The Battle

I’ve done a lot this year. But I have done less writing than many previous years. People–even other writers–will ask “Do you have writer’s block?”

It’s not like that. I am never dry facing a blank page. That’s not the block.

The block comes way before that.

Virginia Wolfe writes beautifully about a write getting “a room of one’s own” in which to write.

I imagine that room. I have had that room. It is wonderful. This oasis of creativity, a place to form sentences and metaphors, I know it well.

If I could get to that spot, it would be glorious. But that room is fortified. I have to storm the castle to get there.

It’s a scary castle, surrounded by a moat. I can’t just waltz into that castle and skip up to the room of creativity. Oh no!

A battle is raging. The castle is inviting me, but it’s not that easy. I can’t walk directly forward unimpeded. My phone will buzz, with calls and texts and emails. Take care of those first.

And oh that’s right, I am supposed to do this paperwork the deadline is coming up. And what about the school trip?

It’s a mountain to climb to earn that room.

Steven Pressfield talks about The War of Art. How we’ll do anything to avoid the final act of creation, because it’s so terrifying.

But I did not invent these things coming at me! Every single one of them is important.

As I write this out, I am talking myself into recognition. To paraphrase, the important will always be with us.

I want that room.

Can it be important if I just want it?

Only if I decide it.

I can read stories about how other people get to the castle.

For me, I know, it takes a lot of deciding.

And planning.

It will take a while. But I want back in that room.

On how to be Polite

The awkward actor is doing a recital badly, tripping over his lines as Cyrano. All his friends are there to support him, and one literal-minded friend leans to his neighbor to say, “His performance is merely adequate. Why is everyone applauding so much?”

“It’s polite,” comes the reply.

Our thanksgiving holiday has a lot of traditions. Politeness is one.

It is also a tradition that women make the food, and women remind everyone of the traditions. Women are especially concerned with politeness.

In Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered, the authors talk about true crimes. They have a successful podcast on the topic and could not avoid noticing that women are so often murder victims. There is not an easy answer for how to protect oneself, woman or not, from murderers. But one of them told her story:

She was young, and was in the cool part of town. She met some new people, and the one guy was very interested in her dreams of acting and modeling. He told her she was a natural, and that he was a photographer. He had his equipment with him and knew the perfect spot to take her pictures.

She got in the car. I barely need to fill in the details. She did not get murdered, but she was taken to a remote spot and the photographer persuaded her to take her clothes off for the camera.

After she got back, she sobbed. This was not what she wanted. So many steps along the way she had gone against her instincts and wishes because of her overriding desire to be polite.

Polite does not deserve that primacy. Politeness does not require self-immolation.

We get to protect ourselves. Politeness can and should include “no.”

At thanksgiving, I can say no. I can politely say No thank you.”

I can impolitely say NO.

Hell No.

There are ways to do it. Politeness is not nearly as important as love, really. In my first story, the actor’s recital got applause because the audience loved him and was encouraging him.

Love holds the door open. I can say politely with love, “I don’t agree with you, but I love you. I need to talk about something different.” That leaves the door open. The other side might slam it shut. Everyone is allowed to make their choices. I’m also allowed to choose to leave if my needs are ignored.

Politeness exists in relationship. And relationship is two ways. It creates something new out of what we bring to it. Stiff self-denying politeness often ends in tears. I’ve had more than one thanksgiving that left me feeling betrayed.

I think the betrayal started with myself. When I learned to ask for what I need, it opened the gates to better outcomes. My new tradition for my loved ones is seconds on what we need.

better than true

A writer puts into words a moment in time. What happened, what she paid attention to, what she felt about it.

And when she chose to write about it, she will have the perspective of that time and place.

It’s a time capsule. Books capture history.

Books are history. History is considered to have started with the development of writing. Before we wrote it down, it was pre-history.

But where does that leave fiction? Fiction didn’t happen.

Fiction isn’t true. It’s all imagination.

Fiction isn’t science–it’s art.

There is an art to imagining a story. The people and the circumstances coming together in a way that fascinates.

And there can be failures of imagination.

We all have blind spots. Looking back, I can see how I missed the obvious. I was convinced of a certain point of view, committed to it.

With perspective I see what I did not see then.

And I see the same in famous books. What was most precious to my ancestors in the past seems limiting now. As clear as cut crystal now that the assumptions were wrong.

When I read the stories that were treasured by my predecessors, I know what comes next. I know how this led to that and how the next thing happened.

My culture is a carpet behind, a littered path of pages. A scrapbook of memories.

Remember when? They are not my stories, but the group has told and retold the stories they are like my own. I remember the plot twists and turns.

A people’s literature is how we tell each other who we are, what we wish we could do and what we want to avoid.

Every day there is a new story, or another hundred. These old ones that we all know though have special significance.

That’s why studying literature is important. Even if it is painful. It is history even if it’s fiction. Our stories tell us who we are and who we want to be. Use your imagination.

Also Mommy

Also mommy…

Why does my daughter always begin addressing me as if we are in the middle of a conversation? Her young brain must be in dialogue with me all the time.

I’m probably a bad mom since I’m always trying to get out of conversations with her. I want to be left alone, so I can use my brain for my own purposes.

For working at home, I spend a lot of time talking with other people. All those meetings, IMs, text messages and phone calls to track down whatever I’m supposed to keep track of and then I walk into my house where my daughter picks up where she left off in our conversation.

It’s not fair to give her the dregs, but I haven’t got much left after everyone else got there first.

Take a breath. Reach deep. Be nice.

All I want to do is be by myself. I microwave some food because I’m starving, and take the bowl into my own room. Let me have my thoughts to myself!

Now I feel bad and guilty for wanting to have time to myself. My acting teacher tells me there is nothing like the energy that is created between people in the same space. That’s probably true, and it would be just the sort of thing I would miss out on. My whole career is remote communication, right?

I specialize in not being the same space as other people. Suits me fine.

Just like a live concert is surely better than a recording. But I get more music in my life with all the recordings.

I am sure it’s better, but I can only do what I can do.

And I can’t do with all these people pulling on me! Can I not be in the middle of these conversations?

I had a whole conversation with myself I was trying to pick up again.

It won’t be today.

 

“Also, mommy…”
 

Thinking about life

“Every day I write the book” – Elvis Costello

Last episode of the weekly wonder I referenced a book I hadn’t finished yet. I was in chapter 21 of 26.

I’ve heard that everyone is the hero of his or her own story. My friend suggested that lives could be viewed that way. What chapter is my life in right now?

I think about this a lot:

What story am I telling?

Do I want to go where I am heading?

What are the possible directions to head?

A week does not go by that I am not poking at these questions. I’m hard on myself too. At the end of every day, I judge whether I have put the most important things in that day.

I always wish I had filled it even more full. But at the end of the day the only thing I have the capacity to do is sleep.

And I’m not even that good at sleeping right now.

Those characters in books never have to think about what they are doing. They just charge about taking action. Kiss that girl, quit that job, and take that trip. No hesitation, GO!

Almost nobody shows the thinking. Very few characters show up and show us how. Hamlet, Leopold Bloom and Mrs. Dalloway choke on it. And they are mostly famous for not accomplishing much. Too busy thinking to actually do anything.

Real life has sleeping, prep work and planning in order to do things. And doing is not even the target. I want to produce, leave a mark on the world and make it a better place for others. It feels small to me to live a life that is only for myself.

That takes planning. Boring, behind the scenes planning. Set crew to my own life. If I want something in my life I have to go hunt it and bring it in.

But somebody has to. How else is this story going to be beautiful?

Adventures and Accomplishment

 

In preparation to my recent trip to Chicago I picked up The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. Augie’s story is almost entirely set in Chicago, and I will say he sure did have a lot of adventures. I’ve followed him around through all kinds of places with all kinds of people.

 

It’s very long, and I may finally be coming in for a landing. Here in Chapter 21 of 26 it dawns on me that Augie has done a ton of stuff but not accomplished anything. All that activity for what?

Dude, you’ve got 5 chapters to turn it around and leave a mark on the world. I don’t think it’s going to happen. He’s most likely to be who he’s always been.

 

There is a big difference between adventures and accomplishments.

 

My day job is all about accomplishments. We call them Scope and Action Items. Accomplishments do not happen by accident. It takes intention and effort. And when multiple people are needed to do it, there has to be consensus on what the goal is.

 

Intention

Effort

Consensus

 

These are big expensive words. Even bigger ideas.

 

I’ve read some political books as well, large academic tomes that describe problems of sexism and racism. Big problems. The academics are full of notebooks and observation.

 

That’s one kind of effort. There is value is defining a problem. Famously, that’s the first of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

 

Those books define brilliantly specific instances and circumstances that make up the -isms. But I don’t see a plan for how to change it.

 

Just like Augie March. What are you doing with all this effort? He hasn’t put his effort into consensus with anyone else for long enough to follow through on a plan.

 

Adventures can be enough for some people. Not for me. And for anyone that wants to reshape the world more is required.

Time and Effort

 

“How many times do you plan to come to the gym a week? Which days will you come?”

That’s a loaded question. I can plan to come a lot more often than I actually will come. Still, I knew the answer: “3 times a week: Monday Wednesday and Friday.”

It felt a bit nosy for this gym employee to be asking me such a specific question, but she seemed satisfied with my answer.

“That’s fine. We have to ask this question so people don’t hurt themselves by trying to be weekend warriors.”

People can come in to the gym only on the weekend, and try to do all the exercise for the week on one day. Except it doesn’t quite work like that.

When I was studying for the exam to for Project Management, they had a saying: “You can’t get a baby three months by having assigning three mothers to be pregnant.”

Some things take time. Sometimes you can replace time with effort, and sometimes you can’t.

If time is what it takes, then putting out the right amount of effort and no more is the sweet spot. That’s why I was firm in my answer: Monday Wednesday Friday.

That was enough for me. I wanted to but in a small amount over a long time and get the reward.

I’m not always so sure of my answers. I’ve often fallen into the weekend warrior fallacy. Someone I think if I just try harder I can make up for lost time.

When time gets lost it doesn’t find its way again. I have to find new time. And I do get new time–every day is new.

I must pick what to do with each day. Because it adds up. With time, it can add up to something really amazing.

Bigger

On public transportation, and even in meetings, I see people taking up lots of space. Elbows out, bodies slanted across two lanes of chairs and knees spread far more than hip-width apart–the popular name is manspreading. But when I read Presence by Amy Cuddy 5 years ago, I decided to give it a try.

There is a particular sensation in taking up space. Taking up more than my share of space seems decadence. I wondered about my male colleagues who seem to take up space without a second thought. Do they think that that is their share? Or are they sure that the world will always give them a decadent helping?

Last night I finished In Praise of Difficult Women: Life Lessons from 29 Heroines Who Dared to Break the Rules by Karen Karbo. The women showcased were quite willing to take up their space.

They had the confidence or the drive–something or other–letting them go against the borders of what could be seen as their fair share. These 29 women were seen, heard and remembered.

Being big makes an impression.

I’m thinking of this as I return from tonight’s acting improv class. This class that lets me pretend–on so many levels–to be what I am not. The teacher coached me “You need to go bigger. The theater requires it.”

She explained that my volume and intensity were fine–if I were having a private conversation.

But I have a bigger audience. Swing for the fences!

I have been told more than once that when I am nervous I speak far more softly than normal. Like a damper took me down 3 notches. I could try it another way.

Say it loud. Show my emotions unmistakably. Make it clear what I want.

This is very practical advice for a theatrical performance. And I am holding it up against the stories of the 29 difficult women. This is how they lived. It’s how they made their mark. I am now contemplating what my various theaters require from me.

Burn it down

I tilted my head back and stared. The high ceiling was molded into deep squares, with a Soviet star in the center. I had never seen anything like it…Plaster molded with stalks of wheat and sickles–and in the middle of each square section a star. It looked like something out of a glamorous movie.
-The Russian American School of Tomorrow

I come from the land of log cabins and Quonset huts. Alaskan structures did not take the time to be pretty. They barely took time to be structures.

Log cabins and A-frame houses could be thrown up in a summer, and give just enough shelter to keep body and soul together. The niceties could be done later.

Except somehow later took a lot longer.

I was the babysitter for an A-frame house whose bedroom walls were sheets for years.

They may still be sheets.

That was a long time ago. I’ve been to cities since then–world-class cities with architecture that blew me away.

This week I went to Chicago. Standing at the window of a 16th story room I looked down at this city–the wide streets and the miles of skyscrapers. This city works.

It works. The systems fit together, the roads are big enough and the public transportation is good.

And the people work. This city sprung to life to work. It started with slaughtering animals to feed the nation, and just kept going. There are mighty unions that work, and everyone walks around with backpacks.

They asked me “How do you like Chicago?”

And when I start to rave about how beautiful and sensible this city is, they tell me “We had the good sense to burn it down. That way we could rebuild it right.”

In 1871 Chicago burned up, a fire famously started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. But it did burn. It was a big tragedy.

There have been a few times in my life when everything burned down. Not fire, but when everything I built up around me for sustenance and comfort scatters. In my mind I call them plagues.

And it’s a sad and scary time.
But it doesn’t stay that way.

Not if I keep moving. Keep working.

Like Chicago. They pulled their boots and on made plans and built it better than before. With room to breathe and drive and grow.

The fire, the destruction is not an end. It’s a chance to do it even better. So I’ll cry when I need to. But I will cry while laying bricks.

writing tools

Last week I gave a toastmaster’s speech on how to write a book. I laid out how to organize the information and how to work at it until it is done.

It was a great speech and it was well received. But I did not address strategies on how to get the actual writing done.

When people ask me how I have written a book, they often ask, “Do you have a time that you sit down and concentrate on writing? Do you get up first thing and write? How many hours a day do you spend writing?”

That’s the story, isn’t it? Getting to work, writing form 9-5 like it’s a job?

But that’s now how I work. Not usually. It’s way too much pressure to write for 8 hours a day. And also, the ideas don’t come like that for me.

I have heard of authors that do something like that. I figured I was the strange one. Aren’t I always the odd duck?

Because I find the most inspiring times to write are in the margins of my day job. Having a set of rather dull tasks to do all day leaves a portion of my brain ready to compose a story.

I just picked up Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. He spends a whole bunch of time at the start talking about his job.

His government job that he got after spending a bunch of his life hanging out with all the Transcendentalists. He illustrates beautifully how this work is extremely unchallenging, and it takes almost no thought to get it done. He was ready for mindless creature comforts after his time with Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott.

The conceit of the book is that the “finds” the story of Hester Prynne in the storage room of his job at the custom house. But he wrote it. Of course he wrote it.

And he wrote it while he was utterly secure in his life. He had lunch and dinner every day. He had a regular routine and he could have sunk into a life of napping. His coworkers certainly did.

But whatever it was that caused him to seek out Emerson in the first place kept him awake in the warm afternoons at his customs house.

His mind was not quiet. And in the gaps of his routine, out squeezed his creative work.

That makes perfect sense to me. I am not very creative when I’m worried about how my bills will get paid.