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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Second Hand Scones

In Writing on February 25, 2013 at 7:52 am
My writing escapism consists of flour, sugar, cinnamon, and raisins...and a whole lotta butter.

My writing escapism consists of flour, sugar, cinnamon, and raisins…and a whole lotta butter.

Mark Twain is often credited with saying that all ideas are “second hand.” I think that the author of Ecclesiastes may have beat him to the punch on this point, likely plagiarizing it from someone else even earlier, but why nitpick? What actually matters is what we choose to do with this knowledge. In my case, I choose to make scones.

“What? Has she gone mad?,” you might think to yourself. “What do scones have to do with anything? How can one little pastry possibly fight against the ever-present and nagging pressure of the literary establishment?” You’d be wise to ask these questions, but the reality is that my scones won’t address any of these issues. What they do accomplish is that, for one brief moment, they allow me to narrow my worldview down to one tiny, butter-filled, cinnamon-kissed pastry.

Suddenly, the fact that I’m almost 30 and just launching my writing career, and the fact that, according to some of the literary greats, there’s really nothing new for me to contribute anyway – suddenly these things seem much less important. Scones, it seems to me, are the perfect mental escape route.

I intend to write for the rest of my life. It’s my true calling, ever since I wrote my first poem a long time ago, inspired by a winery poster at a restaurant. (Incidentally, the poem was an instant hit, going something like: “Sutter Home, butter home. There’s no place like butter.”) So long as I do write, however, I’ll make sure to stock a decent supply of flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and raisins as back-up.

If, at the end of my life, people say, “She always wanted to be a great writer,” but if, at that exact moment, someone chimes in and says, “But she sure did make a damn good scone,” then I believe my mission here on earth will have been reasonably discharged. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I bake it.

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Current Reading: Fish Whistle by Daniel Pinkwater. I discovered this hilarious collection of short stories from a tweet by Neil Gaiman (even better, it was free as an e-book). I’m halfway through and simply in awe of Pinkwater’s ability to pack so much story and hilarity into 500-word or less stories.

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Quelling my Inner Over-Achiever

In Work/Life Balance on January 7, 2013 at 11:09 pm
Beautiful winter sky before sunset.

Beautiful winter sky before sunset.

Happy New Year! Hope everyone had a delightful holiday. It’s about this time every year that the post-holiday hangover kicks in, that precise moment when we realize that the fun is over (for now) and we have to get back to our normal lives. Laundry, grocery shopping, paying the bills…the list goes on and on. I feel the post-holiday hangover too, but I am excited about what lies ahead.

Granted, I am typically an optimist, so I can’t help but think of all the possibility that comes with each new year. It’s not quite a tabula rasa situation, but there is some kind of mental release, perhaps a willingness to forgive ourselves for past mistakes and lapses, and an embracing of renewal and improvement that makes the new year always seem brighter. I am reminded of a Vietnamese friend who shared the Tet tradition of throwing out all the old chopsticks from the past year as a symbolic gesture of ushering out the old and welcoming the new. I am drawn to such meaningful gestures, however small they may seem.

My own new year’s tradition would not be complete without setting some goals for the coming months. Instead of choosing broad, over-arching resolutions for the entire year, I prefer to set smaller, achievable goals for each quarter, which help me track my progress and, if need be, can be tweaked for subsequent quarters. I know that certain quarters have begun to embrace the “no goal” lifestyle (think Leo Babauta), but as a strong “J”  in the Myers-Briggs world, I find that setting goals helps direct my energy in a constructive way. There are times when I wish I could simply “let go” and let life happen as it may, and I think I’ve succeeded in doing more of that over the last few years. For me, “letting go” is only possible, however, within the context of some basic guideposts.

I’ve set two goals for the next three months. Goal 1: Write for at least 45 minutes every morning. I chose the morning because I really am a morning person – I’d much rather wake up an hour early than stay awake an hour later. The early mornings are also free of distractions. My partner is still soundly snoring in bed, our noisy neighbors are dreaming of sheep, and it’s just me, my cup of tea, and my thoughts.

Goal 2: Meditate for at least 10 minutes each day. This is the part where I admit that this particular goal is being resurrected from last year. Exactly one year ago I set out to start a daily meditation habit…and failed miserably. Part of this had to do with setting too many goals. Part of it had to do with not following through on my commitment. I failed, and I recognize it, but now I really want to make it happen. The peace of mind, clarity, and focus (i.e. “The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time” ala Tony Schwartz) that come from meditation will be most welcome in my daily life.

The fact that I’ve narrowed my vision down to two goals doesn’t mean that these are the only areas that I’d like to improve. If I were to write a sample list of all of my unachieved goals and desires, it’d look something like this: do more yoga, eat less meat, spend less money, play the piano more frequently, get rid of extraneous belongings, practice random acts of kindness, grow more plants. Some of these things will happen this quarter and some of them will not. For me, I know that setting more than these two goals would lead to a scenario in which I haphazardly accomplish a little bit of this and a little bit of that without ever making solid progress on anything. I know because I’ve done it before. That’s the kicker about trying to be an over-achiever; if you don’t wisen up and learn to focus, you may never get anything meaningful done, and if you do, it may be at the cost of your own sanity.

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What are some of your goals for 2013? How do you go about turning them into reality? And how do you stop yourself from trying to over-achieve?

Currently Reading: Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favorite authors. I’m only 10 percent done, but it’s promising already.

Friends with Skills

In Friendship on November 12, 2012 at 11:24 am

A mini-cupcake toast to friendship!

Tis’ the season to be thankful. Thankful for family, for friends, for employment, for food and shelter. Thankful for the democratic freedoms that we enjoy, for the people who have fought for those freedoms, and for all the other people working to make the world a better, healthier, happier place. I actually keep a daily gratitude journal, so for me this time of year means pulling out this journal and reminding myself of all of the wonderful things – both simple and life-changing – that have happened throughout the year. In looking over  the 2012 entries, I’ve been struck by a recurring theme: I am thankful for my friends with skills.

Skills is a loose term, which is my intention. In the more traditional sense, it can refer to the photographer friend who volunteers to help out with wedding stuff or the handyman friend who fixes your running toilet. On the less traditional side, what about the friend who is an incredible motivator for exercising? Or the group of writer friends who are kicking off their writing careers and provide incredible emotional support? Then there are the friends willing to drop everything to help you move and and the friends who are incredible cooks and love to feed you. Since it’s not my own personal strenght, I am also especially grateful for the friends who are caring and empathetic listeners.

I can attach a name and face to every one of these skills, which makes me a very fortunate and blessed person. I have been privileged to develop a truly unique and talented group of friends who have been my succor and strength over the last ten years. I hope that I have been able to give them as much as they have given me. It’s worth noting that, after I last wrote about my goal to be self-sufficient from my writing, I was approached by several friends gave me big hugs and offered to support me in any way possible. To those friends, I want to give an especially big thank you. Thank you for believing. Whenever self-doubt begins to creep up, I will remember those moments and will remember your kind words. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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Speaking of friends, I recently read a deeply beautiful, heart-wrenching book by Gail Caldwell titled Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship. For anyone who has experienced grief, Caldwell’s words will resonate. Her writing captures the strength of friendship, the life-changing power of loss, and the complicated process of learning to live with grief. Above all, the story is a reminder of the importance of valuing the people in our lives at every opportunity possible.

Daydreams

In Writing on October 31, 2012 at 8:42 pm

In the spirit of halloween…

Forgive the picture – I just couldn’t resist. After all, it’s Halloween, and instead of going around in a crazy costume, I’m sitting here at my kitchen table thinking big thoughts. Figured I’d drag a picture out of the old photo archives just to set the mood.

Strange picture aside, there are important things to report here in Kinetic Beans land. Most important of all is the fact that I’ve set a goal for my writing, namely, that within five years I’d like to be self-sufficient and living on my writing alone. Not that far in terms of a lifetime, but plenty of time for me to take real, concrete action. I would like to say that I could be self-sufficient in half that time, perhaps even in a year or two. And it’s absolutely possible. I do, however, want to maintain a sense of reality. It will take time to build a portfolio, time to network and build ties in the literary community, and time to grow in my own right as a writer. It will happen word by word. Every minute, every thought that I put into my writing will help lead me down the path that I’ve envisioned.

We all have to eat. Me especially, because I get really cranky when I don’t constantly have something to munch on. What I really mean to say is that ever since I was young, I have wanted to be a writer. Or a better way to put it is that I’ve been writing since I was able to barely scribble. But when I reached high school, my well-intentioned grandparents, who I held in very high esteem, pulled me aside one day and gave me a lecture on the facts of life. Namely, the fact that writers are poor. And starving. And live in attics. And they made it clear, that while it was sweet that I wanted to write, that I really needed to have a bigger plan, some way to build a successful career for myself so that I could eat, dress nicely, and buy lots of shiny new things for myself and my imaginary future children.

To their credit, my parents never said this to me – well, at least not in these exact words. Instead, my parents almost single-mindedly pursued the great American Dream: free enterprise. Or should I say, Amway. I grew up in a household where the word “job” was considered a bad word. Instead, I was taught, I should try to build a lucrative Amway business that would entirely eliminate the need for a regular day job and then spend the rest of my life doing whatever the heck I wanted to be. Either way you spun it, the message coming at me was clear: writing can wait until later, the important thing is to make lots of money. After you’ve done that, go ahead and write to your heart’s content.  Unfortunately, I absorbed the message, or at least the part of it that said, “hold off on your writing until later – it can afford to wait.” As a result, I’ve lost precious years of writing, which I’ll never reclaim.

Today, my mother is fully supportive of my writing, and even supports the idea of me eventually leaving my stable, secure job and venturing out on my own written path. I share this story, however, to help explain why my dream for self-sufficiency in writing is so important. With all due respect to the people that raised me, their advice was wrong. My writing cannot and should not wait. And it no longer has to. I have a long way to go in this journey, but in announcing this goal to the universe, I’m hoping to set in motion a course of action that will radically alter the direction of my life.

A Rant: Tying Up Loose Ends

In Writing on September 3, 2012 at 9:09 am

Picture from the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul. A place you can imagine all kinds of endings.

Today I don’t have any blithe management principles to spout.  In fact, what I am about to do probably goes against several of the hyper-positive management principles that I normally hold so dear.  But, dear reader, I find myself at a near breaking point and I simply have to get something off my chest before I explode or chuck my kindle out the window.  The fact is that I simply hate abrupt endings.  Hate them.

Yes, I said it.  I understand that sometimes abrupt endings can be a useful literary motif and that many an accomplished author has applied an abrupt ending in pursuit of a greater literary motive.  The abrupt ending, like so many other tricks in the writing bag, should be a selectively used tool, and one that is used for a deliberate effect.  All too often, it seems that authors find themselves at the end of a deadline or at the end of their imagination and, failing to push themselves, take the easy out of the abrupt ending.

Let me think of a few examples that recently stand out in my mind.  Let’s start with Ana Castillo’s The Guardians, which I just recently read.  It took me a bit to get into the plot, but eventually the character development grew richer and I became engrossed in the lives of the characters.  Just as the story seemed to be actually getting interesting, however, the author ends the novel extremely abruptly, and without completely spoiling the plot, I’ll suffice it to say that at least one major character dies with little warning, and as a result, the real purpose or meaning of the story is lost in the abrupt ending.  Ugh.  It frustrates me to no end when I invest in a novel and then, just as it finally seems to be getting interesting, it ends without so much as a proper goodbye.

Another example is Mockingjay, the third Hunger Games book.  Yes, I just went there.  I know it’s no literary masterpiece, but the fact is that I did read the Hunger Games, like so many other people around the world.  And while the first two books were interesting and reasonable vacation reads, the third book was a completely different beast.  It’s hard to say what was going through Suzanne Collin’s mind when she wrote the third book.  Was it a looming deadline?  A screaming publisher?  Demands for money, for book tours, for a movie script?  Who knows.  What I do know, as a reader, is this: it seems a complete waste to spend three books building up to a decent tale of adventure and rebellion, only to suddenly and abruptly end the entire enterprise in a matter of 20 pages.  Unsatisfying, to say the least.  How is it that something that took hundreds of pages to build can be unraveled in a matter of moments, in a manner that basically detracts from the better moments of the other two books?  Furthermore, I know that I don’t stand alone here.  Having spoken with other readers, I’ve confirmed my suspicions: the ending really is rushed.  The central themes are never really resolved.  And again, for the sake of trying to add some sense of finality, the author takes the easy route and starts killing off characters at a rapid pace.

So where is this all going?  First, I just needed to get that off my chest.  But more importantly, as a growing writer, I need to become a better student of the body of literature that already exists.  To quote a pretty old book, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  As I continue to dive deeper into my own creative process, I need to carefully pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, and this also means giving up the “easy” out (I’m looking at you, abrupt endings) when something doesn’t want to wrap itself up neatly.

As readers and writers, we all crave, maybe even need, resolution.  At times denying the reader this resolution can prove to be a powerful tool.  But doing so gratuitously risks destroying the entire piece of work and alienating readers who have invested time and emotion into getting to know your characters.  Perhaps this is the new golden rule of writing: do unto your readers as you would have done unto yourself.

Stop Reflecting and Start Writing

In Writing on August 12, 2012 at 11:07 am

Too much reflection can sometimes be a bad thing.

“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” So said Émile Coué, a famous French psychotherapist, who was strongly believed in the power of the unconscious thought for transforming our lives. This quote came to me this morning, as I was thinking about motivation and ways to create lasting, effective daily habits, particularly in relation to my writing. We’ve been told in the past by great minds such as the late Stephen Covey that it takes at least 21 days to create a true habit. In the scheme of things, 21 days doesn’t really seem that long. After all, it’s less than a month, and you can almost count it using both all of your hands and toes. (In the realm of kindergartners, this must make it very approachable.)

Yet when I think about my life and about the busy schedule that I build up for myself – work engagements, happy hours, birthdays for friends, dinner parties, music shows, travel, exercise, and the myriad of other things that fill the hours of each day – those 21 uninterrupted days seem much more daunting than previously thought. Especially when, as seems to be the case with my writing, it may mean having to cut back on something important, such as sleep or time with my partner. When you look at it that way, not only is the 21 days harder than initially expected, but on top of that, it requires some serious prioritization and tough decisions to actually implement.

Tony Schwartz has a number of thoughts on the subject. One of his biggest pieces of advice, which I first read in his excellent book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working is that if you are truly committed to making a new habit, it is important to actually schedule it. It’s not enough to say, “I’m going to go swimming twice a week” or “I’m going to write 5000 words a week.” If you do this and only this, the likelihood of that commitment turning into concrete action is minimal at best. If you take that commitment, however, and make it more specific and time bound, say “I will go swimming every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 6am,” and then put it on your calendar, then you really might go through with it. Based on my personal experiences, I find this to be true.

On top of this, Tony Schwartz is also a big advocate for reducing the number of conscious decisions that we need to make on a daily basis, in order to better utilize our limited capacity for focus. In a HBR blog post titled “Why You Need to Make Your Life More Automatic,” Schwartz writes: “the sheer number of choices we must make each day — what foods to eat, what products to buy, what information merits our attention, what tasks to prioritize — can be overwhelming.” Feeling overwhelmed, it appears, it only one side effect of this multiplicity of choices. One of the most harmful effects, as I see it manifest in my own life, is that when I begin to feel overwhelmed, I simply do nothing or, sometimes even worse, fall back into a deep self-reflection mode that replaces all action with thinking, thinking, and more thinking until I’m effectively paralyzed. Schwartz’s advice in this scenario is to slow down, take stock of one’s emotional state, and then work towards automating the things that are most important to us in life. In my case, this would mean rather than waking up each morning and asking myself the question, “should I write today? or “what are my reasons for wanting to write today?,” I should just wake up every morning and just do it, simple as that.

But even with these important tips, I’ve still struggled with making writing a regular part of my life. First of all, my prioritization seems to sometimes change from week to week, which throws my carefully planned writing schedule out the door. Secondly, I am a chronic over-thinker. If something doesn’t seem to work at first, I’m more likely to retreat back into brainstorm mode than to continue implementation. Thirdly, I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that for me, it is not enough to say that I’ll do something only a few times a week, even if I’ve actually taken the time to schedule the activity. If I do that, the reality is that after a week or two, I’ll fade back into my old habits and whatever I was trying to achieve will fall to the wayside. It appears that I am not the only one in this respect. In a recent blog post, Gretchen Rubin, happiness guru extraordinaire, writes that “’It’s often easier to do something every day than to do it some days.’” She believes this so strongly, in fact, that it’s one of her basic Secrets to Adulthood. Here, Rubin’s point dovetails nicely with what Schwartz recommends. It boils down simply to this: if you really want to do something, then do it every day and make it as automatic/unconscious as possible.

When I look at this solution, I can also begin to see why I sometimes struggle with forming new habits, despite my good intentions. Habits, at their heart, are about unconscious action, which follows from a period of conscious self-reflection and decision-making. In my case, I tend to over-emphasize the self-reflection portion of this process. First, I reflect. Then I make a resolution. Then I self-reflect some more about why I made the resolution. Then I start to implement the process, but end up doing so very consciously, constantly questioning and self-reflecting along the way. Two or three weeks into the process, it’s no surprise that rather than forming a habit, I’ve only managed to fill the pages of my journal with all kinds of questions about my motivation or lack thereof. Eventually I give up, begin another period of self-reflection, and soon after, make a new resolution…and so the process starts itself all over again.

The good news to all of this is that now that I am conscious of my tendencies, I can now begin working to improve them. Over the next month, I’m going to put these pieces of advice to work. I will create a daily writing habit, at the same time every day, and I will do so automatically. No more giving myself the option to write or not, no more hitting the snooze button or pretending as if I will do it later. No more writing page after page in my journal about how I can’t seem to drum up the motivation to write. Thinking is great, up to a certain point. But this next month is all about action. My mantra will be simple: automatic is easy.

Don’t Delay

In Writing on July 28, 2012 at 2:30 pm


The other night I stumbled upon this TED talk by Larry Smith, titled “Why you will fail to have a great career.” Smith’s message hit home with me, and judging by the space given to it on other blogs, others felt the same way. Smith strikes at the heart of many of the excuses that we frequently use to keep ourselves from pursuing our real passions.

One of his strongest points touches on one of the great myths in American work sub-culture, namely, the myth that if you work hard now (and for the unforeseeable future), and climb as high as possible on the corporate ladder, that you will somehow, eventually, (before keeling over into an all-too-brief and disappointing retirement), find happiness. It is here that we encounter the theme of delayed gratification. I should point out, that I realize that delayed gratification can play an important purpose in our lives. In fact, studies show that children with the ability to embrace delayed gratification are more likely to be successful later on in life.

This being said, there’s a real difference between delayed gratification for the sake of reaping future rewards (a rational choice) and using delayed gratification as a flimsy excuse for self-doubt/insecurity and other stumbling blocks that may keep us from embracing our real passions in the present. In his talk, Larry Smith speaks about how the individual thinks to themself: “I’ll work in this job now to earn some money, but some day I’ll actually do what I love.” And yet that “some day” gradually gets pushed further and further back as life intervenes. Years later, the individual finds herself wondering where it all went wrong.

This is where it gets personal. In the past year, I’ve made commitments to myself to stop making excuses and to pursue what has long been a passion for me: writing. I’ve been so busy building a respectable career and putting in the long hours required for it, that my dreams of writing have been constantly pushed to the side. The only way to address this is to make a real commitment to myself to make the most of the “now,” and to start making writing a real part of my life in this moment, as opposed to pushing it back to that “some day” when I think I’ll have more energy, focus, attention for it.

Having made that commitment, I know need to seriously think about all the inputs that I need to make this a reality. Things at the top of the list include: 1) dedicated time; 2) quiet space to work in, free from distractions (including the Internet); 3) self-discipline to make it all happen. Looking at this list it’s clear to me that in order to embrace my creativity, I need to first embrace tendency toward discipline and focus. Thankfully I have a lot of amazing thinkers on this subject to help me along the way, including Tony Schwartz and his brain-child, The Energy Project.