A Three Year Anniversary

Three years ago today, I met Curtis (he's very wonderful).

He came up to me in the student dining room and sat down and asked me if I remembered him. Apparently we'd known each other in high school. I had no recollection. He showed me pictures, himself as a young boy with a baby face and braces, holding a tiny bluegill up next to his face. I still didn't remember.

He sat down next to me and talked to me for an hour and a half. I spun a red delicious apple around on the table the whole time we talked, and he leaned forward and grinned and took a genuine interest in everything I had to say. He charmed me through and through. A week later, he picked me up from the airport in the middle of the night. He had a backpack full of different flavors of sparkling water and gatorade, and a big green poster board that said, "It's Me, Curtis." We rode back on the el together and he told me about his family, and his dog, and the forest green Buick century that used to be his grandpa's.

We nonchalantly agreed to study in the library together, although we didn't get much homework done. We went on a long walk through Lincoln Park, and climbed a tree, and got bread and cheese and chocolate milk and sat by the river. The next day I helped him (by which I mean he kindly let me think I was helping him) tear down sound equipment that he'd set up for work.

A month later, after a long cold walk late at night, we sat on a bench under the big mushroom at Rainforest Cafe, looking at the McDonalds across the street. He told me he liked me.

And the rest is history.

 

Once, When I Was Little . . .

I could write a lot of posts about a lot of work-related subjects—interpersonal dynamics, professional relationships, keeping deadlines, the constantly losing battle to keep my desk organized, the list runs on and on. But it wouldn't be good for me, because overthinking things never ends well. And you'd think I was a broken record with bad memory. Jobs are real, grown-up life, but there's a lot more to life than work (like donuts and sleeping in and swimming in the lake in September and loving Jesus).

Instead, to spare us both the awkward pain an excess of work stories would cause, I'm following a prompt that I thought of today, although I'm sure someone smarter than me already came up with it. When I settled on it, I promised myself I'd write the first story that came to mind.

Once, when I was little . . .

I grew up in a yellow, rectangular house. It perched on a hill on a five acre lot, and we had everything: a pool, woods, a tree fort, a zip line, a rope swing, a tether-ball pole, a garage roof to play on, a sledding hill in the winter, a baseball field in the summer, and plenty of room for a roaming imagination. Lest I overly glamorize it, picking up sticks (what we seemed to end up doing most Saturdays) was an endless, sappy project, and shoveling the driveway in the winter could take several hours, even with four people (granted, the youngest one often ended up playing instead of shoveling).

About a quarter mile down the dirt road from our house was The Park. When I was tiny little, I think it hosted a wooden play set—but it rotted, so they tore it down, and put up swings instead. Four swings, with thick silver chains, hard black rubber seats, and sturdy green support beams that were just the right size to shimmy up.

Our community used to have a picnic at The Park every summer—there was a clown making balloon art with any color balloon you wanted, lots of people, and lots of food. We'd always go down for a while and eat, and my parents probably talked to people, and my siblings and I probably stuffed our pockets with the free candy on the picnic tables. Okay, we definitely did. We were children of true culture.

One year, when I was still small enough for my dad's deep brown cowboy boots to come past my knees, we went to the picnic in installments. I was in the on-foot group, others were on bikes. After eating our fill and participating in some neighborhoodly activities (getting a blue balloon something, chatting with strangers, and taking candy), my sister, brother, and I headed home. They'd been part of the on-bikes group.

Too small and chubby to have any chance of success in the impromptu race one of us started (competition is a fact of life in big families), I was running up the hill behind them (I like to think of it as striving valiantly). But as they kept getting farther ahead and my chubby legs got more tired, I stopped running. When a black SUV pulled up and stopped next to me, the bikers were too far away and focused on victory to intervene. Through an open window or door, the nice people offered me a ride home. I didn't know them, but I did know I'd have great bragging rights if I beat the older ones home. I nodded my blonde head, clutched my balloon close, and climbed in.

The ride home took less than two minutes, and I don't remember any of it. I probably chatted happily. What I do remember is gloating at the end of the driveway after they dropped me off, and waiting for the older ones to get home so I could proudly boast my victory. To my shock, the pride only lasted about as long as the car ride—right until my parents found out. I had my bath, then put on my flannel Winnie-the-Pooh nightgown (white, with a cotton candy pink ruffle around the bottom), then got the first (that I remember), and perhaps most severe lecture of my childhood. Any parent can imagine how it went—anyone else just needs to know that accepting rides from strangers is definitely a no-go.

Until then, I didn't know. After that, I knew. I definitely knew.

And after the scolding had ended, and they'd wiped my tears away and my mom hugged and kissed me, my dad held me as I cried off the sting of the reprimand. Even when I finished crying, he stood and held me and gently swayed back and forth. 

For a very long time.

 

And that's how the story goes in my mind, and that's how it ends.

What Takes My Breath Away

A lot of things in life take my breath away:

  • The "Hallelujah Chorus," from Handel's Messiah. I've heard it probably a thousand times in my life—and my heart still swells with the crescendo and glory of the conclusion.
  • The sunrise every morning, even though I can't see most of it through tall buildings. That's the biggest reason my heart longs for the country.
  • The memory of people I know and love who are in heaven—and the knowledge that someday I'll be there too.
  • Curtis's face when he buys me flowers, or does the dishes, or sees me after I've been at work all day.

There are more, many more, but then you'd be bored and I'd get too distracted.

As a writer, I'm constantly looking for other writers who can make me feel and take my breath away. I read a lot of things every day—and many of them leave me completely unmoved. Writing can be perfectly functional, but it can still leave me uninspired and uninterested. It's a consistent treat to read something excellent.

Today, I read three things that took my breath away.

The first is a casual obituary, more of a tribute, written by Jerry Jenkins about Kent Puckett. I started reading by accident, as I flipped through a 7-year-old publication looking for ideas for a project I'm working on. What began as a casual glance turned into elbows on the desk and complete absorption. I've never heard of Kent Puckett until today—but after reading a 400 word tribute, I feel like I know him. I'm happy for him that he's in heaven, but suddenly I'm missing someone I've never met. Jenkin's concluding remarks are as follows:

Kent said, “Yeah, I’m trying to take care of myself. Who knows, I might live to be a centurion.” I only wish he had.

This marks an outstanding piece of writing. Well done, Mr. Jenkins. (Click here to read the whole tribute.)

The second is an email from a friend. Writer's block is something I write about with relative frequency, because I experience it with relative frequency. Whenever I have it, I write about it. It's always vaguely startling when someone tells you something about yourself that you didn't know. Then when you hear it or read it, you can actually hear the thud of the hammer on the nail. Today, a friend gave me advice on writer's block—but it was really advice about life. After rereading the email a half dozen times, I printed it off to put in my special book of writing that has warmed me, cheered me, chilled me, and inspired me. It concluded,

Those aspirational writers—the ones wearing a French beret and listening to Miles Davis and sipping lattes at Starbucks while waiting for inspiration to strike—they’ll never get it, because they don’t have the discipline to crank out 2,000 words a day, every day.

I promptly threw out all my French berets when I got home. (Just kidding. Haven't owned one since I was a kid—my brother got me this cool maroon beret for either Christmas or my birthday one year, and I wore it every day until the Fourth of July. I think since then it's gone the way of all the world.)

The third and final is a book. For my birthday, Curtis (he's very wonderful) got me How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz. After opening it and seeing the font and and formatting (and because the cover is BRIGHT ORANGE with BRIGHT YELLOW letters), I checked the copyright date. It's 1981. Almost dinosaur ancient—but, my parents are proof that good things did happen in the 1900s before I was born, so I kept reading.

And it's absolutely excellent. It's a personable, humorous, helpful how-to book about writing, publishing, and editing, but mostly writing. It's spectacular. The title of chapter three:

The changing marketplace
OR
I’m sorry, but we’re no longer buying epistolary Gothic espionage novels set on the planet Mars in the seventeenth century. Readers seem to be tiring of that genre.
— Dean Koontz

I've added something else to my list of personal goals: I'd like to learn how to take someone's breath away (in a brief, good sort of way) with my writing.

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.