A Balanced Diet for the Starving Soul

Of the few things I can say I like about myself, my curiosity is one. I have always loved to learn, and I am excited by new topics and tidbits from history to philosophy, math, and science.

When a new question occurs to me, I hold onto it and excitement fills my chest knowing what comes next, feverish searching through Google web and image results, skimming Wikipedia pages, adding books to my Goodreads TBR. I am excited to learn to grow to become more whole and free and aware. I love to stretch my mind and consider new facts and concepts, but I’m not good at making it happen every day, and I’m not good at recognizing the difference between knowing things and understanding things. I’m not good at keeping my curiosity alive.

I admit, this only occurred to me yesterday when I saw this comic by Austin Kleon—an inspiring author I admire greatly—came scrolling up my Instagram feed.

💀

A post shared by Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) on

Ouch.

Yep, that’s me. I check the news first thing when I wake up too. I don’t think about what I want to know, what I need and should know, to grow as a person. I don’t think of all the wonders of the world and wonder at the way they work and how they came to be. I wake up, and I want to know what new drama has unfolded in the petty politics we humans have made for ourselves.

Not that I don’t think learning is important. I consider myself a smart person and I even think of myself as a curious one too, but Austin’s comic reminded me that learning, real learning, has not been a priority in my life. I am learning Spanish. I am learning new math. I have my flashcards on geography, state flags, and the anatomy of the eye all on my phone, but it’s not really learning, and it isn’t healthy.

And not that I don’t think current events, politics, and even pop culture are important. You have to know the world around you to navigate it, and you have to navigate it to live and find your happiness, but sometimes it all feels like a play put on the stage, and I’m following the story. It’s a good one, but I want to know what happens backstage and how the script materialized and how I might write my own one day.

The drive to know, to learn, and to discover can easily be tricked. Humans love novelty. We love to discover things and make things. We like to be smart. Social media, TV, tech companies, and advertisements all exploit your curiosity. They make you feel like you are learning and growing wiser while your soul dies of malnutrition.

My phone beeps pleasantly for breaking news and trending topics. It glows cool blue from the side of my bed, enticing me with promises to tell me all I need to know to make polite conversation and bond in mutual anger, outrage, and anxiety at work. I pick it up and scroll. I learn things. I know things. I am in the now in the know. My mind is happy, but not healthy.

Too much of anything is bad for you. A balanced and varied diet has always proven the healthiest.

All your knowledge should not come in the form of 140 character tweets, or sensational images on the news, or click-bait headlines on Facebook. You should know more than what happened yesterday, and you should look further than your own city, country, and conventional beliefs. Your day should be more than breaking news, and your mind should have more to live on than what bring in rating and advertising money. When you are starving can eat rocks and feel full, but you’re still dying.

Mindfulness is key. Become aware for where your information comes from and what kind of information you are consuming. Ask yourself how much time you devote to learning and if you are really learning anything at all. Your day should be more than breaking news, and your mind should have more to live on than what brings high ratings and cash from advertisers.

A starving person can eat rocks and feel better, but it won’t stop death from coming.

I want to study something. I want depth and context. I want to get frustrated by the work of understanding.  I want to stay curious and to feed my soul something good.

Just like the body feels hunger when it needs food, and thirst when it needs water, the mind feels curiosity when it is parched and starving. And like good eating habits, or remembering to drink the right amount of water every day, it takes mindfulness and willingness to forget, fail, and start again for long-term happiness and health. You have to bring learning into your life from something that happens passively and by accident to something you make time for because it’s critical to your well being.

I want to change my diet and learn to keep my soul alive.

I’m not sure yet what that means for me. I’m not sure yet how to do that with my schedule and limited resources, but maybe I can start by picking one or three things every morning that I want to know. I can ask a few questions about how the universe runs and how humans came to be who we are. I can start the day with burning curiosity over anything I choose from trivial to monumental and make time during the day to find answers, not just to know, but to understand.

“It is simply this: do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent—lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It’s as simple as that.”

― Tove Jansson, Fair Play

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Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Featured photo is by Lacie Slezak and available freely on Unsplash

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It Begins by Seeing Each Other as People

“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

— Gwendolyn Brooks

We live side by side. We go to work together, shop together, sit next to each other in movie theaters and walk past each other on the street, and we don’t see each other at all. We don’t know a thing about our neighbors or the people living in the same spaces as us. We won’t look the cashier in the eye. We don’t have the patience for other drivers on the road. We don’t care about our coworkers weekend, even if we ask. We don’t want to help. We don’t want to hear it. Hell is other people, right?

And that’s just the people we see day-to-day. Then we get online, on Twitter, on Facebook, on our blogs where people are even people anymore. We jump into the comment sections under YouTube videos and articles on our preferred news and opinion sites. We turn on the TV and see nothing but violence and feel fear.

Soon other people aren’t even people anymore. They are obstacles and annoyances. They are different and dangerous. They are the other side, the enemy. They think differently than us, they feel differently than us and anyone who is different from us doesn’t matter. They are wrong. They aren’t worth the time.

Indifference grows to hate, and people never run out of reasons to hate. They hate people because they’re brown, because they’re femme, or because they’re queer, or disabled, or transgender, or Muslim, or poor. They hate people who look different, think different, worship different. Eventually, the hated ones grow bitter, and they hurl hate right back in return. The hate mixes with fear, and they fight, some with fists and guns, some wielding the law.

I’m angry, and I am full of hate too. It grows every time I turn on the news, and I’m tired of it. But as angry as I am, as scared as I am, and as much as I want to shut out half of the world, and as many solid reasons as I know I have to do so, I’m not convinced it’s the right way. I’m not sure that isolating myself from the people who I don’t like, that I don’t agree with, that I don’t want to acknowledge, dignify, or give space to will make the world a better place. I’m not sure that going on hating all those people will change them.

I know what they think of me, and convincing them otherwise is close to impossible, but every so often one is converted, and it happens more and more every day. It’s my job not to just stand up to them, but to convince them, help them, educate them.

To open yourself up this way is exhausting, I know. To have to explain yourself your needs and to in turn give space in your life for such hate to be lobbed back at you hurts. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not for anyone all the time. We have to take turns. We can retreat to safe spaces as needed, but we can’t stay there forever. We have to find a way to work it out no matter how hurt and angry we are because if we don’t both halves of humanity will go on fighting and living this double existence side by side and nothing will ever get better, and no one will learn anything.

But is that so bad? Is it really your job to care what people who hate you or are ignorant of your perspective think? Is it your job to educate them or drag them kicking and screaming toward compassion and cooperation? No, of course, it isn’t. Giving them space in your life is a purely personal decision but I think it might be the best thing to do if we want to make the world better. We are all we have, and I think it’s important we all care about each other, whether we agree or not. That doesn’t mean I accept your thinking, or that I will compromise my values. I can fight for whats right and still let you know I care about you. So, it’s not your job, but it is your problem. It’s all our problem to solve.

And solving it begins with seeing each other as people.

Both sides have to begin by understanding that we are all much more alike than we are different and nothing that any human feels or believes is beyond another human’s understanding. It takes stepping into the shoes of another and imagining their whole life had been your own. You may think and believe the same that they do now, and if you did, would the way you isolate and shame them make you change your view if you were them? I doubt it.

To think we can go on making progress with the world split and going for one another throats every day is delusional. The reality is someone is going to have to find a way to take the first step and the longer we tell ourselves that to do so is to compromise your integrity the further we drift from each other and the harder it will be to reconcile, but it will have to be done one day. We are going to have to care. We are going to have to stop seeing each other as the enemy.

We are going to have to start seeing each other.

We are one country, and one world, and in this vast, cold cosmos all we have is one another. Each of us is precious, even those among us who we disagree with. Even those we find ignorant and stubborn and who put themselves at the center of the world to the exclusion of all the rest, even they are rare and precious. Like Carl Sagan said “If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” So, yeah it should matter to you who hs healthcare. It should matter to you who has food, who has a job, who has a home, and who doesn’t. It should matter to you why people feel the way they do, hurt the way they do, and fight for the things they fight for. It is your problem too!

Your fellow human beings, whether you like them or not, agree with them or not, understand them or not, they are your responsibility.  We have to learn to get along sometime, so let’s try a little harder today, and a little harder the day after that. No matter your race, your class, your nationality, immigrant status, gender, sex, or sexuality, no matter how you were raised or what you believe, start by seeing each other as people.

Start by seeing each other at all.

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Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

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Show Me How You Move Your Mountain

“You have been assigned this mountain to show others it can be moved.”

— Anonymous

Lately, my life has become a series of things I have to overcome. I feel like no matter what I am doing, every action, big and small, ends in failure and embarrassment. A step in any direction just moves me closer to something I am afraid of, something I don’t know how to do, something that hurts.

I’m trying hard to grow, but I feel stuck, caught, blocked. There is something in my way. My past and my future loom enormous above me, and I already feel too tired to begin. I feel angry that such an obstacle has been placed in front of me in the first place. It isn’t fair. It isn’t right. It’s too much!

My mountain is made of all the love I didn’t get, and the hole that love can never fill now. It’s made of my driving phobia, and my social insecurities, and my death anxiety. My mountain is made of the strength I have to find, somehow, somewhere, to get help for it all. My mountain is made of the ways I failed my partner and the ways I make her happy that I can’t see no matter how much she tells me. My mountain is made of all the things I wish I could do for everyone I love and the realization I need to come to that help is a form of control and minding your own business is a virtue. My mountain is my passion for writing and the gap between my passion and my talent.

My mountain feels impossible to move, and there seems so little time. What is most important? Where do I begin? How do I  even start? Where will I find the strength, the wisdom, the help, since I know I can never do it all on my own?

We all have a mountain I suppose, made of all our pain and potential. It is made of everything you have been through It is made of all the things that make it hard for you to live, for each of us it is different. Most of it is our childhoods, some of it is death. Part of it is all the shit we do to ourselves personally, publically, collectively, and the rest is all your own bullshit you refuse to see. You made this mountain, we all did, and now you have to move it. Well, you don’t have to. You can ignore it, sure, but what will you do instead? What is life for if not to bring that monster down, to make a wreckage of your past and pain?

So you face it. One rocky side rises before you, a beautiful mound of hard shit, sacrifice, and suffering all your own. It rises so high you can’t make out its peak from this side of the clouds. You are small before it. Its size will humble you but don’t let it intimidate you. You can get over it, rock by rock. It will be hard but a mountaineer you have become and all you see is an adventure, a challenge, and a victory. You will own yourself, or be owned. But you know that it’s better to die than to live a life that isn’t your own so you will conquer it, or you will die trying.

There is no magic advice. Nothing moves it faster, nothing makes it easier. You just have to get shoveling. It must be moved to make room, for what, I don’t know. I only know it must be brought down. There are more mountains after yours, ones of hate, and ignorance, and pain and all must be leveled, blasted to rubble and a way made through for the next person. There is always more work, more to get over, and progress always to be made, but each of us gets only one mountain to move. If you can move yours, the next person won’t have to. They will see what great things you have accomplished and attack the next with confidence and fervor. They will know that the impossible can be done.

But first, this mountain is yours, and time enough or no, wisdom, strength, and help or no, you have to move it. No one can do it for you. No one knows how to do it but you. Moving your mountain makes something significant of your life. That pile of shame and suffering is a mountain of meaning. It’s a living moving breathing thing. It is you. You simply have to move…yourself.

You have been assigned this body, this mind, this experience, to show us how a person can be moved and an experience can be made to mean something.

Thinking about it this way helps. This quote jumped out at me yesterday and a light switch was flipped, and I saw something. That is what I have forgotten. I am not the only one who has been through what I have, and none of us has experienced anything new, we’ve only been given a new way of looking at it, and overcoming it. My job is to get through it, and heal from it, and share how I’ve done it so the next one can do the same. Then they will share how they have endured and healed too, and so on.

So, go move your mountain. Show us it can be done. Show the next one to stand below such a harsh existence that rock by rock can bring the whole thing down.

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Thank you for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

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Claim Your Freedom and Make Your Mistakes Your Own

“You have a right to experiment with your life. You will make mistakes. And they are right too.”

— Anaïs Nin

Bad faith is a concept in existential philosophy that describes the tendency of humans, when faced with the pressures of society to act and believe in a certain way, to give up, or more accurately, to easily and conveniently forget, that they are in fact free beings who are under no innate obligation to give their time or choices up to anyone or any institution for any reason.

We grow up being told we have to follow certain rules and walk certain paths, we are supposed to want certain things and get there by doing certain kinds of work for a certain outrageous amount of hours and years of our lives. We are supposed to date certain people and dress and certain way and live from birth to death doing all the things everyone else is doing, without question, without variation.

We naturally want to be part of communities and communities work best when everyone is on the same page. We do best together when all of us are committed to contributing and moving us all forward one small life at a time.

We are also, just as naturally, very curious, adventurous, and searching for a slice of this earth and something in our lives that we can call our own. We want to mean something in our communities, and we want our contributions to be on our own terms.

We are full of contradictions, and contradictions are uncomfortable. It helps to look to those around us and follow the conventional wisdom, at the same time when others look to us, we encourage them to do the thing we know deep down we don’t want to do.

We tell them the lie we tell ourselves. Live your life this way and this way only, because there is no other kind of life you can live.

We create blind spots in our vision in all the places our paths fork. We let chance, and worse, other people, choose our direction because choosing is hard and scary, and uncertainty never lives comfortably in the human mind. We are never taught to live by making choices. We are never taught that living with purpose, a purpose we choose rather than one we are born into is possible for us. We are not taught how to cope with regret or how to feel pride at how far we come or to feel joy in where we are. We are not taught to look at our dreams as anything more than that.

We are taught that life is set in stone by the age of 18, if not earlier. We are taught that there is only one way to success, that success is possible for everyone, and that success and fulfillment are the same things. We are taught we only have one chance and that our lack of success is down to personal failure and flaw.  We are taught never to think too hard about what we are taught but I’m telling you it was a lie and for you to perpetuate it makes you a liar too.

You have choices, and you can change your life if you want too. Of course, not all possible choices are available to us at all times, and certainly, there are no easy choices to make. Freedom carries with is certain consequences and all of which must be taken responsibility for. Still, every time you tell someone, or yourself, especially yourself, that you can’t do something, or that you had no choice at any time, you are living in bad faith.

You might be thinking that if so many options were available to us, if all our dreams could come true and we could live the way we always daydreamed we could, wouldn’t we all be doing that? Well, you would think so, but the truth is, being a human is hard, and sometimes it is easier to forget what it means to be so aware and conscious and free in favor of something a little less terrifying and painful.

As a species were caught between a rock and a hard place. We live lives full of deep emotion, potential, and accomplishment, and not only do we have to die, but all that struggle and regret means nothing when you consider the eons the universe will go on existing after you. So, we choose to make unimportant and easily accessible things the center of our lives so that that pain, that cruel cosmic joke, never has to enter our minds. It’s easier to be mindless than to know what is to come and what can never be relived.

But what a waste of what little we have don’t you think?

It hurts my heart thinking of how much of life is wasted while we do the work we think we have to do and live the lives we think we have no other choice but to live all the while daydreaming of the life we might have. I panic to think of all the unexamined years of my own life that slipped through my fingers like sand while I stupidly, stupidly, stupidly spent my time on nothing that matters anymore. I wish I had known that what hurts can sometimes be what is best. I wish someone had told me to take control of my own mind, to be aware of how I live, and to ask myself all the time why. I wish someone had told me that when you have no answer to that question, it’s time to make a change and that change can always be made.

The usefulness of being aware of such tendencies is to take responsibility for the choices you do make so that even when all else has been taken from you or kept out of your reach, you at least know that everything you did was because you chose to do it. At least you will know that no matter how small or painful your life was at the very least it was your own. What else can we hope for in a universe where thinking feeling being pop in and out of existence alone, helpless, and with no way of knowing how to live or what it’s all for?

Any regret we might feel on the day that death comes for us is a pithy price to pay for such freedom and richness of experience freedom. A wrong turn made here and there along will be of no consequence if we can take pride in all of them having been our own.

An authentic life, that is what we all should be living. I don’t mean a happy life or a life where all your desires are met. No life is free from suffering, or of heartbreak, or loss, or misunderstanding, or oppression, but if we have to hurt so much and if there have to be so many regrets and mistakes at least make them your own. At least let your life be free of lies, and hiding, and of giving your life over to people who don’t have to live it for you and won’t be the ones to lose it when it comes your time to part with it.

You can do things, you can improve things, and you can choose what kind of person you want to be. You choose your words, your beliefs, and values, the way you will look, and who you will count amongst your friends and loved ones. You choose how to spend your time, at this job or that, and you choose what leisure time means too. You choose your calling and your path and your passions. Society never says you have to do anything, it only tries to dissuade you from disrupting anyone around you and waking them up too.

Were all steered in the direction that benefits everyone else, but in that cohesion and calm, we lose the only thing we have in this world, our time on it. Even if you wanted to spend your whole life making nothing, creating nothing, learning nothing new at all, at least make sure you are the one who made the choice. Not advertising, not your mom, or your boss, or your spouse, and especially not everyone else around you just doing what has always been done and wanting you do do the same so they never have to think about all the time and freedom they let slip away too.

You have the right to be a free and thinking being, and you have the misfortune to be a being with an intermediate lifespan, don’t give up one minute of it to anyone who any wants to use it for the benefit of their bank account, or their comfort. Live your life the way you choose.

Fall in love too fast, feel too much, quit your job, make less money if it means you live your dream. Say yes. Say no! Embrace being different, living different, and thinking differently. Embrace choice and make as many as you can before someone makes them for you. Don’t be afraid. Make as many mistakes as you can on your way to getting it right, whatever that means for you!

You can’t change it all, and you can’t do any more than can be done in one lifetime, but you can at least be true to yourself. You have a right to do it, and more than that it’s the right thing to do, and it’s long past time we stop acting like it isn’t.

Go, claim your freedom and your truth, and never forget that in all of the creation you are among the most privileged to have either at all.

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Thank you for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

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Sometimes Self-care Means Tough Love

“Self-care should include the cold shower as well as the scented tub.”

― Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing a Life

Too often we get our self-care advice from companies who only want to sell us something and other social media users who only want us to like them so they too can sell us something later. Too often we get our self-care advice from people who have never been depressed or think the answer is as simple as veganism, more sunlight, and a better attitude.

Not all of this advice is harmful or even wrong, but it’s only half the story. You only ever hear the good stuff, the easy stuff, the feel good and comforting stuff. But self-care isn’t always about feeling better, it’s also about growth and healing, and we all know growing is hard, and healing hurts.

I love Bateson’s comparison of self-care to the cold shower and the scented tub. It reminded me of my struggle to get a morning routine that got me to work on time. When I wake up, I crave a warm shower and low lights. I tell myself that the best way is to ease into the day, but it’s a lie. I just want to do what feels better.

I read somewhere that a cold shower is the best way to start the day. I tried it, I hated it, but I can’t deny that it worked. The cold shower hurt but it woke me up, it energized me, and it put the world into perspective. Not much can happen in the course of a regular day that will be worse than that cold water all over me. The cold water was what was best. It got me up and out and off into the world to do what I needed to do.

It kept me from lingering in what is only comfortable.

And just like the cold shower we sometimes have to do what makes us uncomfortable to help ourselves do better and be better. Sometimes your happiness and everything you want is just on the other side of hard work and a little bit of tough love.

When you love someone you have to be honest with them. When you love someone, you don’t enable them. If you love yourself, you do the same, even when it’s hard.

Doing what we have to never feels as good as doing what we want and heading the truth always hurts more than the sugar-coated lie. Life can’t be all happy feelings and sunshine. Being alive is hard, and the world is harsh. If we want to survive, we have to learn to live and find what peace and happiness we can in all the frustration and suffering, and you can’t do that if you live in a bubble keeping all the bad thought at Bay with bath bombs, shopping, and expensive frappuccinos.

I’ve written about this before, about being mindful of the ways you take care of yourself. Escapism is the only answer but even when you decide to confront your self-remember to stay with what you need not just what you crave.

Self-care can be as simple as your food choices. Sometimes I crave sweets a lot when I’m feeling down, or tired. I crave all kinds of bad foods. Fried foods, salt, fat, butter, I’d eat them every day if it were up to my emotions. I want what feels good, what tastes good, what releases dopamine into the brain, but that isn’t what I need.  I need fuel for my body and my brain. I try to opt for fruits and veggies, nuts, rice, and water. It’s a fight I don’t always win, but I try because it’s better for me.

Sometimes self-care means protecting yourself from yourself. Sometimes we hurt ourselves more than anyone else, and we have to be strong enough to stand up for ourselves when that happens. Sometimes I tell myself I’m ugly, or I’m stupid, or I’m the worst and I’m always messing things up because it’s feels satisfying to reinforce harmful thought patterns. The truth is I’m just like everyone else, no better, no worse, and just as deserving of love and patience and forgiveness. It’s hard to accept that, but it’s what’s best for me.

Sometimes self-care means giving up your pride and asking for help from others. I suffered from fatigue, stomach pain, and shame for years because I couldn’t let go and go to the doctor for help. I couldn’t go because I was scared. I ended up getting really sick by the time I was able to get an ulcerative colitis diagnosis.  I tried changing my diet, and self-medicating, all the while telling myself that was self-care but it wasn’t, it was doing what was comfortable and easy. I was enabling myself. It wasn’t until I put my foot down, with myself, and did what was scary and painful that I really began taking care of myself.

For some of us, self-destruction can look a lot like self-care because people are broken and what hurts feels good and what should feel good hurts like hell.

Looking back on all the things I did for myself that ever felt like real love and caring were always hard to do. It was always uncomfortable and scary. All the indulgences and the gifts and the times I’ve done something in the name of “treat yo self!” were temporary. They were only comforting, not caring.

So today, on internet self-care day, give yourself something you need, not just the things you want. Take a moment to take in your current self-care routine, if you have one, and make a small change. Look at all the places you might be hurting rather than helping and make an effort to do a little better for yourself.

I’m not telling you to only ever take cold showers, the scented bath is necessary too. Just, try saving it for the end of those hard days when you’ve taken all your meds, drank more water, eaten more and better, for getting up and giving a shit and dragged yourself from sun-up to sundown doing your very best.

You still deserve comfort and the things that make you feel good too, but you deserve the tough love just as much. Never deprive yourself of either one.

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Thank you for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for more inspiring reads + some small existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee. Thank you!

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Stephen King and Writing by Questions

Writing, like any other art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats—both living and dead, famous and not—apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week’s inspiration comes from the prolific American author Stephen King.

“You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about?”

— Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

The first hurdle to writing is getting your butt in the chair and keeping it there. The second hurdle is getting the pen moving, or your fingers typing. The body only needs training. You only have to employ a few days of treats and punishments to get the hang of sit and stay but to get your mind to show up is like coercing a stray cat to follow you home.

I can get my butt in the chair but lately getting my mind to show up is near impossible. My body is easy to control. My mind, on the other hand, has one of its own. It wanders inside itself and finds plenty to do that isn’t writing at all. It thinks about all the things I should be doing, the dishes, the laundry, that email, that book I wanted to read, that movie I wanted to watch. I get antsy. I get tired. I feel guilty and decide that I don’t want to write. If it happens often enough, I decide I shouldn’t write. I’m obviously not good enough or disciplined enough.

I give up and get up and doing everything but write. I do anything but write. The pen doesn’t move the screen stays blank.

But there has to be a way to coerce the cat, and there has to be a way wrangle a mind and wring the words from it. One bit of advice I’ve come across time and time again is to start with questions. Questions get the wheels turning. Questions interest the mind and make it want to work with you. Questions lure it along the way you wish to go and reveal what it is you are setting out to say to write about.

The first question you should ask yourself is an easy one, what do I want to write about. You don’t have to be specific here. I like to write about humans, and emotions, and the way how we ought to live. Simple.

You can’t begin if you don’t know what you are talking about. What genre are you writing? Is it fact or fiction, persuasive or story telling. Are you going to write a poem? A story? An essay? Who are you writing about? Yourself, a celebrity, a person who doesn’t exist, are they even a person? You have to get these basics down before you can build a shape or structure but those questions aren’t so hard, and you can always change the answers when you please.

So, once you’ve gotten a start, the next step is getting you to the end, another writing hurdle. I’ve found that the best way is to keep asking questions of yourself, and your writing.

Begin with the what and then make a list of whos, hows, and whys to keep you going. You need this list of questions to tease out what you mean to say and how you can go about saying it in the clearest way possible. The list is personal. And after you have one you can copy and tweak it for every piece you write. You can have one for fiction and memoir and maybe one for blog posts and for articles you pitch. You come up with whatever questions you like, or you can steal them from other writers. Here are some of mine:

  1. What do I want people to get out of this?
  2. Who am I speaking to? Who am I speaking for?
  3. Why should they care?
  4. What am I trying to say?
  5. How do I want to make people feel?
  6. What will people learn? About me? Themselves? The world?
  7. What has been forgotten?
  8. What is the truth?
  9. Where does it hurt?
  10. What has helped?
  11. What is missing?
  12. What makes this any different?
  13. Is this boring? What would it look like if it wasn’t?

I don’t always have all the answers, and many of the ones I do have are similar, but the differences are subtle enough that they can help me illuminate what I think and feel and how I can structure my writing to articulate that to my readers. These questions aren’t perfect, and they do not guarantee concise or compelling writing, obviously, but they help get me home even if the path is rocky and winding and I get lost a few times along the way.

The answers can be long or short and often I can write the whole piece by taking my answers, expanding them, rearranging them, and adding a little emotional flair.

I tend to check in more than once while writing a piece. I write my first draft and go over the questions again to see if my convictions have changed and if I need to move n a different direction. I write a second and check in again, and after editing to grammar and structure, I glance over it one more time and ask myself if I’ve said what I needed to say.

Writing this way keeps me focused and on topic and whatever I wanted to say that didn’t fit can become another post or piece, and I can answer the questions all over again from another angle.

Of course, you can come up with your own questions, ones that work for you and the way you write and whatever genre you work in. You are free to borrow my list too, or you can search for other ones from writer’s who know much better than I. Here are a few I’ve found:

“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?, Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

― Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

and

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

— George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Some others I am considering:

  1. Why do I need to write this?
  2. Am I ready to share this?
  3. Can I get paid to write this?

Sometimes I have more fun answering these questions than I do in writing the actual piece. And sometimes I get too focused on them and have a hard time moving from a list of facts to writing something with color and emotion. It’s easy to figure out what you mean to say, the hard part is figuring out how you mean to say it. So, when I realize I am only spinning my wheels, doing something that feels like writing but isn’t, I keep in mind the second half of Orwell’s advice:

But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.

I don’t think he was actually endorsing this method, but I think there may be some value in employing it as needed. Whenever you become too strict, too wound up, when the boundaries of all these questions make your mind move in mechanical ways, and your writing loses its humanity it may be time to open your mind and let whatever words float by make their way on to the page, for a while.

You have to give yourself boundaries, but you also have to give yourself time to just write it all out of yourself, no matter how bad or ugly it might be at first. Then, when you have exhausted your ready-made sentences and your mimicry you can go back to your list of facts and find a middle ground.

It’s good to have more than one approach, one structured and one not to keep you from getting bored or lost. The brain needs both, creativity needs both. If you find yourself having trouble finishing your writing, or maybe you have trouble writing when inspiration and motivation are running low, try beginning with questions and go back to them whenever you need a little leading to the end.

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3389Stephen Edwin King was born the second son of Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. After his father left them when Stephen was two, he and his older brother, David, were raised by his mother.

Stephen attended the grammar school in Durham and Lisbon Falls High School, graduating in 1966. From his sophomore year at the University of Maine at Orono, he wrote a weekly column for the school newspaper, THE MAINE CAMPUS.

In the fall of 1971, Stephen began teaching English at Hampden Academy, the public high school in Hampden, Maine. Writing in the evenings and on the weekends, he continued to produce short stories and to work on novels.

In 1973, King’s first novel Carrie was accepted by publishing house, Doubleday. King had thrown an early draft of the novel into the trash after becoming discouraged with his progress writing about a teenage girl with psychic powers. His wife retrieved the manuscript and encouraged him to finish it. His advance for Carrie was $2,500; King’s paperback rights later earned $400,000.

King and his family moved to southern Maine because of his mother’s failing health. At this time, he began Salem’s Lot. Soon after Carrie’s release in 1974, King’s mother died of uterine cancer. His Aunt Emrine had read the novel to her before she died.

After his mother’s death, King and his family moved to Boulder, Colorado, where King wrote The Shining. The family returned to western Maine in 1975, where King completed his fourth novel, The Stand.

In all King has published 54 novels, including seven under the pen name Richard Bachman, and six non-fiction books. He has written nearly 200 short stories, most of which have been collected in book collections. Many of his stories are set in his home state of Maine. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, many of which have been adapted into feature films, miniseries, television shows, and comic books.

Seriously, I cannot recommend his memoir On Writing enough.

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Check out my previous quotes from Stephen King.

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Relationships Take Two, and That Includes You

“It always takes two. For relationships to work, for them to break apart, for them to be fixed.”

— Emily Giffin, Heart of the Matter: A Novel

I’m a terrible friend.

I don’t text back. I don’t answer calls. I don’t send snaps or reply to Facebook comments. I don’t call to check in, and I don’t know what to say when my loved ones are going through hard times, so I say nothing. I’m a terrible friend. But not because I don’t care, but because I’m scared. I’m afraid I have nothing to offer, and I’m sure no one wants to be bothered with me. It’s selfish, even if I tell myself it isn’t and it’s wrong even if I tell myself it isn’t malicious. The truth is I’m not doing the work, and it isn’t fair.

The truth is I’m not doing the work, and it isn’t fair.

I’m lucky to have friends that understand, but lately, I’ve started to feel guilty. I shouldn’t let them pick up the slack just because I’m too afraid to try. We all deserve to have people reach out toward us everyone in a while to remind that they care and that we are too important to lose.

We all want to feel like we matter. We all want to be wanted. We all want the people we love to let us know with their actions not just with their words that we are important, liked, and desired. When our friends call us or send us funny videos to cheer us up, we feel good. When someone we love cooks our favorite dinner, buys us flowers or offers a back rub at the end of a hard day, we feel good. When family, co-workers, and spouses forgive us for our outbursts or let us know it’s okay after having made a mistake, we feel good.

We do deserve those things, but I’ve seen too many people who demand to be loved, understood, appreciated but make no effort to show anyone else the same. They see themselves as worthy of near worship and see humbling themselves and giving of themselves as degrading.

Relationships, whether they are romantic or not, familial or not, new or old, platonic, professional, or passionate, no matter what they are, they all take two people to make them work and grow. If just one gets forgets the boundaries, loses interest, or puts themselves at the center the whole thing fails. I’ve seen it, and lived it myself, time and time again.

This week I celebrate 15 years with my girlfriend, and people are always asking me how we got this far. They want to know the secret, and I tell them it all boils down to seeing another person as worthy of all the same caring and effort you know that you deserve and then setting your pride aside to do it.

We see ourselves as the main character of a story in which everyone around us only serves to move our own plot forward, but the truth is we are also playing the supporting role in everyone else’s story too. In this world, there is no center. We are all connected to one another and we all push and pull one another in all directions all at once.

If enough people decide to take more than they give all connections weaken and the world becomes a place where loneliness, struggling, and suffering becomes unnecessarily prevalent.

I’ve watched people let their relationships fall apart saying “Well if so-and-so wanted to talk to me they would” or “If so-and-so wanted to see me they’d make the time”, all the while they never reach out or make the time either. They say these things and never see how much they expect and how little their effort is in return. I’ve watched them condemn others for the exact same ways they are failing too.

I don’t think anyone means to be hurtful. It’s just the society we live in now. There is so much bad advice floating around about how we should treat each other and how to stay together or strengthen our bonds.

Everyone says that people who love you will just come to you. They say that anyone who wants to be a part of your life should have to earn it first. You shouldn’t have to chase anyone, you have already done enough. You shouldn’t have to do anything more. If people want you they will do whatever it takes. You aren’t being mean. You are only protecting yourself, respecting yourself, getting what you deserve.

But all that is only half the story. They never tell you how much you have to give of yourself and they never tell you that you should! We should be vulnerable, giving, and forgiving. We should be doing so much more to earn the love of the people we want in our lives. We should be giving second chances and calling even when we didn’t get a callback and inviting them again even when they didn’t show up last time. We should say good morning even if they didn’t say it back and we should do something nice even though they snapped at us yesterday. We should reach out even if they didn’t reply last time and we should let them know we still want to be friends.

You have to let go of your own needs and just be there for someone else for a while. Not all of the time, but, yes, some of the time. You have to take turns being the center of the universe.

Do it because we are all people and we all make mistakes. Do it because none of us come out of our childhood knowing how to have healthy relationships or how to keep those relationships together.

Do it because you care and because you know deep down that every relationship takes work from both parties. It requires vulnerability and a willingness to humble yourself. It requires that you occasionally stop thinking about yourself, give up, and give a little more than you might be getting in return. It requires leading by example and making room for our flaws and forgetfulness. If enough of us make compassion, humility, and understanding part of our relationships we can change the narrative and make giving the goal of every relationship rather than receiving.

Do it so that when it’s you not doing enough because you were busy, too stressed out, or too self-centered, the understanding and love will be there when you return.

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Thank you for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for more inspiring reads + some small existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee. Thank you!

Featured image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash