I’ve sort of made it an unofficial guideline — not a rule, but a guideline — to steer away from politics and away from negativity when I can, here at the ol’ blarg. I don’t always succeed, but it keeps me from spiraling into rants and endless anger … or at least from doing so here in the digital space.
But with so many things still locked down, and so many of us still living half-lives thanks to COVID, there is a relative dearth of things to think about or write about. I mean, sure, the world’s still spinning, but what’s new with *me*? What’s unique to *my* experience that merits spinning off 300-1000 words here in the digital space?
I keep my head down, I go to work, I wear my mask, I repeat. I go for my runs, I try to work out, I try to get some words on the page every day. I keep pushing forward. Try not to get lost in despair at how absolutely moronic people can be, and how horrible they can be to each other.
Still, it’s hard not to notice that the last few weeks have been … easier, somehow. There’s a little less of the feeling of impending doom from day to day, a little less of the feeling that as bad as things are, they could go from very bad indeed to absolutely catastrophic with a tweet or a speech from a certain individual.
And with that, there’s a little less mental fog. A little less pressure in the chest region. A little less headache over things so fantastically out of my control. The poison is being purged from my personal system, it seems, and that can only be good.
This does not mean, of course, that things are peachy. But it does mean that my mental energies can turn a little more effectively to some of the things that matter, rather than to some of the hopeless distractions that have commanded my attention for the past months.
Things are as stressful as ever, in other words. But this is a stress I welcome. Stress I can live with.
Here’s hoping your days are a little less poisonous, too.
I want to talk about my contributions here of late, partially to make excuses for myself, but also partially to justify myself. And I know, justifications are basically excuses, but I’m coming to understand that what I once thought of as excuses for myself are actually perfectly reasonable and acceptable justifications.
Here’s the critical worry in my mind over the last several months: I’m not writing enough. I’m not! For a guy who fancies himself a writer, I am decidedly not writing enough. A few years ago I was writing every day, bragging about it in more writing here on the blog, churning out short stories almost every weekend … I was capital-W WRITING. And then in the last several months here, not so much. My current novel project is stalled (I’ll circle back to that, but it’s totally mud-stuck and has been for a while), my blog posts have been rarer than Bigfoot sightings, and as for short stories, well, let’s just say I’ve come up short.
The obvious net result of all that is: I’m not writing enough. And I had something of a depressive episode several months ago — which I did write about — that I think must have been triggered, in part, by my feelings about not writing enough. It gets to me. It burns me up. Makes me question myself.
And I know I’m not the only one who thinks that way. Feelings of inadequacy, I wager to say, are rampant in the writing community, if not an understood part of the package. I wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking I’m special for going through it. But I did want to think that I might be special by dint of finding a way to overcome it. (Spoiler alert: I’m not over it yet.)
Which brings me back to those justifications.
I was at work the other day, taking a little break. We (my students and I) had just gotten finished hanging and focusing lights for our spring musical (I have an incredible group of students who always want to give up their time to come down to the theater and help out, and we were working during their lunch periods.) Hanging and focusing is tiresome and tedious work (up the ladder, down the ladder, forgot the wrench, find a burned-out bulb, up to the booth, up the ladder, remove the instrument, down the ladder, replace bulb, up the ladder, re-place instrument, focus, down the ladder, repeat). So they were on the stage listening to some music and I was parked on the backstage sofa just sort of watching and zoning out before heading up to write cues for the show.
And revelation struck, as revelation tends to do, while I was lying there not thinking too clearly or too intently about anything: that this is where my creative energy has been going.
I’m a fairly convinced believer in the school of “you only have so many Fargos to give in a day” (Fargos of course is a stand-in for another F-word I shouldn’t be using as a government employee paid to educate children), and I think that goes double for your Fargos related to creativity. Being creative is hard. At least, I should say, doing something with your creativity is hard (daydreaming is easy). Sitting down to write is hard! Laying down a blog post is hard. Working on a novel is hard. Editing a novel is … well, don’t start.
These things suck up all the creative Fargos. And, well, when I started this writing journey, I was an English teacher. There’s an element of creativity in that, but mostly my job then left my creative Fargos untouched, so I had a lot of them left over.
But my job now? Teaching theater? I’m tapping deep into my creative Fargos just to get through an ordinary day of class, let alone to do work on the musical, or help an actor find their motivation, or coax a design out of a scenic painter, or collaborate with my techs to find the right look for the lights, or work with my props crew to wrestle the bloody plant prop that we’ve fixed five times already but somehow, somehow keeps finding new ways to break. By the end of the day, my creative Fargos are tapped out — and I’m already overdrawn on tomorrow’s balance as well.
Which, here’s where I circle back (finally!) to the point of this post — leaves me utterly exhausted and unmotivated to write. Because I have no Fargos left.
And I was upset with myself about that. (Still am, actually, but I’m getting better.)
But the revelation I had, lying on that couch backstage, had another revelation hidden within it, like the gooey center of a Cadbury’s egg (the caramel kind, not the gross frosting kind, you monsters).
And that revelation is: It’s okay that my creative Fargos are going into my job. In fact, it’s good that I have a job where I get to use my creativity. That’s an enviable spot to be in.
After all, I get to work with young minds, helping them tap into their creativity, helping them find ways to express themselves, giving them the freedom and the safe spaces to explore who they are and how they experience and create art. And that’s pretty Fargoing awesome. And not to take anything away from how awesome that is, but I think it would be selfish of me if I continued to be uptight about spending my creative Fargos in that way.
So I think I have to be okay with maybe not writing as much as I was. Which is not to say that it won’t upset me — it surely will, as critiquing myself is one of my favorite pastimes. But I’ve now got what I feel is a perfectly legitimate excuse — no, a perfect justification for my slackitude, which isn’t slackitude at all.
It’s just a re-distribution of Fargos.
But here’s the other delicious secret: making this realization? Shedding light on this re-distrubition of Fargos? It’s a little like hacking the Matrix.
Because as soon as I made the connection that this is where my creative Fargos has been going, I started finding myself, shockingly, with more creative Fargos. I’m filled with desire to work on my current novel again, whereas for months I dreaded the prospect. I’ve been writing in the mornings again for the last two weeks, pages at a time — writing not fit for human consumption, mind you, but writing nonetheless. And that’s creating even more Fargos.
Overcoming and accepting my hangup with my own productivity has actually opened the gate to more productivity.
Or, viewed from another angle, the roadblock to my creativity was mostly just me thinking there was a roadblock.
The problem, as they say, seems to have been located almost entirely between the ears.
Luckily, that’s a space I seem to have plenty of access to.
Not a big deal. I wasn’t the only one. And it’s not like it has messed with my day in any major way. You get a cut, you stop it up with some tissue paper, you forget about it and walk into the office with spritzes of bloody tissue on your face, life goes on.
Except I didn’t cut my face, as one might expect. I cut my ear.
And not the low-hanging fruit of the lobe, which, while unusual, is still within the realm of the normal and understandable. No, I sliced the top of my ear.
This is virtually impossible to do under ordinary circumstances, unless, like me, you’re a guy taking a safety razor to your dome once a week.
(Side note: the safety razor is not particularly aptly named, as it turns out. Your average dollar-store special is way harder to injure yourself with — though it doesn’t give you nearly as nice a result.)
Worse still, I’ve done it before — and it’s the kind of mistake that, really, you shouldn’t make that often. Cuts that high up on the head sting terrifically, and bleed with the abandon of a five-year-old running toward a playground, which is to say, total. One would think that one would, therefore, remember the unpleasantness of the entire affair and take care to avoid it.
The trouble is, of course, that shaving is one of those things that becomes routine, that you do so regularly that they become automatic. And when things become automatic, our minds tend to wander while we’re about them. (See also: driving. Unless something seriously significant happened — a near accident, for example, or a strange sighting, like a murder-clown walking along the street side — what can you really remember about your drive this morning? Probably not much. Your brain handled it for you, on autopilot, while you listened to the radio or thought about what you had to get done today.) And when the mind wanders while you’re about a routine task, well. You can come away missing pieces of yourself.
This is called automaticity, by the way, and is one of the few concepts I recall with perfect clarity from my college days. Who knows why. Probably it’s the funny word, which WordPress’s spellchecker does not recognize.
But shaving is not a thing that I should be doing in such a carefree manner. The blade I’m using is sharp, and the technique for its use is not necessarily intuitive. Not to mention that the curved surface of a skull is not the easiest thing to shave when using a blade that is flat. There’s care involved, and skill, and attention to detail. And getting above and behind the ears is fiddly even by head-shaving standards. I really should know better.
But no, instead of focusing on the task, I was listening to a podcast. Trying to learn a few things about the world we live in. (A back episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, for the curious.) You know, trying to better myself. And then, snag, slice, recoil.
And here I am, bleeding. I thought it might not be that bad, until a few seconds later when blood began dripping onto the bathroom counter. (Pit pit pit. Cue dizzy panic.)
There’s something to be thought, here, about luck. I was unlucky this morning, but this is my MO every time I shave, and usually I am not unlucky. (To put it into perspective, consider: many, many people text and drive, some of them alarmingly often. Some unlucky few will get into accidents, or even hurt or kill somebody, as a result. Only those disastrously unlucky enough to have accidents happen are likely to suffer any significant penalty or jail time; most people who text and drive suffer no consequence at all. Yet they all participated in the same inadvisable behavior. Some are lucky, the others are not. Shouldn’t those who text and drive, even without causing any harm to anybody on the occasion, suffer the same penalties we would levy against the person unlucky enough to hit somebody with their car? Why should those who were simply unlucky bear a harsher penalty? Needless to say, this is a practice I do not partake in.)
Anyway, just some food for thought on a Monday morning. Maybe I need a bit more mindfulness in my day. I’ve got a bloody neck and shoulder to remind me. It leads me to wonder: just how much of our days do we complete on autopilot?
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 them. And 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?
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.
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.