Every once in a while, you discover a concept that infiltrates your life and affects the way you look at everything. Sometimes it happens in a fun way, like when the folks at Murmur found out about Big Sexy. (You’re welcome.

ETA: Yeah, I didn’t get anything written tonight. Better tomorrow. Everything sucks.

But sometimes the concept is more sobering, and that was what I experienced today reading How ‘The Karate Kid’ Ruined the Modern World, by David Wong over at Cracked. Now, of course, like all right-thinking children of the ’80s, it is a fundamental part of my belief system that The Karate Kid is totally awesome. So I saw that headline, I felt indignation and I went to the website to discover. . .David Wong is absolutely right.

Wong’s thesis is based on the concept of “Effort Shock”. That is, the Karate Kid shows up, learns a few basic lessons from Mr. Miyagi, practices them over the course of a choreographed training montage, and by the time he’s done, he is as good as people who have been practicing all their lives. And life doesn’t work that way. Of course, we know life doesn’t work that way; we know it’s just a movie. But deep down inside, we — or, at least, a lot of us; people like me; people who would like to have nice things but are fundamentally lazy — believe life works that way.

As Wong says:

We have a vague idea in our head of the “price” of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at a job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong. . .Accomplishing worthwhile things isn’t just a little harder than people think; it’s 10 or 20 times harder.

The article goes on to apply this principle to many aspects of society, and, well, as an explanation for the consumer side* of the subprime mortgage crisis, it works as well as anything I’ve heard yet. Millions of people didn’t get mortgages they couldn’t afford because they wanted to put one over on their neighbors and get something for nothing (a narrative I’ve heard over and over from people who weren’t the people getting the mortgages). They got mortgages they couldn’t afford because they were working hard, and so (Wong again) “they have this unspoken assumption that, dammit, the universe will surely right itself at some point and the amount of money we should have been making all along (according to our level of effort) will come raining down.”

Now, I don’t have any data behind that, of course, and presumably neither does Wong (if he had, he probably wouldn’t lead with The Karate Kid. But doesn’t it feel true?

I didn’t really mean to make a blog post about the subprime crisis, though. I’m still thinking about writing, particularly about my past less-than-successful attempts at Novel Writing Months. There’s certainly an element of “Effort Shock” in creative endeavors — particularly endeavors that require sustained, persistent application of work. Approached a certain way, I think “WriMo”‘s can slam you up against the “effort wall” fast. Because the idea of being disciplined enough to sit down two hours a day and write sounds really hard — it is really hard, and the busier you are, the harder it can be. But while budgeting the time is a necessary condition, it’s not a sufficient one. Just giving yourself the time to work might mean saying ‘no’ to evenings out with friends, and on some level it feels like, because you made that sacrifice, that totally counts as doing the work.

There is no way I can number the times I did this in college. “No, no. I’ll skip the party. I’ll stay home from the road trip. I have to do this paper.” And then I sat in my room and played paper basketball with the trashcan for four hours. (We made our own procrastination fun back then. It was 1994. There just wasn’t that much to do on the Internet). Of course, sacrifice isn’t the same thing as effort, but it sure can feel like effort. Skipping the fun thing doesn’t do any good if you don’t do the work.

And then, there’s the other nasty part of the effort/creativity equation, which is that you might do the work, and it doesn’t work. You might put in the effort and produce something that doesn’t come together, or is just bad, or that you love but no one else wants. Every single professional writer that I have ever spoken to talks about these experiences: the wrong turns, the blind alleys, the projects that didn’t come together. But as many times as I heard these stories, when I was a writing student, I don’t think I ever really believed them, the same way I didn’t believe the homeowners who talked about the effort involved in getting something in your house fixed when it’s your responsibility. I bought a house in October, I just went through this for the first time, and it’s like David Wong says: It’s 20 times harder than I thought it would be.

So is writing a novel. The difference is, when the first HVAC contractor canceled on me, I didn’t say, “Oh well, I guess I’m not a homeowner.” I didn’t have that option. But get three days into a novel and figure out that it’s hard, just like everybody who has ever talked about the experience says it’s hard, and how easy is it to say, “Obviously, I’m not a novelist”?

Those are my thoughts on writing, today. I don’t have a word count for you, yet, because I haven’t done my novel writing yet. Let’s say I’m getting to 1,000, though, because that’s about where this post is, and it doesn’t make much sense to have my meta go on longer than my fiction.

How are the rest of you coming? And all you writers, participants and non-participants alike — how do you feel about this, the relationship between effort and productivity and creativity? How do you negotiate it in your own work? Is it effort shock that divides amateurs from professionals — or good amateurs from bad amateurs?

Maybe I’m on to something here, but just in case I’m not, I’ll give you something BigSexy: James Purefoy being nerdy about English football, because watching this was pretty much the highlight of my day.

*It doesn’t explain the entirety of the subprime crisis, because the subprime mortgage crisis can’t be explained without taking into account actively evil people who unironically named their companies after black holes but that’s another issue.

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