Helplessness

My age-old solution for conquering writer’s block is what every writer thinks is the most annoying thing: writing about it. I’d all rather go get a donut, or crawl out of the closet I live in, and nap on a davenport in the corner of an empty library. Instead, I use a cinderblock for my feet and chains for my wrist, and write about how much I detest writers block. It’s like the kid that complains about eating his broccoli, so his mom cooks him an entire pot and says,

“It’s fine, darling, you’ll learn to love it.”

I’m not sure if there are parents like this out there, but I’m glad they're not mine. Props, ma and pa.

Earlier this year, I wrote about different types of writer’s block: your run of the mill, ‘can’t think of anything to say,’ the more complex, ‘all my feelings are gone, how could I possible write anything meaningful,’ and the most-dreadful-in-a-wonderful-way, ‘I do this all day every day and make money for it, so there’s nothing left in the tank.’

Writer’s block (mostly the first one, sometimes the second one, and if you’re lucky the third one) is like bad weather or the common cold. I all do things to protect against it, like tarps or sandbags or stuffing Vaseline up our noses on long plane flights, but it’s inevitable. And then I’m just sick in bed, or watching the rain out the window wishing I hadn’t left all my sidewalk chalk out there.

Always, before, writing about writer’s block has cured me. It’s funny how it works: I’ll sit down, numb and thoughtless and rant about how I can’t think of anything and writing is a deplorable sport and I should’ve played basketball in high school instead, and soon I’ll have ideas zipping along.

Even tonight. I spent two hours writing on helplessness, and only came up with seven sorry sentences, fragmented and weak at best. I think to myself, surely I have things to say, but all the evidence of my labor is underwritten, overworked Calibri size 12, seven meager lines. I stare at the screen, frustrated. I can write thousands of words a week, but here, about anything I really care about, I can’t even remember the proper construction for a sentence. Is it subject adjective? Verb adverb? Noun participle? My college Editing class professor would be so disappointed in me—but then she always was, because I didn’t know what a dangling participle was. I just wrote like words were music.

But I digress.

I cast my career into the kitchen trash can (I just changed the bag tonight and it’s already almost full again. How can only two people make so much trash?), draft up a text to my boss that I’m quitting and taking a job labeling cans in a factory on the south side, and start a small fire in my frying pan to hold a ceremonial burning of the newest draft of my next book.

And then, suddenly, as I write about how I can’t write and I’m annoyed at it and there's nothing I can do, I have an epiphany (too strong? realization).

Helplessness is hard to put on paper well. Not so the reader nods and smiles, close-lipped and complacent, but so that the small part of your heart (you know where, you’ve felt it) starts to hurt, and you think, yes, yes, I’ve been there, I know. It’s dreadful. I’m so sorry. If only you knew that I understand.

But somehow, it’s hard to write about, maybe because I chafe against feeling it. I want to be in control—I don't want to stand idly by and let things happen without my permission. It’s like having responsibility and the inability to act simultaneously, like missing the glass I bumped and knocked off the counter.

Enter epiphany. It’s come as I rant, that this is how I can describe helplessness

Today, helplessness is knowing strongly, fiercely, massively, that I have something to say—and I cannot say it. Because at this moment, I am unable.

Maybe I won’t always be—maybe I will.

Maybe there’s an antidote—maybe there’s not.

Being helpless sometimes means the only thing I can do is wait and see. And keep trying.

Chasing Humanity

I wrote a whole post about how great writers can make their readers feel the whole range of emotions—then I read it, and it didn't make me feel anything besides boredom. I tightened it up (because editing), and here are the final nuggets:

She could make the obit of a woman who spent her life looking out the window fascinating.
— The Dead Beat

Lots of writers go to school to learn the mechanics of writing without learning the soul of the art. Many times we miss the point of perfecting the art because we're so focused on the craft. Writing isn't about the mechanics—it's about the art.

A good writer can suppose a feeling, and write correctly about it. A great writer can feel the feeling, and make you feel it too.

Writing about people well is understanding beyond what you've experienced, feeling what you can't imagine, and taking on someone else's pain, joy, or heartache.

To be a good writer, you have to write good. But to be a great writer, you must learn how to understand people and write their feelings into your good writing.

That's chasing humanity and sketching it out.

Ps. I'm reading a fantastic book about writing obituaries right now that's prompted this mumbling jumble of semi-insights.

I Didn't Used to Like Coffee Shops

I've never been much of a coffee shop person.

I didn't wake up to the smell of coffee every day as a kid and didn't even start drinking it myself until college—and even then, it was just on the 4 a.m. mornings when there was a snowstorm that took all day to clean up (landscaping on a college campus in Chicago). I never picked up the habit of going to coffee shops because a) it's too expensive and b) frankly, I always felt it was quite boring.

Why would I want to pay to go sit somewhere (when I have a perfectly good bedroom where I can sit for free) for a couple of hours, when I could be adventuring, wandering, and probably getting lost in the dark on the wrong side of town with a dead cell phone and no protective anything?

. . . Sorry, Dad. It made sense to me.

But this weekend, I spent hours at coffee shops, because when I write at home I get distracted. I was an hour into Starbucks when I realized something:

I love coffee shops.

Not because of the coffee—it's good, but I'm not partial. I have pretty blunt feelings about $4.50 for liquid that only sticks around for a few hours. I'll keep said feelings to myself.

I love coffee shops because they're full of humans. People complain that personal interaction is leaving society, and I can agree in part—we do a lot of interacting with machines. But I realized something delightful on Sunday. We may be a technological generation who suffers from an unnecessary addiction to screens (let me tell you how I really feel...) but personal interaction is still in the running. And it's going strong.

The old man at the table in the corner with 5 newspapers spread out and too-large khakis wandered around and came in and out of the shop a lot of times. He held the door open for at least a dozen people. He smiled at all of them. They all smiled back.

The lady with hot pink rags tied up in her hair and an outfit that I couldn't even imagine in my wildest imagination talked to the baristas. Friendly, normal, everyday talk. Talk that says, "Hey, I see you're a person. Me too. Let's talk about normal people stuff."

Women met at the shop to have coffee and chat, couples came for a mid-morning pick-me-up, families stopped in before and after church—and strangers talked to each other.

I watched at least a hundred people cycle through the Starbucks and it reminded me of something. People are all the same. When God created us, he didn't dress us with the expensive clothes, the fancy nail polish, the shoes and gadgets and accessories that set us apart, once we grow up and think we need that stuff. He created us as people who need to sleep and eat, cry when we're sad, and laugh when we're happy. People are just normal people.

Think about that next time you interact with anyone you don't know, and even people you do know. They probably also do laundry and have bad days sometimes.

So, I'm sorry, Curtis. I love coffee shops, and now we have to budget for my new expensive habit. 

How to Finish Your To-Do List

After a summer of nights at the beach, camping in the mountains, and half-price milkshakes from Sonic, I have work to do. I have a pile of blog drafts to sort through, edit, and post, a long story to finish writing, and a half-dozen books to read before fall seeps through the cracks of summer.

I loved every ounce of my summer, because it was lazy and (dare i incriminate myself) somewhat irresponsible. It was rest after a wild sprinting spring. But now my to-do list is long and unforgiving, and I'm hounded by my own goals. You know how it feels.

Here's the best way to tackle your to-do list when it's long enough to measure furniture with:

Step One: Arrange your tasks (in any order that you want) Arrange them by priority, by ease or time of completion, by which ones might pay money—but put them in an order that won't throw you into a stall every time you see the first item.

Step Two: Do bite-sized chunks. If you've ever gardened (or know someone who has), you know that planting a carrot seed doesn't produce a carrot the next day. It takes an entire season of watering, weeding, and getting sunshine. It takes time to finish big projects, too.

Step Three: List the little things—List the big things. Sometimes even the small things that you accomplish can help you feel successful. If you need to put folding towels and walking the dog on the list so you can pat yourself on the back, go for it. If those tiny tasks weigh you down, don't list them.

Step Four: Be accountable. If someone else knows what your goals are, they can hound you. If you're trying to accomplish things in isolation, no one will bug you when hit snooze too many times and don't wake up to exercise before work.

Step Five: Set goals (and rewards). If you're just aiming for completion someday in the great blue beyond, it'll be hard to stay motivated. Make goals you can attain (I will clean out the garage before the end of the month) and set rewards that excite you (I will get a banana split when I do).

Step Six: Practice. I know I whale on it constantly, but the only way to get better at almost everything in life is by practicing—do it over and over again, until you could do it in your sleep. If you practice getting stuff done, it'll be a habit. Then you can practice relaxing when it's over.

Sometimes finishing your list of chores doesn't get you anything besides the satisfaction of a job well done, but even then—it's worth it.

Two Kinds of Writer's Block

There might be more psychological diagnoses, but I've observed two distinct writer's blocks.

Mental writer's block hinders your technical capacity to form sentences, paragraphs, and ideas. It often happens without rhyme or reason (too much fruit for lunch? stubbed your toe this morning? bad talk with your boss?), and settles on everyone occasionally. The best way to overcome it is to write. Move your desk to an empty room up against a white wall, and tape your arms to the desktop so the only thing you can reach is the keyboard (or pen and paper, if that's your style). Write about anything that comes to mind. Your socks. Aunt Mildred's AWFUL brussels sprout soup. Your upstairs neighbor's horse-shoed monster that comes out at night. 

After you start, the ideas will flow as you transition to writing for your passion project (if that's Aunt Mildred's soup, give it up now).

Emotional writer's block hinders your soul from creating. It feels empty, like you have nothing to say, even though there's plenty to write about. It doesn't effect the technical aspect of writing; you're still perfectly capable of mastering syntax and grammar (if you could to begin with), but ideas have no value. There's a jumble of concepts waiting to be framed into beauty, but you can't see where the edges fit together and it's too hard to try.

After staring into space and struggling to harness listless mental energy, you close the computer, and think, tomorrow I'll have something to say.

But tomorrow doesn't often bring motivation that didn't come today, and sooner or later the soul bankruptcy from not doing what you love is greater than the emotional weariness and pain that stopped you.

So pick up your pen, choose anything to say, and start again. God didn't give us gifts so we wouldn't use them because it's too hard.

The Five Step Creative Process

Today I had a new, very exciting idea for another new project (in addition to The Cup—Sequel, coming Dec. 2017). It'll take a while to accomplish, and a fair amount of work, but it's a delightful prospect.

Ideas go through several stages of development. It takes 5 major steps (I think) to parent an idea to completion.

1. The desire to create. Most (if not all) good ideas start with the inner urge (or urgency) to make something. That sets the ball rolling.

2. The combination of elements. Eventually you'll come up with something (unless you have writers block, in which case you should just throw in the towel and go look at the stars) (just kidding). The rough idea will take more intentional thought, as you develop the elements of the story, the characters, and the rough plot (or colors, or notes, or shots, etc).

3. Collaboration. This is the most crucial and intimidating step. Find a group of trusted friends, a sampling of both creative and pragmatic people who can look at an idea from more than one angle. Share carefully, and keep your hope and passion safe. An idea that gets edited and re-shaped can survive, but badgered hope and passion wilt far too quickly, sometimes irreparably. Listen to ideas and edits, take them to heart, and remember that few world-changing projects were completed in isolation. 

4. Start the project. Keep going. Finish a rough draft. Edit.

5. Repeat. Do steps 3 and 4 as many times as it takes to make a foolproof, waterproof, childproof project that you're proud to hang your name on.

Learn to think, to form ideas, to take edits well, to finish what you start, and to discern the value of ideas, both your own and another's. Making things alone brings delight—doing it in community is priceless.

It may seem like a long process that's too hard to track from start to finish—but you'll never learn it until you start.

prime time

Everything has a prime time: As seen on TV ads, rush hour radio, busy times for grocery stores, education, the list goes on. Anything that involves humans and their specific wants, needs, desires, and habits will have a prime time.

Education is best carried out in the morning, while the brain is freshly fed and rested, and the sun is still breathing energy into the world.

People buy stuff they saw on TV commercials in the middle of the night because somehow, what you see when you have insomnia sticks in your brain.

Rush hour radio plays music only—because if they can snag you during rush hour, when you're bringing your daughter to ballet on Saturday morning, you'll still be tuned in to that station and you'll hear the ads and campaigns.

Grocery stores staff more employees for certain hours, because they know that people will stop in on their way home from work, or come after dinner.

We're creatures of habit—we figure out what works for us, and do it. And, since the world has millions of people, what works for me likely works for someone else too. In the marketing world, companies can (and should) leverage that knowledge to their benefit, to work with your subconscious and convince you to buy (or drive or listen to or watch) something.

In the marketing world, it's like constantly trying to solve an equation and hoping the variables stay the same for long enough to figure it out. It's like solving a puzzle.

In the writing (creative) world, it's the same method, but you're only trying to figure it out for one person: yourself.

Every writer (creative) has his or her own prime time—some wake up long before dawn, to catch all the early morning word-brilliance. Others write after everyone else has gone to bed, in the peaceful stillness of a resting house. Still others find mid-morning to be the key, or treasure a post-lunch surge of creative energy.

Invariably, every writer (or creative) who you ask will have an opinion about what works best for them. The challenge of this knowledge is taking action. If you know you write your best poetry at 6 a.m., wake up and write it. If your brain kicks into story mode right after lunch, reserve that block of time strictly for crafting tales. If moonlight helps your mind compose sentences, save some mental energy for nighttime.

It's worth it to try different times until you learn what your prime time is, because 30 minutes of prime time writing (or creating) is worth 120 minutes of pulling teeth creativity after your brain is done for the day.

The Man in the Arena

It is not the critic who counts
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles
or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood
who strives valiantly
who errs
who comes short again and again

because there is no effort without error and shortcoming
but who does actually strive to do the deeds
who knows great enthusiasms
the great devotions
who spends himself in a worthy cause

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement
and who at the worst
if he fails
at least fails while daring greatly
so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls

who neither know victory nor defeat.

—Teddy Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic

keeping on

I memorized this poem as a child—not for a project, but because a poster of it hung on the wall of my schoolroom, and poetry is more interesting than math (every student is entitled to her own opinion).

The author (and we're not quite sure who it is) understands trying, wanting, fighting, striving. And most poignant to the human experience, the desire to give up in the face of overwhelming odds.

He grants that this is valid.

Then he turns the desire to give up into the reason to keep fighting.

don't you quit

when things go wrong as they sometimes will
when the road you're trudging seems all uphill
when the funds are low and the debts are high
and you want to smile, but you have to sigh
when care is pressing you down a bit

rest if you must, but don't you quit

life is queer with its twists and turns
as every one of us sometimes learns
and many a fellow turns about
when he might have won had he stuck it out
don't give up when the pace seems slow
you might succeed with another blow

often the goal is nearer than

it seems to a faint and faltering man
often the struggler has given up
when he might have earned the victor's cup
and he learned to late when the night came down
how close he was to the golden crown

success is failure turned inside out

the silver tint in the clouds of doubt
and you can never tell how close you are
it might be near when it seems afar
so stick to the fight when you're hardest hit
it's when things seem worst that you must not quit.

—either edgar a. guest or john green leaf whittier or maybe someone else

 

Quality Over Size

Sometimes I write an entire post, and while I'm editing it I delete it instead.

It's not worth keeping something that's sloppy just to have accomplished. And it's not worth putting your name behind something that you only half-heartedly stand for.

Take the time to make your big projects great—or else make them smaller.