Coming Back To Things

It’s Monday evening. It’s warm, stuffy and dry in the room as I type. I just spent an amazing weekend with good people doing great things, and now I realize that in a little over 14 hours, it’s back to work. Back to hours of writing, editing, throwing soft objects across the room in frustration and generally gritting teeth for a few hours. 

This got me thinking about what it means to come back to things, and not just the laundry basket full of things that need to be washed, or the fact that there are pending taxes or bills to pay, or just that what you come back to isn’t as exciting or enjoyable as whatever you’re leaving. 

I have a lot of items in a Dropbox folder called “WIP” or Works In Progress. I don’t store big drafts there (they get their own folder(s)), but whenever I get an idea or some thoughts together, they get scribbled into a text file or something and dumped into that folder so I can come back to them later. That “later” I suspect is intended to be some time that week, or at the next weekend, but more accurately, a lot of those ideas sit in that folder for years now, judging by the timestamps. 

And let’s face it, going out with someone you love and having a night spent laughing probably gets picked far more than developing “a card game about the Crusades” and you probably would choose breakfast in bed with a lover over “a short story of a woman with an amputee fetish”. 

What sticks out to me now is that in a lot of ways, these choices are binary: socialize vs solitary, intimacy vs individual, people vs progress. I hate having to choose between writing and anything else, since it becomes so situational as to which I choose, and that makes for a heady blend of selfish or guilty thoughts if I choose “the wrong one”. 

See, there isn’t a wrong one. Okay, yes, if you choose to get up and write when your partner wants you to come back to bed, they might be upset. Yes, you might have every intention of setting aside those hours to write, but as in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.” (Goldblum not included)

There’s no wrong choice because either of those two options are for your benefit. Yes, they’re different benefits, but you will be a better you with either of them, and I think that gets overlooked when we start to focus on what we’re not doing, on how we “should” be doing something else and how somehow what we are doing isn’t enough or good or right. 

That’s my takeaway on this Memorial Day Evening.

 

The sun is setting, so this might be a good time to get some writing done after all. 

 

Happy writing. 

My GenCon 2014 Schedule

August 14-17 fast approaches, which means that it’s time to put my GenCon schedule for 2014. It’s a great schedule this year, I’m doing a lot of stuff, and thankfully do most of it in the same room, so there’s little risk of me getting totally lost (as I did last year and was late to my own panel). I should point out that this is the first year my panels are listed under “Indie Game Developers Network” (of which I am a member) as part of the over 100 events the Network is running this year. So let’s get into it.

Thursday

WHY DO YOU HATE YOUR READERS? ( Thursday 3p-4p Crowne Plaza: Hay Market B)

I’m spending 60 minutes explaining what it means to hate your reader (read: make it hard for people to read/understand/like/follow what you’ve written), and how to fix it. Examples will be provided, both good and bad. (Hint: I’m citing myself as a bad example)

UPDATE! I’m also going to be at BOTH Evil Hat Panels (State of the Hat and Look Under The Hat). Maybe I’ll be in the audience, maybe I’ll be at the table, who knows! (No seriously, I don’t know, you should come and find out along with me).

Friday

GETTING STARTED AS AN EDITOR (Friday 11a-12p Crowne Plaza: Grand Central C)

Do you want to be an editor? Not just “do you want to be able to edit your own work”, I mean do you want to be an editor for other people and companies? How does someone get started doing this? Is there anything special they need? Is it difficult? And what’s the big deal? I will explain what I do, how I started doing it and why I love it.

FREELANCING FOR FUN AND PROFIT (Friday 1p-2:30p Crowne Plaza: Grand Central C)

I make my living freelancing. It’s a good life: no cubicle, minimal dress code, high intensity, inconsistent paychecks, high stress, short deadlines. Learn about all the pros and cons about being a pro who goes to cons to talk about making game design and game writing more than something that just happens random on some Sunday afternoon.

 

SO YOU’RE MAKING YOUR FIRST GAME (Friday 3p to 4p Crowne Plaza : Grand Central C)

I’m getting together with Mark Richardson (and possibly others) to talk about how you produce your first (or fiftieth) game. You can come to this panel and learn how we got off the ground and have a good time doing this, also, this will be a great panel to attend if you want to watch me bait a Canadian into a playful argument and/or watch a man admit he’s really nervous giving a panel. (Hint: that’s not going to be me)

Saturday

WRITING WORKSHOP Q&A (Saturday 10a-11:30a Crowne Plaza: Grand Central C)

It’s Saturday morning, so let’s talk writing. This panel is driven by your questions, so bring them. Ask questions, get answers. This is one of my favorite panels to do, and I love the questions people offer. I make an effort to answer every question, though I cannot guarantee you’ll like my answers. The questions don’t have to be limited to gaming, we can talk fiction, or screenplays or anything with words in it.

WRITER EDITOR RELATIONSHIP (Saturday 1p-2p Crowne Plaza: Grand Central C)

Join me after lunch for a panel where I hang out with a writer friend of mine (might be Brian Engard, might be someone else, or multiple someones else) where we’ll talk about what it’s like to work together, why it’s important to have a good relationship with your editor and why editors don’t actually want to ruin writers’ lives, just … fix them. Or something. This is a great panel if you’re looking to see what it’s like behind the scenes of a game company.

MENTAL HEALTH AND GAMING 2014 (Saturday 2p-4p Crowne Plaza: Grand Central C)

Here it is, the crown jewel of all my panels. My absolute favorite panel to give ever ever. Come spend 2 hours (!!) with me as I spill my guts out and share my story of anxiety, depression, self-destruction and my rebuilding myself over the last few years. Learn some strategies to help deal with whatever issues you’ve face (NOTE- I’m not a doctor, this is NOT medical advice), and in a safe environment, let’s talk about our lying brains, our feelings and our fears. Also, super bonus points if you ask me to tell the ‘crystal’ story. And triple super bonus points if you ask me to tell the ‘Ericka’ story’.

Just when you thought that was enough John for one convention, here’s more … I am running 2 games ON THE BOOKS this year as well!

Sunday

A DRINK BEFORE DYING (NOIR WORLD) (Sunday 10a-12p Marriott Blrm 7)

Powered by the Apocalypse (Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, Headspace, and others), Noir World is my first game I’m actually producing myself, and this 2-hour session on Sunday will be the first public reveal/test of it. The year is 1944, and a wealthy woman gets killed at her own party. Anyone can be a suspect, anyone has a motive, who killed her, and why? Will they get away with it?

THE TROUBLE WITH 1908 (Sunday 1pm – 3pm Marriott Blrm 7)

Timewatch isn’t my game, it’s Kevin Kulp’s game, but it’s amazing, and I want to play it with you. Think Bill and Ted meet Doctor Who meet Quantum Leap meet Night’s Black Agents meet Terminator 2. I’m not sure the pitch needs any more than that sentence.

I love GenCon and look forward to seeing you there.

 

Come hang out with me, come play games with me, and let’s have a great time together.

Writing, Expectation and Excitement

About 5 minutes ago, I said this on Twitter:

todaystweet

I did it because it’s both true to some degree, and a challenge to myself.

 

It’s not a stretch to say you should be proud of what you work on. You’re in the middle of making a thing, you’ve finished it, you’re seeing what avenues are available for it. It can be a really exciting and simultaneously frustrating time. Maybe you’ll get disheartened by rejection. Maybe you’ll celebrate a book deal or some sales figures. Maybe you just make a thing and never share it, out of some fear that it’s not good enough. We’re going to come back to that last ‘maybe’ in a second.

When the authors in my Twitter feed talk about a book deal or a TV deal or some accomplishments, it’s not hard for me to feel really jealous – they’re the benchmark I’ve selected to measure myself against, and at times that feels somewhat like comparing a toddler to an astrophysicist. It’s also not hard for me to take that good news and retreat back to my workspace and for a few minutes really hate everything. The chair is stupid. My last page of text is crap. The idea I have on the legal pad is lame. Even the trackball is just dumb and sitting there taunting me. I feel like garbage about myself, and the bookshelf that holds the books that have my name it is nice and all, but it’s not like this piece of news I just heard. Those books are weeks or months or years old, what have I done lately?

This spiral of bullshit usually sits under the doubts I have that I’m any good at anything. I can write. I can edit. But when I’m feeling like I’m not measuring up to others, you might as well swap “write” and “edit” for “breathe” and “sneeze”. My own sense of worth and talent and value seem to pale in comparison to this person’s new accomplishment or that other person’s satisfaction.

I spend a lot of time thinking about this, since it’s a variation on a problem I tackle in therapy on a weekly basis  – internal versus external approval and validation.

It’s easier to understand if we start with the external, because we can all point to things that aren’t us. External approval is when someone else permits us to do a thing or agrees with us that the thing should be done. Like when your parents let you take the car out on that first date or when your roommate said you could borrow her hairdryer. External validation though, is more satisfying. It’s confirmation that whatever we did or are doing, we’re doing it “right” or for “good reasons” or that we “deserve” reward for it. This could be a positive review of something written, or someone telling you what a good job you did and that they’re proud of you.

We spend a lot of time looking for external validation. For some of us, it’s a big hole that we spend so much time filling either in healthy ways or unhealthy ways, because at times when we would have benefited from it, it wasn’t there. (This is different than needing it and getting a negative response, I’m talking about its absence.) For me, this was a parent who was (and is) incredibly cold and tepid at best about my life, my work and my decisions, who is quick to point out the numerous failures and shortcomings as evidence that good things don’t really happen to me, or if they do, that I screw them up and squander them. What this does for my life is make me work way too hard and spend too much time and energy trying to get that validation. It’s not coming. It’s been at least twenty-five years since I got legitimate validation and praise, and I’m certain that it’ll take a deathbed confession to get anymore.

What this also means is that I go hunting for external validation like a nomad in search of oases. Other people saying good things about me and my work? It’s like a free pass to Cloud 9. How can I keep getting more of it? I guess that means I gotta work harder and more often and push myself, because no one receives the same praise twice for the same thing. It might be good once, but not the tenth time.

This sets up an idea in my head where other people telling me good things far outweighs anything I can tell myself. In fact, it goes so far to say that what I tell myself is almost comical in terms of its ability to instill confidence. This is heinously wrong thinking.

Why? Because we birthed the idea, hopefully because at some point it excited us. We wanted to tell that story. Maybe we got giddy. Maybe we eagerly put down a few words, then a few more before the first fires of excitement cooled. Now, yes, time passes and the idea that we were wild about might not spark the same feelings later, but if we apply discipline and make an effort to keep stoking that fire and excitement, we can develop a depth of satisfaction because rather just being an initial gust of work, this is something we’ve stuck with through thick and thin and see it pay off.

Both of my therapists tell me that the internal approval (the permission you give yourself to do something) and the internal validation (that satisfaction derived from doing something as well as the confidence from doing and/or completing it) is supposed to outweigh whatever other people tell us.

On some days, this is true. On some days, I have no fucks to give about how other people judge me or what they expect from me. I do the work I’ve been asked and paid to do, I do things that make me pleased and things that I enjoy.

On other days, like, say days where one of my main sources of external cheerleading and validation is busy, when my resolve is a little low, I let the doubt creep in and try to counteract it with more words from outside myself. This makes for a complicated and often unrewarding cycle of “doubt self, look to others to fix it, not get it from others, doubt self more, look even harder, rinse repeat” where ultimately I’ve spent time not working and instead looking for someone to tell me I’m good or okay or safe or loved or talented or sexy or capable or whatever. That’s not going to magically make the work finished, it’s just trying to band-aid the hole in me so that I can remember I’m competent and qualified to do the work in the first place.

I know there’s a saying about loving yourself before you can love others, which is sort of true and sort of not, because I can love others and still hate myself. I can also love to tell stories and hate my stories because they don’t measure up to others. But there’s a kernel of good in there somewhere, because WHEN I’m cool with myself, I don’t think about grading the work on some scale of “Is this okay”, or “Am I good at it”, there’s a confidence that comes from believing in yourself, which for me, is easier to do when I cut myself some slack.

Back to the quote, I believe that the excitement for your work is instrumental in marketing it and generating interest in it. I believe that being passionate about wanting to make art is not the ONLY reason to make art (as many people say to me in response, mistaking my enthusiasm for passion for some statement that passion by itself is sufficient to succeed), but I believe without passion, the art won’t propagate. You’ll peter out. The interesting idea will cool off too quickly. You’ll slow down, you won’t push through, you’ll let doubt seep into the cracks and you’ll stall. Granted, this is what happens to me at least half a year when I lose myself to depression. It might not happen to you.

It’s not wrong to be proud of your work. It’s not a crime to be excited that you’re working and not yet done. It’s not a lack of professionalism to have doubts or be scared. I believe that pride in your work (and I mean an appropriate level, not some delusion or arrogance) can act like a springboard to take you to new challenges or new opportunities. I believe that excitement over a job done can grow an audience, encourage other people to try or prove to yourself that you’re capable when you think otherwise.

I still don’t have any answers to this on-going concept. It ties me in enough knots and frustrating holes as it is, since I try quite hard to both clarify my answer and have it somehow feel legitimate in the face of doubters, detractors or other points of view.

I’m putting this post up, though I believe it incomplete. I’ll do a Part 2 on it when my head isn’t swimming with tangled thoughts about it.

I’m Giving a FREE Class, And You Should Check It Out

I’ve been sitting on this news for a while now, waiting until the right moment to kick things off. This is a seriously huge honor for me to announce, and I’m really excited for the chance to do it.

So, to get the initial flurry of excitement out of the way, I’ll just make this statement – I’m giving a Mastermind Class on editing and writing on May 28, thanks to Rochelle Melander, and it’s FREE (so long as you sign up for it).

I follow Rochelle and have for a while now, always keeping an eye on her advice and the ideas she promotes. I’m a huge fan and remember a lot of nights writing and editing where I’d say, “Man, I’d love to be at a point to have that opportunity.” only to then bury my head back into work and think I’d never in a bajillion years have any chance to do it. It would be this white whale, this thing I was never good enough to do or never picked for, like sports or dating or high school dances.

But I owe so much to Amanda Valentine and Jocelyn Koehler who (with no prompting/bribery from me) talked me up to Rochelle. I think also, it really helped that I got my head out of my ass about Twitter, but that’s a story for another day.

So now here I am, with an amazing opportunity to reach people and talk about what I love. Also, this is FREE. I’m not sure how this deal can get much better. If you’ve ever thought about taking a workshop with me, or worried that it’d be too expensive or worried you didn’t have the time, this is a GREAT way to spend an hour and really make a difference for your writing.

This excites me to the point where I’m worried I’m repeating myself and I already feel my running around the house screaming “I’m teaching a thing! I’m teaching a thing! It’s like a golden ticket!” is wild enough. So, I’m wrapping this post up with the official announcement and the link and a promise to you – if you sign up for this class, I will absolutely positively guarantee you will benefit from it.

Here’s the official announcement –

Write Now! Mastermind Class

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

12:00-1:00 PM CDT

De-Mystifying Editing

John Adamus

Learn how the right editor can help you transform your manuscript. On May 28th at 12:00 PM (CDT), I’ll share my insights on editing. Learn what an editor does, what actual good that will do for you as a writer, how you can build a working relationship and what the difference is between self-editing and having someone edit your work. The call is free, but you need to sign up at http://www.writenowcoach.com/resources/write-now-mastermind.html.

And here’s the sign-up link – http://www.writenowcoach.com/resources/write-now-mastermind.html

I look forward to this. Let’s tell some amazing stories together.

 

Quick update-y note: All you need for the class is a phone. You sign up, you get a number to call, you listen in. No special software, no special gear or equipment. I think that makes this even easier.

 

The Writer and How Perfectionism Almost Killed Him

Fire up the trigger warnings for self-harm, suicide, depression, self-loathing, body dysmorphia, overdose, anxiety, paranoia and shame.

I made some mistakes today. I’m sure we all have days where that happens, and maybe it’s everyday or maybe just some afternoons, but whatever, I wasn’t perfect today. Without giving too many details (especially since I’m going to give tons of details about more things in later paragraphs), I’ll say that I finished working on a really high-profile thing for a really high-profile company and really want to be relevant to them and really be thought of as good at what I do, so I still get opportunities to do more things. I will admit I felt really pressured by a looming deadline, I was stressed by trying to anticipate writer-feelings and I was rather obsessively trying to make it the most perfect manuscript that’s ever been manuscripted, even though part of my brain knows that this copy is for testing, and very likely lots of bits where I made mistakes are going to end up changed, and I’ll have another chance to improve and try again later.

Perfectionism is the boogeyman for me. I want a thing (a manuscript, an outfit, a conversation, a date, a recipe, a whatever) to be perfect so that people-who-aren’t-me tell me I’m good or that they’re proud of me. In a nutshell, I didn’t hear a lot of that growing up (and what I did hear was sarcastic or insincere), so I don’t have the best internal sense of “Yeah I’m a good person who is capable and successful”. In fact, I have a pretty deficient sense of it, and routinely expect my efforts to not just fail but fail spectacularly in such a way that anyone around me is caught in some kind of area-effect blast zone of failure. I don’t want to be a roving miasma of failure, I’m very happy to be isolated from all the people I assume are by default exponentially better and more perfect without even trying. It’s just that this is how I am, and while I’m working every day to change it, it’s one of the hardest thing I’ve ever gone up against.

I’d like now to tell you a story that not many people know. I’m going to omit a few details and names for personal reasons and privacy, but I’ll make sure to include the majority of the big stuff. I want to tell the story of how perfectionism almost killed me.

It starts in winter. Most of my terrible true stories take place between October 1 and April 1, because that’s when I believe the sun vanishes and takes my happiness along with it. No, we’re not just talking seasonal affective disorder, we’re talking polarizing extreme depression. The kind where it takes incredible energy to do anything beyond laying very still, breathing and blinking. Forget meals. Forget socializing. Showers are luxuries. Shaving is a double luxury.

This story takes place on a Saturday, and let’s go one step further and say it was the Saturday right before a major sporting event known for its commercials and entertainment spectacle that occurs between the first and second half. I came across one of these commercials that promoted body positivity in women, carefully veiled in soap sales (or maybe the other way around?), and it had a significant impact. Significant like the way the asteroid really improved the quality of life for dinosaurs.

Now, so you better understand why a commercial about young girls taking photos affected me, I will point out that I have a pretty firm belief that I weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 450-495 pounds minimum, and that my scale only says 217 at the time of this writing because my bulk broke its sensors and it just can’t show any higher number. I’ll also point out that I’m pretty sure I’m blimp-shaped and that my skinny arms and knobby legs are like strange sticks poking out of a potato in a child’s science project. To put a point on it, I am unattractive to the max, yo. As further evidence of this, I point to months of solitude, dating misadventures and an inability to find happiness.

So on this February night, the weight (heh, size pun) of just how not-perfect I am smacks me around in moment after moment of young girls in a video smiling and looking pretty and receiving compliments. It doesn’t matter that I’m two decades older than some of these girls, it strikes me rather intensely that these girls are beautiful, and I’m not even on the scale for beauty. This is worthless compounding worthless, and I’m a waste of space and I’ve accomplished nothing in my life. No kids, no long career, no wife, no masterworks of literature authored, no accolades for speaking or editing, just some super-less-than-mediocre fat creepy man who doesn’t need to be here anymore.

Things in this story get very fuzzy, but that’s what happens when you try to kill yourself. And carve a word into your forearm that you spell wrong because you’re doing it upside down. Let’s fast forward a few days and some stitches later.

I wanted to be perfect, which is not so much the 100% A ++++ that you get in school, but rather I wanted to clear the chasm that seemed to separate me from everyone else. It seemed bigger than the Grand Canyon and I had no idea how I was going to just get through the next minute. Everything hurt. The potential fear and frustration of future minutes hurt too. I could not be perfect. I could not live perfect. I could not even die perfect. I was trapped in some failure pit and would stay there until I either figured out how to die better or until my body just gave out from under me. I wasn’t going to write a novel people would want to read. I wasn’t going to get hired to work in television ever again. I wasn’t going to find love. I couldn’t even get flirted with. No woman would pay attention to me. I was some carcass with a thready pulse and bandages. That’s not perfect at all.

And when you find yourself in emerald scrubs and under observation, and you spend a few days with an IV in you and your skin is the color of grade school chalk, you’re just so tired. You don’t sleep so much as you’re just less awake. Perfect is no longer some social construct, perfect is just when the pain of life goes away.

Little by little, you regain bits of a life. You get to use a phone. You get to check your email. You play with your dog. And then the worry, which might have gone out for coffee, comes back. You start worrying that word of your most recent “episode” or “incident” will take away what friends and what work you do have some feelings for. You start worrying that even if you get lucky enough to have some kind of existence, it would have to be even more cut off from everything, because in trying to die, you’ve just made it that much harder for people to love you. And all you really want to do is not be perfect, but to be loved. To be cared for. To feel safe. To feel secure. To not hurt so much.

You stuff that worry in your pocket a little while longer, because the act of regaining that life has brought you some interesting experiences. You have a renewed appreciation for how food tastes. You discover a weird almost aggressive pleasure in talking about your problems and getting feedback on them. You come to see that when you have to start over, you always do so fresh, and you can pick and choose what goes and what stays in this new rebuilding of your life. You start to think that maybe you can build a life where it hurts less than the last one. You don’t hope, because hope is for suckers and children and romantics, and you have to believe in something to be any of those things. But you hear enough people tell you that it’s possible, and given that the alternative is to hit the bottom of a hole that you’re only a few inches above in the first place, you try.

Perfect sort of factors in here. You want to try your best, whatever you can muster, because maybe if you do XYZ perfect and without error, a little of that pain will go away. You won’t be so lonely. You won’t feel so worthless or stupid or fat or forgotten or unimportant because you can XYZ now. And when you pressure yourself to do XYZ, whether that’s squeezing a racquetball in your hand or drive a car to Wendy’s for a cheeseburger, you have zero mercy for yourself when you need to correct yourself. You drop the ball because you’ve been squeezing for six straight minutes? You’re a fuck-up. You exceed the speed limit just because you’re thrilled to feel the wind on your face for the promise of melty meaty goodness? What the fuck dude, don’t ruin this. It’s no longer about like everyone else, you just want to do things so you don’t hurt.

Time passes in this story, and you find yourself back in familiar spaces, but everything’s different because you’ve spent weeks in your head ripping out problems and installing new tools. It feels strange and foreign, the way it does when you take cold medicine, but when you’re not quite unconscious and drooling from it. You’ve talked to people, and they seem supportive, but you figure they just don’t what to tell you and you think that maybe if they say anything other than nice things you’ll shatter like a brittle pane of glass.

Still with me? Don’t worry we’re coming out of the bad part.

For a while, you give up perfect. It goes on some virtual shelf alongside the plans you’ll do “later” or when “you’re feeling up to”. This is a tremendous reprieve, as if two thousand tons just evaporated away, and in its absence, you find joy in things. Showering undisturbed (with hot water). Cooking. Fresh sheets. Even porn and croutons and clipping toenails become joyful. Perfect is on the shelf so it’s not something to deal with – you’ve got to get better before you can even have the mental energy to take on perfect. The activities you’d grade yourself a D in previously all turn into high A’s.

I better jump back to first-person here, because we’re up to the good part.

So I was rediscovering the small joys and feeling like some things didn’t hurt. I didn’t worry about my size. I didn’t worry about who I was going to date or who would kiss me or where I would go for some holiday months away. I just was wherever my feet brought me and I was doing whatever that moment needed me to do. Speak? Sure. Set up a conference room with tables that gave me wicked splinters? Yep.  The funny part was, without perfection hanging like a weight around my neck, I just didn’t care about anything other than expressing myself. Someone casually implies they’ve gone a long time without intimacy? Tell them how long it’s been since I had anything meaningful that wasn’t my own hand. Someone talks about what they want to do? Simply tell them that all you’d really like is a Coke and to sit very quietly. What they don’t know, or what you don’t think they can perceive is that you’re talking about activities where you don’t hurt. Where you don’t have to be perfect, you just want some physical attention, a Coke, or a place to sit down.

In doing all that, in letting go of perfect for a little while, I discovered something that I thought I compacted and buried away. I discovered how passionate I am about things and how when I can express that passion, I don’t hurt. Sometimes, and don’t tell anyone I said this, sometimes when I express passion, I’m even a little proud of myself.

Without lying, I can tell you that I never thought I’d connect with another person ever again that cold winter night in February. I thought that if I didn’t die, I’d forever be the puzzle piece that doesn’t belong in the box, but somehow ended up included. I never thought that being me, broken, really disliking myself and worn down from trying to catch perfectionism as it ran faster away would make anyone want to have anything to do with me. And I don’t just mean date me, I mean sit and talk to me. Hold my hand. Tell me it’ll be okay. Tell me they care.

I’m beyond lucky to be able to tell you that after all that perfection chasing, I finally found one of the things I have wanted since I was 19 and writing “JA + ??” in black sharpie on bunkbeds in a college dorm – I found a woman I truly and absolutely connect with, click with and mesh with. She listens. She cares. She supports. She laughs. She makes faces. She calls me on my shit. She loves me, and more and more every day I believe her when she says it.

Though, she isn’t perfect. See, I dated women before who I thought were perfect, either because they were so different from me, or because I inflated their appeal (boobs, butt, sexual prowess, access to stimulants, money, etc) to make them perfect. That’s not the case this time. She smokes. She has hobbies I don’t really understand or like sharing. She’s so fiercely her own person that sometimes I have to say out loud, “Let’s do something together.” She can’t even cook eggs. But for all those problems, for all those things that used to be reasons NOT to be with a person, here I am, about I-think-its-gotta-be-but-I-suck-at-math ten weeks into the most complete, communicative and healthy relationship I’ve ever had. It’s so unlike all the others – sex or booze or whatever isn’t the escape of problems, we talk instead. We make plans to do things. I actually leave the house and attend social functions. I wear shirts with buttons and I even catch myself saying, “I’d like to have _____ experience.”  She’s not perfect. Our relationship isn’t perfect, but it’s exactly what I need.

So on days like today, where I muck up work and feel like I can’t even show my head on social media (I do a pretty good job of John-shaming), I stop and figure out if what I’m doing is me looking for perfection again. And then, when I see that it is, because what I’m really looking for is praise and continued work relationships, I remind myself that some of the best things in my life have come when I put perfect on the shelf and just did whatever the moment needed of me.

I don’t know if I’ll always be able to say I can do this. I don’t know if I’ll even remember writing this much about it come next winter. But I can do it now, and I see the dividends it’s paid me. I have made new friends. I have found another human I can share my life with. I leave the house and do stuff. I get hugs. I laugh again. I take on challenges rather than run.

Another benefit is professional. I fell apart and rebuilt my life and found that I really want to do more things and take on more challenges, because I see my friends getting new amazing opportunities and I’m envious. And it’s a lot healthier for me to say, “I want to try and have something like that happen” than say, “Something like that will never happen to me.” Because eleven weeks ago, I never would believe anyone if they told me I was going to make a joke combining sex puns and game mechanics and have that catapult forward into a stable, communicative anything, let alone a deep and meaningful partnership with an amazing person.

Routinely I hear, “You don’t have to be perfect, you have to be you.” This is hard for me, because I’m not always a fan of myself, and I get really critical about myself. But being me means I get to admit that rather than hide from it, and with that admission comes more freedom from expectations that I have to be a certain way or do certain things or reach certain milestones in life to measure up to others. It’s done wonders for my writing voice, and while I’m writing less frequently, I’m writing for longer stints when I do. The reason I’m writing less? I’m doing more – I’m editing more, I’m consulting more and I’m looking for new opportunities to reach writers and schools and students and anyone who will listen. I think that’s a pretty good trade, when I remember to put perfect on its shelf.

My advice to you, wherever you are, whoever you are, is to remember that you are greater than perfect. You are not measured by what you do or don’t do well. You define your own measurements. And do your best, even if only for a few minutes everyday, to put perfect on its shelf and find something or someone you enjoy and engage with them. Talk to that person. Play a game. Turn up some music. Eat something. Walk outside. You don’t need perfect over your shoulder. You don’t have to be perfect, you have to be you.

Happy writing and being.

The Cycle of Praise, Competition and Insecurity

Let’s put ourselves in a very large comfortable room. It’s a writing seminar. You’ve paid money to come here. You’ve made all these travel and work arrangements. You have waited for this seminar for weeks. You’ve got a charged laptop, some pens, a legal pad and a bottle of water – everything you need to take notes or do whatever’s asked of you in this seminar.

Let’s go one step further and say that I’m not giving this seminar, that Published Author X and Author Y are. Published Author X is a big deal. They’ve got a lot of books to their name, they write a popular blog, they have loyal fans. They play up the role of cantankerous maverick, equal parts grouch who hates “the establishment” and practical rebel who occasionally fires off big, shouty rants. Published Author Y has fewer books to their name, is less angry and ranty, and could be mistaken for aloof. Author Y isn’t terribly practical, and is known for stressing the importance of theory and frequently references academic sources and studies and papers while Author X is ten times more likely to cite their own work.

Got it pictured? No, the genders don’t matter. No, the location doesn’t matter. Make it ideal. Make your supplies infinite.

Now, put me in the back of the room, Obi-Wan Kenobi Force Ghost style.

Use the words, Luke.

Use the words, Luke.

Ready?

Author X and Y tell you that this seminar isn’t just going to be them talking to you, but they want you to write and they’re going to move around the room and check your progress. This might freak you, but they cage it as “a chance to get help from experts”. So you smile and start writing.

The first hour goes past. They move through the room, and while they haven’t gotten to you yet, you can hear what they’re saying to others. People look upset, dejected and disappointed. A few tear up. Someone loudly stormed off behind you. Author X and Y both say to keep writing.

The second hour rolls along, and it’s your turn. Author X comes over, asks to see what you’re writing. They scrutinize it, and call over Author Y. They both look at it. You might ask questions, but all you get out of them are the non-answers of “Hmm” and “Oh.” Their faces are a mix of frustration, constipation and that face your old neighbor makes when the kids up the block are too loud. Seconds stretch. Then they speak.

It’s not bad, could be better, I guess.” and “Well, yes, it could be better, but it’s, you know, alright.” It doesn’t matter who says what. Their answers are vague and deflating. (If this isn’t deflating enough, insert your own pair of really uncomfortable sad things).

Now the question becomes – do you stay and try harder? Do you head out the door? Did you just waste your time? Are you disappointed?

Sadly, that scene happens in some variation to a lot of people. They come to a seminar looking for something more than the inspiration they get just from reading a post, they come for more than the awkward guilt or shame of knowing they could do more or do it with less difficulty. I believe that people come to a seminar or a workshop or a convention looking for answers or a route to whatever their next step in their journey is. They have questions they need answers for, they need feedback on their progress, they want to hear what they can do, how they can do it better and what they should avoid or work on not doing.

How Praise Helps The Writer

Writing is a solitary and often emotional activity. We accept a lot of risk in the production of what we create, often enduring lengthy periods of rejection or lengthier periods of anticipating/expecting rejection and feel a deep attachment to the characters, the stories and the ideas. We generally write by ourselves, sitting at tables and desks and often with a schedule that differs from everyone else’s comings and goings. It’s an activity that puts you in your head, drawing the story out and onto the page. Sure, you might get up and complain at your pet or potted plant about how the scene is or isn’t working, sure you might argue with coffee pot or ice dispenser when you can’t quite get something right, and yeah, I guess you might sit and write with your spouse or significant other on the couch over there folding laundry and staring (why can we always feel them staring?) at us while we type frantically away. When the bulk of creation is internal (meaning in YOUR head), there’s not a lot of praise. We’re slow to praise ourselves, maybe we grew up that way or we just had poor role models for praise, or like me, you were told that praise is short-lived and really only given when you “truly” deserve it … but never get told the conditions when you deserve it.

Little Praise, Then What?

Back in our imagined seminar, let’s go back to the Authors X and Y standing over you. We’re going to talk about the actual standing part in a second, but go check out their faces. The tension in the eyebrows. The pursing of lips. The somewhat blank stares. We’re taught at an early age (and through stressful experiences develop) to read faces for signs of danger or upset, and sometimes for some of us those systems are built on bad code. For me, if I can’t immediately register a positive response, I assume the super negative. I’m pretty sure a lot of people fall along that negative part of the spectrum if they’re creative.

Criticism might come from other people, but we define it. At the most basal, all Authors X and Y are doing are opening faceholes and passing air over cords in sound patterns. Our brains have to process those vibrations as sounds we know, then further process them into speech, then go one more step to put them into definitions and draw conclusions. Try thinking about that while listening to someone tear you a new one over the phone, or getting yelled at by a boss at work. It’s sound waves. The definitions at the end of that chain of brain processes? That’s up to you.

I’m not saying you should disregard what someone says, but I am saying to consider it before you lock onto the negativity of it. I’m also not saying you should jump the gun in the other direction and assume they hate it because they’re jealous of you. That’s a possibility, but no more so than your piece needing work or them being unable to properly express themselves and be able to maintain their personas and egos.

So What Can I Take Away From This?

Okay, let’s talk a little about this room we’ve imagined. See how you’re sitting and their standing? And how they’re standing over you when they walk around? We’re wired to accept them as authority figures. It’s how teachers interacted with as children. It’s how parents used to tower over us as we toddled about. Some of us tend to question authority and rebel and chafe at it, but most of us all get a sense that the standing person, the leader-person is more knowledgeable than we are.

This is not necessarily true. They might be more knowledgeable, as knowledgeable, or less knowledgeable than us. They’re just people. They do the same things we do. They’re fallible. They poop. They forget their keys and spill things and put off doing chores just like we do. They are human.

Yes, they’ve been published. They might have been doing this activity longer than you. They might have learned some things you don’t know and be able to help you do things you had trouble with before. On that basis, give them respect. But do not confuse respect for surety. This is not a case where you follow them into the mouth of hell. This is where you accept what they say then choose how you want to interpret it. No, you don’t get to be a dick about it, you do so graciously and sincerely.

“Thank you for [the feedback]. I appreciate you bringing that up.”

Don’t deliver that quote in that passive aggressive tone like you’re all sarcastic or worse, “killing them with kindness”. No, I mean really sit there with your feelings, compose yourself and thank them for saying whatever.

The Magic Trick

Okay, so Author X and Y? What you know of them are some facts (they’ve published books, they have a certain persona online, they’re hosting this seminar) and some abstracts (their personas, any emotion you believe them to have). You give them those abstracts. You project that. That’s stuff from you to them. In short: you expect them to be a certain way, they’re either going to act in accordance with that (live up to it) or you’re going to filter and color what they did or said to fit that expectation. We’re human. We do this. We expect the controversial person to be controversial, and when they’re not, we either claim the actions as poking fun at normal or we suffer a disconnect and have to change how we feel. We expect the aloof-looking person to be rude and we prep for it, and don’t give them a fair shake.

(Wait, the person I imagined WAS rude. So, yeah, they gets no fair shakes.)

The magic trick is that these people aren’t experts. There are no experts. There are people who have found ONE way to accomplish a goal, and there are people who are still looking. Instead of looking to duplicate what they did, look for your own path to goal accomplishment. Their path is not and won’t be your path. And only some of their advice is going to help you. Discern. Think for yourself.

Then What About Competition?

Stay in that imagined seminar, but I want you to add something to it. Picture the first things that come to mind when you read this phrases: legitimate publishing, traditional publishing, real writing success. A lot of people, upon coming across those words think about agents and editors and big offices and books going on bookstore shelves. For a long time that WAS publishing. Over time, we’ve seen a lot of different ways to get written things into the hands of people who want to read them. These new methods are different than the old methods for a lot of reasons – different end product, different steps in the production chain, omission of gatekeepers, whatever – but assuming the old method is “legit” and the new method isn’t is a lot like assuming the author at the front of the room holds some exclusive knowledge and has to decide if you’re good enough to know it. For me, that’s not legitimacy. That’s exclusion, and a loss of my control over my craft.

When teachers or agents or editors or publishers promote scarcity or exclusivity as a proof of legitimacy, they’re reinforcing the behaviors that deny praise and encouraging the anxiety and presumption of wrongness. First of all, they’re the decision-makers for that legitimacy. That makes the assumption that the person you impress speaks or has knowledge about what your audience likes. I might have been occupied for much of the day, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t vote this agent/editor person the power to determine what I like. They’re ONE person. If they don’t like your work, find someone else.

In our virtual seminar, look at the other people. You might think they’re all currying for Author X and Y’s favor, and you might think they’ll get it before you, but that assumes you’re not good enough to be liked. Now, let’s really shake things up. What if you didn’t buy into it? What if you didn’t write like you’re competing? What if there was no competition?

That's some deep shit, John

That’s some deep shit, John

There is no competition. None. Not because you’re better than they are, or they’re better than you are. They write. You write. You all have the same goal: to get your work out into the hands of people who want to read it (ideally in exchange for money).  Yes there’s scarcity in some models of publishing. But not in all of them. There are plenty of ways to accomplish that goal, why get rigidly attached to one? Yes, there’s a lack of praise all over the place. Negative feedback outnumbers (but not necessarily outweighs) positive feedback. We’re quick to give low reviews to things so that people can see how superior we think we’d be and so that we can get a moment of spotlight by sharing that negativity.

Can We Be Positive?

Yes, I hear you, you check out blogs and leave positive comments and tell people you’ll buy their books and you retweet and favorite their tweets. You promise you’ll talk to them when you finish your work. You tell your friends all about the books. That’s nice, but that’s the tip of the positive iceberg.

I am here to sink your Titanics of negativity.

I am here to sink your Titanics of negativity.

The 80% under the surface can be split into:

30% you learning something from what they’ve written (a model for dialogue or character or tension or something), 50% you writing. Yeah, you’re not going to escape that writing part. Sorry. It’s why we do this. But you can thank them. And not just, “OMG I <3 ur bookz! nbd tho” (or however the kids say that, I think I forgot a “squee” or something). I mean track down a method contact longer than a tweet and drop them a note. Tell them how their book got you through a rough part of your own writing. Tell them how you really enjoyed spending your lunch breaks escaping your hated job by exploring the world they made. Tell them how a character’s strength gave you hope when things looked bleak. Tell them how a moment in the story moved you.

It just got real dusty up in here, didn't it?

It just got real dusty up in here, didn’t it?

Put your guts out there.  See what you get back. You’ll be surprised to see what not being a negative fuckhole can give you.

The Cycle Has To End

If there’s little praise, then we are competing for it, then we’re not focused on getting guts on the page – we’re trying to divine what will please the praisekeeper – and they might be some fickle people. Snapping that cycle is as easy as looking at what you’re writing, remembering why you’re writing it and being aware that you (not others) are in charge of it. Yes, you can hand it off, but only do so to the people you know share the same intensity of care and enthusiasm you do. And when someone rains on your parade, understand that you don’t have to quit on account of storms. They pass.

Happy writing.