Making with the Crazy

There are days when my ambition outstrips my talent. There are days when my ambition outstrips my understanding. Most days, though, my ambition outstrips my reserves of energy. It’s a sad truth that, after 30, that’s a battle you’re going to lose 9 days out of 10. You just aren’t 18, or 24 or even 28 anymore. You cannot, no matter how much coffee you drink, get by on 4 hours of sleep. And it is damn frustrating. No, it is crazy making.

I suspect, like most creative people in their 30s, my talent and skill have finally started to catch up with my ego. I can actually pull off writing some of those stories that were just too complicated or too thematically deep for my younger self. I see possibilities where I didn’t before. I marvel at what technology makes possible for anyone with a computer, an internet connection, and a freaking smartphone. I marvel, people. I marvel! I make plans. I see the future. Then, I yawn. Not because I’m bored, but because I’m not 18 anymore.

This isn’t the sour grapes of someone who let their health slide, either. For the most part, I eat right and in more-or-less appropriate portions. I get semi-regular to regular exercise. I even get enough sleep about 65-75% of the time. I am inside the ideal body weight range from someone my height and build. My big health sin was smoking, and I’ve switched over to vaping because it seems logical that it’s less awful for me. The next step is nicotine gum, then quitting. No, it’s not sour grapes. It’s just the reality that my body has started to slow down at a time when I could have actually put all that youthful energy to creative, productive use. It’s a hard pill to swallow.

I know I’m not alone in this, but that doesn’t make me less angsty when I realize I won’t get those last two pages that would finish a new short story. It’s not that I couldn’t power through and write them, because I could. I don’t because of the knowledge that I’d just wind up tired the next day and still need to rewrite those pages. It’s a fact that tired writing is a bad writing…pretty much always. Even that isn’t the worst part.

The worst part is knowing how much I could be getting done, if I still had that boundless energy of youth. I’m painfully aware of how many idea and projects I’m not pursuing, will probably never pursue, because my cells aren’t generating energy as efficiently, that the myelin sheathes in my neurons don’t replenish themselves as rapidly, that my body just needs more hours of rest than it used to need.

Then, after I work myself into this tizzy of self-pity, I take a breath. I think it through. Yes, there are stories and novels I’ll never write, projects I’ll never pursue, because my energy isn’t equal to the sustained effort they require, but that was always true. That is the basic truth of being alive. Everything we do, every commitment we make, is a conscious choice not to take the other path. Would I like to be a world-class chef/guitar player/philosopher/novelist/astrophysicist/painter/neurosurgeon? Sure. Hell, who wouldn’t?

Is the fact that I’m not, and could never realistically ever be, a world-class all of those things some kind of failure on my part? Not in the slightest, despite what my overweening ambition tries to tell me some days. I need to remind myself occasionally that most of my interests, an admittedly eclectic and unusually wide range of them, are hobbies. They’re things I dabble in or waste an evening on. They are not full-blooded pursuits.

Not devoting the full measure of time and energy necessary to master them is how I afford myself the time and energy to devote to writing. Picking one writing project over another is a way of trying to maximize what I see as the most viable projects. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong, but not pursuing every idea is simply a way to maintain sanity. So, to everyone else out there who makes themselves crazy because they can’t do it all, I tell you this…

It’s okay. No one can do it all. Everyone has that stuff they wish they could do, but can’t find the time for in their schedule. So, stop beating yourself up about living in a world with limits and work on the things that really, really matter to you. You’ll find it’s easier to look yourself in the mirror and get to sleep at night.

Finding Inspiration

Inspiration is a tricky thing. Based on what I’ve read by, heard from and discussed with other creative types, I’m pretty lucky. On the whole, I get more than my fair share of ideas and I’m usually able to see them through to a something resembling a finished product. I have not, to my knowledge, suffered writer’s block, a condition in which all writing is supposedly impossible. At worst, I’ve experienced the occasional bout of project block, where a given project is fighting me, but other writing endeavors continue to work just fine.

From time to time, though, I hit a stretch where I’m just not energetic. Everything feels like work, no matter how much I like a project. I tend to think of these stretches as my non-inspired periods. I can still write, but it’s all very cold-blooded and painfully grueling. It wears me down, which just exacerbates the problem. So, what do you do when you find yourself in these kinds of straights? You need to look outside yourself. I know that’s a pretty counter-intuitive mindset for most writers. We’re solitary beasts, roaming the prairies of the imagination like wolves on the hunt. Yet, looking outside myself has been the most effective strategy for me.

I think part of it has to do with placing yourself in a larger context. Not to be unkind to my fellow writers, but we can pretty a pretty self-involved group of people who overestimate the scope of our own issues. The truth of the matter is that there’s always going to be people who are struggling a lot harder than we’re struggling. Sometimes it’s your neighbor, and sometimes it’s a celebrity. So, to that end, I recommend the following two books. You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day and The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level (In Real Life) by Chris Hardwick. Both are readily available on Amazon and at other book selling-type places.

Wait, you say, what about (insert tragispirational memoir/biography/autobiography here)? Yes, I’m sure those are tragic/inspiring, but I assume I’m mostly talking to other creative types here. Day and Hardwick’s books both speak to those who are actively involved in the creative spheres, as well as to the geek/nerd/dork set which seems to be a nearly one-to-one with the writer set. Both Day and Hardwick talk about their struggles with mental health, anxiety, self-doubt and finding ways to continue being creative. In short, a perfect inspirational soup for the soul/world-weary creative type at low ebb.

Anytime I start feeling drag-ass about my books, short stories, and other projects, I go back to those books. They help me put my creative troubles into a broader context, to see which ones are just me being a melodrama queen (most of them) and which are actually problems that require some real attention. Most of the time, I realize that my big issue is being stuck in that awful middle phase of a project. You know the phase I’m talking about. It’s the spot where you’ve already poured a ton of time and energy into an idea, it’s nowhere near done, and you’ve got to put a ton more time and energy into it before you can show it off to people.  Yeah, that phase makes me feel tired.

That said, it’s not a real issue in terms of the work. It’s a psychological, rather than creative, roadblock. If you’re like me, though, you need something to jumpstart your perspective. I use those books to do that.

How about you all? Any tips or tricks for getting over low-inspiration periods?

Eric’s Year End Report – 2014

So, it’s been an interesting year. I set some goals earlier this year. Some I achieved, in part or in full, and some I failed to achieve. And one came out of the blue and I more or less made it happen. So, here’s the report.

I set a goal to get the new Branch novel out this year and I did it. I did it by the skin of my teeth, but I did it. Speaking of which, you should go get your copy of Rises: A Samuel Branch Novel. It’s available through your friendly, neighborhood Amazon.com in Kindle and print editions. It will be released for Nook, as well as most other e-readers, early next year.

I set a goal of getting three short stories published in magazines this year. I fell a bit short. I placed two short stories with Stupefying Stories, which is a terrific publication that you should show some love. One of my stories appeared in the August 2014 issue, which you can get here. The second story will, most likely, appear sometime early this coming year. Still, I’ll take my two placed short stories, be happy, and aim to place twice that many next year.

I had also planned on starting a podcast. I even recorded a preliminary episode that generated some positive response from the alpha listeners I shared it with. It just never quite came together. Some of it was a time issue. There are never quite enough hours in a week. Some of it was simple concern that, however good my intentions, I just wouldn’t be able to come up with enough interesting material to sustain the podcast over the long haul. The idea isn’t dead, but I’m letting it percolate a bit more before I either move forward or scrap heap it. I’ll let everyone know where I come down on that.

Another goal I had was to put together a limited run web-series. The plan was 4 episodes running 3-5 minutes each. This one really did boil down to me not having enough time commit to the project, paired up with my uncertainty that I could get the right resources in place, at the right times, to make it happen. I still want to do the series and, if Clotho, Lechesis and Atropos see fit to consent, I’d like to be announcing that the first episode is going live sometime in April. Pester me about this folks. Shame is a powerful motivator.

A goal I hadn’t set for myself, but ultimately wound up delivering on was a pretty substantive renovation of an old house. I tore out floors clear down to the joists and, in some cases, those came out too. I installed new underlayments, sanded down hardwood, put down new finish, and even helped to cut and install some tile. It was a pretty massive project that stretched out for months, but it’s all but complete now and I’m pretty proud of what I did there.

Overall, looking back, I can’t complain about this past year. There were some pie in the sky things I either didn’t get a chance to do (visit Crater Lake), or would have liked to have done but it wasn’t realistic (finish a second novel in addition to the new Branch novel).

Still, I did learn how inefficient I can be with my time. It’s a forgivable sin, I think. I’m certainly not alone in it. In retrospect, I can see how those inefficiencies contributed to my failing to reach certain goals (podcast, web series). So, right at the top of my list for next year’s goals is improving my time/self management. I’m going to take my cue from Lean Thinking and aim make persistent, incremental improvements. Some will be easy, some will be hard, but even small improvements often lead to big results. As I formulate some new goals for the coming year, I’ll keep you appraised.

Dispelling the Writer’s Block Myth

photo credit: Jonno Witts via photopin cc

photo credit: Jonno Witts via photopin cc

One of the recurring subjects in writing is the dreaded writer’s block. As I understand it, for most people, writer’s block seems to be the inability to get the work moving. The blank page or screen sits there, mocking you, until it becomes so oppressive that you walk away. Other versions, which I actually don’t think are writer’s block, include not being able to figure out where one specific story goes next or not being able to get one of the multiple ideas you do have off the ground. In my experience, writer’s block is a myth.

I’ve had moments where I couldn’t figure out what happens next in a book. I’ve had stories that never seemed to go anywhere. Plenty of false starts, unfinished novels, and bad writing in my past, but I have never experienced, in close to 15 years of amateur and professional writing, a flat out inability to write.

What I have experienced, and suspect most people mistake as writer’s block, is a lack of passion for what I’m writing. I either don’t care what happens next, wasn’t interested in the topic in first place (think informational articles on some very dry topic), or am simply having an off day.

It was never that I couldn’t write. I just couldn’t write in that fiery heat that early 20th century writer’s waxed rhapsodic about. The muse wasn’t speaking. Or, as Stephen King would put it, the guys in the basement were taking a day off. None of which impaired my basic abilities to construct serviceable sentences, reason my way through plot problems, or deliver finished work. I just had to MAKE MYSELF DO IT. You know, like going to work when you’re hung over, or tired, or just don’t feel like it.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what separates the serious writers from the dabblers. You don’t have writer’s block. What you have is a passion deficit. You can still write. You just need to accept that it’s going to feel like work that day, maybe the next day, and maybe for weeks at a time. Here’s the thing, though, the writing will get done.

More importantly, because your essential skill set hasn’t changed, it will be about as good as everything else you write. It’s just harder to do. So, stop fretting about writer’s block, stop waiting for the muse to fill you with creative fire, and start putting words on the page. Do it today.

Fear of Failure

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photo credit: zetson via photopin cc

Here’s a universal truth for you: everyone fears failure. Here’s another universal truth for you: failure is inevitable. I believe those two truths are responsible for more people not pursuing their dreams, writing or otherwise, than almost anything else.

We fear failure, rightly, because it’s emotionally difficult. Those sloppy, ill-considered, early attempts at something new don’t seem to measure up. We look at our heroes, compare our work to theirs and are struck by shame or inadequacy. We just aren’t good enough. We’ll never be that good. What the hell were we thinking even trying this new thing?

That negative self-talk leads to one inevitable conclusion. Go back to what you know. Go back to what you’re good at and never try something new again.

Of course, there is also the inevitability of failure. We go into most new things cognizant that we probably won’t succeed the first time or the second or probably even the ninth or tenth times we try. That inevitability paralyzes us because we also know, going in, that we’re going to feel like crap when we do inevitably fail.

The thing about failure is that it’s largely a matter of perspective. The first novel I tried to write…in point of fact, the first three novels I tried to write were awful. I’m talking awful on an epic scale. Aside from a few concept level things that I cannibalized for other works, there was almost nothing redeeming about those books. By my current standards, those novels were failures. The operative phrase in that last sentence is “by my current standards.”

At the time, I was writing as well as I could. From my perspective, then, those abandoned attempts at novel writing were not failures. The words I put on the page were trite, contrived, pretentious, clichéd and derivative words, but no more so than any other novice writer cutting his or her teeth. They were not failures, but learning experiences. Incidentally, if you can avoid being self-critical, all failures are learning experiences in the long run.

Since I took my first swing at novel writing, I’ve had a lot of practice at writing. If I had to take guess, I’d say a couple million words worth of practice. Practice taught me a lot. Study of the craft hasn’t hurt either. I’ve probably read tens of millions of words in the intervening years, which was a learning exercise in itself, as well as reading some excellent and not-so-excellent guides on craft. All of that has given me a very different view of what comprises good writing.

Here’s another truth, the sting of failure fades. It doesn’t necessarily fade quickly, but it does fade. The sting of regret, on the other hand, lasts for a lifetime.

Is Authenticity a Dead-End?

photo credit: Funkybug via photopin cc

photo credit: Funkybug via photopin cc

Authenticity is one of those terms that haunt creative circles. You hear about how you need to be more authentic, or find your authentic voice, or how so-and-so is so authentic. I think that authenticity is an overblown notion. After all, at our most authentic, human beings are actually pretty miserable, unbearable creatures.

Think about it, authenticity is when you strip away all of the pretense and reveal the unvarnished person. That describes people during the first 5-45 minutes they are awake. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m no bundle of kittens during my first hour of consciousness. I know this. I actively avoid engaging with other human beings during that hour because of it.

When you strip away all of the pretense, you discover the not-so-secret truth that people are flawed. They have short tempers or biases that make you uncomfortable. You discover that they’re a lot less charming in private. Authenticity is simply the revelation of things that good manners and social mores are designed to smooth over.

My hypothesis is that people don’t actually want authenticity. What they want is something that feels genuine and is consistent. Take Tom Hanks, for example. By all accounts and evidence, he is a grounded, decent human being. Those facets of his personality come through in interviews and people’s reports of private interactions with him. He feels genuine and he does so consistently.

That doesn’t mean that he isn’t cranky before that first cup of coffee. That doesn’t mean he lacks personality flaws. The exposure of those things would be authenticity. He wouldn’t benefit from that and, frankly, neither would anyone else.

Tom Cruise, by contrast, doesn’t come off as genuine. He feels authentic. The couch-jumping, Scientology, Brooke Shields and…and…and…all of it reads like someone who chooses not to hold back the things most of us do. He wears his flaws right out there on his sleeve and has been soundly punished for it in terms of public perception. The irony is that, when Cruise isn’t being authentic, he’s reportedly a nice person.

I’ll grant you, most of us don’t live under the kind of scrutiny that Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise face on a daily basis. Most of us wouldn’t ever want to live that way. The lesson, however, holds true. I may have very strong feelings about political issues and expressing them would be a blow for authenticity, but it doesn’t serve my readers to expound on my political leanings.

Holding back inflammatory or obnoxious thoughts and impulses may be inauthentic, but it isn’t a failure to be genuine. It’s an acknowledgement that some ideas are inherently divisive and have no place in a professional forum. It’s recognizing that we refrain from some behaviors for the very good reason that it’s polite to do so. Holding back those things doesn’t alter my basic personality. If I’m a curmudgeon, that will come through. If I’m essentially kind, that will come through. That is genuine and that is something to which readers can connect.

I think that maybe it’s time for us to worry less about being authentic and spent more time working to be genuine. I suspect that you’ll connect better with your audience and connect with the right audience for what you have to say.

Forget the New Year’s Resolutions – Set Goals Instead

photo credit: photosteve101 via photopin cc

photo credit: photosteve101 via photopin cc

Oh yes, kids, it’s that glorious time of year when we stayed up late to watch a disco ball drop and make outlandish promises to ourselves about all the things we’re going to do differently…this year. Uh huh. Right. Sure that’s how it’s going to happen. Like, somehow, wishing on a falling disco ball is going to magically make us stop having all those habits that prevent us from making changes the rest of the time.

Therein rests the problem with New Year’s resolutions. They aren’t resolutions. They aren’t promises. They are not vows or oaths or covenants or contracts. They have all the substance of a wish you made while chucking pennies into a fountain and about as much staying power. So, this year, I recommend that you forgot those resolutions you made and substitute in some real goals.

What’s the difference? In my experience, the main difference is that goals reflect some cognizance of your own limitations and failings and include a plan for dealing with those things. For example, a common New Year’s resolution is something like, “I’m going to start getting up early and working out to get in shape.”

This may have sounded good to you and the people you were standing with on New Year’s night, but if you find it next to impossible to drag yourself out of bed to go to work, there isn’t a chance that you’ve got the self-discipline to get up even earlier to work out. Should you quit on the idea of working out? Of course you shouldn’t, but you need to plan for it to happen at a time and place you can actually show up for.

You should forget that phrase “get in shape” or any equally nebulous phrase you used in your resolutions to describe something different. Like other nebulous phrases, “get in shape,” doesn’t mean anything in practical terms. Olympic athletes are in shape. So is the guy down the block who runs a couple miles 4 days a week.

Figure out what your goal means to you in precise terms and then figure out how to make that happen. If “get in shape” means lose 15 pounds or complete a 5K or build a six-pack, those are specific things you can achieve. You can set benchmarks and timetables and consult with experts to make that happen.

Another common one is “make more money.” This is also nebulous. How much is “more?” Ten percent? Twice as much? A million dollars? Having financial goals, particularly when they tie-in to professional goals, can be an excellent motivator, but only if you pin down specifics. Is it reasonably possible for you to double your income in your current profession/position…at least, legally? If not, you need to set your sights lower or find another avenue for bringing in additional income.

While wishing on falling disco balls might be fun, it isn’t really an effective methodology for change. It’s a wish. If what you want is change in your life, get very specific about what you’re after, accommodate your own failings to make it feasible, and create benchmarks that make sense. Goal setting isn’t wishing, it’s planning for success.