Category Archives: Dubious Advice

We Have To Get Out


You could be forgiven for not realizing it’s Saturday right now.

With much of the US (and much of the rest of the world, frankly — though I haven’t heard much about Australia during this time; care to chime in, Glen?) on lockdown, either enforced, encouraged, or self-imposed, the time begins to blend together. One day looks much like the next. I mean, that’s the case anyway, but it’s doubly so when many of us aren’t seeing our usual coworkers, aren’t going through the usual stimulation of the job, maybe aren’t even leaving the house.

To further add to the confusion, if you’re an introvert like me, you now have the permission of the entire community to get away with your preferred behavior of vegging out on the couch, not going out, and generally keeping the world at arm’s length. You know, the things that, under normal circumstances, people try to talk you out of doing.

Which is all well and good for a few days. But we’re a week deep on the social-distancing, minimize-contact-with-the-world, wash-your-hands-everytime-you-have-an-errant-thought adventure train, and that’s when we start to go crazy a little bit. As any teenager will tell you, you can only stand your family for so long, but it’s not like that feeling goes away when you grow out of your snarling, brooding phase.

You have to remember that you are a product of millions of years of evolution. Our species did not develop so that we could watch endless hours of Netflix while sprawled on the couch shoveling the Cheetos we bulk-bought in a panic into our gobs. We aren’t made for bunkering and hiding.

We’re built to move. We’re built to survive in groups.

One of the most important things to do in a time like this, I think, is to remember that.

Don’t get me wrong, there are great things you can do while you’re isolating, and there are tons of blog posts and tweets to tell you all about the things you can do to stay productive — or be more productive — while you’re stuck inside. And you should maybe do them!

And we also need to understand that, in these trying times, it’s gonna suck. Productivity will take a hit, we’re gonna end up feeling crappy sometimes — if not a lot of the time — and that’s gonna slow us down from the things we want and need to get done. That’s okay, too. We can’t (and shouldn’t) expect ourselves to be perfect during this time, to weather the storm with style and grace and ‘gram-worthy hair the whole time.

But we can help ourselves out — and maybe more importantly, we can help out those who are cooped up with us — if we can remember that we are not meant to live this way and we conduct ourselves accordingly.

That means taking a little bit of time for self-maintenance. My early-morning runs feel more important now than ever. (I’m sleeping in until 5:30 instead of 4:30 to get them done, but I’m still up before the sun, because that’s when it happens.) On the days I don’t run, I’m doing calisthenics and strength workouts in my garage, in the cramped, kludge space I’ve cobbled together between the piles of junk we’ve been meaning to throw out and the Christmas decorations.

But you don’t have to get after it like me (aka like a psychopath).

Get outside for a little while.

Take a walk.

Do some work in the yard or the garden.

Heck, even just opening the window to let a little fresh air into your lair can do wonders for your subconscious self-calibrators of goodfeels.

You need this. You owe it to yourself, and to the family and friends you’re stuck at home with.


On Graduation and The Accomplishment of Things


All around the country, high school students are graduating. Throwing off the shackles of childhood and becoming adults. Getting ready to take the next big steps in their lives.

As much as the graduation ceremony is a pain for teachers (we get to haul the chairs out, stay late after school, put on silly outfits, and smile at everybody we see), it’s kind of awesome, too. Far be it from me to attach symbolism where there is none, but there’s something about seeing the students dressed up in their caps and gowns and tassels and stoles that somehow washes away a year (or more!) of silly behavior in a classroom and makes you think they’re going to be all right.

Still, they’re not done yet. Like a cake being checked by an overzealous baker, they need to cook a little longer. And as anybody over the age of thirty can tell you (with no hint of doom and gloom at all, naturally), it only gets harder from here. Whether it’s college or the armed forces or an early entry into the school of Real Life, it will quickly become apparent that high school was a milk run.

So, a double-edged bit of advice for anybody on the cusp of a great thing: Don’t be afraid to brake, but don’t break.

First, don’t be afraid to break. The sharknado happens fast in this world, and as Ferris Bueller said, “if you don’t slow down and look at it once in a while, you might miss it.” It’s true: the time seems to constrict around times of great import. The last few weeks of the semester fly by. You just can’t stop writing (or reading!) when you get to the end of the novel. And deadlines never approach so fast as when they’re right on top of you. Before you know it, the next thing will be here, and while it’s easy to shift your focus from what you’ve just finished and go straight into worrying about the next thing, don’t forget that there’s life happening everywhere all the time, spilling out of the cracks and gaps in your schedule, oozing out around the corners of all the things you have to do to get ready. Pump the brakes. Slow down for a minute. Enjoy and appreciate the world around the outside of everything that has to be done.

Animal, Lioness, Lazy, Rest, Predator, Cat

If you don’t take time to slow down like this every once in a while, you’ll burn out and lose the drive to do even the things that matter to you. But that brings us to the second part: you can’t break for too long. This country is built on towns that sprung up when people headed out west broke down and never got started again. And don’t tell me your goal was to make it to Kansas. (Sorry, Kansas natives. Your state is even boringer than a blank sheet of paper; at least you can write or draw on a sheet of paper, or fold it into a totally sweet airplane. All you can do in Kansas is drive through it for hours, never sure if you’re actually making any progress.) Your momentum in life matters, and if you don’t get moving again soon, inertia will swallow you like a black hole and you’ll find yourself sucked into the gravity  of the same old path of least resistance. Pull over for the pit stop and look around, but know when it’s time to get moving again.

In short, enjoy the summer after your graduation — or a week or two of rest after finishing that big project — or whatever it is that you need to recharge your batteries before you move on to the Next Big Thing.

Road, Straight Road, Route, America, Usa, Freedom

But then, get moving toward the Next Big Thing, before it drives on down the road without you.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


How’s It Going?


pretty good

I started out writing a post about how the boy in this picture is all of my students right now.

Then I realized that the boy in this picture is actually me right now.

Then I took one last think on it and it struck me: the boy in this picture is all of us, all of the time.

We’re all making this sharknado up as we go along. Nobody knows what the hell they’re doing. We hope we’re doing the right things, and we certainly like to think that we’re doing pretty good in that regard. But running like a river of slime just below that shiny, smiling surface, is a bubbling, broiling river of doubt and despair, and you never know when it’s going to flood its banks and cough up a clutch of dead raccoons on your perfectly manicured lawn.

Best we can hope for is that our brave facade holds up, and that no hapless interviewers bother to follow up when we tell them things are going “pretty good.”

I could watch that little boy’s face collapse for hours.


Winnie the Pooh is a Masters’ Level Writing Class


I’m sitting here watching The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh with my kid. You know, the one from the 70s that’s less a movie and more a bunch of cartoon shorts slapped together with honey-flavored caulking.

Now, there’s a lovely little book that came out some time ago called The Tao of Pooh, which takes the silly old bear and infuses him with all sorts of Zen mysticism. (Actually, the mysticism was in him all along, we just didn’t always realize it.) And that book has a companion called The Te of Piglet. Fantastic reads that you can pick up and put down as often as you’d like; the kind of books that grow with you. The kind of books that mean something entirely different to your full-of-piss-and-vinegar twenty-something self and your tired-as-fargo-from-wrangling-toddlers-all-weekend thirty-something self.

But I realized, watching the cartoons just now, just this instant, that you don’t need a zennified book to appreciate the dubious wisdom of Pooh. The beauty is in the simplicity. And as a writer, the simplicity resonates on several levels.

Let’s take the opening short.

We meet Pooh in his house, and Pooh wants some damn honey. Why? Because he’s a stuffed bear, and fargo your reasoning; his honey stores in the house are empty, so he’s got to go get some more. But he doesn’t have a grocery store with a plastic bear full of honey to overpay for; he’s got to go straight to the source. Who makes honey? Bees do, so Pooh goes after the bees.

He climbs a tree and tries to just straight-up jack some honey, but the bees aren’t playing that, and the twiggy brances at the top of the tree can’t support his honey-eating behind, so he falls all the way back down. Is Pooh discouraged? Not for a minute. Along comes his pal, Christopher Robin, with a balloon of all things, and Pooh says, hey CR, let me snag that balloon so that I can use it to get some honey. CR is no fool, and he asks the question that we’re all asking, watching this: how are you going to get honey with a balloon?

Don’t be silly, says the bear, I’m going to use the balloon to float up there. The bees will think I’m a raincloud, and they’ll let me have the honey. Now, this is patently idiotic, and being a good friend, CR points this out to him — you don’t look like a raincloud.

Right, says Pooh, let me roll around in some mud so I’m all dark like a thundercloud. So he rolls around in the mud for a minute, gets good and disgusting, then floats up to the treetops. This works until the bees realize that the bear is ganking their honey again, so they attack him and he ends up falling all the way down again.

Bees aren’t parting with their honey, he realizes, and goes off to his buddy Rabbit’s house, where he just asks for some honey without any niceties or prelude. And Rabbit gives it to him. Gives him so much, in fact, that Pooh can’t even squeeze his honey-stuffed stuffing out through the door anymore, and he has to go on a two-week diet before he can even go home again.

Let me not spoil the whole program for you if you haven’t seen it, but suffice to say, the shenanigans continue. All are ridiculous and wholesome, and all are approached with the same oh-well-I-guess-if-that’s-the-way-it-is-we’ll-just-have-to-change-the-way-we-think attitude.

So why is this relevant to the writer?

Pooh wants honey and he sets himself to the task with the single-mindedness of a cat stalking a crippled lizard.

He tries the direct route. When that doesn’t work, he doesn’t just think outside the box, he turns the box inside-out. When that doesn’t work, he dispenses with the pleasantries, doesn’t hem and haw his way around it, he just goes to somebody who can help and gets some damn help.

In short, once he decides he wants it, there is no force on earth that is going to stop him.

So it must be with the writer.

Sometimes the direct route is all it takes to get us there, but more often, the direct route is a boring and ineffectual route. We have to get outside the box. Sometimes that means redesigning the box, burning it, designing it again, throwing it down a flight of stairs, and building another box from the shattered pieces, then stepping into the box just for the purpose of stepping back out of it. And sometimes, we just need a little help.

So.

Let’s get some honey.


Dreams are Useless


Many times I’ve read the nugget of writing advice: “keep a notepad by your bed, so you can jot down the ideas that come to you in your dreams!” Which is the sort of nebulous, tree-hugging crap that sounds good at first. We don’t know where inspiration comes from, and we don’t know where dreams come from, so obviously they must come from the same place, right??

I’ve tried it. My results are less than stellar. Less than atmospheric, really. The trajectory of my success with this method is more like a Greyhound ride to Denton: disappointing, a little smelly, and at the end of the day, you’re in fargoing Denton.

But my best ideas come from my dreams! I hear you cry. If I hadn’t kept that little notebook next to my bed, I wouldn’t have ever remembered the idea that became the seed for my 7-part fantasy saga based on my life, The Rainbow Riders of Regulon 7. (btw, you can’t have that title; I made it up as a joke but I’M KEEPING IT.)

Sure. Maybe. But dreams are boring as hell to anybody who isn’t you and who isn’t bound by genetics or marriage vows to listen to you. And dreams aren’t compelled to make sense or be coherent at all.

Here, I’ll show you. (Feel free to skip this next paragraph, because it’s absolute garbage.)

I dreamed early this morning of a sort of Titanic-esque love story. Two people from different worlds collide on this boat that’s going away forever. Romance. Goofy frippery. Elaborate costumes. But the dude is found out as a fraud by a snooty guy who goads him into a fistfight and gets him thrown off the boat. Dude is losing his mind with love and the thought that he’ll never see his girl again. He tries desperately to get back on board, and ends up swimming out into a shipping lane in hopes of getting scooped back up. He does — by the Coast Guard, and his persecutor takes great pleasure in locking him up for international crimes or something. But our dude manages to win over the persecutor’s grandmother with the power of his love, and she convinces her grandson to stage an elaborate shenanigan (shenanigans can be singular, can’t they?) to stop the boat and allow the dude back on board, where he is tearfully reunited with his love.

Terrible. And that’s a salvageable dream, with a beginning, middle, and end, kind of. Never mind how the guy got out into open ocean to swim into a shipping lane, although that’s arguably the best part — maybe he could get mauled by the propellers of a cargo freighter hauling prosthetic limbs. As dreams go, this is a masterpiece of continuity.

It’s awful, but it’s vivid, and because it’s vivid, and because that little turdlet of writing wisdom is still kicking around in my brain, I wrote it down. So, now, I can ignore it as I flip past it when I go plumbing the depths of my drivel looking for inspiration for my next work.

But here’s the real problem with waiting for inspiration from your dreams (though it’s more of a skeptical hangup than a problem). If it’s kicking around in your dreams, that means it’s already banging around in your subconscious, which means on some level it’s something you’re already thinking about. The dream just brought it to front-of-mind for a fleeting moment while you were unconscious.

With that in mind, it’s hard to say that just because I dreamed something, it’s automatically worth writing down. Like most of the thoughts that pass through my head, anything I dream is actually probably not worth writing down or remembering at all.

Dreams shouldn’t get preferential treatment over any other old crusty idea that drops into your brain. If anything, they deserve more skeptical treatment by dint of being disjointed incoherent heaps of hot garbage. Dreams, just like any other idea I have, go through a rigorous screening process. Just like I don’t pick up the phone for phone numbers I don’t recognize, I don’t write down an idea as worth keeping just because it popped in there.

Most ideas are crap; dreams, doubly so. But you’ll know the good ones when you see them: The good ones will stick around, call back, or even show up on your doorstep to make sure you pay attention to them. The good ones will stick in memory whether you write them down or not.

 


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