On Being a “Writer” (part 14: Fucking Up & Flying)

So…I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing daily. Actually, I’m going to put it this way: I’ve made the habit of doing other things instead of writing. As an artist, entrepreneur, or person on this planet (well, I recently read The Martian, so perhaps not only this planet), these occasional, intentional drifts are good–if not necessary–for your creative development. You need to have a life in order to appreciate your success as much as you need success to support your life.

At the beginning of this month my fiancé and I moved into a new apartment. We will be married in two short weeks. Amidst the miraculous madness, I have learned to drive stick shift and have begun to fly planes. This doesn’t sound like fucking up, to me. True, I haven’t been focused on writing, but the other parts of life have won my time and have been worthy of it.

I’ve learned an incredible amount of new things in a short amount of time. A major takeaway from this experience is: when the going gets tough, I continue to challenge myself. I can see how it’s difficult to imagine how that makes sense. It might feel more comfortable to take it easy when things seem stressful, but that’s a surefire way to shortchange yourself.

This is what I mean when I say some healthy distractions are important to success. Yes, it’s been tough for me to write lately. Instead of getting wound up about it and hiding under the bedcovers, I got up, switched gears, and put in a few hours learning to fly. If you go back to my original goal of writing every day, that seems like a major distraction, but the experience of tackling new skills and challenging myself in other, exhilarating ways brought me back to writing today.


On Being a “Writer” (part 13: Blogging & Bildungsroman)

I am a writer.

That’s what I tell people at dinner parties, while shaking hands with strangers on the street, across noisy tables of new friends. I like to let people think what they want about that.

There is a reason I don’t say, “I am a blogger.”

To dissect my self-loathing for a second, I hold a special contempt for the word “blog” (short for weblog). It is the product of lazy internet-speak that pollutes our culture, strangles our shapchatting children, and will topple our civilization. Phew. 

Some people ask, “What kind of writer are you?” mostly to understand how it makes me any money.

Before my peers were considering college, I was circulating the writing workshops studying under Poet Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners. I confidently commanded my art, as perhaps only a young artist can. I believed my art made me immortal. There was some magic in the portrait of myself at that age: an unscorned artist.

I started college and immediately advanced to senior seminars, studying poetry under the head of the department. I applied for honors thesis, awaiting my acceptance. I never considered rejection.

I was told I was immensely talented, that I “was not without support.” However, I hadn’t fulfilled the introductory requirements at the University, nor had I displayed maturity and variety through diversifying my coursework throughout the department. Heartbreakingly and haughtily, I hadn’t needed to take 101 and I had already specialized in poetry, given my experience before Brandeis.

Competition, canon, and criticism turned my Truth to torment.

I had long since rejected the regeneration of the tender part of me that made me an Artist. Maybe blogging isn’t directly the vein that brings me back, but it gets me writing. As an adult I realize that it’s not just me alone with my lightning. I carry the weight of the lessons from those who put intellectual energy into me and my art.

I recently learned of the death of one of my favorite poetry professors, Franz Wright. He helped me grow–delicate and direct all at once. We would share space and cigarettes during the break in workshop. My best memory of him was when he taught me how to be a kinder critic. He died of lung cancer in May.

We sit there
the mountain
and me, Li Po
said, until only the mountain

-from “Beginning Again” by Franz Wright

More from Franz Wright below:

On Being a “Writer” (part 12: The “P” Word)

I touched on the idea of Revision in my second post in this series. I have been grappling with this for as long as I’ve lived. Seriously, though, my whole existence. Most of us are built-in with the mechanism and desire to self edit. This is a gorgeous part of perception and the universe: we are moving and there is change. I absolutely accept my agency in the ability to learn and modulate my actions and behaviors to achieve certain outcomes. 

As applied to my creative process, I’ve always had a very hard time with the notion of Perfection. I almost never said it aloud. If I even thought it, I’d cringe, waiting for Karma to come and strike me down at the very thought. As far as I know, no deed I have done, nor work I’ve managed to produce is perfect. But some of it has been.

Let me chew some of that for you. I wrote earlier, “nothing is ever done.” I feel strongly that this is the case, especially when I think about my writing. For instance, I have been working on a screenplay for years. I get some ways through, and then life gets in the way. When I come back to my work days, months, years later, I don’t just pick up where I left off in the fashion and style I had the last time I sat with it. I rip it to shreds (not literally) and amend sometimes the seemingly most minute “mistakes.”

I’ve actually started leaving notes for the Future Claire who will revise and then continue to write the work (“consider another word…”; “you’re gonna hate this…”; “awkward!”). Why don’t I just pick another word right then and there if I anticipate considering it unsatisfactory in the future? Because that’s what I could come up with then, and that’s what allows me to keep going, for the time being. 

Physically, there must be a frame of reference to determine and observe movement. In terms of revision, you’ve got to put something down in order to make it better. Draft #18 was “Perfect” because it exists. It brought me somehow closer to completion. (I consider drafts like breadcrumbs through the winding woods of your creativity). However, if I sat down to Draft #18 today, I would not be able to assert that it is “Perfect” for many reasons, including the fact that it does not fulfill the basic requirements I’ve determined to deem it finished. Also, that there are some words that don’t work, as Past Claire rightly predicted.

To finish out I want to notice: (1) in writing terms, narratives are described as “arcs,” supposing that the work as a whole is a circle and (2) in drawing up a graph, for instance, you “plot” a point. Lastly, what keeps me going is the ability to find Perfection in the moment and be satisfied with that until I’m ready again to revise.

On Being a “Writer” (part 11: Breaking The Rules with Orwell)

In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled, “Politics and the English Language,” outlining how politics have corrupted language. I believe strongly that politics–in the broader sense than strictly governance–have served to dilute language, shrouding meaning in insipid semantics (aka those damned excuses I discussed previously).

For instance, I sometimes have arguments with my parents. We can spend hours circumnavigating the actual issue by getting caught up in how things are expressed instead of actually getting down to what needs to be discussed. We fool ourselves into thinking we are protecting the other by being indirect, where we are really only trying to protect ourselves from being brave, standing straight, and speaking clearly.

Orwell developed 6 rules:

1) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

4) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The Johnson blog run by The Economist published a piece on this back in 2013. My favorite part posed revolves around the dogmatic nature absolutes. Almost poignantly put, the piece points out that breaking the rules taps into a human frailty shared by writers or, simply put, people. This is pithy. I like that. That’s what I meant when I referenced certain arguments I have with my parents. We are often afraid of ourselves and self-sabotage in semantics.

Where The Economist seeks to “liberate” these rules by reframing them sans absolutes, I rather like them how they originally are. I think there is a humor here that renders the rules free already. That last rule is everything. You can–and should–break the rules, but do so avec intention.

On Being a “Writer” (part 10: Working With Emotion, Happiness)

A few weeks ago, I tore through a post with hate on my heels. Now, I am experiencing a seemingly opposite emotion, but there is a similar lesson. “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around for a while, you could miss it,” Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ok, cliché, but it rings true. What’s funny is that, from the last post on Emotion (the Anger Chapter), I knew how to fail forward. I broke through my clouds of frustration and tasted the blissful sunlight of success. This was not an easy thing for me to do, but I have thoroughly planned ahead for these moments–the times when I’m feeling a typically negative emotion and how to work through that to remain effective.

What I don’t have as much experience with is planning for similar issues, but opposite emotions. When things are good, we usually don’t feel like we need to reach into the personal work tool belt. I picked the Ferris Bueller quote for a few reasons: (1) It’s true: life can change in an instant. Mere days ago, I was very angry, and today I am “completely, and perfectly, and incandescently happy” (please pardon the schmaltz); and (2) I actually took the day off yesterday to “stop and look around,” which wasn’t a seriously bad thing that caused dire consequence (it might have actually been good for me because I’m a workaholic and need to slow it down every once in a while), but the point is that I didn’t work and I consider that a failure of sorts.

I consider the fact that I didn’t work a failure because I didn’t try to regulate my emotion to remain effective. I got a case of the “fuck its,” and spent a lovely afternoon catching up with a close friend and girlavanting downtown. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this. I did not have a looming deadline nor did I lose any money, respect, or real time. I had weighed the tangible costs of forgoing a workday and determined them minimal.

As I’ve discussed, it’s not necessarily about the individual decision, but also about the practice and discipline. I could have tried to push through, but it was tough for me to even name the action as “perseverance” because I don’t usually associate something as being difficult if it feels so darn good. So, today, I’m trying to use this as an opportunity to pump the brain iron and build this mental muscle. Instead of running around tending to the garden that is my Instagram account, I’m going to work as if I were angry, and smile because I most certainly am not.

On Being a “Writer” (part 9: Commitment)

I’ve heard all the excuses before. I know them because I used to be great at making excuses seem like explanations. What have I learned (besides that I needed a huge kick the in rear)? Discipline conquers most of the BS we tell ourselves and others in order to mitigate the fear factor I spoke of in my last post. We all get up in the morning and arm ourselves against Resistance. The more successful people I know, instead of wielding excuses in the arena, buffer themselves with discipline.

A major component of this discipline is Commitment. Bel Pesce, a brilliant Brazilian entrepreneur and writer gave a Ted Talk entitled, “5 Ways to Kill Your Dream” (also featured below). Here they are:

1) Believe in overnight success.

2) Believe someone else has the answers for you.

3) Decide to settle when growth is guaranteed.

4) Believe the fault is someone else’s.

5) Believe that the only things that matter are the dreams themselves.

Great. This was a cute talk and it’s undeniable that Pesce is bright, certainly charming, and poses good points, fundamentally. However, I’d like to challenge her on two things: (1) What is the core of all of this advice and (2) rhetorically speaking, how effective is it to hear what you’re not supposed to do?

I believe strongly that the element that ties all of Pesce’s points together is commitment. Commitment to the Self comes first. Who are you? What is it that you truly desire? I can’t stress this more: be brutally honest with yourself. Only then can you answer the question: How are you going to see your dreams/projects through? I think about it this way: if you were sat down in an room of mirrors for the rest of infinity, what would you see? Could you live with that? If not, I suggest you figure out what you need to change and then put a lot of your energy into doing so, immediately. Honestly, no book will be written, nor venture launched, effectively and successfully if you don’t tack this down.

Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Mirrored Room’ at David Zwirner Gallery

Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Mirrored Room’ at David Zwirner Gallery (click through image for NYTimes review)

Now, if you have that settled with yourself, I won’t lie and say the rest is easy, but at least you have built a solid foundation so that, if something doesn’t go as planned, you’ve got a suitable safety net. Additionally, I most certainly don’t claim that anybody in this world feels this confident every day (if you meet someone who does, please introduce me). But, again, the more successful people I know, in any industry, value commitment first over confidence. Commitment, actually, is what produces true confidence.

This commitment also drives that hard work factor, the nose to the grindstone attitude that most successful people possess. Hard work in it of itself isn’t enough, though. There are people who put in 15 hours a day, 365 days a year, and don’t see results. Another soapbox on which I stand is that of maximizing your time. I could preach this all day. This is where commitment is a compass. When you really know yourself–when commitment is reflex and your soul schedule is relatively set–you do better by yourself by not wasting your time or anyone else’s.

This brings me to my second point. I’m a student of Positive Communication. Don’t get me wrong, I am not always “nice.” I certainly don’t coddle anyone; to the contrary, I can sometimes be ruthless and unrelenting. However, I believe strongly in the power of communicating positivity, whether you are having an argument with a friend or acting as the CEO of a company.

I don’t mean, by the way, that Pesce was any less than lovely in delivering her talk. What I mean by negative communication is the presence of “don’t” rather than “do.” Instinctively, people brace when they hear “don’t.” Psychological studies have shown that in the presence of negative communication, we are more likely to feel immediately and reflexively defensive. When we are defensive, we are not as effective. We cannot receive or put out information or work as successfully.

All in all, the talk is still worth the 6-minutes, and Pesce’s body of work is quite interesting. I salute her for pioneering the young generation of #womenintech.

On Being a “Writer” (part 8: Fear and Loathing in NYC…Well, Anywhere I Am, Actually)

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t ever scared. I meet discouragement almost every day. Sometimes those moments are small: I choose to snooze, I don’t get to the coffee shop and sit in bed on my personal Twitter for an hour longer than I scheduled for myself, I don’t make it to an art exhibition that I wanted to review, etc. However, there are important things that I do to stop it at discouragement before ranging on despair and derailment.

I mentioned Steven Pressfield‘s “The War of Art” in an earlier post in this series. One of his central concepts is that of Resistance. He writes, “Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance.” This Resistance at its most evil, is the anvil over your head manifesting as writer’s block. Yet, it can also act as an indication of your interests in and passions for your project. “[T]he more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.”

There is an important lesson here. I have learned the dual nature of fear, which I can easily turn into self-loathing and self-doubt, if I’m not careful. A practice I’ve attempted to master is mapping my degrees of fear and how they each show themselves to me. For instance, I’ve already indicated a certain degree of difference between discouragement and despair. Truly know your degrees of difference. Track what actions and emotions are triggered by these feelings. Once you can really own these parts of yourself and how you are, you can work to reel yourself in and get back to a more effective and productive state of mind.

The fear can also be the voice of self-doubt and the root of the negative self-talk that tells us we won’t succeed. Nobody will like what you write. Nobody will even read what you write. This is all going to shit. Why bother? As an example, I’ve often referenced myself as “obstinate and oppositional.” Well, maybe those are the emotions/states I tend toward. However, the first step to making change is knowing where you can improve. Forget the how, for now at least. Don’t think too far ahead or the whole thing will seem too daunting to touch. Start small, go slowly, and feel for your fear like you’re fumbling in the dark drying to get dressed.

Pressfield also writes, “Our job in this life is not to shape ourselves into some idea we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.” My advice is to study yourself and be brutally honest (because who else really will for you?). Own that fear, bridle it, and then ride it like a white horse to your destination: Success.