RSS

Category Archives: Self-Reflection

(Personal) Spit and Vinegar into Clear Water

Buddhism 150I think most Buddhists, if we’re really honest with ourselves deep down, flirt with the daydream of what we’d look like enlightened. I know personally I would love to resemble Budai, the eternally-laughing bodhisattva known for his jovial attitude, wisdom, contentment, and the fact that you can rub his belly for good luck. In my daydream, I would move through the world with a wide smile and ready laugh, meeting everyone in my travels with the same abundant good humor whether they were friend or foe. Of course, these daydreams about my enlightenment are ironically a barrier to my enlightenment. They move me away from who I am in the present — an already-enlightened being too distracted to realize it.

This daydream does something a bit more subtly damaging, too. Instead of accepting the parts of myself that are difficult to absorb I excise them to mold myself in the image of this laughing Buddha. Gone is the brief but intense flash of anger; gone too is the persistent static of anxiety and fear that thrums through my veins. Self-doubt, an easily-overwhelmed brain, impulsive and puzzling behavior — all mysteriously absent. As much as I love the idea that I would be Budai, the truth is I would not be; I would simply be myself, as imperfect as always, but mindful of my imperfections in a way that allowed me to express the Dharma in a truly unique way.

It’s important for me to remember this, especially these days. For a very long time I have built my energy around the hope that if I believed hard enough, I would unlock something within myself that loved everyone without reservation. I wanted to be the embodiment of loving-kindness, of compassion in even the most difficult circumstances. This is a not-so-secret of mine: the most beautiful thing in the world to me is a moment of small grace in a hopeless situation, those automatic gestures that speak to the spark within me, that gives me hope that for most people the basic state of humanity if collaboration and love.

One of the reasons this year has been so rough on me is that this dream of mine is dying and I have no idea what to replace it with. Reconnecting with my family and spending time briefly in Baltimore has shown me what life is like for too many people who have lived their entire lives in a hostile and unforgiving world; any sense of compassion and connection is seen as a weakness, and something even as basic as a smile is not to be trusted. Everyone has an angle, not because they’re selfish, but because it has been ingrained in generations of black Americans that there is absolutely no one who will look out for them; they’re on their own, and the more quickly that’s realized the better able they will be to get theirs and keep it.

Some brothers and sisters in the city are so desperate for connection that they’ll see any attempt to give it freely as an opportunity to tap the well dry. While it’s understandable, given their background and experience, it doesn’t make the reality of it any less unpleasant. I find myself pulling back more and more to protect myself from being drained completely, but at the same time I feel intensely selfish for doing so. I left Baltimore, and over a very long time and through painful effort eventually managed to build a decent life for myself. I have a loving husband and amazing friends. I make decent money. How could I not want to go back to the place I came from and help others to do the same thing?

It makes me feel like a bad person to not be generous. Aren’t people with compassion supposed to be? Isn’t that how you prove loving-kindness?

At the same time, I find it increasingly difficult to be compassionate and loving towards those people who have demonstrated time and again that my life, my rights, and my happiness mean less to them than preserving the status quo or taking a hard look at the inherent problems in our society. When I see someone making excuses for fascists, white nationalists, misogynists, bigots and other anti-social people I am filled with a rage that I have worked hard to manage and redirect towards positive action. But this is happening so often that I’m angry all the time; exasperated that there are so many people who are still silent and equivocating even though it’s so obvious that the current administration is filled with incompetent, criminal racists but that this is the result of decades of cultivating distrust of the government, racially-coded dog whistles, and the persistent preservation of institutionalized inequality. I used to believe that you had to be patient with everyone, for they were fighting a battle you could not see. But now we’re in a place where these people mean to do me real harm; I cannot be patient with someone who doesn’t see a problem with a world that thinks my continued existence is a threat to its survival.

So I am taking an increasingly hard stance on politics. I’m ending long friendships with people that I genuinely liked, because they voted for a man who is damaging the ideals of this country beyond repair. I can no longer tolerate people who have a problem with Colin Kaepernick but no problem whatsoever with police who brutalize and kill people of color without even a trial. I can no longer ignore that these people would rather be blind to the real fear and anger I have about my country than think about how they’ve been implicit in the progression of white supremacy and make deeply uncomfortable changes. I just don’t have it in me any more to give these people any quarter. But does that make me a bad Buddhist? Does that mean I simply can’t achieve boundless compassion for all people, for all times?

I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it does me no good to judge these feelings as bad, or keep trying to run away from them. They are who I am at this moment, and as such they are as much a part of this enlightened and distracted being as the love and equanimity I feel. I cannot sit with something that I refuse to recognize.

So I have to be honest with myself — and with all of you — about how I feel. I’m angry, all the time. I’m very scared that we will not be able to find a way out of this. Even if we impeach Trump and remove him from office, we still have a major political party that was willing to bring us to the brink of fascism to hold on to power — and that party has rigged the system through gerrymandering and voter suppression to make it easier that they keep themselves in state legislatures, governor’s mansions, and Congress. Even if we make sweeping changes to reset that, we still face the existential threat of climate change — the same issue we’ve been talking about for 50 years without meaningful progress or even complete willingness to make progress. There’s the runaway train of capitalism that replaces compassion with competition and will not stop until it is forced to crash, killing most of the people trapped on board. These problems may not be insurmountable, but they will require coordinated and sustained effort to solve. We are nowhere close to that, and we’re running out of time to get there. In this environment, it’s so easy to despair. I struggle against that every day. It takes more and more effort to try; what’s the point of succeeding in a world that seems determined to destroy itself anyway? Why bother being kind in a world where kindness is weakness to be taken advantage of? Why keep shouting into a void that wants nothing more than to render me invisible?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m having a tough time with this. I’m hoping that facing it will help me find a way through.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on August 16, 2017 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

Tags: , , , ,

I’m…37? Yeah, 37.

Self Improvement 150Yesterday I celebrated my 37th birthday by watching Kubo and the Two Strings, playing two rounds of mini-golf, and having a dinner out with a few friends. It was tremendously fun, and I really appreciate folks coming out to help me ring in another personal new year. I have amazing friends, and to say that I appreciate all of you would be an understatement. You inspire me, you encourage me, you elevate me closer to being the rabbit I would like to be. Thank you all so much for being in my life.

Year #36 for me was a pretty big one. I went back to school for a time, reconnected with my family in fairly tragic circumstances, fought with despair and anger about the direction our country is going, and always kept trying to build on the gains that I’ve made — wherever they might be. Through the loss of my sister and helping my mother, the passage of time and the inevitability of death have been weighing on me. In three years, I’ll be 40; it’s such a strange thing to write because of the weight we place on middle age. In a lot of ways, it feels like we should be calcifying into the person we are by then; change happens much more slowly, through concentrated and difficult effort.

That doesn’t feel like the arc of my life at all — or the arc of most of the people I know. Human beings are nothing if not adaptable, and I watch as my friends struggle to cope with the setbacks of life, changing and strengthening through their experiences. Some of us have figured out our path and the struggle becomes how to walk it consistently; others of us are still seeking out a foothold that will allow us to see the way forward. But no matter who we are, we are constantly changing, molding ourselves towards our goals and the times, becoming the people we need to be.

To be honest, it’s been a joy to watch — and to experience. For all the difficulties this year has brought me, it’s helped me to see how change can be weathered and how the support of the community can be essential for that. When Teneka died suddenly back in April, so many people stepped in to help when they really didn’t have to. They gave me emotional support, direct assistance, financial support; knowing that I didn’t have to face this nightmare alone helped pull me through one of the most difficult parts of my life. It restored my faith in humanity at a time I badly needed it, and it helped encourage me to try and do the same for others. This tragedy, and all of the chaos that followed, made me stronger and more compassionate. I have everyone who helped to thank for that.

Looking towards the future, it’s easy to be frightened and overwhelmed. Personally, it feels like there’s an ugly undercurrent in our society bubbling up to the surface, threatening to consume us all. Beyond an erosion of trust in our institutions — our governments, our media, our businesses — there seems to be an erosion of trust in the concept of society itself; it feels like so many of us distrust the goodness within our fellows, that the purpose of our lives is to take as much as we can for ourselves and maybe the people closest to us while we can do that. The American Dream isn’t a just and prosperous society; it’s elevating the “virtue” of selfishness above all.

This kind of thinking will lead to our ruin. We have not evolved to be a purely self-absorbed species; we are a social animal, built for collaboration and cooperation. We share this planet with other human beings with different ideologies, cultures, histories and perspectives; we share this planet with other animals who depend on us to make sure we keep things in balance as much as our limited understanding will allow us. We can’t focus only on the things that we have while ignoring the suffering of others. We can’t preserve our safety and prosperity if our neighbor is poor and in danger. We can’t keep taking whatever we want without making sure there’s something left for others, for our children.

I really don’t know how we rebuild our trust in our society. I don’t know how to encourage people to care about each other. I can only trust in the goodness of my fellow beings, know the selflessness and compassion I have seen in others, and see that in everyone I meet. I can only treat people as if they were their best selves already, because in so many ways they are — fearless and resourceful and far more beautiful than anyone gives themselves credit for. I want to be a mirror that reflects the Buddha-nature of everyone I meet.

But that takes a lot of difficult and consistent practice. In order to shine and reflect as well as a still pond, I must first smooth out the ripples of fear and anger within me. In order to reflect Buddha-nature, I have to realize my own.

That, I think, is what I will strive to do with myself in year #37. I’ve lived through a difficult year, and I know that I can live through another one. That’s not enough. I want to develop an equanimity through difficulty that helps me move through my own fear and anger; I want to be calm and reflective in even the most difficult of circumstances. That sense of stillness doesn’t mean inaction, or disinterest in the world around me. It means that no matter what happens, I can engage with a clear mind and a full heart. It means recognizing the poisoning influences of fear and anger, working with those difficult emotions, and ensuring my actions don’t only come from those places. That is much easier said than done.

Thankfully, I have 36 years of experience to draw upon. I have the help of my community. I have the wisdom forged by countless difficulties through thousands of years, lived and remembered through the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves. I have the hope that one day, we will look at someone different and see not a stranger or an enemy, but ourselves and our capacity for boundless compassion and love. I only hope that we won’t make things too difficult for ourselves before that happens. I only hope that we don’t fall to our fear and anger and destroy ourselves.

I love all of you. I know I’m scared. I know I’m angry. But I am choosing to struggle past that. There is something so much better on the other side.

 

Tags: , , , ,

(Personal) Ashes In The Mouth

Myth 150We all know how difficult family can be. Our siblings know all of the buttons that will drive us insane, no matter how carefully we try to cover them up. There’s something about a comment from our mom and dad — even though they might swear it’s innocuous — that feels like a judgement passed on every decision we’ve made in our lives. Even in the best of times dealing with our folks can take a lot out of us. They know us intimately in ways most others don’t, but at the same time there are all these parts of ourselves we’ve learned to hide from them.

My mother and I have a relationship that’s more complicated than most, I would imagine. I left home for good a few weeks before I turned 19 and I’ve only seen my mom again earlier this year, for my sister’s funeral. While I can’t say we’ve grown closer over the experience, it has re-established the difficult bond we have with each other. She’s now 83 years old and under a host of medical conditions; she can’t walk without falling, she can’t see so well, and there’s a lot about modern life that confuses her. After the death of her only biological child last year and the recent sudden loss of my sister, I’m the only child she has left. If I don’t take care of her, who will?

It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure. Mom has always been a difficult woman to deal with, and that hasn’t changed with age. She’s very particular about everything, even the amount of time it takes to get what she wants. It’s hard to negotiate with her because she’ll forget things that she doesn’t want but agrees to do and never lets go of the things she does — no matter how impossible they might be. Whether or not this is on purpose, we’ll never know.

The past two weeks have been especially trying. Mom is currently sitting in an inpatient rehab facility to hopefully regain mobility. Advanced arthritis and multiple falls have made a constant pain in her hip so bad it hurts her to move; she has been on pretty heavy-duty painkillers for it who knows how long. Now, they’re trying to ween her off the habit-forming stuff, giving her medication that doesn’t work as well, and putting her through pretty intense, painful physical therapy as much as they can. Mom doesn’t want any of this. She wants to be back in her own home, or at least in her own hospital, and she blames the caretaker that’s stepped in to handle her and me that this isn’t happening.

Phone calls to Baltimore are being made every day. Since Mom can’t do it, I’m in charge of trying to settle a mountain of debt on a fixed Social Security income (which has been reduced for reasons I can’t figure out). Utilities must be returned to good standing, property taxes must be handled, medical bills have to be settled; then we can turn our attention to seeing if the house is something that can be saved or if it’s something that can only be condemned. Since Mom has made the decision she can’t make things work with the caretaker, all of this has to be done quickly.

That, in a nutshell, is why I went dark last week and why I’ve made next to no progress on my word count and fundraising for the Clarion Write-A-Thon. For the past couple of weeks, life has been work, Mom, helping a friend with his cat and whatever small bits of rest I can manage in between. I can’t say I’ve been dealing with it all that well. I’ve gotten grumpier, quiet, and resentful.

One thing in particular continues to rattle me: a big argument I had with my mother last weekend. Fed up with the constant calls and texts from people passing along messages that Mom was unhappy, or that she was savaging the reputation of the caretaker who had taken her in, I spent an hour on the phone just letting her have it. If it was just about the way she had treated someone who tried to do a good turn and is getting punished for it, that would be one thing — but it wasn’t. I yelled at her about the thing she said to me when I came out to her, as well as the fact that she’s still denied it all these years later; I yelled at her about the money and time I’ve sunken into the family this year, and how I had to give up a semester of school and a summer session to handle things; I yelled at her about how whatever I do is not good enough for her, how I’m never appreciated for trying to do the right thing.

Of course all of this has been within me for a long time, and I accept that. What’s harder to accept is that these thoughts and emotions weren’t uncovered and dealt with in my own manner; it erupted over a phone call to an old woman in intense pain, who is very lonely, who has lost almost everyone close to her. My mother was not very good at raising me, and she did a lot of damage, but knowing what her life was like, where she came from, and who she had to rely on, I really do think she did the best she could.

There are a number of things that I won’t be able to forgive her for, and I accept that as well. But it’s clear that I have to do something with these difficult emotions — name them, explore them, accept them. Otherwise they’ll continue to curdle inside me, poisoning me in ways that I won’t be able to name or recognize until I’m screaming at an old woman on the phone all over again.

The work continues. I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to do with the Write-A-Thon at this point, but I’ll keep trying to write as much as possible. In the meantime, I’ll have to pull back a bit to tend to my emotional landscape.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on July 24, 2017 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

Tags: , ,

(Writing) Clarion Write-A-Thon, Week 3

Self Improvement 150During week 2 of the Clarion Write-A-Thon, I set a goal for 15,000 total words written and $200 raised for the Clarion Workshop. How did I do? Well, I got up to 11,951 words and raised $175 so far; I didn’t hit either goal, but that’s all right. It just means that I need to kick it into high gear this week!

My goal for week 3 of the Write-A-Thon is to hit 25,000 words by midnight next Saturday; that means 13,049 words written this week (more than I’ve written in the two weeks of the fundraiser), but I’m confident I can hit that. I’d like to raise $250 this week, which means another $75 in donations. That shouldn’t be TOO much trouble, but I’ll definitely have to raise my fundraising game to do it.

So what happened last week? Honestly, I ran out of steam at the end of the week and I’m not entirely sure why. These things don’t need a reason, of course. My brain chemistry might have just decided it needed to be on a low ebb, so when I really needed to push ahead I throttled back and tried to take it easier. While I don’t regret doing that — self-care is absolutely important, after all — it is a little concerning. It would be best to find a way to be relaxed AND productive, but that’s having your cake and eating it too, especially when you’re trying to build a habit.

My writing, especially towards the end of the week, was slow mostly because I started doubting what I was doing. It’s difficult to find your voice when your inner critic keeps blasting you for pulling away from your comfort zone or taking risks. I’ve gotten better at dealing with that, but I’m still not 100%. Especially with short stories, the closer I get to an ending the harder it gets to drive towards it.

Endings terrify me, and I’m not sure why. My creative process doesn’t really account for them, which is kind of strange. I think it’s because endings are SO important, especially when it comes to the kinds of stories I like to write, that thinking about them just fills me with a white-hot dread that overloads me. What does an ending look like? I ask myself. I don’t know, I reply, but does anything ever TRULY end? Fair enough, I say, and think of eighty new stories all with no idea how to pull them together for a satisfying end.

So it’s clear overcoming that fear is something that will need to happen. That’ll take a lot of work, dedicated practice, and focus. The good news is that “Demolition” will be the very first chance I’ll get to work on that, with the ending scenes being written either today or tomorrow, depending. It’ll feel really great to have a completed first draft of that for a “win”, so that’ll be a big part of my focus for the next couple of days. Once that’s done, I’ll compile it and let it rest for a little bit, then turn my attention to the next Jackalope Serial Company project.

Here at The Writing Desk, I’ll have the final batch of DisneyFest reviews up on Wednesday and a bit of Changeling fiction up on Friday. “The Wayfarer House” was all right, but again — I feel the ending was weak. Too many bits of fiction use slipping into unconsciousness as a means to end, especially when it feels abrupt, so I have to work on finding other ways of gracefully exiting a piece after 1500 words or so. That’s the aim Friday: really bring the piece home with a strong, considered ending.

That’s my plan for this week! I’m off today for an oral surgery consultation and Friday will hopefully be nice and productive, so the three-day work-week should really help me get caught up on what I need to. How about you folks? Where are you with your own creative projects, and what’s your artistic plan for the coming week? Let me know in the comments, and be sure to pass along any tips you might have to hold yourself to your goals!

As always, if you would like to donate to the Clarion Write-A-Thon, my profile page is here. A donation will send money to the Clarion Workshop regardless of my word count, and would be much appreciated! However, a pledge will encourage me to hit my goal if you’d like to go that way: a pledge of 1/10 cent per word ($0.001) would mean $50 if I hit my goal, while a pledge of 1/20 cent per word ($0.0005) would mean $25. Please chip in, if you can!

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 10, 2017 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

Tags: , ,

(Writing) Clarion Write-A-Thon, Week 2

Self Improvement 150This summer I’ll be participating in the Clarion Write-A-Thon, a fundraiser for the Clarion Workshop. What is Clarion, you ask? Why, it’s the pre-eminent six-week intensive for budding writers in sci-fi and fantasy and it’s going on RIGHT NOW. The Write-A-Thon takes place during the workshop as a way to encourage writers to…well, do what they do best AND to make sure this wonderful resource is able to attract the very best teachers and students every year. This year, my goal is to write 50,000 words and raise $500 in donations.

In week 1, I raised $125 ($100 in pledges, $25 in donations) and I’ve written 4500 words. Not bad, but I know I can do so much better! If you’re interested in helping out, you can make a pledge (where your final donation is tied to my word count) or a donation at my author’s page here.

Last week was a little crowded. The 4×10 schedule is something I’m still adjusting to, and there were a LOT of calls to Baltimore. Mom is in a rehab center, trying to regain mobility in her hips, and she’s having a rough time. As much as she says she likes being alone, she really does need frequent contact with familiar people and that’s harder to come by where she is. She’s also changed pain medications, so I’m fairly sure there are withdrawal issues there (she was taking prescription codeine). That, combined with loads of free time to ruminate on the loss of her daughter and husband, is just not putting her in a great place.

That’s given me incentive to move forward on a number of things, though. We’re going to have to do something about the house; I’m thinking that it might be a good idea to have someone go through it, room by room, to tidy up and mark everything that is OK for keeping, salvageable, and what should just be tossed. I really need to try and get Mom’s finances in order. There are so many outstanding bills and services that should be scrapped, so I’ll need to make a ton of calls there just to simplify things. And once that’s done, we can turn towards a few long-term projects, like finding an assisted-living home for her and (finally) going through the process of handling the estate and benefits of my missing (and presumed dead) father.

That’s a lot to do over the summer, in addition to building a solid writing practice. But I’m for it! Last week I worked on “Demolition” for the most part, the short story that a generous patron won during the LAST Write-A-Thon I’ve participated in. I finally shaped an outline and are roughly ⅓ done with the first draft. The voice for one of the characters really came into its own in this really fun way, and I’m looking forward to ride that momentum through the end of the story. Hopefully, I’ll be finished with that this week — I’m thinking the final word count for the rough draft will be about 6000-6500 words.

In addition to that, I’ll be working on a few missives here at The Writing Desk. Wednesday, the penultimate set of reviews for DisneyFest will go up, with my take on Big Hero 6, Inside Out, and The Good Dinosaur. On Friday, the weekly fiction will shine a light on The Wayfarer’s House, a location that I’m building for my Baltimore World of Darkness setting.

All in all, the goal for this week is to bring my word count up to 15,000 (only counting short stories and The Writing Desk entries) and my total donations up to $200. Can I do it? YES I CAN! All that’s left is the doing.

Oh, and since this is my first entry this month, I thought I’d point you lovely folks to my Patreon, the Jackalope Serial Company. For the low low price of $1 per episode, you could receive serials featuring gay furry sci-fi and fantasy! This month’s serial is a “test run” for a shared universe I’d like to build with modern gay folks getting into all kinds of improbable shenanigans!

That’s it for today, now that I’ve spent this entire entry plugging things. See you on Wednesday, folks!

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 3, 2017 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

Tags: , , , ,

(Personal) Mission Statement

Myth 150This is an amazing world, inhabited by amazing people. We don’t have to go very far to see an animal or plant that does something incredible, if we stop to think about it. All around us, there are countless people each with their own rich inner worlds and intense, beautiful, heartbreaking stories. I think the single greatest challenge facing humankind today is the inability to maintain a perspective that allows us to live in harmony with each other and the world we share. This planet is the only home we’ve got, and as our population grows it’s going to be more and more important to focus on the impact each of us has on it and what that means for our friends, family, neighbors and fellow human beings. It’s frustrating to see that as thinking more about one another becomes more and more necessary for our survival, we seem to becoming more selfish, short-sighted and small-minded. I have no idea if this is a trend that can be stopped, much less reversed. But I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no hope of that happening, so I have to hope that it can — and will. It’s my mission in life to help connect people as much as possible, and to remind them that an attitude of collaboration is so much better than one of competition.

All of us move through our days with blinders, trapped in the narrative of our own making. We’re the protagonists of our stories, so everything that happens to us is filtered through that lens. If something prevents us from achieving our goals, it’s bad or unfair; if it gets us closer to where we want to be, then it’s great. The people who agree with us and help us out are good; those that don’t hold the same values as us, or who want something that we want, or who are just too different from us to relate to — they’re bad. Over time, this narrative becomes stronger and our belief in it absolute. We never question what the same reality looks like to someone else; we stop imagining what a situation looks like if we’re not the star of our own story.

So we start thinking that what’s good for us is good for everyone, or ignoring the complex and often invisible forces that have helped us along the way in addition to our own hard work. Our tolerance for other perspectives erodes, bit by bit, until we’re simply incapable of even imagining what the world looks like to someone else. We even become incapable of thinking that the world COULD look different to someone else. Our opinions become fact; other ones become wrong, even evil. We start to disconnect from more and more people until our world is small and hard, an oasis that must be defended from anything that would seek to change it. In extreme, everyone who doesn’t think exactly like we do becomes an enemy to strike down. Our way of life is a beacon of good; anything different, therefore, must be evil that is to be eradicated. Once that becomes our story, it’s nearly impossible to think it could be anything else.

But it has to be if any of us want to avoid a bad ending. We can’t keep alienating each other, dismissing the perspective and experience of other people. If we don’t learn to see what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes, we’re not going to stop fighting each other until no one’s left — or until there is nothing left to fight for.

I know where this idea can lead. So Jakebe, you might say, does that mean we have to understand why neo-Nazis see me as sub-human in order to avoid all-out war? Is that the message I’m supposed to take from this? Am I supposed to tolerate someone else’s awful idea just because not tolerating it means we can’t live together? No, of course not. Neo-Nazi ideology, or any intolerant, bigoted idea, should not be entertained or given quarter in civilized discourse. I cannot abide anyone who holds the idea that I’m fundamentally inferior simply because of who I am, and I cannot ask anyone else to do that either.

But, at the same time, the people who hold these ideas are not monsters. They are not fundamentally inferior, either. They hold abhorrent ideas and as long as they do I have no interest in entertaining them or their toxic perspective. But I try very hard not to forget that they’re people, and that whatever it is inside them that made them that way is also within me. That hatred, that fear, all of those awful emotions that make us shrink in on ourselves — that’s in me too. I could get there somehow, some day.

It’s very important for me to remember that, and to remind other people. We live in incredibly divisive times and just how our divisions are mended is really difficult for me to see. But we’re going to have to find a way to live together. And in order for that to happen, we have to stop seeing each other as monsters — or as pure evil, or unthinking hordes, or weak snowflakes, or enemies. We are connected, as difficult as that is to fathom, and each one of us has a hand in creating the world we live in. As flawed and frightening it is, we each have to look at what we’re doing to contribute to it for good or ill.

Personally, that means trying to be mindful of the role I play in someone else’s story. In every interaction, I try to be what someone needs in order to make their story that much better — though I know how often I fall off the mark. That doesn’t mean that I’m never challenging or that I never set myself up as an antagonist; if that’s what is needed, then that’s what I’ll do. I’m not going to subsume myself for the sake of someone else’s story.

It mostly means, though, that I won’t cause conflict needlessly if I can help it. I try to remind myself that each person who talks to me has their own story they’re moving through, and each “scene” with me is a chance to get them closer to where they want to be. If it feels like where they want to be is someplace that will actually lead to harm, I try to redirect that desire towards something better if I can help it; and if I can’t, then I try to be as honest and direct as possible. Which is the hardest, because I really get anxious about conflict.

As a writer, this means that I want to use my stories to remind people of the connections we share, the values that are most important to me, and ultimately a vision of what the world could be like if we just did a better job of looking out for one another. I want people to come away with a desire to engage with the world and with their fellow human beings; even if the story is a tragedy, I want it to be one that fosters compassion in someone else.

My life, my purpose, is to be structured around this goal. I want to live the way I’d want everyone to live — mindful of the responsibilities we have for one another, but to see that responsibility as a joy and an honor. To me, there is no greater thing than inspiring your fellow humans to live well, to encourage them to feel connected with the world around them, not above it or in enmity of it.

I know that I fail at this goal frequently, and I’m trying to get better. I may never achieve perfection with it, but that’s not the point; the point is the process, the attempt to get there. Even if I never reach my destination, the journey is what makes me a better person.

 

Tags: , ,

(Writing) The View From 10,000 Feet

Self Improvement 150There are a few things that are preventing me from finishing up stories on a consistent basis: a general lack of self-discipline, toxic perfectionism, time management skills, and an inability to stick through the end of a project. As I’ve gotten older and learned more about how my brain works, I’ve realized that developing a process for these things is probably the way to go. By breaking down each story into a series of actionable steps, the focus becomes about getting to the next part — not this free-floating, vague goal to eventually finish a short story some day.

Now that I’m nearly done with the editing pass for “Stable Love,” this monstrous commission that I had taken on years ago, I’m ready to move on to new stories — which is an excellent time to take a step back to develop some basic framework for how to move through writing them. This will be a work in progress, no doubt; I also realize that not every story is going to take to the same basic process, and some modifications will be needed from time to time. Still, we have to start somewhere, so let’s call this the beta version of my story-writing process, meant to take me from idea-generating to a story ready for submission or publication.

Since my big weakness is structure, I’ll need to take care that I pay attention to that in both the pre-writing and editing stages. With pre-writing, I’m hoping I can use character, setting and scene summaries to dive deep into the things that excite me most about the story, refining the core kernel so that it extends through pretty much everything else. What am I really doing with this story? What do I want to communicate to the reader? What do I want the audience to feel once they’ve finished? Answering those questions up front will give me something of a ‘north star’ to guide my decisions in writing and editing after that.

Pre-Writing. This is obviously the first step. I’m a bit of a pantser, mostly because attempts to plot my stories ahead of time don’t go so well. Main characters fight the plot, with some previously undiscovered trait or desire. I’ll think about a scene or direction for the story and decide that some other thing is way more exciting. Usually, the story is unrecognizable halfway through my planned outline because various changes add up.

So there has to be a better way to outline. In pre-writing, thinking about the kind of story I want to write, the effect I’d like it to have, and what the journey of the main character will be like is essential. Everything extends out from that, right? Especially in a short story, where there’s limited space to get the job done, you pretty much have to have that north star guiding every decision you make.

So: step one is figuring out the theme/purpose of the story — even if it’s just to titillate or have fun. After that, writing up the main character, the arc of their journey, and the conflict they need to deal with is the thing to do. From there, brainstorming other characters, situations and ideas to support that main theme should round things out from there.

When I’m done with pre-writing, I should have the main theme, the main character, the primary conflict and resolution, supporting characters, setting, and a rough skeleton of how things should go. For now, I’d like to stick to ‘tentpole’ plot points — the things that NEED to happen in order for the story to work — so I can forge a path towards them however the characters dictate.

First Draft. Now that I have a general direction for the story, the first draft is the pass with only one goal. FINISH. No editing, no doubling back, no overthinking. I’ve got the plan; stick to the plan. FINISH. There will be time for editing and revision later, but the most important thing is getting to write “THE END”. Once that’s done, chances are I’ll let the story marinate in its own juices for a few days to clear my head a bit and get the chance to look at it with fresh eyes.

Second Draft. After a few days’ rest for the story, I’d like to take it out of the drawer and read it over to see how much of it works. Here is where the bulk of the revisions will come. If there’s a better idea for getting the effect I want, or if the characters decide to take the story in a different direction, here is where that will happen. This draft, I think, will be the one where I look at all of the major stuff — theme, setting, character — to see if these aspects are consistent, interesting, and hold up well.

To be honest, I think this step will be the most difficult for me. It’s hard for me to read my own work, especially with a critical eye, and feel like I can actually work with it. I don’t know how many other writers have this problem, but I really hate reading my own stories — things will come off lame, or repetitive, or just boring. It’s much easier to just write something and throw it out there, forgetting about it once it’s been thrown up.

But honestly, that’s a form of cowardice and certainly no way to get better. Being able to take a hard look at your own work with an eye towards making it better is essential if I’m going to expect to get better as a writer. It’s also a way to encourage self-awareness, which might be the reason I have such a hard time with it. Right now, writing is a sensitive area for me, and most of us don’t like working with the parts of ourselves that get hurt easily.

Beta Read. Once the second draft is done, I’d like to submit the story to a few folks for a beta read. Depending on the story, the beta readers could be anyone from my writing group, a few close friends, or the patrons who are encouraging me to write more and write better. The feedback that I get from this group will help me know how close I’ve hit the target and which scenes, characters, or themes I should work on moving forward. It’s important to know that the story isn’t complete here; that it’s still a work-in-progress, but at this point it’s a good idea to show it to others for additional perspective.

Third Draft. This is where the final version of the story takes shape, more or less. Armed with the feedback of my beta readers and a clearer sense of what the actual North Star for my story should be, I can take a hard look at the pieces of the story — scenes, characters, transitions — and figure out how to make them strong and lean. Things that I like but don’t quite serve the story are excised here, and the basic structure of the narrative is set. This is also where I can settle in and try a new thing or two, planting seeds in early scenes that will bear fruit later. Since I know where the story is going, I can look for opportunities to plant signposts with that knowledge.

Polishing Draft. After a few more days in a drawer, it’s time to take out the story and polish it up. The plan is for this to be the final draft; knowing that the bulk of the story is where I want it to be, I can spend some energy “punching up” scenes, descriptions and characters so that they pop in ways that make the story as enjoyable as possible while also emphasizing the things that I really want to lean into. Once the story goes through it’s polished fourth draft, it’s ready to be submitted to a website or publication with the hope that it’ll be selected for something neat.

I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to write a story under this process; if I outline a week for each draft, that would make it a month for each one. I’m sure that’ll get faster as I become more confident and capable as a writer, and I really don’t mind the long gestation for the story. A story that makes slow progress towards publication is better than what I have been doing.

I read a blog entry on another site — I forget which or else I would link to it — that likened editing/drafting passes as hitting one circle closer to the bull’s eye each time, and I like that. That first draft, unless it’s a total disaster, should hit the outer ring of the target. Each edit should feel like a better shot, until at last you hit exactly where you’re aiming. As a young writer, I’m pretty sure I’ll have to settle for a more generous definition of the bull’s eye, but that’s OK. Getting closer with each story will almost certainly happen, and there’s simply no such thing as a perfect story.

Hopefully thinking of my writing process this way will encourage me to push through the difficulty of finishing up the draft as well as the humbling experience of reading over it and picking it apart. I know it’s silly to not want to read my own work while simultaneously hoping other people will (and like it), so that’s definitely an impulse I’ll have to get over.

What do you think, dear readers? Is this a fairly decent plan, or have I missed something? What are YOUR writing processes like? I’m really curious!

 
2 Comments

Posted by on June 12, 2017 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

Tags: , , , ,