The Big Myth

There’s a lot I like about writing. It’s creatively satisfying, it allows me to play day long games of “What if?” and call it being “productive.” Writing lets me pretend I’m someone else so I can try on different viewpoints and new ways of living: Christmas on Mars is nothing like back on Earth! I even enjoy the challenge of mastering a craft that on many days seems hopelessly beyond my reach. And it’s good for me! Study after study after study shows how good writing is for my brain, keeping it healthy and flexible well into old age (assuming, of course, that all my other writerly bad habits don’t destroy me first).

But another thing I like about writing – and one that doesn’t get discussed so much – is that it is a powerful tool for personal development. Writing teaches me lessons about perseverance and problem solving, about tolerance and interpersonal relationships. In short, it makes me a better person.

Case in point: A few days ago I was thinking about the novel I’m currently working on and found myself getting overwhelmed by the number of themes and scenes I’m developing. Although I have an outline in place, I don’t have all the details sorted yet and holding the whole story in my head felt like an impossible task. I was trying to eat the watermelon in one bite.

Of course the only way to write a novel is word by word, beat by beat, scene by scene. If I can just remember that, then the process of writing a novel shrinks to but one small task: writing a sentence.

I quickly realized that this is not just true of writing – it’s true of many, many things in life. So often I avoid doing certain things because they are BIG and OVERWHELMING and I’m tired and would rather troll for free images on Flickr. But actually there are no big tasks, only small ones:

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Stand and Deliver: How to talk without speaking.

It’s been a tumultuous few months – new writing, new projects, a novel underway, protests on the mountain where I live, interviews with media worldwide, kooky criticism from the Premier, Christmas, and even signing with a new agent. A new agent for me, that is. Carolyn herself isn’t new. But she’s not old either. I mean she’s old enough to be an agent but not so old that she reminisces about the days of huge advances and rock star authors. Which were, I must admit, interesting times…

Okay, that’s enough.

Even though there was a point to that, which I’ll return to in a moment. What I was saying before I indulged my “right parenthesis deficit disorder” is that part of the reason I haven’t been blogging is that I’ve been writing other things. Crazy, interesting, and exciting things that I bet you’d love to get your filthy mitts on. And you will. I’ll keep you posted on when, where, and how. For now, just know that my Twitter hashtag is for reals: #amwriting.

Well, except for last weekend.

Because last weekend I was taking a public speaking workshop called Stand, Speak, Soar! That’s right, I actually volunteered to spend two days with knocking knees and a papery mouth. I expected an intensive course on the usual technique-focused stuff: how to engage your audience without hemming and hawing, how to handle distractions, how to avoid looking like a vapid idiot should you completely forget what you’re saying, how to avoid rambling on so long that your audience forgets what it was you were talking about in the first place. (See above mentioned disorder). But this workshop was different because it wasn’t just about technique.

It was about personal power.

Stand, Speak, Soar is a two day active workshop where each participant makes more than thirty speeches to a room full of strangers. Thirty plus speeches, and only a topic to guide you. Sounds like hell, right? That’s because it was. But only the first couple of times. Before long, and to my great surprise, I found that standing up and bullshitting improvising was a rush. I could get up there and actually think up stuff to say – entertaining and insightful stuff. From quantum physics to psychology to hockey to fermenting. People listened. They even laughed and clapped and cheered. Talk about a boost to the self-confidence!

And yes, I lost my train of thought many times over, but that ended up being a good thing because I learned that I can relax and recover. I can rely on my brain to concoct interesting stories and insights on the fly. Even if I’m clueless about the subject I’m supposed to be speaking on, I am able to present my ignorance in a fun and engaging way. How cool is that?

The implications for writing are obvious.

If I can trust myself to address total strangers with poise, awareness, humor, and a modicum of intelligence, surely I can sit down to a computer screen (or notebook) and start talking. This goes back to something I was saying last year: it doesn’t need to be perfect at first. In fact, it shouldn’t be. This is even more true in writing than in public speaking.

In writing, the important thing is to put a bunch of words on the page. Perhaps it’s an adventure story, or a description of breakfast with Aunt Betty. Perhaps it’s a blog post. (Chris!) Whatever you’re writing, the important thing is to get the words tumbling.

Flow is more important than polish.

(Tweet that!)

A friend of mine likens this first draft to a lump of clay. Ugly, misshapen, and nothing like an ashtray. BUT AT LEAST YOU HAVE THE CLAY. You’ve got something to work with.

Think about that for a second.

What would happen if you tried to make a sculpture bit by perfect bit?

Here’s a perfect hand. Just excellent. You can even see the veins and fingernails! And these ears – golly, they’re perfect! Same with these shoulders – every supple muscle vigorous with life!

But paste these masterworks together and you don’t end up with a masterpiece.

You end up with Frankenstein.

Or not even that – because at least Frankenstein was alive. What you’d have is more like a museum of exquisite body parts. Ew.

So yes, public speaking (and writing) can be about personal empowerment. About learning to trust that our efforts don’t always have to be perfect in order for us to succeed. It’s a great lesson for a writer – especially one prone to putting off his blogging efforts because he thinks he doesn’t have time to make it perfect. And I don’t. So here’s my clay. Misshapen perhaps, but whole and living.

Train Wreck

A Conference of Train Wrecks

Just back from three days at the Surrey International Writers Conference. Three days of sessions on the craft and business of writing, as well as keynote speakers (Cory Doctorow! Chuck Wendig! Laura Bradbury! Others!) and a whole lot of networking. I listened to Don Maass describe how to write settings that readers will want to live in. Robert Wiersema gave his ideas on how to make readers cry and drove his point home by bringing his audience to tears. Chuck Wendig made his case for how to develop kick ass characters (we ended up outlining a story about a missing child whose parents opt to cope with the tragedy by CLONING the child). David Corbett steamrollered my brain with his rapid-fire erudition and thoughts on how writers can use various types of moral argument to develop plot and character. Larry Brooks and I had a wonderful chat about story structure and character (my notes from his book Story Engineering live on my office wall). Peter Rubie discussed voice and how you can make yours better (hint: practice the right things). By Sunday my brain was ready to hesplode.

The last session I attended was Liza Palmer’s “Your Voice, Your Career.” I expected another class full of tips, and there were plenty of those (including creating a Pinterest page for your characters!) but, for me, much of what made the session work was just Liza herself. She stood in front of her audience, laughing, digressing, talking a mile a minute, sometimes forgetting her place but then getting on with things anyway. None of the hiccups mattered.

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Lonely Road

Insight is a quiet beast

Many of my life’s epiphanies happen when I’m busy doing something other than looking for the meaning of life. Showering, cooking, driving, jogging. Things that require a bit of attention but not total focus. In fact, I’ve had so many personal epiphanies while hiking and folding laundry that I’ve become curious about it. Why is a little distraction good for insight?

My best guess is that activity quiets the mind – that conscious, thinking part of the mind that is usually humming like an air conditioner through our every waking moment (I’m talking here about executive function in the prefrontal cortex for you science nerds). For example, if I’m busy chopping carrots, I suspect that my brain hands over more control to the motor control regions of my brain and less to the self-conscious, idea editing part of my brain. While I’m still free to think, it’s likely to be a little less structured, a little more freeform. Like a child on the beach, rambling around in the sand, looking at all the foamy surf, the pretty stones and seashells, the smashed bits of crab. There’s no agenda here, except to keep rambling.

In this way, distracted thinking is a bit like meditation. A regular sitting practice not only enhances one’s powers of concentration, but focusing on the breath for long periods frees other regions of the brain to rest and loosen up. In other words, to get quiet.

A 2012 study from the University of Leiden revealed that meditation can positively affect two key components of creativity: divergent thinking (which generates new ideas, like the kid finding trinkets on the beach) and convergent thinking (which figures out how to use those ideas, like the kid realizing that sea glass might make awesome jewellery). Put these two kinds of thinking together and you end up with novels, lightbulbs, antibiotics, and iPhones.

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Hopped up on blog hops (plus squirrels)

Last week the amazing Danika Dinsmore invited me to participate in a “blog hop.” After much consideration (.00257 seconds), I said, “Abso*****lutely! What’s a blog hop?”

A blog hop, it turns out, is a themed pass-it-along blog post. The theme for this one is Writing Process and, specifically, these three questions:

  1. What am I working on?
  2. Why do I write what I do?
  3. How does my writing process work?

Well, gird your loins folks because here are my fascinating and informative answers.

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Who is the Doctor?

The Who Doctor

One of my favourite shows in the history of ever is Doctor Who. I remember a little of the original series and though I enjoyed it, it never captured me the way the new series has. Now I just need to hear the theme song and my mood improves. I get all dork-buckety and start speaking in a mock English accent. Ehlaoh.

There are a hundred reasons to love Doctor Who – the adventure, the humor, the wildly inventive stories – but I think the biggest reason I’ve come to love the Doctor is character.

I started with the wonderful Christopher Eccleston as The Doctor. His devil-may-care attitude and his ability to convey intense emotion with the merest shift in facial expression held me spellbound. Billie Piper as Rose Tyler was impossible not to watch, and impossible not to root for. She seemed human. Fragile. But also blessed with an intrepid curiosity that made us believe she would climb into that phone box with a Yorkshire-voiced alien. Rose and the Doctor were a winning team and I was ready to follow them anywhere across space and time.

But then the unthinkable happened. Christopher Eccleston left. Regenerated right out of the Tardis. Sure, it was part of the script but I was heartbroken. The role of the Doctor would now be played by some guy called David Tennant. It was a sad end to what could have been the best television series ever. No one could replace Eccleston as the Doctor because he was so perfect: muscular, energetic, occasionally manic. He was, as he would say, fantastic. Now I was stuck with a wispy Scotsman I’d never heard of. This would suck. This would be the end of the show…

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