Too Much Think

There comes a point all things significant in my life wherein I find myself thinking way too much. I thought too much about marrying my wife, about buying our first house, about having kids… and I am definitely thinking too much about the edit of my novel.

I started out, if anything, not thinking enough. Not really wanting to tackle the tough choices, not really wanting to rejigger the narrative, not really willing to tear out the skeleton of the thing to make the changes that are necessary. But it grew on me, and I started to realize that not only are there tough choices to make, but that I often needed to take the harder of the two paths for fixing the problems in the story. And I started hunting down the problems in the narrative like  Indiana Jones seeking golden idols in the depths of Mayan temples. Each new problem solved gave rise to another, bigger conflict I could fix. Each prospective fix, not necessarily right for this situation, took on new significance, grew wings and started looking for problems to apply itself to. And then, a little stymied after a hectic work week, I threw myself at the edit again yesterday and spotted a white whale just lazing about below the surface of the waves on the horizon. A prize so massive, catching her and bringing her in could alter the trajectory of the narrative like a moonshot. It was a job too big for a single day, so I put it on the EPOS and marinated on it overnight.

And I realized something. Drafts of a story are like prototypes before a product launch. None of them is perfect, but each one gets polished to a point where it at least looks and functions more or less as intended. There may still be bugs on the inside, but to an outside observer, it looks like a complete thing. And my edit of this story resembles not so much a prototype as a cluttered workshop after a hurricane and a flash flood. The narrative is in pieces. Loose ends like frayed wires are protruding out of the armholes, eye sockets, fingertips. Entire limbs of the story are disjointedly stuck on with duct tape while other vestigial bits are still cluttering the margins like piles of unswept sawdust.

I’ve been so focused on fixing every little problem along the way that I never bothered to stop, clean up, and see if the thing as a whole is still working as intended. There’s been so much thought about making this little thing fit into its niche that I’m not paying attention to the fact that I’ve stitched an alligator arm onto a panda bear torso. I fear that there’s been so little big picture focus that I’ve created a Frankenstein’s Monster doomed to self-destruct in a boiling froth of unresolved plots and half-baked new characters. In short: I fear that I’ve somehow managed to make this second draft worse than the first.

But you know what? Maybe it is, and maybe that’s okay. If nothing else, it’s time to stop making huge conceptual changes, clean up the dust and debris, and see if this thing can even stand on its own two feet. The first draft did. It was shaky, but it stood up. This second draft? I honestly have no idea. I think it will, but I haven’t tested it properly with a read-through to see.

So it’s time to stop thinking so much. Time to stop trying to fix everything and start making sure that the fixes I’ve made already actually work. Which means no more breaking the story into pieces. No more new characters. No DELETING existing characters. No more rearranging story elements. I need less chainsaw, more chisel. Less dynamite, more sander. Time to sweep up the workshop, put the tools away, and just sit and have another good look at this thing I’ve built. Get a second opinion. Take a bird’s-eye view of the whole scenario.

And then, you know, with fresh perspective, maybe it’ll be time to lop its arms off.

You Are Not Your Brain (Except That You Are)

Probably confirmation bias at work here, but ever since I started mulling over New Year’s Resolutions and my objections to them, I’ve been seeing relevant ideology everywhere I look. Case in point: sometime in the last two days, and I can’t recall which store I was in at the time, I saw a book on display titled “You Are Not Your Brain!” It was crammed in there with some other self-help titles and weight-loss crash-course books somewhere near the checkout. It might have been a Bed, Bath, and Beyond. I can’t remember, and it’s not important. What’s important is the title.

Product Details

I’ll go ahead and disclaim that I didn’t have time to look at the book. I was shuttling the two sprouts around, and if it’s not written down on my itinerary, it doesn’t get done. And I do hate to judge based on surface impressions rather than an in-depth analysis of content. I’m sure there’s something to the book; I’m sure it’s a fascinating read. (I may be giving more benefit of the doubt than is necessary or merited here, but we’ll go for it.) But the book itself isn’t even important. The title is. Because first impressions matter. Titles matter. You are nothing if not your brain.

You may not like the person that your brain has made you into. You may not appreciate all the things that your brain compels you to do. You certainly may not understand certain tendencies that your brain has. But to say that “You Are Not Your Brain” is to make the fatal mistake of assigning power over your decisions to somebody or something that is not yourself. As if there’s this evil spider-demon perched in your skull, making you eat extra cookies and watch reruns of The Biggest Loser. “I didn’t do that, my brain made me do it. This book can cure me of that bad decision making by helping me to countermand my brain.” No. Get a life.

(There’s a corollary here, for the legitimately chemically unbalanced and mentally ill. That sharknado is for real. And if you suffer from those conditions, then your locus of f’ed-up-ed-ness certainly is external.)

No, we are our brains. We are nothing if not our brains. Our hearts? Our souls? Whatever. Our souls are no more forced into making bad choices by our brains than my minivan is forced to go from zero to 60 in about five minutes and corner like a drunken ox by virtue of not being a cherry-red Lambo. (Lambos are fast, right? And do we still call them Lambos? … whatever, I don’t cars.) Facts are facts. Heart of a Mustang, Mind of a Minivan… sorry, you’re driving like a minivan, because that’s what you’re wired to do.

Which is not to say, of course, that you can’t don some electrical gloves and welding goggles, get in there and rewire the thing. If it’s spewing sparks and leaking plasma and pumping doubt and misery and desperation into your airways, making bad decisions and ruining your life, you can change that. Not overnight. It’ll take hours and days — or more likely, months and years — of studying schematics and learning about triggers and tendencies and fighting urges and really taking a good hard look at the way the spluttering gizmo works. You can change the way you think. But — and here’s the problem with a concept like “you are not your brain” — if you can’t identify the problem, you can’t fix the problem. If you’ve got a flat tire, it does you about as much good as a stack of hundred dollar bills in a starving dog’s mouth to know how an internal combustion engine works. You can stand at the side of the road and blather and bark all you want about how the engine is FINE, the car SHOULD be running, but that ain’t gonna patch the tire. If you don’t own the problem and look at it objectively and truthfully, you can’t fix the problem.

This is going to have to be my last word on New Year’s Resolutions, because I’m exhausted from getting upset over them. So many people making resolutions — and so many people five days into their resolutions (if they’ve made it even that far) — think the problem they’re fixing is external. My job sucks because I hate my boss, so I’ll get a new job. I eat horrible, artery-clogging food because it’s easier than cooking for myself, so I’ll order off the “diet” portion of the menu. I don’t work out because I don’t have time, so I’ll just download this seven-minute workout app and use that.

It doesn’t work like that. Your job sucks because you are not at home in yourself in it, but there are perfectly content telemarketers, gleeful garbage collectors, top-of-the-world door-to-door salesmen. You eat out because you don’t know how to cook, but the answer isn’t to order salads at McDonalds. Learn to cook for yourself and actually exercise some control over what goes into your body. You don’t work out because you haven’t made the time (let’s make that distinction: we all have the same 24 hours every day). An app on your phone is not the answer. Know what is? Cutting out some TV and exercising instead is.

And you know what’s in charge of ALL those decisions that get made? (Because, make no mistake, whether you exercise or not, you made a choice. Whether you grill some chicken or order a triple-extra-fatty-cheeseburger, you made a choice. Whether you stay in your crap job and learn to love it or drop a piano on your boss to escape his corporate lash, you MADE A CHOICE.) Your brain is in charge of those choices. You ARE your brain.

Deal with it.

Worse still, I just went and did some scratch-the-surface research (thanks Amazon) and found out the book is written by a pair of neuroscientists. SCIENTISTS. WROTE A BOOK CALLED “YOU ARE NOT YOUR BRAIN.”


Step Back

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the work. It’s so easy to forget the forest for all the trees all around you. It’s so easy to get lost in the day-to-day sharknado that pops up right in front of you and forget about the big picture.

Is it a human shortcoming?

As a writer, it’s so easy for me to be blinded to my goals on a big scale when things are going wrong in the now. I’ve struggled for the last two weeks, writing and re-writing a handful of scenes in my novel, becoming more and more myopic and less and less able to think on the large scale. I felt as though this one scene was a wrecking ball smashing the novel as a whole to rubble, that this one hangup was one crashed biker causing a monumental pileup as all the other bikers come scorching around the curve. Feet stuck in a quagmire. The whole house on fire.

But the quagmire is not so much a bottomless pit of quicksand as a little mudhole. The house isn’t on fire, it’s just the spaghetti I was overcooking. (How I managed to set spaghetti on fire in this metaphor is hardly the point.) We’re talking about a mammoth manuscript of almost a hundred thousand words, and I was allowing myself to think the whole thing was scrap metal over a troublesome patch of three thousand. But one dubious passage can no more derail the work than an untied shoelace can stop a marathon runner. Sure, it’s annoying. Sure, it must be dealt with before it’s allowed to do further damage. But it’s fixable. It’s recoverable. All that’s needed is to step back and remember what’s at stake and what’s positive about the rest of the work.

But it’s not just true as a writer. I feel this myopia as a runner. I’ve been dealing with injuries a lot lately, and it’s so, so easy to get tunnel vision over the injuries and imagine that my routine and my ability as a runner has been and will continue to be stymied by these injuries. And, sure, I’ve had a loss of fitness and definitely a loss of confidence over the setbacks. But even after taking a month off to get my feet right, I’ve been able to bounce back and start pushing my distance up again pretty quickly. It would be easy to focus on the negative, and that’s what I’ve done in recent weeks: that I’m not able to go out as fast as before or nearly as far as before. But I take a step back and it quickly becomes apparent that despite the setback, I’m bouncing back quicker than I really had any hope of doing while I was laid up.

And, no surprise, I feel it as a dad. I get overwhelmed by the sprouts, and I feel like all I’m doing is putting out fires and telling them “no” and telling them what they shouldn’t do. Before you know it, I’m in a funk because I’m exhausted from all the screaming and reprimanding and the cleaning and the slaving. But a little step back — a little shift in perspective — reminds me that they’re growing up pretty good. They love to laugh and to show off what they know. They’re both incredibly smart. And, my shortcomings as a parent notwithstanding, they seem to be fairly well-adjusted. They’re gonna be fine.

I’m a bit of a literature and film geek, and The Hobbit is somewhat front-of-mind at the moment. There’s a salient moment toward the middle of the text where Bilbo and the dwarves are lost in an evil forest; have been for weeks, doggedly following a path, not knowing how long it is or where it leads or even if they’ve made a wrong turn and are losing all their progress. Their eyes are down and it’s darkness all around them. They’re frustrated. They’re snippy. They’re turning on each other, ready to call the whole adventure off and go home. Then they have the bright idea for Bilbo to climb a tree and get some perspective on where they really stand. So he does, and his head breaks through the impenetrable canopy — the film captures this moment really beautifully — and he sees daylight for the first time in weeks. Feels the sun on his face again. Breathes clean air again. And from his new vantage point, he can see, in the not-so-distant distance, the looming peak of the Lonely Mountain, their ultimate goal, which they’ve made surprising progress toward despite their squabbling and doubt.


Of course, when he descends, he finds that his comrades have been captured by and are about to become dinner for a gaggle of giant talking spiders, but I think it’s safe to say that’s beside the point.

Much gets said, in this country and, heck, on this blarg, about the intrinsic value of sticktoitiveness. The usefulness, the inevitable necessity of keeping your head down and getting the work done. And there is value in that. A lot of value, even. Because if we have our heads in the clouds too often, if we spend too much time dwelling on the lofty goals and the dreams, well, then… that’s time not spent getting the work done. But nose-to-the-grindstone can’t be the only posture we exercise. As in all things, balance is key.

Point is, the easy road is to become so lost in what you’re doing that you forget about the big picture. And if you lose sight of the big picture, then giving up doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. But giving up is a big deal. It’s the biggest of deals. Because when you give up, you essentially set fire to all the time and all the effort that you put into getting as far as you got. And if there’s one thing we don’t get back in this life, it’s time.

So whatever you’re working on — your novel, your schoolwork, your health, your parenting — remind yourself that, every now and then, it’s okay — necessary, even — to take that step back. Take that breath of fresh air. See and appreciate the forest despite all the freaking trees.

The work is important, but it’s no good if you don’t know where the winds are blowing the boat.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.