Sylvia Plath and Catching Up to Shakespeare

“I’m chock-full of ideas for new poems. I can’t wait to get time to write them down. I can’t let Shakespeare get too far ahead of me, you know.”

— Sylvia Plath

They say every writer who wants to improve their craft has to be a reader first. While I haven’t always followed the advice to a tee—I haven’t always been a writer, or a reader, or both at once—I have found that when I have, reading only makes me feel more worthless, impotent, and my efforts futile. And now these feelings seem to have come to a head, and I have come to my wit’s end, now that I have had my first taste of Shakespeare.

Growing up my teachers tried to get me to appreciate his rich wordplay, lively relatable characters, and imaginative plots, but I struggled with the language and never got very far or very much out of Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet. I gave him another try this month with Twelfth Night, and now I know I should never have tried to be a writer at all.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. I try to read and learn from many of the greats, but each one only highlighted my ignorance more and more. I’ll never have even half the talent of these authors. I will never write anything so moving, and I will never be known or remembered, so I should just give up, and sometimes I do.

Still, no matter how discouraged I get I still love writing and can’t seem to quit her entirely. So, I’m here again, lost and exhausted of my own faults but looking to try something new.

I’m far from being chock full of ideas though. I once was, and I hope to be again someday, but self-doubt is a hell of a drug, and I don’t know how to kick the nasty habit. Even when the words come slow, they still come, just never the ones I want. Never the ones I had always wanted to write. I gave up on all my dreams because I know I can never tell the story the way it appears to my mind’s eye and I can never teach the people what I know is right in my heart.

Where have all my ideas and ambitions gone? I have a feeling they are still there floating in the shadow of my self-consciousness. I suppose courage is what will get them back into the light. I suppose when you believe you can do things, or at least when you don’t know that the things you might do could be ugly, or stupid, or that you might one day lose interest or fail to finish things, there is no end to what you might do. But, it’s nearly impossible to unsee what is now painfully obvious.

And even if I was all wrong about my own ability and it was all just a matter of learning, of cracking the code and finding my voice and a good muse, I’m still far too far behind to ever catch up. I’m too old to learn new tricks. I’m too old to race the young, the strong, the flexible but maybe I’m looking at the race all wrong.

They say that practice makes perfect, but my practice rarely results in progress, let alone perfection. I’ve read that in order to get better you have to fail more and fail better, and that sounds a little more up my alley. That is how I can catch up to Plath, and Woolf, and Austen, and maybe even Shakespeare himself one day. I will embrace my fear and run by failure instead. I know I have enough failure in me to fuel a lifetime of work and more. I will stop trying to be as good as everyone else and fail the very best that I can instead.

And once you have set your heart on spectacular failure suddenly the ideas come by the dozen, and the words flow free as rivers. If I’m going to fail anyway, I can at least make it look good. If I am going to fail anyway, I might as well express myself, and tell the absolute truth. If I am going to fail anyway I might as well fail every single day and make it big, and bold, and bright! If I am going to fail anyway, I might as well make it my own and share every catastrophe with you.

I might as well be a proud failure considering failing is better than never trying at all and if I am so sure I’ll never be successful I should work to collect the same weight in flops and defeats, yes?

So, I have a new mission it seems, to fail more and better than anyone else. To earn even the possibility of my name among those greats by a paying in rejections, criticisms, and loss.

I’ll need a list, notebooks long with no two items the same, of ways I want to fail is what I want to work on now. I want each line to be a bigger and more impressive way to fail than then the last, and I have to start with them straight away!

It won’t be a hard task I’m sure. There are infinite ways to write failures out of short stories, essays, poems, hell, there are whole books I feel floating around inside my head I can fail at too. No, Shakespeare won’t get too far ahead of me now, nor Plath, nor Woolf, nor Austen or any of the rest.

I have them in my sights now as none of them could dream to fail like me!

***

U1889231Sylvia Plath was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer.

Known primarily for her poetry, Plath also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The book’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is a bright, ambitious student at Smith College who begins to experience a mental breakdown while interning for a fashion magazine in New York. The plot parallels Plath’s experience interning at Mademoiselle magazine and subsequent mental breakdown and suicide attempt.

Along with Anne Sexton, Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry initiated by Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass. Despite her remarkable artistic, academic, and social success at Smith, Plath suffered from severe depression and underwent a period of psychiatric hospitalization. She graduated from Smith with highest honors in 1955 and went on to Newnham College, Cambridge, in England, on a Fulbright fellowship. Here she met and married the English poet Ted Hughes in 1956. For the following two years she was an instructor in English at Smith College.

In 1960, shortly after Plath and Hughes returned to England from America, her first collection of poems appeared as The Colossus. She also gave birth to a daughter, Frieda Rebecca. Hughes’ and Plath’s son, Nicholas Farrar, was born in 1962.

Plath took her own life on the morning of February 11, 1963. Leaving out bread and milk, she completely sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with “wet towels and cloths.” Plath then placed her head in the oven while the gas was turned on.

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When Time Slips Away from You Hold Tight to Emotion Instead

“We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts not breaths; in feelings, not in figures on a dial. We should count time by heart throbs.”

— Philip James Bailey, “Festus”

I am one of those people gifted with an acute awareness of my mortality and a near constant anxiety over the amount of time I have left. There is nothing wrong with me—that I know of. I have no reason to think I won’t live to a miserable old age. I have no reason to be so afraid and yet; I suffer from terrible death anxiety. I lay awake most nights staring at the ceiling contemplating what death means and what it means to be a being that will die. The thoughts have begun to seep into the the daytime, stopping me in my tracks and bringing tears to my eyes. I’m obsessed, in the worst way. I’m scared, and I’m angry too, and I don’t know how to stop thinking about the end so that I can finally live.

I want to stop seeing all this time flying by and start seeing all the life I have in and around me instead. I want to be free, but I don’t understand how I can when my life seems so small and death, even if it comes 50 years from now, feels close enough to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. How is everyone else doing it?

When I reach out to tell people how I am feeling and get a little advice and reassurance I get the most puzzling looks and responses. No one seems to be crushed under inevitability the way that I am. No one else seems to be lying awake at night with their heart pounding in their ears wondering when the end might find them and how. No one worries how long it will take to be forgotten by the world and no one is devastated by the unfairness of it all. I don’t understand why I feel time slipping through my hands so painfully and no one else does.

I know I need help, but it’s hard to admit I am so weak and strange. I suppose I believe I’m somewhat beyond help or that there is no help I can be given by another person that I can’t give myself.

Still, I long to talk to people who suffer the way I do. I want to know I am not alone. I want someone to understand that to me the rest of humanity must be walking around blind to be so calm. There has to be someone out there who understand that this life feels like nothing but a death march to me.

I’ve tried to live mindfully, aware of every minute I am alive but I think I only got half the picture and that is why I suffer so now. When I became aware of time passing this way, I wanted to hold onto it, but no matter how hard I tried every moment they keep slipping, slipping, slipping, wasted and irretrievable out of my reach. And that is all I can see of my life now. All I see is how I am always dying. All I see is that I can never go back. I live in near constant panic over all the choices I have left to make, and the ones I won’t get to make before it all goes dark. I am furious over all the life I won’t get to live as the eons pass without me.

Becoming aware of every moment means becoming aware of how few moments there will be. Seeing what you have doesn’t stop you from wishing for what you can’t. Taking control of your life doesn’t stop you from seeing what you can never control. Living doesn’t stop you from dying one day.

So, I guess I need a new perspective. I need to find out what it is I am missing that everyone else has grasped.

I’ve been thinking to myself, rationalizing and trying to make sense of my fear of dying, of leaving my work unfinished, of one day not being, and of being forgotten. I try to remind myself that I have time and that even if I didn’t, even if the end came for me this very moment, I have had a good life. Not the best life, not exactly the life I planned, but a life most people in the world only dream of. I have been loved, and I have been happy more often than not, and maybe that is the answer to my problem.

Maybe instead of looking at what I won’t have, I need to focus on what I could have. Maybe I measure time all wrong, and that is why there seems to be so little of it left. Maybe, for humans, time is best measured in memorable moments, and emotion invoked.

So, what if I stopped counting all those seconds? Most of them were empty anyway and, if I’m honest, I hardly remember them once they are gone. Maybe a richer life isn’t found by hoarding time but in bringing time to life? The seconds that matter are the ones full of wanting and connection, of passion and curiosity, of novelty. I need to stop trying to hold on to every moment, trying to freeze myself and everything I love in place as if I could stay any longer by doing so. I need to move and make things happen.

After all, the only time I am not worrying about when my heart would stop beating is when it was beating out of love, or fear, or excitement. The only time I am not worrying about how much time I have left is when my time is filled up doing something new, fun, or fulfilling. I’ve become stagnant, tightened and tied up, I need to be loose, to laugh more, to let go!

If death is to come either way, if time is going to slip away no matter how tight my grip, I suppose it all ought to make it worth every second. My heart ought to come alive whenever possible. I should be learning, doing, loving, yearning, every day. I have to cling to the right things and measure time in laughter, kisses, candies, fears, and triumphs. I need more good books, good friends, new experiences, and new ways of living.

I don’t even think I need to make any huge changes in my life. I have plenty of love and laughter around me I only need to take the time to notice it and muster the courage to participate in it. In the moments where it doesn’t exist, I can certainly create it and make other lives as rich as they make mine. Even when I am alone, I can at least love myself. I can learn to enjoy my own company and make even the most mundane activities into a joy simply by being grateful and noticing the miracle that my life is.

I have only so much control over the length of my life, but the width and weight of it are up to me. I can have more life by measuring it by heart throbs rather than the ticking of a clock.

***

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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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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.

***

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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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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Stop Helping So Damn Much

“Our help is usually not very helpful. Our help is often toxic. And help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody.”

— Anne Lamott

I heard something last week, and I can’t get it out of my head. It was one of those moments when you are told an ugly truth about yourself, one had denied so long you weren’t aware of anymore, one you are embarrassed to find you hadn’t concealed at all as well as you thought. Everyone knows your ugly truth but thought it better not to tell you and to let you go on making a fool of yourself.

That was something like that feeling that I felt in the middle of Anne Lamott’s 2017 Ted Talk, 12 Truths, in which she casually advises us all to stop helping so much. Our help, she says, isn’t as helpful as we think it is and our help is often toxic and nothing but a nicer way of controlling the world around us.

As soon as she said it I knew I was one of those chronic helpers Lamott is talking about. I want to help everyone all the time with everything. The more I love you, the more I want to help you. I tell myself I’m helping, but maybe, probably, I just want to control the people around me.

Looking back I can see that there have been many times when I forced my help on others, even when it wasn’t needed, wanted, or constructive. There were many times when my help may have been toxic and all I was doing was controlling the lives of others. I told myself I was doing the right thing, the best thing, the helpful thing, but I wasn’t.

Helping is a form of manipulation and, here is the real secret, manipulating people is a thing I struggle not to do.

I’m ashamed to have written that line. It feels like admitting a truth I am trying to convince myself is a lie. It’s admitting that I am a bad person. I swear I have the best intentions, but I also have little patience for people learning their own lessons and failing on their own. I know better than them and if only they would do things the way I say they would be better. We would be better. I would be needed, wanted, appreciated, helpful.

I would be good.

And that’s it, I just want to feel like a good person. I want to feel like a better, smarter, and more powerful person. I want to be good enough to be in charge. I want people to look to me when they don’t know what to do. I want to be wanted and respected, and this is the way I have chosen to get that and to live with myself too, by helping.

I feel bad for wanting that, and for some of the actions I have taken to feel it but here’s the thing, at the same time Anne Lamott was placing a mirror in front of me, she was also letting me know that I was not the only one who needed to hear this. I’m not the only one who needs to stop and examine what they were doing. She hadn’t said, “Lisa, you need to stop helping because you are toxic.” She said we all needed to stop helping because we were all too controlling and toxic. We all have a problem with manipulation.

It’s human to want to control the world around us and all the people in it. Being in control is comforting and being needed gives us purpose. But at the same time, we feel bad for wanting those things. We know it’s wrong, and futile, to try to control others. We also know that we have to give people space to live their lives and learn their own lessons. But we want what we want, so, we do what humans are good at, we play a few mental gymnastics, make a few good excuses, and tell ourselves that for this reason or that whatever we’re doing is the right thing to do.

We split ourselves off from what who we want to be and who we really are. We disconnect and deny the distance the two. We can’t see that we are not always good and we are not always doing the right thing.

I can be controlling, and I sometimes nag, and whine, and manipulate people into doing what I want the way I want it done but who doesn’t? Who hasn’t tried to keep people close and safe by making ourselves indispensable? Who hasn’t tried to make sense of the world by forcing our beliefs and our way of life on others? Who hasn’t, out of love and fear, employed less than honorable tactics to “help.”

Being a person is scary. Caring about people is scary. Feeling unimportant and unneeded scary. It is normal to try to keep people safe and close and to control the way they see us, but it isn’t always right. That is a truth that has to be confronted if you want to get better.

So this week, try not helping so much or try helping in ways that don’t put you at the center of the problem. Just listen. Just learn. Try taking a step back and letting people be the solution in their own lives. Let people walk their own paths, and you just focus on walking yours.

It’s why we are all here after all.

P.S. Here is Anne Lamott’s entire beautiful, inspirational, bittersweet Ted Talk:

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

Featured image via Ian Espinosa on Unsplash