Tag Archives: focus

Metaphor Monday — The Half-Life of a Tantrum


Are you listening to Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast?

If you aren’t, you should be. Sam is a prolific author, speaker, debater and philosopher, with his fingers in pies as varied as religion and its effects on society (generally bad), artificial intelligence (be afraid), and free will (nonexistent, but not for the reasons you might think). Not afraid to let the full bluntness of his ideas and criticisms strike the unsuspecting bystander soundly across the face, he nevertheless seems to me to be one of the most thoughtful and measured communicators in the public sphere these days. Add to that that he has a way with words which frankly makes me feel small on a regular basis.

His ruminations on such topics takes him often into the realms of morality and emotions, and the roles that these things play in our lives; if you can learn to master your emotions, you can more easily and completely tame your morality. How to best master your emotions? Harris advocates for meditation and mindfulness practice. I’m not quite enough of a tree-hugger to have done more than dunk my fingertips into the deep waters of meditation, but I’m a big fan of mindfulness, and that is an easy thing to do. In fact, it’s something I did fairly often before I knew anything about “mindfulness” being a thing: simply stop, now and then, and ask yourself — why am I doing this? how am I feeling right now? is this thing I’m doing a good use of my time and my energy? The point isn’t to change your behavior overnight, it’s simply to begin recognizing patterns. Behavioral patterns, like constellations in the night sky, become impossible to un-see once you’ve noticed them. Once noticed, you can begin to redirect yourself toward making decisions and choosing behaviors which more closely align with the life you would choose for yourself.

Which is where the emotion comes in. When emotion floods your system, it becomes harder and harder to make rational decisions. Take the guy who’s trying to drop a few pounds who, while at his parents’ house on a long weekend, decides to have a second piece of pie for dessert. This guy doesn’t usually avoids having dessert at all; desserts, after all, are somewhat antithetical to losing weight. But put him in his parents’ house, where through a strange alchemy of the brain, food equals love and eating everything his mother puts in front of him is a way of expressing that love, and gosh darn it the pie tastes so good, you know what, I think I will have another piece. (Did I mention that the guy in question was me? The guy in question was me.) Emotion short-circuits the rational brain.

One of Harris’s saws about emotion, though, is that it has a half-life. And that half-life is shorter than you might expect. Emotion, like an afternoon drizzle on a hot summer day, burns away quickly if you allow it to. Trouble is, most of us are happy (see what I did there?) to let emotion run us. Get caught behind the idiot paying for their groceries with a jarful of pennies or a fanny pack full of expired coupons, and we’re likely to keep coming back to that moment, reliving it, and getting enraged again for hours afterward. It can trash your productivity at work. It can distract you from a family outing. Case in point: just this afternoon, I went out with my family to lunch. On the television situated right behind my wife’s head, they were replaying this last year’s Super Bowl, wherein my beloved Atlanta Falcons performed the saddest, most public self-strangulation in sports history. And I couldn’t help it. I tried to ignore it, but my eyes kept darting up to the screen and that knot in my gut kept tightening, because I knew what was coming. It messed me up. I was physically getting angry.

And then, after about twenty minutes, I stopped and asked myself. Why are you watching it? You know what happens. You’ve gone through the heartbreak already. Your kids and your wife are right here with you in the here and now. Pay attention to themAnd I did. I’m not going to say I ignored the game entirely — the second half of that game was like a bad train wreck played out in slow motion, after all — but I did better. I noticed a bad pattern and I improved on it.

I’m not great at this. I’m not even particularly good at this. But I want to be better.

You know who’s really good at this?

Kids.

Both of my kids are Jedi masters when it comes to letting their emotions decay: my five-year-old son and my three-year-old daughter, both of whom can be proper terrors when they don’t get their way. I can send my son to time-out for anything from taking an unsavory tone with me or his mother to whacking his kid sister across the skull with a decorative figurine. He goes to his room scowling and howling, slams the door and buries his face in his blankets. Ten minutes later, I check on him, and not only has he completely calmed down, but sometimes he’s totally forgotten why he got time out in the first place. Or my daughter — she can have a full-on tantrum in the grocery store over not being allowed to buy another bag of rainbow Goldfish (laid on the ground, kicking, screaming, tears streaming down her face), and after just a couple of minutes buried, sobbing, in an adult’s shoulder (usually my wife’s), she’s got a smile on her face as she runs up and down the cereal aisle.

On the one hand, this short memory can be infuriating (you don’t even remember why you’re in trouble?), but on the other, it’s instructive. You never talk to a toddler who’s really having a rotten day because they got cut off in traffic. They don’t even remember what happened to them ten minutes ago. They don’t hold onto stuff, good or bad.

There’s a lesson in that. I’m not even going to bother tying it to writing this week; it’s a lesson we all need, and the lesson is to make like Elsa and let it go. Kids somehow intuitively know how to let stuff go, and somewhere along the line, we stress them out and they start holding onto their insecurities and their frustrations and all the things that upset them. Somehow we have to embrace the half-life of the tantrum. It’s okay to get pissed off, to get angry and upset and down on yourself. That stuff happens, and there’s probably no stopping it. But when it’s five hours later and you’re still replaying the moment when the jerko hipster on his cell phone jumped in front of you in line at the Kroger, you have to ask yourself — why is this still in my brain? It isn’t benefiting you in there. And it certainly isn’t still bouncing around in the hipster’s head. It’s only there because you’re keeping it there.

And we don’t have to keep it there.

Tough day at work? You’re home now, and you get another day tomorrow.

Friend said something that upset you? Either tell them about it and clear the air, or forget it — they probably already have — and move on.

Stubbed your toe yesterday and it still hurts? Well, that’s a bummer — but you don’t have to take it out on your wife and kids.

Pay attention to the thoughts that are banging around in your head. Sometimes all it takes is opening the windows to let the bad air out to give you a clean perspective.

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The Weekly Re-Motivator: Stuff of Substance


I was going to write about the stuff-focused holidays we have here in the States (Christmas of course, Thanksgiving with its frankly embarrassing piles of food, and Black Friday, a de facto holiday with a surprisingly adversarial focus on buying as much stuff as you can’t afford) with this week’s prompt, but the moment I started kicking it around, I realized that even I couldn’t take any more of my bitching about holidays and special events… between my tirade about NaNoWriMo, my grumbling about Daylight Savings Time, and my sermonizing about the war on Christmas, I’ve sure been slinging the negativity lately.

That said, the picture is unrelated.

Today, a positive bent, a return to what I like to use SoCS for: to ruminate on writing.

I’m giving myself a break from Big Writing Projects lately — through the Christmas season, really, by the time all is said and done — and as a diversion, and to keep the grooves nicely greased, I’m working on some short fiction instead. You haven’t seen it around the blarg. It’s a SECRET.

Or rather, it’s in progress, which for writers means it may as well be as secret as the Coca Cola formula — we don’t like people sticking their fingers in our pies until we’re good and ready to have our pies finger-stuck.

Anyway, I went and enrolled in a free short fiction writing workshop hosted over at Holly D. Lisle’s site at How to Think Sideways. She lays out a three-step (with multiple embedded sub-steps, but y’know, that’s not as flashy as saying “3-step”) template to writing flash fiction that doesn’t suck. And what I quickly realized is that a lot of my stories kind of suck. Like, most of them have decent ideas at their cores, but they lack any sort of follow-through or intelligible raison d’etre. (I don’t actually know what that means, but I heard it before and it sounded fancy.) In short, stuff happened, but lacking were the reasons for said stuff happening, or an appreciable understanding of the consequences for the stuff happening.

And with the five stories I’m workshopping, there is a real focus on meaning and significance through brevity. It’s been eye-opening, like that air freshener commercial where they blindfold people in squalid rooms, wave air fresheners under their noses, then remove the blindfolds so they see the cloud of actual sharknado they’d been inhaling.

Anyway, I’m not going to detail the … well, details of the course. They’d be tiresome if you’re not interested, and if you are interested, it’s worth your time to roll over to Holly’s site and sign up for the course yourself. Suffice it to say that while this has been some much-needed down time from my big projects, I’ve not been idle, and that feels nice. Momentum matters and all that.

Which is, I guess, the point of the post this week: writing is something you can only ever get better at by sitting down and practicing at it. And a tremendous obstacle for many would-bes is the simple but enormous leap of faith that it takes to even start screwing up a perfectly good blank page with your awful, stupid words. There’s something to be said, then, for the virtue of just sitting down and banging out words week after week. But there comes a point where you feel safe enough in the habit, and you want to actually start refining your craft. I think, a year and a half into this adventure, I’ve more than established the writing consistently part, and it’s time to start worrying more about writing stronger, smarter, sharper stories. Stories where the stuff that happens is stuff that people will care about.

Stuff of substance.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Weekly Re-Motivator: Island Escape


I posted a few days ago about having a “down day”, and my wife pointed out that what I was feeling was a perfectly normal bout of depression caused by being locked in close quarters and basically chained at the wrist to two tiny humans without hope of respite for all of my waking hours and most of my non-waking ones.

In other words, this happens to stay-at-home parents. Apparently. And seeing as I’m a stay-at-home dad during the summer months, apparently it was an inevitability that I would be so stricken. But there is hope. Because this week, we’re heading out to a literal island for some much-needed time away.

Okay, so it’s maybe not an island like you think of island paradise. It’s just a barrier island in humble Georgia. But still, it’s a landmass surrounded by water, and we all know the therapeutic effects inherent to the open sea (something something waves, something something ocean breezes, something something sunset shattered and reflected millions of times in the soothing waters). Also, we’ll be just a stone’s throw from Savannah, so there will be lots of ghosts hanging about.

Also, sharks. If you’ve been watching the news, you’ll be well aware that there have been something like fifteen shark attacks on the Atlantic coast this summer. In fact, this morning’s news packages on the attacks bore so much similarity to the film Jaws I just had to shut the thing off. “All these attacks keep happening up and down the coast, and we’re coming up on the July 4th weekend… these beaches are going to be packed.” And all I can think of is a sleek dorsal fin gliding through the water with a harsh orchestral score behind it, and me fighting the urge to shout we’re gonna need a bigger boat.

But more important than avoiding becoming a sharky snack, I’m going to use the time to noodle a bunch on the project. Because despite my halfhearted jubilation and dutiful self-back-scratching over reaching the halfway mark, the project has some problems. Bugs in the batter that need picking out. Knots that need untying or cutting or being burned at both ends. Cracks in the mortar that need spackle or patching or that need to be opened right up with a jackhammer. And the only way to really come to a decision on problems like that — the only way to really see what’s functioning as intended and what’s fargoed beyond repair — is to take a step back, get a bird’s eye view, and take a good, long, look. Hike back out of the trees to get a look at the forest.

Image by Katerha @Flickr.

Image by Katerha @Flickr.

And while a week away won’t do that for me — the thing’s not even finished, so I can’t do a proper big-picture analysis — it’ll help. Just like every now and then on a road trip you have to pull over and check the map, when working on a big project like this you need to build in time to catch your breath from it, to let it sit and settle before you go back to work.

I don’t yet know if I’m going to work on the novel over the week away or not. Part of me says that the vacation is primo writing time, and I should take full advantage of it. Another part of me says that vacation is vacation is vacation, and maybe I shouldn’t even bring the laptop with me.

Well, maybe I’ll just bring it to write a blarg post or two and send up a few pictures of sunsets.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


The Thunderdome of Ideas


How do you make sense of the ideas that occur to you?

I’m talking here about stories, lyrics, visions, hell, even blarg ideas. They come from somewhere, and whether that source is some external stimulus like a news story or a fantastic article or a brilliant film or a gripping novel, they all end up getting filtered through the mire of neurons and synapses inside your skull. Which means that from the time an idea first strikes, it gets tossed into the Thunderdome that’s raging inside your head at any given moment.

Maybe I should step away from the second person (pardon me, second person) and stick to the first (oh, hi, me). It’s a Thunderdome in my head. Many ideas enter. Few survive to be acted upon.

Seriously. It’s a wonder I can get anything done. I’m as scatterbrained as they come, so when a new idea strikes for me, it’s thrown into the arena with the other millions of things I’m thinking about, which include, but are not limited to:

  • My kids and whether I’ve remembered to feed them / change their diapers / change their clothes / clean up their messes / set a good example for them / actually know where they are at the moment / OH GOD WHERE ARE THE KIDS
  • The dollars and cents flowing through all the metaphorical holes in my metaphorical pockets (because money isn’t real anymore you know, it’s all just ones and zeros on some bank program and okay this is not a conspiracy theory blog) and all the stress associated with that.
  • The fact that it’s winter, and in the four winters we’ve weathered in this house, we’ve had pipes freeze and burst in the walls twice despite our best efforts, so does winter number five mean that nightmare is coming around again…
  • The kids have been quiet for a while, WHAT IS MY TODDLER DOING
  • The scent of burning that’s coming from somewhere and I can’t isolate it… is it the neighbors burning leaves? A car burning oil? The wires in the walls spontaneously combusting and preparing to burn the house down?
  • The theme song from Thomas the Tank Engine just keeps bouncing around in there for no good reason; it certainly isn’t helping me to focus. (Sidenote: “shunt” is a fun word that sounds dirty but isn’t–meaning to shove aside or divert–try using it at parties!)
  • How the balls did my kid dump an entire two pounds of dog food into the water bowl without me hearing it?

And that’s just the past, say, thirty seconds.

So any idea I’m trying to have, whether related to my current novel or any other prospective novel I may ever conceivably get around to writing if I ever finish this one, has to step into the steel cage death match with these other thoughts if it wants to win my focus long enough to be pondered, let alone written down and saved for later. And these other thoughts take no prisoners. They have nailbats and rusty crowbars and spiked shoes. That Thomas theme song carries around a friggin’ garrote in its pocket and will dispatch an interloping idea without batting an eye.

Somehow… somehow… some ideas make it through the riot of distractions and make it into the novel. I’m working on weaving in a particularly good one that occurred to me a few weeks ago while I was writing a blarg post about how I was stuck for ideas about how to improve my draft. Did it arise out of need? Was it the strongest of a series of weak, malformed conceptions of various other plot points I could have used instead, and the strongest survived? Or did it blunder through, catching the toddlers during a nap and catching that Thomas theme song looking the other way long enough to escape into daylight?

I have no idea where the ideas come from or how they get processed. I feel like if I did I’d be a tremendously better writer, and I could therefore avoid unnecessary and cumbersome adverbs in my prose, like “tremendously,” to choose a particularly egregious offender completely at random. Also egregious offenders: “particularly,” “completely,” and “egregious” (not an adverb but still offensive).

See, the idea to sidetrack into all that nonsense about adverbs came from somewhere, I decided it was a good detour to make and I made it. Somebody (even if that somebody is me) sent that message, and somebody (probably me) received it and acted on it.

Where does that impulse come from?

Is that my authorial text-transcending through-line? Is it an undercurrent of subconscious thematic tendency? Or did whoever’s pulling the strings in my writerly Thunderdome take pity on the adverb idea and give it a set of poison-tipped spiked brass knuckles to help it in the fight?

I fear this is one of those unknowable things that philosophers might struggle with through the ages, though they’d perhaps do it more eloquently than with Thunderdomes and brass knuckles. And they’d certainly steer clear of Thomas the Tank Engine and any associated theme songs.

This post is part of SoCS. This week’s prompt was the diabolical homonym quartet of “sense / scents / cents / sent”, a series of words which basically describes why anybody learning English as a second language might end up banging his head against a wall. Because I’m a fool for pain, I used them all.

Shunt.


Staying Motivated (or, how to keep writing on those days when the writing sucks)


I’ve struggled with motivation mightily in the months since I started working on my novel.

Some days I feel buoyed by powerful waves of motivation, a deep, slow-burning desire to write and create and push this thing forward.  On those days, it’s all I can do to get myself in front of the computer before the ideas and the words start clawing their way out of my skull.  The plotlines and characters and conflicts dance around in my headspace subconsciously all day, sometimes resolving themselves in time to be written down in neat orderly arrays, other times becoming tangled and spilling out onto the page like intestines from a vicious gut wound.  Motivation isn’t a question on those days.  I’m going to write, regardless of what else I may have going on.

Other days I’m Sisyphus, and my novel is a big boulder the size of six or seven giant men and the hill I have to push it up is high indeed.  Even thinking about the task makes me feel weary and exhausted, and my mind starts thinking of all the other things in my life that need doing in this moment, and wouldn’t it be easier to focus on those things and then, maybe after I’ve done those things, I’ll feel like writing and I can get some work done.  Except, as anybody who’s ever put something off knows, you arrive at the end of the day and you still don’t feel like working on the novel, and what’s more you don’t have time to work properly on it anyway, and also you feel crappy about the fact that you haven’t gotten anything done with it today.  The simple act of even reading your own work to see where you’ve just come from and where you might go next seems like a slog through an endless swamp.  These days it feels impossible to write.

But the writing doesn’t change.  The book is just a book, just a story waiting to be told.  The characters, lively as they may be, are but lumps of clay looking for hands to shape them.  It’s only my perception of the work that seems to affect my motivation to work on it.  So how do you cultivate motivation?  Here are some humble ideas.

And I realize as I edit this post that while this dubious advice seems to fit for writing, I think it applies for staying motivated at just about anything, and if that’s the case, so be it.

  • Eyes on the Prize: On those days when I just don’t feel like writing, I have to remind myself that if it was easy, everybody would do it.  Anything worth doing is worth working hard for, and the book isn’t going to write itself; the words aren’t just going to arrange themselves on the page for me.  Yes, I may be a bit stuck on the story.  Yes, I might be a bit confounded by what this character is trying to do.  But these are Writer Problems, and it’s a writer’s job to solve those problems.  If I want to be a writer — to have that success, to have that recognition, to complete a Story Worth Telling — it’s no good hiding from the work.  When it gets hard, when it gets overwhelming, when it seems impossible, I start asking myself, “do you really want it?”  And almost always, I find that I can get some work done after all.
  • Plan of Attack:  If you were to ask me if I were an organized person, I would begin by laughing hysterically.  Then I might offer you a picture of my garage, or my desk, or my bedroom, and you’d quickly realize that not only am I not by any stretch organized, I might not even know what the word means.  But organization has been key to staying motivated and keeping the boulder rolling uphill.  But I don’t mean organization in the general sense of having a place for everything and everything in its place.  (I strive for that, but I often miss the target.)  I mean rather knowing what I want to accomplish within a given time frame, having a clear idea of what’s to be done on that day, seeing the obstacles and knowing perhaps not exactly how I will deal with them but at least that I am capable.  Notes to myself are invaluable for this.  Every day of drafting I’d finish with a little note to myself: “introduce this character tomorrow.”  “wrap up this scene tomorrow.”  “go back and establish that the main character carries a Taser in her purse so that she can zap this guy now.”  I need to know what needs to happen next more than I need to know what I’ll be doing in three weeks.
  • Window of Opportunity:  One of my favorite quotes of late says something along the lines of, “never put off a dream because of the time it will take to achieve it.  The time will pass anyway.”  And to say that time is a factor when it comes to motivation is a ridiculous understatement.  You need time to do the work.  You need time to do the other stuff in your life so that you can focus on the work.  And time doesn’t give a slippery sharknado about you or your work.  Time is going to roll on past you like a bus rolling past a pile of dog vomit.  If I’m sitting around waiting to find time to get the writing done, then the writing just isn’t going to get done that day.  I have to decide, early on during the day if not the day before, when I’m going to get the writing done.  Maybe tomorrow I can carve out time on my lunch break.  The day after, my wife has a class, so I can do some writing that evening.  However I do it, I have to seize the time, carve it from the still thrashing carcass of the beast, if I want to write that day.  I have to create the window of opportunity for myself to work in.
  • Achievable Goals: It’s too big to think “I need to work on the book today.”  What the balls does that even mean?  Character outlines?  Plot diagrams?  Word count?  No, if I’m going to be focused and motivated to do the writing, I need a goal to work toward that I can actually accomplish during a working session.  Write 900 words today.  Introduce this character into the scene.  End this scene.  All these little goals are part and parcel of the big goal — work on the book — but the difference is, they are things I can get done.  How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.
  • Embrace the Suck: There are days wherein, despite the best of intentions, I’m going to write crap.  I’ll read back over a passage and wish that somebody else had written it, because surely, surely, I can’t be that bad, that uncreative, that uninspired.  And it’s all too easy to see that happening, to take stock of the growing puddle of sharknado on the page, and say NOPE, the work sucks, I suck, writing sucks.  I’m taking my ball and going home.  And I think that’s a normal reaction (correct me if I’m wrong).  But nobody works perfect the first time around, or for that matter, the second or the third.  There came a point where I realized that it was okay to write something terrible, as long as I was working toward the goal.  It’s easier to rewrite something, to clean it up and tweak it, than it is to start from scratch.  It’s easier to bust a thing apart and start over, even, because you still have all the pieces to work with when it’s time to put it back together.  If I can hold it together and write through the bad days and write when it’s awful, then it keeps the pipes clear for when the ideas want to flow on their own.

To put all this in perspective, here’s a turn that’s happened in the last few weeks.  A few weeks back, I lost the notebook I’ve been using to keep notes for my edit.  I keep notes in the draft as well, but big stuff that needs fixing in the work as a whole went into the notebook.  And it was just gone.  It’s still gone.  And with it went much of my motivation.  I’d lost a significant portion of work, lost a ton of time, and felt overwhelmed at the prospect of going back and doing much of the same work again.  And my work over the past few weeks has suffered.  I’ve been dragging my feet, doing the work at the last minute, doing the bare minimum, even skipping days.  I was dreading the writing.

Well, yesterday I accepted the fact that the notebook was gone and started a new one.  And yeah, it sucks looking at those blank pages that I have to refill.  And it’s painful writing down notes that I’ve already written and retreading ground that I’ve covered before.  But somehow, just accepting the loss and refocusing my effort has given me the best couple of days of editing that I’ve had in a month.  I’m not saying I’ve done the best work, I’m saying I feel better about the work.  Perception is everything.  I refocused from the lost notebook to getting the book done, I made a new plan around my new notebook, I got serious again about making my own time to work, and I accepted the lost work and moved on.  Suddenly, working on the book is that thing I can’t wait to do again.

Tomorrow, the pendulum may swing back the other way, but I’ll keep working anyway.  Motivation isn’t some magic elixir you can drink and suddenly be filled with purpose.  It’s just another thing to be worked at.

 


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