The Weekly Re-Motivator: If-Then

What if life were like the movies? Or like books, or video games, or music?

What if life were like stories?

Let me back up. At one time in my life, I entertained the possibility of becoming a computer programmer. It made sense of a sort: I’m decent with computers, certainly I use computers a lot, and I’m kind of fascinated with what computers are able to do. I don’t, unfortunately, have the meticulous, detail-oriented mind that programming calls for. Still, I learned a few things about programming, one of which is the if-then parameter, which is the cornerstone of programming.

If this thing happens, then do this other thing. If this condition is met, proceed with the program.

It’s simple but critical. And it’s there in our stories, too. If you see a gun in the first act, then you expect to see that gun fired in the third act. If the main character starts off as kind of a jerk, then he will have some change of heart by the end. If this character is afraid of flying, then you can bet the farm he’ll have to get on a plane before the story runs its course.

But those are big if-thens. They are everywhere in stories. If the character has that extra drink, then you know he’s going to do something extra-stupid before the night is out. If she leaves a MacGuffin at home when she goes out, then that will be the very night she NEEDED the MacGuffin. If John McClane takes off his shoes, then the writers will be sure to make him tromp across broken glass.

You can predict what’s going to happen in stories, then, by paying attention to the little things characters do.

Wouldn’t it be nice if life were the same way?

If I wear this tie, the boss will recognize that I’m going the extra mile and give me a promotion. If I put in this time at the gym, I’ll end up with the body I always dreamed of. If I have a good breakfast, the rest of the day will go great.

Life is never so convenient. We prepare, we plan, we make adjustments on the fly, and life still blindsides us. There are no guarantees, there are no simple straight lines from the actions we take to the consequences we make.

Which could be disheartening, really. I mean, right now, I’m living my life in the hopes that: If I sink in all this time working on my writing and my novels, then I’ll get published and make tons and tons of money. But that isn’t a guarantee. It might not even be likely. Likewise, If I’m diligent about exercising, then I’ll enjoy a long, healthy life. But nope, that’s not automatic either. My books might never be published. I might get smacked by a bus tomorrow, or contract some horrible long-debilitating cancer that cripples me.

Life, to summarize, is a crap shoot.

So why try, right?

If the if-thens you set out have no bearing on the world at all, then what’s the point of planning, of trying? Damn, that’s dark and reductionist. And too often, I think — especially in this country — we think too much in that rigid if-then way. If I do this thing, spend this money, invest this time, then I expect these results. And if I can’t be guaranteed, then I’m not doing it.

We need to adjust our if-thens.

If I sink in this time working on my writing and my novels, Then maybe I can learn something about myself, entertain myself, and maybe possibly entertain a few other people, too. If I focus on my health, then I can improve the quality of the time I have, I can get stronger physically and mentally, I can do things I might not otherwise have been able to do.

Sometimes I look at life as a long con, where you keep your eyes on the distant prize and keep working toward that. The spire in the distance, the North Star that keeps you oriented.

But I think just as important is keeping focused on the immediate, the things you can count on, the real-life stuff that life throws at your feet.

Life doesn’t care about our big plans. Life owes us nothing. Best we can do is make the best we can out of the things we spend our time on.

And make sure we’re focused on the right if-thens.

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.


Science Sunday with the Mythbusters

I’m a big nerd.

I dunno if you know this or not.

I love science fiction, astronomy, physics… I can’t get enough. I subscribe to Crash Course Astronomy on youtube. I am counting the days to the new Star Wars movie. So I guess it was inevitable that I would love a show like Mythbusters, which takes a scientific look at everyday turns of phrase and bits of movie magic to see if there’s any actual truth to them.

After filming their final season, the show’s hosts have been on a tour lately, doing speaking engagements and sharing some of their favorite moments about the show around the country.

Last night, they were in Atlanta.

And because my wife is awesome, she got me tickets to the show for my birthday back in July.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the show is a little nichey; that while it has its fans, it’s probably not widespread enough in popularity for most people to even be familiar with it outside of maybe seeing a rerun of it on the weekend. Still, they basically sold out the Fox theatre in downtown Atlanta. Further, the audience was wonderfully diverse: people of all ages and all ethnicities filled the rows, but maybe more impressive were the families, especially those with kids as young as six or seven. And I will happily admit that I spent the bulk of the show with a big dumb fangirly grin plastered to my face.

Still, I didn’t know exactly what the show was all about. I thought they’d show some clips from the TV show, answer a few questions, maybe do a few live demonstrations. But it was a lot more than that.

The show was full of lovely little moments. My heart warmed when they called their first volunteer up onto the stage — an eleven year old girl — who proudly proclaimed that math was her favorite subject in school. Adam talked about some experiments they had run but never been able to use on the show, like a ridiculously explosive, easily accessible chemical that they are forbidden to disclose, and a lab rat that turned cannibal during a food experiment. The usually stoic Jaime got emotional when asked about his most frightening moment on the show.

Simply awesome.

(My brother and I are about thirty rows back on the left.) You can tell based on my formless face-shaped dome head.)

But what I really want to talk about is Adam Savage.

Adam Savage is one of the nerdiest nerds around, putting a gusto and chutzpah into his geekiness that’s really enviable for a more low-key geek such as myself. While I expected to see a few neato science experiments and hear a few funny stories about being on the set (and there was certainly plenty of that), what really resonated with me was the opening moments of the night, wherein Adam told some stories about growing up geeky and what led him to the sort of thinking and experimentation and self-instruction that would eventually lead to a career doing special effects for movies and television and web series about science.

Being the big nerd that I am, I whipped out my pencil and notepad and began scribbling.

Out of the evening, I came away with a list of reading material that I need to look into (100 Years of Solitude, and the works of Raymond Chandler) and some lovely poignant aphorisms about science in particular and learning and being human in general. They were even, believe it or not, applicable to writing. So I thought I’d share a few of them here.

  1. The deeper you go, the harder it gets. Adam told a story about learning to juggle, starting with the absolute basics and eventually undertaking to learn tricks. At first, the gains and improvements came quickly and readily, and he was able to master new facets of the skill every couple of days. (As a fellow novice juggler, I can certainly identify.) But very quickly, you come up against a wall beyond which the improvements become harder to achieve. While he mastered basic juggling in under a week, it took him well over two weeks to master even a few simple tricks, and he found he simply didn’t have the drive or the time needed to undertake it further. As a result, he’s a decent if not impressive juggler. And, well, that’s like writing, or hell, like anything really, innit? Anybody can do it, anybody can undertake to string sentences together and even craft a narrative. But if you want to be good, if you want to impress people with your talent, well, you’ve got to slay a whole other sort of beast. You’ve got to live and breathe with your work for long months and years, you’ve got to study, practice, think about language, try and fail in a thousand different ways. In short, you have to put in the miles. I’d wager that most would-be writers don’t have the gumption to do that. It remains to be seen whether I do.
  2. The Champion of one notch above mediocrity. As a result of all this, he became just barely decent at a lot of things: he had fascination with tons and tons of different skills and ideas, but didn’t have the follow-through to devote himself to get really good at any one thing. As a result, he was seasoned in lots of areas and knew a little bit about a lot of subjects, but never became an expert in any of them. I think we could all take a page from that book. There’s value in trying lots of things, even things you don’t expect to plumb the depths of (see my collection of Flash Fiction for examples). Out of those tiny forays comes growth, comes a broadening of the experience.
  3. Failure is always an option. If you watch Mythbusters, you’re familiar with this little epithet already; rare is the episode that doesn’t feature an experiment blowing up — sometimes literally, often dramatically — in their faces. But this isn’t a setback. In fact, they seek this moment because if you simply skate through an experience and everything goes to plan, you maybe enjoy a bit of success, but you don’t really learn much. Failure, however, is a fantastic and ruthless teacher; nothing teaches you how not to suck like picking over the charred and smoldering remains of your failed forays beyond mediocrity. Unless you failed at skydiving. No second chances in skydiving.
  4. Art and science are just two different kinds of storytelling. This one shook me to my core. I like to think there’s something magical and even otherworldly about storytelling, in the artistry of a nicely turned phrase, the cleverness of a well-tuned plot. But as with so many things, the moment I sat down to think about it, the pieces started sliding into focus like a Magic Eye painting. Stories tell us why people do the things they do. Science tells us why the world is the way it is. We love art because it speaks to worlds and people and emotions that might be, and we love science because it shows us the magical things we never knew about the world we currently inhabit. Furthermore, I don’t think you can have a good story without science — even if it’s just the inexact science of human interaction — nor can you have good science without a bit of art — the elegant organization and tracking of variables, the spiraling recursion of repeatability.

I’ve gone on enough, but suffice it to say that while I went to the show expecting a bit of fun, I came home with a whole new respect for a show I once thought of merely as a diversion.


You’re a Genius All The Time

Much as I love to ramble on when it’s time for Stream of Consciousness Saturday, I think I’m going to let brevity get the better of my wit today. (As if that were a fair fight!)

I’ve spent the week dunking my toe back into the ocean of drafting delights this week, and whoo, it’s overwhelming. Drafting is awesome, but drafting is also awful. As such, I’ve been peeking around the internet to find things and stuff to keep me motivated and rolling forward, because, as I think I may have mentioned before around here once or twice, momentum matters. As is always the case when you go trawling the internet, you find a few gems and a lot of space trash, but in particular I found one site that’s chock-full of fantastic little tidbits for writers especially, but for everybody, when you get down to it. Lists like this one from Neil Gaiman, or this one from Kurt Vonnegut are delightful and straightforward.

But there’s something raw and enchanting about the magic brain bullets Jack Kerouac squeezed off in a list of 30 points entitled “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose”, in all its disjointed shorthand and ungrammatical gutpunchery.

The whole list is excellent, but in particular, I really like this piece of self-motivational pie:

#29: You’re a Genius all the time.

I’m going to paraphrase Bill Murray’s character from Ghostbusters 2 and say that that is the kind of thing I need to hear every day, that kind of uplifting, you’re-right-even-when-the-world-thinks-you’re-wrong certainty. Maybe I wouldn’t be such an idiot. So I’m going to print that off and affix it to my laptop, or maybe I’ll stick it in the sole of my shoe, or maybe I’ll tattoo it backwards across my forehead, just so that I can remind myself in the morning when I’m feeling not so much particularly like a genius.

Did I say genius? I meant Genius. Capital G. Real deal. No games. Just Genius. All the time.

Anyway, there’s your wisdom for the day. You’re a Genius all the time. So if nothing else, you’ve got that going for you.

Which is nice.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.