My daughter Zoë has a softball coach who played high school and college football. He urges the girls to give 110 percent. So, although I have heard that injunction a thousand times, in an effort to clarify for Zoë, I asked myself what exactly the phrase means. What came to me was this: when I reach the point of working at full capacity, I should give just a little more. Which of course leads to the question, what is full capacity?
Here’s an answer: it’s when we feel we can’t or shouldn’t go on, for whatever reason. Highly subjective, but I’ll stand by it.
Because I attempt to apply to my occupations all kinds of advice that feels potentially useful, I thought, okay then, let’s say I’ve been writing for four hours (on the kind of day I dream about) and I either feel done-in or am beginning to suffer guilt or trepidation on account of other responsibilities that aren’t getting done. Then my best decision is to carry on twenty-four minutes (ten percent of four hours) or so and then stop.
Or if after six minutes dealing with some annoyance or annoying person I feel at the end of my patience, I can try to hold on another thirty six seconds before hanging up, turning away, or snapping back.
I’m suggesting that, contrary to what the football coach’s face and tone of voice may imply, we’re wise to set limits to our over-exertion. Because when we attempt to give one-fifty or two hundred percent, we could well collapse, break a leg, suffer a concussion, overrun the base, throw a wild pitch, punch an annoying person or, worst of all, write stuff that leads our story in the wrong direction.
Sure, the admonition to give 110 percent is a call for hard work and dedication. But it can also be a useful warning and argument in favor or moderation, which I suspect many of us writers (and overachievers of all occupations) should consider.
Most of my adult life has been defined by an attempt to make a living for myself and family by working a “day job” while also writing a new book every year or so. In the attempt to accomplish that goal, I have often tried to turn every available minute into writing time. Otherwise, some ego-demon demands to know how can I hope to compete with those whose circumstances allow them lots more writing time. And should I ignore that demand or rebel against it, for every hour I could have spent writing but didn’t I pay with at least a small dose of self-accusation.
Armed by the injunction to give a hundred and ten, I can calmly answer that demon, “Shove off, buster. You’re only bringing me down.”