You Can’t Win

Politics.

Are you scared? Did I spook you? Did you consider closing the window and running for the most rural, brambly-bunker of Internet deadzone you could find? I don’t blame you. Maybe some of you screamed “Yesssss!” in your best Brain impersonation and flexed your fingers, anticipating the first opening to fling in a dissenting opinion. Unfortunately, this isn’t a carnival game (though it is arguably just as rigged). There is no winning, no matter how sharp your wit or how many likes your barb hooks. Unless you are at the politician on stage and your words win you the election, you’re simply talking.

In this heated election season, as in many before it, we often hear “I don’t want to talk politics.” However, this reaction is neither spontaneous nor in response to the topic at hand. Rather, it comes when we disagree, and its subtext ranges from “I don’t want to argue” and “I don’t want to say/hear this again” to “I don’t want to hear you be wrong and ignore my rightness.” The latter is the most common and least acknowledged by far.

I think the source of this sentiment, which I’m definitely guilty of, stems from entering discourse with the intent of converting the other party. We aren’t trying to hear them or their argument, we’re only letting them open their mouths to get them to swallow our answers to the problems. And we want them to do it now.

I was made aware of this when my friend Brandon told me he’d reduced heaps of conversational stress with his socially, religiously, and/or politically conservative friends by ceasing to enter into a discussion attached to the belief that he’s right, and by virtue of that rightness, needs to win. It struck me immediately that I am exceptionally competitive conversationally, which is a serious source of my dissatisfaction in social interactions. My circles are eclectic and, while comprised of overlapping shades of intellectuals, opinions, beliefs and even values stray far afield.

My circles are eclectic and, while comprised of overlapping shades of intellectuals, opinions, beliefs and even values stray far afield. This leaves the grounds of conversation fertile for disagreement. And when there’s a disagreement, it seeps into my boots like festering swamp water, irritating and chilling me, distracting me from the steps of the exchange and forcing my focus onto the discomfort of the disagreement’s presence. Discomfort stagnates if left unchecked, saturating awareness, rotting away patience, and sapping me of any desire to venture deeper into the jungles of debate.

So I stop. I sit down with the disagreement, bemoaning its existence, accusing the other of causing it, of leading us into the swamp in the first place, straying from the path of rightness I knew so well. I stop the adventure and lose the chance to learn, and ironically, ignore the fact that the other person is often in the exact some position.

This is a tragedy, not only because it can add antagonism to close relationships, but because it halts intellectual advancement. If I only focus on conversion and the absolutism of my, more truthfully, casual authority on matters, then I have enshrined my opinion as a religiously omniscient icon, and in worshipping it, cast only my shadow to the world at large. I stop seeing the rest of the picture, sacrificing perspective for a perpetual view of what I believe to be true. I may as well talk to a mirror.

I’m exaggerating just a smidgen.

And frankly, I argue with myself too, so the mirror remark reflects layers. But ultimately, the end is the same. Even when dealing with interior monologue, half of me has the inflexibility of a sugar-ramped toddler at nap time (“No” means “I’LL SCREAM SO LOUD YOU’LL DIE”). It’s the antithesis of helpful.

Opinion and belief are malleable, and should be treated as such. Expressing them should not always equate to defending and propagating them. There is a time and a place for persuasion, there are forums and foes who welcome the effort, but rarely are either found in casual conversation. Consider this if election season mires your days in strife.

Now, perhaps more than in any race in recent memory, remaining open and level can strike strife from democrat and republican couples, families, and friends. It can stop the retreat of independents, progressives, and the often ignored green partiers, from bipartisan engagements and aisle-cleaved arguments. With one internal act, one shift in how you frame and react to a situation, you can transform conflict into an opportunity to learn.

So engage, but don’t combat. Respond, but don’t rebuke. Instead of saying, “No, that’s wrong; this is right,” ask, “Did you mean X? If so, what are your thoughts on Y?” Question compassionately and earnestly, not to entrap them, but to clarify meaning. Don’t word your questions with aggressive assumption. Rephrase their statements to ensure you got their meaning. Question their logic, but don’t deride it. Evolve the conversation into an exchange. And ask them to do the same. It’s much easier to be reasonable when the person asking is also making the effort.

If you stop trying to win, stop believing in the invincibility of your rightness, you’re afforded the chance to listen, and, by application of your attention to something other than your inner monologue, the chance understand another person. That’s a chance at connection. You may only walk away with no more than your beliefs strengthened. You may realize that you were totally wrong and too beholden to soundbite factoids (and by not arguing, be spared the resentment and humiliation that typically come with that epiphany). Or you may just stroll off with more to think about. But if you approach a discussion with an open mind, detached from your often excessive conviction, you’ll rarely walk away drained and angry.

Politics don’t need to be negative. They don’t need to ruin days, friendships, families, or that dinner you finally managed to schedule and were totally looking forward to before that snide comment about the latest poll numbers. We can be better than that. If we remove competition and reclaim curiosity and civility, we won’t just survive the circus that is the US 2016–No seriously, you’re voting for who? You know they can’t win rig–Ahem. We won’t just survive the US 2016 presidential race to the top of the teetering Jenga tower we call a country, we’ll thrive as a more informed, accepting, and unified populous. So next time you hear that inner voice screech, “BUT THAT’S WRONG,” take a breath, step back and try adding pieces rather than pulling them out. We’re all stuck on the same wobbly tower. Why make a mess playing a tired old game when you could build something beautiful together?

-L.

 

 

 

The Inherent Humanity of Science

When it comes to scientists, I tend to be wary. I’ve been burned before; at the opening of my mouth I’ve mocked, derided, shut down, and dismissed too many times. When I posit possibilities, theories, or note information from any of the social sciences or humanities, they demand one thing only above all else: hard data.

When provided hard data (or soft data because to them psychology needs air quotes) they counter it. Now, that could be healthy if it wasn’t for the facts that A.) not everything is quantifiable, B.) most studies have opposing studies, and C.) the stance that an absence of “concrete” evidence proves something false is a fallacy (specifically the appeal to ignorance fallacy, a.k.a. argument from ignorance). It creates a false dichotomy implying that something without definitives has no value (hell, even moving beyond no definitives, being definitively wrong has value). The issue here is not only that that is inherently wrong, but that scientists themselves wander around in the vastness of the unknown all the time (I’m looking at you, physicists). There is far more unknown than there is known.

And this’s a good thing. Without the unknown what would we ask? How would we grow? What would be the point of questions, let alone those I just asked (seriously, this blog is like 90% questions; I’d be screwed)? Sometimes asking at all is answer enough. That’s why in today’s blog I’m asking why science is opposed to its softer side: the humanities in general, to be sure, but more specifically here, philosophy.

While I confess this is a topic that regularly inspires hand-wringing from me, whether sourced from the decline of medical bedside manner, the struggle of engineers to communicate because it’s not requisite to their degrees, or the systematic removal and/or disparaging of humanity courses in non-liberal arts degrees, I am drawn to it today by the veritable fall of a childhood hero.

I’m being hyperbolic; he stumbled. The “he” I’m talking about is Bill Nye and his minimizing stance on philosophy. In the video he not only misrepresents philosophical concepts, but he downgrades the importance of asking the questions, and more to the point, questioning the questions and the presumed answers. He tauts sensory and measurable experiences as definitive and ultimately more important than potential but unsubstantiated possibilities. Here’s the problem with that.

We know reality is subjective. Variations of experience occur with everything from memory to sensory perceptions (some people can’t feel pain, some feel too much, and others will freak out and flail like muppets if they see a spider because they’ll suddenly feel it crawling on them even though it’s across the room). But even putting subjectivity aside, if asking questions about experiences or the potential experiences of the self, the other, or even that rock over yonder is mostly empty, then why are Einstein’s thought experiments considered some of the most revolutionary feats of science to have occurred in the past two hundred years?

You could  argue that they aren’t philosophical because he quantified everything that he could, but the fact of the matter is that he could not tangibly produce the experiments in the more notable cases. What’s more, the experiments began with questions, which are the inherent and original stomping ground of philosophy. If anything, these thought experiments are the perfect marriage between science and philosophy and illustrate clearly the interwining of the two and its necessity.

Without one, the other is limited. If you remove science from philosophy, you lose the ability to have any certainty, even it’s if certainty with an asterisk (re: if I exist as I think I do, then…). If you remove the philosophy from science you not only lose morality (are we doing this because we can or because we should? what are the implications of creating this? why does it matter if we know this?), but you lose progression. Philosophy pumps necessity and possibility into science and without it, science will stagnate: a possibility some already suspect may be occurring in certain fields of physics .

For scientists to disavow philosophy is akin to orators disavowing the tongue. Science was born of a need to know, of questions we couldn’t help but ask for desparate need of an answer, and in asking these questions, eventually we formed philosophy. As our ability to ask evolved, we created methods for finding the answers, and thus science was born. However, there are questions it can’t answer yet, though the questions that still have value. Those questions are addressed and considered by philosophy, which, in the process of puzzling over them, creates new questions for scientists to answer. Sometimes asking is the answer. But many don’t see it that way. They’re only concerned with the end result, and if they can duplicate it. The only part of the method that matters is replication and accuracy.

This overly methodical and myopic view misses the connection and artistry inherent in the process. Did you not learn something merely by asking and thinking on the question? There is science in the asking and art to interpreting the answers. Neither the humanities nor philosophy are derivatives; they are not outdated remainders or lessers to science, and presuming them such is a tragedy. I grieve such assumptions. So scientists, Mr. Nye, consider this an open letter born of that grief. I’m asking you to reconsider your stance.

Philosophy and science were once the same thing. They were happy then, equally respected, like a couple with a posh surname. Things have gotten rocky since then. There have been insults and lamps thrown, the Internet Accuracy Police came to call too many times, charges were nearly pressed. But even so, I truly believe this marriage can work. I believe we can fix it. Please, Science, Philosophy, and all you little scientists and philosophers bickering about, don’t turn your back on each other. This is a family, and there’s one unifying element that can keep everyone together: We all want to know, thus we all need to ask. And at the end of the day, isn’t that enough?

-L.

 

 

 

This blog was originally inspired by another, so share the love and read it, though maybe forgive the title: Why So Many Scientists Are Ignorant

Promise

Promises were broken. Some were made to you—NaNoWriMo, post consistency, that I’d be working on the book—some were more important than that, like the promises I made to myself. This is a pattern. “Never again is what you swore the time before.” There’s an ache and a shame to the act of breaking your word that makes returning feel like the greater burden than staying away. But that’s a lie.

That’s a lie the darkness whispers to maintain your purgatory, paralyzing progressive and thoughts of escape. It makes you think you’re alone in this land of broken promises, where intention empties away into wasted days and inaction. But you’re not. I am not.

This thing we think of as a small cave is really a rather crowded cavern, a maze wandered by many, over and over, entering and exiting like lonely sleepwalkers, blind to the camaraderie around them. Sometimes we know how we tripped fell into this rocky abyss, sometimes we know we were pushed, and sometimes we just reach out one day and stop seeing our hand in front of our face and realize that “I will” became “I didn’t.” But regardless of how we got here, whenever we arrive, we know it. We know it like a headache, impossible to recall until it hits.

We recognize the scent, the cold clamming-bite of the air in our lungs, and the pitch that prevents us from finding the exit sign. This place goes deeper, it echoes in the spaces beneath the Dark Playground. Here, you don’t dally for a day; this is where months go to die, where depression festers like mold and years have their joys eroded the stagnant waters of “But you promised…”

Artists, and notably among them, writers, people this place more often than most. Personally, I’ve divided my last decade between it and the world at large, but as time goes on I’ve started learning the curves of the walls, the stones on the paths, and the echoes to the outside. I’ve started realizing where I tripped, the distance I fell, and steps back. And I’ve learned what keeps me there.

Fear of failing to escape, fear of returning to the undone, much like with procrastination, stops me from acting. But that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I don’t try, I can never leave, I can never fail again, I can never do anything. And that’s why I called this place a purgatory. It’s circles within circles, fears chasing anxieties chasing failures chasing fears. No one wins. Nothing happens. And having stumbled upon this idea, chiseled it in the stones to remind my fingers everytime they find it in the dark, my stays have been briefer. As a result, I’ve realized that backward thinking (what did I do wrong? what should I have done? what would have happened if I had done this instead of that?), obsessive afterthought (why did I do that? why didn’t I do that? why am I here again?), and reflection (what’s the cause? what do I need? what’s the plan? who am I as a result?) have hard limits.

Wishful thinking cannot unbreak a promise. It cannot write a novel or fill yesterday with checked off chores. Ultimately, in regard to the old lists of undone, after you understand them, the only fruit those thoughts bear is guilt.  But seriously, of what am I guilty?

Processing familial conflicts, renovating a relationship, spending time with my 99-year-old grandmother and a brood of neices and nephews, experiencing new things, editing someone else’s book, attending to self-care, and curling as much affection as I could muster about the needs and broken body of a 14-year-old  dog who nonetheless died two weeks ago. I was living. So why the fuck do I feel guilty?

If I had only worked, successfully ignoring everything else, gotten stories published, poems printed, books pitched–would I be happy? In some ways, I likely would be. But I would’ve purchased that progress at the cost of connection. Is one more important than the other? Do I have to choose? No. But I do have to accept the choices I made. So, yeah. It sucks that I didn’t succeed in weaving the patterns and cementing the rituals that will carry me towards the me that can do both. It eats at me that I didn’t follow the plan. That I didn’t plan better. That I didn’t have more control. That I didn’t—

Do you see how pointless that is? Seriously, what the fuck is lamenting going to do? Make me regret showing up to more birthday parties of loved ones than in any year past? Encourage me to bemoan my emotional growth? Taint my accomplishments? Insist I resent the people and things that matter beyond a passion for prose or drive for industry? Fuck. That. Noise.

Sullying life in hindsight is toxic and you need to stop it. I need to stop it. You have zero control now over what you did two seconds ago. It is past and permanent. You can’t go back and tilt your head left instead of right. You can’t unread these words. You aren’t a Time Lord, and even if you were, you can’t just go mucking about all over your own timeline until you’re satisfied. Particularly because, laws of space and time aside, you’ll never be satisfied. There is no perfect day. And least of all if you’ve spent it only looking back and lamenting.

All of your power lies in the present, in this moment and the chain of choices that carries you into the next. I’m choosing to type these words; you’re choosing to read them (or stop abruptly out of spite, urged by petty issues with the authority inherent in 2nd person narration. Lookin’ at you Alix).

So here’s the bottomline: Stop feeling guilty for living life. Now I know some of you are probably like, “Yeah, easy for you to say. You were being productive and taking care of shit and loving on people!” Yep. But do you know what I was doing in between all those perfectly understandable things? Watching copious amounts of tv, smoking, talking, ignoring health problems, crying, couching, procrastinating, fiddling with “display” (no, no really) action figures, making messes, cleaning messes, making more messes, reading, and yes, even writing a little. Still sound productive?

Look, I want to say I wasted time. I want to say I wasted  a lot of time. But I need to stop myself because that isn’t true. Every second was an experience, a lesson, rejection, confirmation, surprise. Every second was a chisel strike sculpting who I am. And the resulting chips and cracks are just as important as the smooth edges and inviting curves. I can use each to fuel not only my art, but my progress as a person, as my progress as a creature just fucked up enough to be alive.

Without the trials of the past few months, without the poisonous thoughts bouncing off the walls of that purgatory of broken promises, without the whispering dark, this post wouldn’t exist. You’d be elsewhere and so would I. And neither of us can say whether or not that would be better. Neither of us even knows what better is. But I do know one thing for certain.

Nothing is wasted unless you let it be. Not time, not loss, not pain, not even regret. No action is empty unless you hollow it out. So yes, we should write. We should improve. We should work and learn to tango and become polyglots. We should craft patterns and consistency that help us rather than hinder us. But we should never regret the living that happens in between.

-L.

Procrastination, Missteps, Monkeys, and Momentum

I need to do it, but I don’t want. I should do. I’m going to do it. Lemme just finish/start/lookit/listen to one more show-game-movie-post-blog(hi)-article-chapter-poem-song-video-clip. No really, just one more and then I’ll totally…not work.

Ahh, procrastination. Midterms loom, NaNoWriMo swells, colds catch, and the will withers. It must be November. As a writer, chronic academic, and person plagued with a petri dish of family members, I feel your pain. I’m not sick yet (‘yet’ being the operative word; they cough everywhere, the air is a minefield, every handle a tripwire, and every coworker leaving early an enemy surrendering to the feeble cause of my healthiness, though parents, nieces, and nephews are against me…coughing…always coughing). I get it. I mean, I started this blog on the 6th, then the 9th, then again the 12th (because apparently I’m into multiples of 3), and now the 16th. Seriously, though procrastination is a plague, particularly given NaNoWriMo.

I mean, c’mon: We’re on Day 16. That’s over halfway done and I’ve fallen more than a bit behind. According to ye olde desktop calculator, if I were writing 1,667 words a day I would be at 26,672 by midnight tonight. I’m not even in the neighborhood. If 26.6k can buy us a white picket fence, green my grass into an actual lawn, and give me a porch to view it from, then our paltry 6k (of actual story, not the behind-the-scene research, plot, and structural bits), plants us on a dirt patch with a wobbly umbrella. At least We’re not going to get sunburned…in Colorado…in November? Whatever.

You know what? I’m actually okay with it. I knew the start was going to be slow and rocky, and right now my personal life, and the personal lives of way too many people close to me are in turmoil for a shockingly diverse and unrelated number of reasons. The universe is out of whack. Familial conflicts and responsibilities, domestic chores, illness, social commitments, day job drudgery, sleep deprivation, depression, global tragedies, and relationship woes have sapped all my time and will pushing me into procrastination’s janky playground. I’ve argued more words this week than I’ve written in the last month. But shit happens. Life happens. We carry on. We get shit done. And we get the fuck over it.

So, be honest. How angry did that last bit make you? I’m hoping for “pissed off” or at the very least “rebuffed.” Dismissive statements like “Shit happens,” “Carry on,” “Just do it,” “Get over it,” “Try harder,” etc. are one of my ugliest, snarliest and least house-broken pet peeves bred in the amateur (and sometimes professional) advising community. Those statements completely minimize and dismiss the complexities of life and individual struggles and circumstances. So while bucking up may be a viable solution for some, for the rest of us, it’s simply offensive. There so many reasons why we fail to work and often they form patterns unique to each of us. Once we realize they’re there, the obvious question then becomes: How do we break them?

Well, first you identify the pattern’s pieces and consider what causes them, why you default to them, and what you could do instead. I’d like to get more specific than that and really nitpick at the grit of self-improvement and the cultivation of personal sagacity, unfortunately, the fact that, as aforementioned the patterns are somewhat snowflaky and unique, means addressing everyone’s personal pathways to self-destruction in one blog is out (that said if you’re interested in my advice, feel from to comment or email me, and we’ll see what happens). Instead, we can examine the most tangible and familiar effect of all those distinctive, destructive patterns: Procrastination (re: why we don’t do).

Procrastination, as defined by the original Webster’s is “The act or habit of procrastinating, or putting off to a future time; delay; dilatoriness.” Check that synonym: dilatoriness. I can’t handle it out loud. I mean, I know the root, but that’s a cumbersome bugger to tongue. Anyway. Procrastination: tomorrow’s problem. But it’s not really, is it?

When we procrastinate, we’re actually taking part in psychological self-harm. Whether we want to do the thing we’re putting off in the long run or simply must because of external commitments (school-work-family-promises-to-time-thieving-friends), when we avoid it, we create a mental weight that pressures our awareness. This weight crushes half of the joy out of whatever we’re doing when we should be doing something else. The weight increases with every passing moment until you’re pinned beneath it in a purgatory of pissed and panic. So why do we do this to ourselves?

Well, a while back, M. K. Darcy  gave me two magnificent articles on procrastination. They’re actually by the same person (Tim Urban) and connected. The first focuses on why and the second looks at how to beat it (spoiler: brick by brick. Seriously, don’t build a wall; lay a brick). You should really read these articles in full (yes, they’re lengthy, but if you read them you can bask in the irony of procrastinating by reading articles on procrastination and  learn a something or two), but the main reason I bring them up is because of Urban’s catchy concepts and telescopic metaphor for procrastination and its pieces.

First we have the Rational Decision-Maker (RDM): This is the voice in your head who knows what you have to do, when you have to do it, and how to do it. This is also the voice that nags you when you aren’t doing it, and swears at you when you continue to not do it. The RDM thinks of life in the long term and knows to the best of her ability what will make you happy not just now, but continuously.

Then there’s the Instant Gratification Monkey (IGM): This is the Facebook-YouTube-Twitter-Netflix-Text-Phone-Dogwalking-Paperclipflicking-Anythingbutworking child-brain that makes grabby hands and shiny desu eyes at anything that isn’t your current work. The IGM thinks solely in the now, never glancing back or further the road, and thus, shouldn’t steer your course. Unfortunately, he’s a monkey, so he’s great at grabbing the wheel.

This odd couple is stuck together, driving your brain through the Dark Woods, trying to navigate the perilous nature of doing. At the end of the road RDM sees completion, but alongside it, IGM sees the delights of distraction dancing around the Dark Playground. Naturally IGM drags RDM, and you along with her, into the playground. Here’s the unfortunate part: you can’t really have fun here. This is the place where that aforementioned weight hops on your back (…a lot like a monkey) and crushes your joy along with your vertebrae, forcing you to pony it around to booths with riveting games like “Build a Small Fort Out of Pens,” “Smile Vaguely at the Cat Video that Wasn’t as Amazingly Adorable as the Title Promised,” and the ever-popular “Keep Hitting Refresh on Facebook at 3:15 AM Because Everyone Will Surely Be Posting Soon.” With each booth the weight gets heavier as IGM gathers more prizes and eats more crap carnival food. Your guilt grows and your wallet empties of spoons (re: Spoon Theory  or tl;dr spoons are essentially energy).

So what do you do? How do you break the cycle? To be honest, breaking it once you’re in the Dark Playground is hard, really hard. You’re hemorrhaging energy, you feel guilty, you’ve psychologically berated yourself for hours, and you’re likely almost out of time to do the task. But you can do it. Depending on what it is and the time you’ve allotted yourself, you may not be able to finish it, but you can at least start it. How? Try to do it for 1 minute. That’s it. 60 seconds of work. See what happens. Often times once you’ve made the hard call to drop the IGM, and gotten over the fear embedded in the idea of work, you’ll start to gather momentum. This momentum has the magical ability to give you spoons back, ease your breathing, and minimize the weight of the task. Yes, you still have to do it, and yes, there’s a lot to do, but now you’re doing it, so it’s not that scary. This is because the first step to failing is not trying, and so by starting, you’ve sucker punched the voice that says “You’re bound to fail, so why bother?”  You’re making progress.

By challenging yourself to 60 seconds of work, you also sneak productivity into the ADHD roulette roster of the IGM. He’s constantly switching tasks anyway, so he’ll hardly notice if you say you’re going to do something boring for 60 seconds because he assumes he’ll have the wheel again afterward. In my experience, he’s usually wrong about that. But the best part of your newly achieved forward momentum is that its force flings the little monkey, who naturally failed to buckle up, to the back of the brain, letting RDM drive unimpeded.

Hooray! Victory in the moment! Cue the kazoo solo! We’re back on course. But that only addresses how to stop procrastinating once we’ve started, doesn’t it? So how do we beat procrastination before it happens?

Obviously there’s no one-size-fits-all-monkeys solution. That said, the closest to universal monkey-leash I’ve encountered is the use of planning and routines. When you break down what you have to do into pieces, into the smallest, most base parts, from L. Alexandra down to L. Alexandra’s big toe’s atoms, you’ll find things to be much more manageable. Jot down a list, or better yet, do a mind map. Start with the core goal (ex: NOVEL) then branch out to the nearest necessary and related concepts (ex: Characters, Plot, Research). Here’s my initial mind map for NaNoWriMo:

nanwrimomindmap

What do you do first? Well, what is the most pressing part of the task? What needs to be done before anything can be worked on? If all things are equal there, then what do you feel most passionate about? Do that first. And when you finish it, cross it off. Urban notes that lists can be a double-edged sword, but he and I both agree that they’re still necessary.

Organization aside, the simple act of crossing things off gives you a lovely jolt of dopamine and a sense of accomplishment. It can also help you gauge what you’ve done in comparison to what you still have to do, and thus makes a lovely visual representation of your progress. However, be careful when writing your To Do lists. You need to be very specific. Make one list per task. Don’t put grocery shopping, book writing, house cleaning, and planet saving on the same list. Each of those tasks has individual steps and very different needs associated with it. So separate the tasks, figure out which is your priority, then break it down and prioritize again.

My preference is to use the Passion Planner  (if you share it on social media you can download a printable version for free), which has a stacking-doll-esque system for layering your priorities by the year, month, week, and day. It’s amazing for clarity and also lets you bypass having to develop your own system, which always seems like a good idea until you try it. The image of my mind map above is actually from my Passion Planner’s November calendar. While you obviously don’t need to use the Passion Planner if it doesn’t jive with you, I do recommend finding a system or organizational tool that does. Throw some method in with your madness and you’ll be amazed how quickly your habits can change (disclaimer: still working on sticking to those changed habits myself). Brick by brick we can build this wall-novel-betterself. And make no mistake, this is, ultimately, regardless of the task, about the self. It’s about you and why you do things.

The answer to why we procrastinate is a complex one, but basically it comes down to fear of failure. As I mentioned before, if we don’t do the thing, then we failed because we didn’t do it, not because it wasn’t good enough, not because we weren’t good enough. Now, admittedly, this applies more to why we procrastinate on work that requires concentrated mental or physical effort (writing, arting, doing taxes, creating a professional presentation, training for an event) rather than things like taking out the trash or reading that chapter for history. In the case of the latter two, we procrastinate because we just don’t want to do it. But given I’m a writer (particularly this month) and we’re supposed to be talking about NaNoWriMo (you thought I forgot, didn’t you?), I’m focusing on the former situations.

So how do you best the fear of failure? Change your mental script. You aren’t going to fail to write a novel. You only do that if you don’t write a novel. If you don’t complete it this month? That’s cool. Seriously. Take a breath and ask yourself: Why do I have to finish my novel during this arbitrarily selected month of November? What will happen if I don’t? Did I accidentally put my address into the NaNoWriMo release form thereby providing the means for the Novel Police to hunt me down and extort my back owed prose? No? As I said before: Cool. Novels take time. Setting goals for yourself is healthy and often productive, but beating yourself up and throwing out insults like a schoolyard bully is not (I’m talking to you, RDM. At least the monkey is nice).

Learn to accept your missteps with grace. Examine them and reflect on why you stumbled in the first place. Did you overestimate your time? Did you underestimate the difficulty of the subject? Did life jump out of a dark alley, shank you thrice, then root about inside for spare kidneys? Why did these things happen? What can you learn from them? How can you apply those lessons going forward? What I’m saying is this: Be mindful. Pay attention to your choices and act deliberately. Intuiting isn’t a bad thing, but when you lose awareness of it you often lose perspective, and avoidance of biology homework because you struggle to pronounce the vocabulary even though you understand the concepts morphs into a mantra of “I’m too stupid for this class.” By being mindful you can find the true source of complications and with a bit of work, their solutions. This allows you to be kinder to yourself. If you’re aware of your problems and their roots, you can work on them instead of judging yourself for their existence and avoiding them, both of which are negativity that you really don’t need in your life. Seriously, be kind to you. You’re the only you you’ve got. If you constantly harp on what you haven’t done or failed to do in an aforementioned arbitrarily designated amount of time, you won’t have the spoons left to do anything, let alone drum out the thing you want.

Life happens. Procrastination happens. But somewhere in between, so does progress. So be mindful of it and you’ll find yourself not only more prepared to push on, but less broken by the occasional fall. Now, I don’t know about you, but I really should be writing…

-L.

She’s baaaaack…

It’s been over a year, and let’s be honest, you thought I was gone for good. If you didn’t, you’re likely a new reader. Either way, I’m back. Life happened. Relationships, work, stress, personal revelations, and graduation swirled together into a perfect storm of distraction that devastated my already shabby shambles of commitment. But hey, I rebuilt and I’m gearing towards a life theme of commitment and integrity.

In particular, I’m attempting this with my writing. This month, though it’s possible I’ll continue my analysis of other works, I’ll primarily be focusing on my adventure as a first-time participant in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month; yep, they gave it a whole month). I’ve never written a novel before, I haven’t even attempted it and failed, which is weird because there are a few dozen dancing about the dark alleys of my brain (waltzing primarily).

The one whose dancing shoes I’m sacrificing on this autumnal altar happens to be co-authored by the lovely, ineffable Charles Llyr. He’s benevolently set aside his own projects to work on this with me. What “this” is, is going to be kept under wraps for now, however, the lessons learned during its conception, creation, and subsequent birth will be published here.

In an effort to pretend to be professional, I’ve skittered the web, hunting for other accounts of first-timers taking on the gauntlet of stress, impending daily-deadline doom, and creative contortion, but ultimately, what I found was mostly mock advice (re: silly buzzfeed-esque meme lists that have zero instructive value and barely provide basic entertainment [can you feel my contempt?]), other blogs posting Eeee! and flail-ridden first-time accounts of joy not yet spoiled by disillusionment, first-timer blogs well-spoiled by the disillusionment of peers in advance (I think I’ll fall into this category), and actual advice for first timers. Of the actual advice, Chuck Wendig’s blogs, which I will undoubtedly continue to reference, cite, and laugh at like Puck at the punch bowl (just think about that for a second) were some of the most beneficial.

This one, on why you should do NaNoWriMo, or conversely, why you shouldn’t, is great for perspective.  One of the big things he stresses in it is that every pace, style, and goal is different and a writer shouldn’t blame themselves if this (NaNoWriMo) isn’t theirs. That said, doing NaNoWriMo and finding that out the hard way can still be beneficial.

We learn best through struggle. Honestly, for me, the struggle is commitment and consistency, i.e. writing every day. I’m far less concerned with the word count, which I’m fairly certain we can hit, or having a complete novel, which isn’t likely for most people battling their way to the glistening 50k at the summit of Mt. NaNoWriMo. Even if you do crest the peak and plant your flag, the 50,000-word minimum is on the anemic side of the average novel size. And I’m fine with that. You should be too. Rushing a novel isn’t a great idea, but denting the workload in a month is lovely.

With that in mind, for me, for us, this is a challenge to begin the legitimate book writing process. So where are we in that process right now? Well, when Charles was out here (read as: the mysterious mountain which I patrol with a territorial fervor) last month, we were supposed to plot and plan. That didn’t happen, but I did finally see all of the Evil Dead movies, discover the Steam game Town of Salem, and show him the criks and crannies of my mountain, so…there’s that. Basically, what I’m saying is that we’re at square one and a half. We have our main characters, we have personalities 3/4th baked in the oven, we have a general concept of an antagonist, and a vague idea of the primary conflict. We have…not a lot.

But “not a lot” is still a hell of a lot more than nothing. And that’s something I urge all you writers, and really, all of you doers of any kind, to remember as you work. If you have something, anything, you’re ahead of the curve. You are a few miles passed the people who haven’t even gotten around to starting, and leagues further than those who never will. That’s why I think the most important part of NaNoWriMo is a consistent application of time and effort.

My minimum goal for each day isn’t 1,667 words as recommended, but rather one hour of work. It’s Day 5 right now and I’ve averaged 2 to 3 hours a day. To clarify, our time spent isn’t solely on writing, but also on plotting, discussing, brainstorming, researching, reviewing, noting, and reading for inspiration. Our actual word count at present is 3,722 written since the month started for the ‘actual’ story, 526 written in characterization prep, 10,096 of story written from back when we started this project in December 2014, and then 3,555 words of brainstorming. It’s spit in a bucket compared to the 50,000 words of an actual novel (not counting all the necessary preppy bits and plotting pieces) mandated by the NaNoWriMo gods, but 50,000 is about 50,000 words, 10 drafts, and 3 editors short of an actual novel too so whatever. It’s all perspective.

Our goals is simply to work every day of November and walk away with experience, a clearer idea of where we’re going, and hopefully a healthy chunk of novel-hind to tide us over until Spring when all the little novelettes go frolicking in the fields and are fresh for the poaching. Now I want fried paperback. Sigh. Er…That metaphor got away from me.

Anyway!

NaNoWriMo: What are your goals? What are your worries? What are your quandaries? Are you tackling this thing? Wrestling it? Tangoing? Fencing? Challenging it to an ikebana duel to the death at dawn? Have you done it before? Let us know how it went! Do you have any questions you want us to look into? Ask! We’ll be here. And just to confirm, I (L. Alexandra the illustrious and over-caffeinated), am writing this, but I’ll be passing on the posts and comments to Charles as well. He may even do a guest blog (I haven’t told him this, so right about now he’s probably overcome with that creeping clutch of dread around the necky bits of his spinal column. Hi, Charles! Smile for the camera ;] )! With that, I’ll leave you with a few more helpful NaNoWriMo links.

The Official NaNoWriMo site

Plotting Last Minute: The Hailstorm Approach

Stuck? Are you being true to the story?

And more from…

Terrible Minds//Chuck Wendig

Dos and Don’ts

The Good, The Bad

P.S. As I go, I’ll be slapping some lipstick on this blog, maybe some strappy stilettos and a toolbelt, so check back on old posts for the prettified-version of things. In other words, there will be potentially-fancy pictures, more links, functional and full header sections and all those other flashy signs that say I take myself seriously, but not too seriously.

-L.

The Meta Self

If you knew someone else was going to read your confession, would you edit it? How honest would you be about your boss’ unwanted affections? Your lover’s crippled self-esteem and neediness? Your mother’s dwindling intellect?  Your father’s inability to understand or accept? Your own bodily failings, the feeling of being betrayed by your own skin? Would ego raise you up, or would guilt slam you down? How reliable is your diary? How aware are you of its fallacies? How aware are you of the fact that your entire  aesthetic taste in men stems from the moment when a handsome, black-locked and goatee’d family friend gave you a teddy bear when you were five? Do you remember that your hatred of pomegranates is only because years ago, on your first encounter, you couldn’t figure out how to eat them? Or that your father’s “lack of support” began with one missed soccer game, a far cry from him always missing things, though that’s what the story quickly became. Are you feeling self-conscious yet? I am. Things change, people change, when others are watching. When people know their words might carry beyond themselves, be it in a diary, they begin to rethink and reword. Now just imagine what it would be like if your paranoia extended beyond parents and nosey roommates, imagine exposing those Dear Diary declarations to the world. Imagine you accepted the dizzying task of distilling that diary for anyone with desire to buy or borrow it (we’re gonna skip over the ‘steal’ option because stealing books is wrong, mmk?) to get ahold of on a whim. Even though I’d love to wring out my superego, id and all the ego in between all over a reel of paper, the concept of committing to a memoir rather than babbling into the eyes and ears of the willing/unsuspecting kinda…freaks me out. Mostly it’s the organizational element, the winnowing down of all the weird, wonderful, and woebegotten bits of past that are branded MINE in big gaudy, dragon’s blood letters (complete with a tiny TM). That’s why I’m in awe of Alison Bechdel and the titanic endeavor that was her attempt to come to terms with her father, and likely, herself.

The award-winning, and ever-captivating Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, is so meticulously crafted of chronicled particulars that it’s almost impossible to question Bechdel’s veracity. At least, it’s almost impossible on the first read. By the third, queries creep out of the cracks of her colossal family home, compelling you to come closer and claim, if not answers, at least a taste of insight for the asking. What were her goals in writing the novel? How did she go about accomplishing them? How fair were her efforts? As always with literary analysis, we’re going to make some assumptions about the authors intentions, or if you prefer, disregard their actuality and insert our own from the evidence provided.

In so far as I can tell, Bechdel’s conscious goal was predominantly to pick apart her relationship with her father through the lenses of gender identity, sexuality, literature, and the hierarchy of power inherent in the parent/child dynamic. That said, I think there was a secondary goal of controlling that relationship and utilizing its new form to actively accept her father and the past. It’s this element of control that intrigues me the most, and which I feel is under-addressed in critiques of Fun Home.

When dealing with issues that are traumatic or emotionally charged, we have a bad habit of filtering them through our initial reaction. This leads to increased bias and weakened objectivity. However, if we record the issues in the moment or shortly thereafter, then return later (the greater the temporal distance the better) the more insight and understanding we can gain. In this regard, Bechdel shines due to her “own compulsive propensity to autobiography” (140). The access to and inclusion of records, letters, and photographs, along with her own copious documentation lends trustworthiness to her account. Even when she confesses that her entries became unreliable at a certain point, the very act of confession cements our trust in her reliability, as does her regular questioning and theorizing about the events rather than delineating them as capital T truths. She is discovering her past with us.

Yet, this is a false sense of security vested in our narrator. She’s not only lived that past, but spent seven years honing it into the version we’re now able to read. She chose every image, scene, and word within the book. And my, what words she chose: Libidinal, dishabillie, Icarian, intertextual, Saturnalia, monomaniacal, legerdemain, blithely, curatorial, aesthete, simulacrum, sluiced, gallic, percussive, onomatopoeic, painterly, multivalent, doleful, discomfited, redolent, humectant, milieu, conflated, cartilaginous, postlapsarian, maudlin, bathetic, deracination, erasure, lacunae, divagations, obtunding, and taxonomic. Indeed, it is her taxonomic process that initially daunts many readers. She does not hide her literary background, nor does she flaunt it. The prevalence of her language is consistent throughout, preventing that pretentious air from seeping into the gaps that would have been left by picking and choosing her vocabulary to make it more accessible. Her chosen words, when used in context, don’t strike you like a backalley-suckerpunch, but rather, they lure like exotic perfume, guiding comprehension and enhancing the stimulation of a moment. Each is ultra-specific, honed with exacting purpose, providing a meaning that a dozen words could not in its stead. These are the words that linguists live for. Why serve up a sentence (or several) on the obsessiveness of her father’s renovations, reaching to explain how they were limited to the confines of altering, restoring and decorating the house when she could simply refer to the endless act a monomaniacal? The right tool for the right job, as they say. But does she have too many tools? Does her expertise belie her confidence?

I wonder at her precision. Does she not trust her readers to understand her meaning in plainer terms? While it is certainly possible that she’s simply over-accustomed to such language, I believe her efforts to be more telling than that. By providing us with words whose accuracy and scope are acutely limited, Bechdel—assuming the reader has dictionary access from time to time—increases the odds that her points will be made clearly within the context she intended. But such controlling tactics delve behind her linguistic self-assurance and hint at insecurity with her topic. Let me be clear that this is not a criticism. The subject matter she’s wrestling with reveals her bravery in her very vulnerability. That said, it also highlights her need to possess it. Word choice is just one of the methods she uses to do this. Another is the choice of memories displayed in the novel.

Think about a parent. A best friend. A favorite toy. Now think about your relationship with them/it. How many memories surged to the surface? Could you even tell one apart from the next? If you were going to tell someone else, someone who knew nothing about you, about that intimate relationship, what would you share? Figuring this out was part of Bechdel’s task. Rather than approaching it in a linear fashion, she told the story with fluidity, slipping in and out of timelines, examining subjects along the synaptic chains that fired at their mentioning. This gave the work a holistic feel, for few, if any of us, remember chronologically. While the lack of a linear timeline might frustrate some, for me, it adds a scope and realism to the work, letting it revolve around central issues rather than seek a narrative path. It’s a strong form for contemplation and conveyance of anecdotal stories.  However, on subsequent readings, when the stories are less engrossing than the how and why of them, we can peel apart the process. What made her choose those memories? Which did she leave out? Why?

While pondering this, I watched her unfolding and refolding of her enigmatic father in the turns of his passion and his wrath, across the peaks of their connections, and the valleys between them. He is not centered in a particularly flattering light. If anything, the shadows of his humanity succeed more in vilifying him, even as she moves to extrapolate why he was the way he was. It was then that it struck me, a strange notion. Bechdel notes numerous times throughout the novel that looking at things through literary lenses creates a more visceral reality for her than unfiltered memory. She even states that “[her] parents are most real to [her] in fictional terms” (67). Due to this, I believe that by crafting a literary reality in which her father’s faults were at their most exposed, Bechdel built a world in which she could forgive him, because she could finally see. However, she did not leave him defenseless. Rather, with all the information she could compile, she attempted to defend him to a degree, rationalizing, though not quite justifying, his failings and flaws by stressing the prison of his own repression, which spawned them. This is self-editing for a noble cause: understanding. That said, there’s a secondary side-effect to Bechdel’s cathartic, mnemic collage.

By offering a foreign audience a deeply personal story, geared at coming to terms with a man we do not know outside of her portrayal, she manages to do her father a disservice. While she knows the whole story and reads the subtleties of his actions with clarity, we do not and cannot. Thus, near the end of the book, when a family friend mentions how weirdly close Bechdel and her father are as they play a piano duet (225), it’s nothing short of jarring. This is the first time in the entire novel, not seven pages before it ends, when we see true, familial intimacy between them. I have no doubt that there were other bonding moments before this, even if only a few, others beyond mere intellectual camaraderie, but they are not provided to us. As such, Bechdel, who lived the life and knows what’s missing from the memoir’s pages, puts herself in a position to forgive her father, without affording all readers that same luxury. Though, I doubt if she intended for us to feel that need in the first place, as ultimately, this story belongs to the Bechdels.

Whether she was moved to grapple with the impossible in the wake of tragedy, seek meaning in the senseless, or was simply thinking out loud is neither clear nor the point. Who’s to say that she was even sure of her purpose or that she needed to be? Earlier on whilst examining her childhood journaling she asked, “How did I know that the things I was writing were absolutely, objectively true?” (141). As always, I err on the side of asking over knowing. Questions lead us and unmask our thoughts. Thus, what matters most is not what was revealed, but the fact that she asked at all.

The Self

Lately, I’ve found myself awash in waves of nostalgia, warped by the fog of years. I began writing this on my birthday, sitting alone in a hotel bar, soaking in a beer-bolstered Aussie’s insistent conversation several seats away. Normally I’d have been irritated by forcefulness with which he asserted his sense of self on the room at large, but it was a good day and the raucous regaling felt àpropos for whatever reason. A short while before I took up my notebook, my parents had gone back to their room, leaving me, per my request, to drink in the atmosphere. Behind the Aussie, at the nearest table, a demur older couple spoke in veritable whispers. The bartender, in her overtly traditional dress shirt, black vest, and bowtie smoothly slid in and out of various groups, her comments offering a tempo to the room. So many stories. It lulled me as much as it invigorated me. I felt at home, nestled in the words of strangers. Yet I wasn’t really listening to them. The conversations coalesced into calming white noise, covering my conscious mind and letting it drift. I thought about my childhood, the birthdays that brought me to that one.

I don’t remember many of them, or much of the life led between them. The surreality of that had struck me before, that I could have forgotten so much of my own life. It unnerved me how frail my memories were, how malnourished. Perhaps that’s why I’d been speaking with my parents about our old house in California, reflecting on how there were only a handful of spaces in it that I recalled. It became a corny sitcom parody after a while: I’d say where one was in relation to the other and they’d correct me at the punchline. But I could’ve sworn that your bedroom was at the top of the stairs…There was a hall? Seriously? What do you mean we didn’t have a sitting room? The bathroom? I don’t remember…I can’t recall. How much have I lost? How accurate is what I retain? I tell the story about the fireplace. I know the fireplace. There was an elaborate and brilliantly successful Santa Claus hoax when I was four, involving hooves on the roof, leather gloves, soot, and mostly eaten cookies. I get its location right, but I wonder…how much has the story changed with each retelling? They say that memories solidify with rumination and visitation. Each look back etches the image deeper, enhancing and strengthening synaptic pathways. Each look back recreates the memory of who we were and our understanding of who we are.

As a child, I didn’t stop. There was too much. Too much everything. Energy. Time. World. I had to keep going. I couldn’t stop and look back at the footprints when the path pulled me forward. So I left them to the wind, allowing my past to be swept away unexamined.  It grieves me. I feel like every footstep, every moment is a lost self, a child abandoned to the wilderness of time. Yet it wasn’t until recently that I’d even noticed. Only during the last few years have I reflected and contemplated on events as they came and after they’d gone. Maybe if I journaled more it would help, or would have. I never really managed to maintain a diary, as the concept turned out to be more enticing than the act. I’ll record everything! That’s what people do, right? I’ll be so deep…memorable. I’ll save me forever…what should I write? Maybe…um…I wonder what’s on TV… I bought at least a dozen diaries from age eight to fourteen, and not a one has more than ten scattered, forced, and meager entries. Not only was I not yet a writer or even intrigued by the profession, I was too explosively extroverted in youth to manage the thoughtful, or at the very least patient, dedication requisite for self-chronicling. I’ve always wondered how others managed it, and whether or not it really is the key to keeping ahold of the past. For many memoirists, that seems to be the case.

The memoir is a tricky subgenre of nonfiction, made mischievous by its flexibility. How honest an author is, how creatively they stretch their literary license is up to them (though some experts disagree). Tug too hard, or take it too far, turning verifiable facts into falsehoods, and you might be at risk of relocation to the fiction section. Quote too much direct dialogue and some literati will eye you with suspicion for no memory is that perfect, while others will argue for the necessary evil. Every memoir comes with a choice, a question of how to balance what happened with what makes for a compelling story. Even the decisions on what to leave out of a book critically impact its form and honesty, adding contrast like the negative space in a painting, drawing attention to what is presented, or even deliberating highlighting what is not.

I’m guessing you’ve started to wonder what the hell this tumbling turn down Memory Mountain has to do with literary analysis at large. My point, as it so often and unsurprisingly is the case, is buried in a question: How do we translate the characters of real life into writing and what becomes of them when we do? The obvious answer is through the aforementioned memoir. But now we’re back to the issue of veracity: How do we know a memoir is accurate? They’re inherently subjective, and even good memories are biased by perspective, the passage of time, the number of recitations of any given memory, and the locations of magically meandering hallways and sitting rooms. So let’s say we accept the natural stain of subjectivity. What about the shoddy, shifty ways of the mind, which misplace and lose crucial details of everyday life? How do we combat that? Documentation is a good start, bringing us to, hopefully, more than half-complete Dear Diary entries. We can also look to art, photos, journals, letters, recordings, and phone calls to others to consult with and/or argue about what happened. These are solid starts, though how to compile the wealth of a life into something sensical and readable is another challenge entirely.

What lens will you tell the story through? What will the focus be? Full autobiography? Semi-biographical autobiography? An attempt to commemorate a career or occasion? A way to work out unresolved issues? A way to say what you never could? The options are overwhelming, which may be part of the reason why the authors who not only write them, but draw them, are so impressive. Over the course of the next week or so, I’ll be examining parts of the works of three such writer-artists (to pick at even one of them as a whole would be to either inaccurately quantify it as something it’s not, or to drive myself batty). To begin, I’ll look at  Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, its rendering of the self, the father, and its attempt to understand both.