It’s been a long time again, but it’s not been laziness that’s kept me from posting here. Without exaggeration, and without unnecessary detail, I can say that my world imploded. In the space of two days the life I thought I had, vanished. In the months since, I have started from scratch. New home, new job, new friends, new future.
All of us, I’m sure, have occasionally fantasized about picking up, moving on, and starting over. If only I could go somewhere far away, we think. Then I’d be someone new. As though a change of scenery could allow us to throw off our identity like an old coat.
But as William James so memorably put it, even “The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of the old order standing.” Bumping up against that realization can be pretty disheartening, especially if you’re committed to self-improvement.
According to some neuroscientists, over 95% of the thoughts we think each day are the same thoughts we had the day before. In other words, our trains of thought go mostly ‘round the same old track, clickity-clack, clickity-clack. We think in habitual patterns, turning over the same fears, the same hurts, the same if-onlys as the day before, all the while imagining ourselves to be living in the present moment.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Picture yourself voluntarily waking up at 3:15 am every morning for an entire month. Now imagine lurching around in the dark to find a notebook, flipping to a blank page, and writing whatever comes to mind. And now suppose I said this exercise could supercharge your productivity and make you more creative.
I know, I know… about as likely as a break-dancing squirrel. Right?
When I first heard about the so-called 3:15 Experiment, I shook my head. I mean, seriously, I have enough trouble sleeping as it is. Why on earth would I intentionally wake up in prime dreaming time just to scribble in my journal? What could possibly come of it, other than grumpy moods and a medical need for coffee? On the other hand, I’m very often awake at 3:15 anyway. So why not give it a go?
For the first few days I remained unconvinced. Sure, it was interesting to wake up and see what my semi-conscious mind had oozed in the wee hours. But the result was usually nonsensical drivel or a series of cringe inducing cliches. My heart longs for trampoline freedoms… Shudder.I stuck with it though and, after a few days, I noticed something unexpected and kinda cool.
My daytime writing was getting better.