Again, editing excluded. Because that is like pulling teeth.)

What I’m scared of is starting. Because once you start, anything can happen. Once you start, there’s a possibility that you can get thinking about what crap the whole thing is and give up before you’re done. Or you can reach the end and cut off all the rough bits and slap a fresh coat of paint on your piece and send it out into the world with a bow in its hair only to be ridiculed by all who see it. Once you start, you can fail, and doesn’t that just scare you to bits?

It doesn’t always happen that way, I know. There are books on the market and short stories in magazines to prove that. But in the beginning, at that place where everything is rusty, and getting anything out is a whole lot like trying to get the first few sips of a chocolate milkshake through a plastic straw, it always feels like you’re headed straight down the not-so-nice and difficult path. I find myself thinking about quitting more in those beginning stages than I do at any other part of the project.

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It’s probably not even that bad; I’m a total wuss.

I guess in that way, writing–like starting a workout plan or committing to piano lessons– is very much a test of faith in yourself. Nothing good ever comes easy, but whether you finish– regardless of the outcome– comes right down to how bad you want to get to the end. And because of how bad I always seem to want to get to the end, I push through the terror I feel at the beginning, right through the muck of the first few paragraphs, and then, once I’m up to a good clip, I keep going, because that’s what I was born to do.

But don’t you dare mention the word editing, yet. That shouldn’t come in until it is absolutely necessary. Before that point it is a forbidden swear, and until then, the project is beautiful and everything is perfect and don’t you ruin it, you little wretch.

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Am I Really Doing This Again?

I think the more I try to push away writing projects for other things, the more my life works to swing me around and bring me right back to where I started: small and scared, pen in hand in front of a blank piece of looseleaf. Or, in this case, insert creaking knuckles and office laptop screen into the appropriate slot, I suppose.

I don’t want to talk about where I’ve been; I’ll let the stories do that. What’s important is that I’m back again, and that I never actually stopped writing to begin with. The rusty old brain has been kicked around, patched up, scratched up and booted halfway from here to Arkansas (I didn’t actually go to Arkansas, I just like the way it’s spelled, and how I say it phonetically in my head like an elementary rebel while I pronounce it aloud the right way), but thank the Lord above, she’s kept on trucking for me, and that’s more than I could have asked for.

Hell, she even managed to pump out some things that got published, that little fighter, and I love her for it. And now, after our nap that wasn’t quite a nap, now we’re here; maybe because I like this medium, or maybe because there’s something I’m supposed to get from this, I’m not sure. I do know that my fingers got to aching to move a melody against a set of plastic keys–this Mac makes a better sound than a baby grand, let me tell you– and where a rusty tap used to jut out from my cortex, a leak has sprouted from beneath the siding and there’s a bunch of stuff–creative oil, perhaps– just gushing out into my imagination and pooling there. And though that blank page is as terrifying as ever, I’m starting to see what it would look like with, dear God yes, words on it. So I guess I’ve just got to do what I’ve always done and put them where it looks like they should go.

You can see it when I’m done, too, if you like. For now, you’ve got these silly little brain scrapings to read. Hope you like ’em.

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Hello, again.

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Down With the A Grades: I am Going to be the Right Kind of Selfish.

It’s been an interesting year. At this point, I’m not sure where to begin, and before anyone with good intentions tells me that “it’s best to start at the beginning, dear,” hear me out, because the beginning isn’t so easy to pick out. I suppose I could start with last April, but if I’ve got to jump all over a timeline, don’t start picking this apart like you would Slaughterhouse Five if you get confused, okay? Okay.
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About this time last year, I was convinced that I was stark, raving mad. Not because I’ve got a fantastic imagination– I believe everyone who writes is insane to an extent, but that’s a good kind of insane. This time, I was sure that there was something wrong with me. I’m not going to go into everything, because I haven’t quite come to terms with things yet, but to put it simply, I got sick. Not the kind of sick that you can sit in bed for a few hours on a Sunday and sleep through classes on a Monday and feel better, but the kind of sick that eats at you from the inside and since the outside is okay, then nobody knows anything is wrong until its too late.

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From the latter half of 2012, to the first four months of 2013, I suffered from something I didn’t even know I had. See, the beauty– and I mean beauty in the most sinister of ways– of mental illness is that it tricks you into thinking that the things going on in your head are your fault. You’re trapped, afraid to tell people that you need help for fear of judgement, hospitalization, the whole shebang, and so you’re stuck, until someone who’s got enough know how catches you with your guard down and convinces you that you’re OK, and that there are ways to fix what’s going on.

I got lucky. I’ve got a family that supports, loves, and knows me better than anyone on the planet, and eventually, I got the help that I needed. A year ago in May, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and I began the journey towards being healthy. Let me tell you, kiddies, it ain’t as easy as it looks. There was a period after I began treatment where I did feel better. I started at a new school with a new outlook on life and a new plan to move forward with the things that I loved. Except, other stuff got in the way.

Ahh, the age old excuse. “Life got in the way.” It’s like you’re sixteen with stars in your eyes, ready to take on the world, and suddenly ten years pass and you’re working at an entry level office job with a degree you busted your butt for, hoping for a promotion and wondering why you didn’t pursue marine biology like you had hoped. And almost every person who asks this question to themselves comes up with an answer that directly translates to “life got in the way.”

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Old friend #1: “What ever happened to that detailing business you were going to set up?”

Old friend #2: “Ahh, man, I got offered this summer job at the firm, and they keep asking me back. It’s money, and a stable job, so why not? Besides, I have Dad’s old T-Bird in the garage; I’ll fiddle with it on my spare time. Next week, they’re thinking of moving me to head office.”

Dude, it would have saved you like, five breaths had you only said “life got in the way.”

As I was working on healing myself, without realizing it, I had fallen into the same old routine of working as hard as I could to get straight A’s, and nail all of the extra-curricular activities, working on massive projects because I had myself convinced that I was doing good things for people who deserved it. I’ve got OCD. I’m a perfectionist. If I don’t have all of the best grades, the best body, the best of myself, then I feel like a failure. It’s a messed up cycle of hope, trying to put too much on my plate to achieve my dreams, and then a full-on crash where I lose all energy and motivation and sit depressed for three weeks. Then the whole thing begins again. The sad thing about the cycle I’ve been in since I realized that good grades and involvement got you stickers and certificates, is that it draws me further and further away from the things that make me happy. I lose sight of me, tricked into thinking whatever I’m succeeding at is going to help me be happy and healthy and free.

I think I realized that something had to change after my adviser for Honours History told me my thesis topic was a one way ticket to Law School. Well wouldn’t you bet I took to the internet, had my mum buy me LSAT books (which I still do for fun, because, man, those brain puzzles are addicting), researched different programs and had my bearings set for a new adventure. Of course I had to tell everyone, and they were all so proud. Not to mention that this happened after I made the decision to stop writing for my school newspaper, something that gave me great joy, because I didn’t have enough time.

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That’s it. I’m done. I’m not even proud to say I pulled straight A’s this semester, yet again, and have a GPA of a 3.97. Why? For awhile it was because it wasn’t a 4.0. Is that not sick? Does that not make you want to slap me? If I were into violence, I’d totally give my ears a box. No, right now, I’m not proud of that because I finished out my year unhappy. I finished out my year lost, and unsure of where to go. So I turned to the only thing that I knew would make me happy and healthy. I turned to the bare-boned, base level of anything that has ever made my heart swell: my God, my writing, my books, my runs, and my want for adventure. The only thing that will make me happy is a day of sitting in my little sunny nook writing my stories and my poems and my scripts and my skits and scribbling out the tickles of my imagination until I’m empty for the day. Then, I would get up from my chair and making myself a meal of fruit, water and other cool, juicy, simple things that you can get at a store down the road. I’d go for a run to clear my head and drum up new ideas for the next day. I’d meet up with friends and laugh until my belly hurt, and then go home, read a book, pray and thank God for giving me another day, and then sleep so I could do it all again tomorrow. There will be curve balls, as there always are, but I’ll be able to take them on, because I’ll be on the right track, and when you’re on the right track, you’re motivated to take on things as they happen.

This summer, I can do these things. I’m still pushing myself to get up and start my day and do the things that I love. It’s hard, but I’m doing it. And then come September, I’m going to say no. To everything. To things that I don’t want to do. No more head of societies, no more tutoring sessions (though most likely I’ll keep doing those; I love watching people learn), no more staying up till three to finish a paper two weeks before it’s due. No more straight A’s. If I can pull off a year where I feel good about myself, where I sleep, where I have my disorder under control, where I write and read what I love and still manage to keep my grades, fantastic. If not, it’s not a big deal. I’d rather peace of mind and my imagination intact than letters of congratulations from the Dean.

I’m going to write for the newspaper. That’s it. I’m going to go for my runs, and take creative writing classes. I’m going to sing in the shower again. I’m going to like getting up at eight, just to see the sun. I’m going to fall in love with my degree, and eventually get a job that I love, without sacrificing my need to write. And I’m not going to law school. Then, I’m going to get published. I’m going to get published so much that I’m going to be able to quit that job and write for myself. I’ll write what makes me happy, and I’ll feed my family and I’ll love everyone and everything with the passion of a child, because even though this sounds way too pretty to be a plausible goal, it’s mine, and I’m going to get there because I owe it to my brain and my body to do something for them for once.

In a way, working myself sick for the wrong things is selfish. I think I was heading down a path I shouldn’t have been on because people told me I was good at it, and since I didn’t feel good about myself, I lived for praise like that. I told myself I was doing it for other people, but I think it was justification for something that made me feel less… gross. The high, however, is only temporary. It’s time to do the things I should have done all along.

Yesterday, on my Facebook page, I asked my friends what they would do with their lives if nothing stood in their way. The response was staggering. I know so many inspiring people; and I hope that someday, they will push life to the side of the road and start living. I hope that they get to do the things they told me they’d do, and I hope it makes them happy. Until then, I’m going to work on getting my happy back. And you know what? It’s going to be difficult, but it’s also going to be lovely.

I have my parents, my little sister, my loved ones and friends to thank for helping me get here.

So here’s to another April to April year mark. This one, I’d grade a C.

Let’s push for the only A that matters, shall we?

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Now that’s the kind of high I’m looking for.

 

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The Itch.

The cool thing about having the kind of mind that I do, is that I can get inspiration from just about anything. To put things into perspective, I once wrote a story about fish oil and a christmas present and had it published in a literary magazine. I’ve got an imagination; stuff like that happens all the time. 

Being in an academic setting for as long as I have been (I know. Two whole years. I’m ancient. -.-), I’ve discovered two things: unless you’re attending an arts institution, or have enrolled in some sort of creativity-based elective at the post-secondary level, there isn’t much room for imagination. Now, usually, that would be enough to put a damper on anyone’s muses; do enough research under the guidelines provided and you begin to lose the ability to “think outside the box.” However, recently, I’ve found that in my own situation, the exact opposite is occurring. 

The more I’m stuck writing things that I don’t want to write, the more ideas about the things I do want to write start to pop up in really inconvenient situations. (During a midterm last week I wrote a little note on the back of my test booklet so that when I got it back, I’d remember the quirky little thought that sneaked in while I was supposed to be doing short answer questions. It’s like, no, Dr. P, that isn’t for you).

I would liken it to one of those itches that you get where you can’t quite tell where the irritation is coming from, so you end up scratching around your knee for five minutes hoping to get rid of that tickle ’round your ankle. You know what I mean. I can’t get rid of it. It’s fantastic (the creativity, not the itch).

And I’m not just getting bits about things I want to write, either. It’s about things I want to film, about things I want to do with my dorm room, about places I want to go to see about things I want to write about… the list goes on and on. 

I’ve had to start keeping a notebook; it’s rather silly. 

To make matters worse, I’ve gotten my hands on a video camera. There’s about ten pages worth of scribbles perfect for digital capture. Saturdays are going to be fun for the next few weeks. 

Or weird.

Probably weird.

I’ll letcha know. 

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Scary Stories Before Breakfast: Getting up Early Was the Best Part of my Day

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If you want any advice on how to make yourself feel great, get yourself out of bed early on a morning following a decent bedtime. 

I’m energized– despite the nagging chest congestion that seems not to have gotten the memo that the cold it visited with has left the building– and with enough time to kill to brew some tea and sit at my desk with my pen and my thoughts before class starts, I’m a happy girl. 

I’ve decided that my favourite time to write is in the morning– I’m currently working on a horror short story, and things got positively creepy in my little spinning chair after breakfast. (Nothing like twisted jaunt through the dark corners of the brain to get you up and rolling, eh?) The way things are going, I’ll have it finished and edited by the end of the week. Who knows? If I like it enough, I might submit it to a magazine and see if they’ll publish it. 

I’ll keep you updated. 

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The Second Someday

I’ve spent most of the last four months wishing that I could blow the dust off of this corner of the internet so I could put some sort of effort into my blog– poor, lonely, little blog– but you know what they say about good intentions: you can wish to do something all you want, but if you don’t actually start it then–

Though there hasn’t been much in the way of updates since August, I’ve lived a life worthy of posting; I just spent more time doing than I did recording. Which, if you’re like me, is positively depressing. But what would a good story be without some sort of experience behind it, right? In the four months since I unintentionally left my internet footprint alone, I’ve learned quite a few things about what it means to be me, some wonderful, some uncomfortable, but regardless of the nature of the whats, whos, and whys I discovered on this mini adventure, I have not escaped unchanged. I am now more sure about who I am than I have ever been before, and I know exactly where I want to be. Between new friends, learning to live on my own, and an existential crisis (the ghosts of which still haunt me), I think I can honestly say I’m okay with where I’m at. It’s the “get up, get going” part that scares me.

It’s easy to have goals. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a Paediatric Cardiologist (say that five times fast, Mum); the idea of it gave me such a thrill that I could barely contain myself if someone ever made the mistake of bringing it up. I told anyone who would listen that I was going to get there someday. 

Someday. What a funny word. Based on my experiences, it can have one or two meanings depending on the context that it is used. In the first instance, it appears with a positive connotation; it is chalk full of childlike optimism, and hints toward a successful outcome. The second situation comes with a similar tinge of yes, but often results in the disappointment of those silly enough to wait for it to happen– for example’s sake, it’s used most frequently by one too scared to say no.

ex: “Daddy? Dad? Can I have a pony? It’ll make me the happiest girl in the world                        andifyoudontillscreamuntilyoucaveandbringonehome.”

“I’m not so sure about right now, babydoll, but someday, for sure.”

Nice save, Dad. In the short term, that someday” might soothe some inner desire, but, in the case of the pony example, unless Pa decides to save up, buy a bigger house, build a barn and actually make the effort to look for and purchase a horse good enough for his little princess, then babydoll can hope for the pony ’til she’s blue in the face, but she’ll never get it.

As you can probably tell from all previous posts, the Cardiologist dream was lost amidst the waters of the second someday example, and I’m completely okay with that. For one, I’m not a fan of blood, or Chemistry, and as I found out rather quickly, I lack the emotional blockades to deal with sick children calmly in dire situations. And, of course, I realized that I’d rather swallow a live jellyfish every day for the rest of my life than support myself with something that doesn’t involve writing creatively.

And here we have the problem that I’ve been trying to combat since I left for school in August. With classes and committees and scholarship work and volunteer hours and exams, my dream is in danger of being trapped in the dangerous web of the second someday. Of course, with dreams like this, it’s all a matter of knowing what you want, and believe me, I know what I want.  But I figured out pretty quick that I can talk about it, dream about it, and dabble with it all I want, but just thinking about it all the time isn’t going to get me any closer to doing anything about it. I’d be lying if I said I’ve picked up a pen to write anything creative since I’ve last been home, and I’d be two seconds away from burnt legs if I said it didn’t bother me.

I don’t need inspiration; that stuff is everywhere. I don’t need drive; I’ve got lots of that, too. I’ve just been pushing to move forward in the wrong areas. Maybe it’s time to stop striving for classroom praise and scholarship winnings; maybe it’s time to do what makes me happy. And so I’ve promised myself that I shall. Hell, I’ve even moved a step further than that, and started doing it. The next challenge is keeping it up, but that’s a story for another time. I’ll tell you when I get there.

If you’re reading this, and you’ve found yourself in the same boat that I’ve just docked and climbed out of, whatever your dream is, don’t let it disappear into the vault of lost somedays. Work for it, grab onto it, and get going. Make someday today; it’s possible, and with a little elbow grease, it’s probable. You’ve just got to move.

So get going.

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.” — Stephen King.