The Indiana Accords

I started drafting this post in the car during the twelve hours I spent hauling myself and a car full of stuff from Indiana post-GenCon to New Jersey, so if it’s a bit incoherent, it’s because I drafted it out loud in 45-minute chunks throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania.

As I’m told repeatedly, you can’t manufacture moments, you can’t force or make them happen, they’re a confluence of circumstance and things lining up with some coincidence. And every time I hear it, as you’d expect, I think that might be the third most-maddening thing someone can say to me, because what’s basically being said is that you can’t control a moment, and lacking control is one of those things that doesn’t go so well for me. I like control, I like order, and I like being charge of me and what I do.

So of course I love moments, and I chase them, because whatever’s uncontrollable and just out of reach is always the most desired thing.

I spent much of GenCon on a sly pursuit of moments. I wanted there to be little crystallized pockets of experience with specific people. To go to a meal with this or that person. To hug that person. To tell this other person I had missed them. To have, just between the two of us these little bubbles where nothing else mattered.

Now go contrast that with how badly I wanted to speak to rooms with 100+ people and make them all laugh and nod and walk out of the room thinking and feeling and energized.

This is the duality I think a lot of people struggle with, and my own struggle with it transcends the specific knowledge of writing craft of story development. It should, frankly, be bigger than what I know about query letters or marketing or dialogue, because life is more than the total of what you know, it’s the expression of what you know in way(s) that build(s) a bridge between you and the next person.

GenCon this year was about building a whole lotta bridges and moving away from demanding there be a-moment-or-else-right-now-goddammit.

See, there was this woman in the audience on Friday at my last panel of the convention,  I remember exactly where she sat: a row back from the front, on the the interior aisle. She wore a green dress, had dark hair, and kept her hands in her lap a lot. I don’t say any of this in a creepy way, I’m saying this because this woman changed the trajectory of my weekend, my plans, and my entire outlook on what I do.

It was a panel on setting goals and not giving up, and it had okay attendance for a Friday afternoon panel. Of course I would have liked to see more people in the room, but it’s okay, the people who were there were the ones meant to be there. And there was this woman. I cannot for the life of me remember her name, I’m not even sure she said her name, but I remember she was a seamstress, a costumer, and she was nervous.

Now I don’t know if she was nervous because she was asking a question of three people on a stage who had microphones or if she was just nervous in general, but she sticks out so sharply in mind. Now I’m going to paraphrase our interaction:

Her: I’m a costumer, and what do I do when I get discouraged about what I’m doing? I know the flaws in my work, and how do I keep going and doing this this when I know it’s  going to be tough and have problems?

Me: Tell me what you love about costuming.

And it was right there, everything turned. It was like a light switch flicked on her soul and she wasn’t this nervous person who sat quietly and timidly, she was this person who loved a thing and was excited about a thing and it mattered to her.

Her: I love that I can make a dress, an outfit, something out of nothing, and it’s really good and I love doing it, I love how it looks, and the work that goes into it because it’s fun and it makes me happy.

Me: Remember that every time you feel like it’s too hard. Can you do that for me?

Her: Yes. Thank you so much.

There was something about this reaction, this conversation, that wiggled its way into my brain and it took a long time the rest of the weekend to sort itself out. It wasn’t a bad thing, it was a great thing, the best of things, and I couldn’t stop seeing in my head.

The look she had on her face when she described how costuming made her feel. The eye contact when she said she could remember that. The way I asked her if she could do that for me.

Boom.

Moment.

See, up until that point, all the panels I was on were there to give information ahead of ego stroke. Yes, I’ll cop to it, I love the sound of my own voice, yes I love the fact that people come up and thank me. I love attention and I love the fact that I’m smart and good at a thing. And I know that this is not the healthiest space to constantly be submerged in for four days. I don’t want to be “on” for a whole weekend because it makes me an insufferable asshole who doesn’t relax and who is generally unbearable to be around. I’m conscious of that, and I wanted to avoid doing that.

But in the absence of that, I was feeling really lost. And when I feel lost, I try to focus on things that make me feel grateful, and things that make me feel like I still matter, because of course I need to ride the pendulum swing from it’s-all-about-me to I-don’t-matter-at-all and back again.

I look at the people who inspire me: here, here, and here (for starters) and one of the dominant feelings I take away is that they’re aware of the bigger audience, but they’re not talking to the group telling us that blessed are the cheesemakers, they’re speaking to each person one-on-one.

One-on-one, even when there’s this group.

One-on-one, just like the costumer and her question.

One-on-one, just like how a moment …

Boom.

Again.

The moments I felt best were not the moments where the whole room laughed or the whole room looked up at me. Those were nice, but they couldn’t touch the moments where a single person came up and said something nice.

Going forward, I’m committing myself to putting the one-on-one ahead of the group.

I’ll panel the hell out of everything every chance I get because I’m comfortable when I’m talking and teaching and encouraging, but I want anyone who comes in the door to feel like it’s just me and them.

I’ll put out videos and audio where the priority is one-on-one because that’s where the good connectivity and truly helping someone lives. Me talking to and with you. Not at you. Not over you.

And I’ll coach and edit with this same conversation, this same discourse in mind, because as a client, it’s me and you, riding to the end.

Because when I say I believe in you, I believe in YOU. You, person reading this. You, person wondering if they should get something edited. You, person who isn’t sure if coaching will help them. You, right there.

Let’s talk. Let’s work. Let’s get better and grow good things and expand and throw light out against the dark and be happy and make great stuff. Let’s be awesome.

Don’t you dare give up.

Happy creating.

The 12 Things Running a Kickstarter Taught Me About Creativity

Imagine waking up every morning for a month at the peak of the highest drop of the world’s scariest roller coaster. Every morning you’re right at the very edge, where your stomach is floating and just about to fall, where you can look down and see the plummet. And then you spend the day hurtling down and back, only to fall asleep along the way, waking up the next day right back where you were.

That’s a Kickstarter. I did one for 30 days. By all estimates, it was a staggering success. And it taught me a lot. I’d like to share these 12 things with you, because I think even though your thing(s) don’t look like my stuff, the lessons from 30 days in the trenches can still apply.

1. You’ll Never Know Where You Leave Fingerprints Until They’re Looked For

There’s a glut of procedural crime-detection shows. CSI:Duluth; Military Crime Solvers: Guam; CSI:Jack’s Bedroom. And in between all their softball action and banter, past all their alleged computer hacker scenes, they so often rely on little bits of powder to find a thumbprint to “nail the guy.” And it got me to thinking, you don’t know what you’ve touched until you go looking for all the places you’ve left fingerprints.

I didn’t know, I couldn’t gauge the imapct I’ve had on writers and gamers and creatives until I was asking people to exchange money for a product. I didn’t know where I had left fingerprints until over a thousand people plunked down their cash to the tune over of over a thousand dollars a day. My fingerprints were exposed with a little powder and little marketing. And it really got me thinking about how best to help other people leave better fingerprints all over.

You aren’t going to know who you impact where, how much, or when, but you can  ensure that the impression you leave is a positive one. Don’t be a shitgibbon. Don’t smear the landscape with your foul, noxious cloud of self-absorbed word ejaculate. Look to help others because it will help you too. And make an effort to stop thinking you’re a ghost amid the living, you leave fingerprints everywhere.

2. Ripples Happen, But The Lake Eventually Calms Back Down

There’s no way for me to accurately pinpoint the moments when I felt the most stress. Was it the third minute moreso than the ninth? Was it the final hour more than the first two? There are so many changes, so many times when putting yourself out there feels like you’re taking a giant or glacier-sized boulder and chucking it straight into the center of the lake that is your life.

The water is calm and glassy and totally perfect for Pinterest photography and then you go and fuck it all up with this giant rock of creative endeavor. A huge splash ensues, the glassy perfection is gone, and all you see are the ripples, the way the lake has changed and isn’t perfect anymore.

The lake, your life, it calms back down. It’s different because you’ve got this giant fucking boulder in it that wasn’t there before, but it does get back to looking nice. It’s a new normal, one that includes the boulder, and it’s just as great as the old normal, just different.

3. Love Give Love Give Love Joy

Shout-out to TV Crimes for this one. Why aren’t you listening? Seriously put them in your ears.

It sounds very new age crystal shop, but the best way I got through the days without turning into a gibbering pile of oily stress bowel movements and stressed out dry skin was by loving the ride I couldn’t control.

You cannot control, you cannot make other people give you money. You cannot force them to check out your work. You cannot make them care.

You can encourage them. You can lead them. You can suggest to them that they check it out. You can do everything in your power to appeal to them to consider doing it, but ultimately the choice is theirs. Their money, their time, their interest. All out of your control.

For a control-enjoying guy like me, that’s so beyond frustrating to accept. But, you have to. Learn to love that there’s so much of this you can’t control, yet you still have evidence that you’re succeeding. You’re never making people do it or else, yet there they are, checking out your stuff. You’re an observer to a rock concert in your honor. You’re given so many chances to love and be grateful for people’s time and support. The acts of gratitude pay greater dividends than the possible murder ballet you’d unleash by over-controlling things.

4. The Support Around You Makes A Huge Difference

No one should journey through the stress abattoir alone, and not just because having another person there means you can shove them between the deadly spinning blades in your place. Your support network, the net of people who care, can be an incredible boon if you let it be, and if you foster it to be one.

I don’t mean retreating to a crag of people clutching wine bottles like they’re partisans on the eve of battle, I mean putting people around you on the daily who look out for you, who ask how you’re doing, who ask (and then do) how best to help you on that particular day.

And this isn’t just the sounding boards upon who you crash your fears and doubts or speak your tentative “I think I might do…” plans. Those help, but you can’t only use that as a support. You’re not alone in any creative endeavor unless you choose to be. You can turn to friends, editors, agents, cover artists, readers, critique groups, all actual people with whom you can share the vulnerable, the hellacious, and the joyous. Stop thinking and acting like you have to do this alone so that it’s pure or better or because it’s what you have to do so that “it counts.” That’s a shitty way to neuter how great something could be if you stopped being a scared meatbag and asked for help to make something as awesome as you want it to be.

5. What You Say Perpetuates

Just like how you can put people around you to help, so too can you put out things from your brain and face that will help too. You, creator, set the tone for the climate and attitude around your efforts. Want it to be shitshow of complaints and doubts and shitty little cutesy GIFs? By all means then keep talking about how it’s so hard and how you think the little stack of pixels allegedly representing a cartoon bunny smashing their head against a a stack of pixels allegedly representing a desk really conveys what you mean.

If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.

Ditch the GIFs. Own your words. Own your feelings. Be responsible and vulnerable and honest and not a crotchmaggot.

If you want to surround yourself in an atmosphere of building towards success, where you celebrate the milestones and encourage other people to step up and step in to keep that going while you’re out doing other shit, then you have to be the first and most clear resource for that. Not necessarily the only, but you set the tone. And how you handle the shit that arises like scum deserving to be skimmed off your awesome broth is going to tell people how you want them to approach you and your creativity too.

You’re the boss of the whole sphere of your creativity.

6. Who Does It Better Is Fruitless

Comparison and competition is the angel of death. It’s the Ted McGinley Curse (google it) of creativity. There’s always going to be someone who’s doing a totally different thing than you in a different way that you’re going to want to say is better than your way.

You’re writing a book? Oh they’re making candles in the shape of animal feet. And for every 1000 words you put on paper, they’ve made nine giraffe hooves (hooves, right? giraffe toes sound creepy). Clearly there’s a 1:1 relationship between candles and books, so you suck and they’re the best.

Bullshit. Applesauce. Horsefeathers. Dicktits.

What someone else does, how they do it, that can be a great template, that can be an inspiration, but ultimately it comes down you doing your thing your way, and letting them do their thing their way.

With a Kickstarter, before you start, it can be a great idea to set yours up the way other people had theirs set up. But it’s completely nonsensical to measure how you’re doing to how they did however long ago. It would be like comparing your doctor now to the doctors of two centuries ago. The time is different, the environment is different. Sure they’re doctors, but one has a hacksaw and the other one has a machine that can visualize your brain’s electrical patterns.

Competing with other people, especially those who don’t and won’t realize you’re competing with them is an exercise in frustration. Your success is yours to carve out, and it’s going to look different than everyone else’s because you’re different than everyone else. You’re the only you. Stay that way.

7. Sometimes The Best Thing To Do Is No-Thing

Remember how we talked about control? Now where you gonna talk about its shitty sidekick micromanagement. There can be a great urge to tweak things along the way towards “finished product”, to try and get it “perfect”, thinking that if they liked this one idea expressed this way then they’ll totally love 10% more of that idea tacked on about a quarter paragraph to the left. In this age of metrics and charts and on-hand feedback, there can be a drive to constantly adjust in the hopes, however vain or valid, that you’ll hit the sweet spot and stay there so that your success is some unbroken super-perfect state.

Well, no. You can’t and shouldn’t constantly tweak everything. That way lies madness. It’s a road to exhaustion, because again, so much is out of your control. So at times, back the fuck off. Back. The Fuck. Off.

Build a sense of trust that you (and your support) have set up for success as best you can, and that any trends of success will continue without you constantly rubbing up on them like the bus is too crowded.

You want to get into the groove where success and production mesh, and sometimes that means you have to keep doing what you’re doing, not fiddle with it so it works better.

8. Don’t Forget Deodorant

The swell of succeeding, of monitoring, of ensuring that you’re doing a thing and it’s going well can be very consuming. You can lose hours and days and weeks to the investment of time and energy, and it’s easy to let things slide, because you can quickly term them as non-essential or just say you’ll do them later.

Keep that up though, and you’ll collapse into bed with your hands behind your head wondering why the room suddenly smells like old celery and onions that you soaked in kerosene and kept in a gym sock behind the refrigerator.

9. Is It About Stats Or The End Result

It’s one thing to set milestones for yourself, to say you’ve hit a certain mark and that you feel good about it. That’s great, and should be a happy-making part of production. The downside of those milestones is feeling like just because you missed one (like you wanted to write a 100,000 word book, but the story’s complete at 92,359), that your whole effort is wasted.

Stats are great, tracking stats is lovely (right up until the point you find yourself competing, see above), but don’t let that distract or derail from the fact that ultimately you have a goal in mind – a book, a piece of art, a thing, something you can give to people, whatever.

10. Schedules and Battleplans

You have to bring order to this chaos. It’s not going to magically arise by itself, and it’s not going to be there without you giving it a genesis and some momentum. Knowing what you want is totally separate from knowing how you’re going to make it happen. This is also something where you can bring in that support network, because while the production might be best done solo, you don’t exist solo, and it’s useful to build a roadmap to success when you’ve got someone else on hand to tell you that you’ve labyrinthed yourself into a corner.

Make a schedule, make a plan that you can commit to consistently, even if it’s not dramatic or hyper showy-offy. Consistency and discipline are going to carry you so much farther and longer than you think, especially in the early days where everything is exciting and burning borrowed momentum of newness.

11. It Is Every Ride At Every Carnival Ever, All At Once

I am not a fan of many carnival rides. I like the tilt-a-whirl, the scrambler, a decent merry-go-round, and a nice ferris wheel. That’s about it. I could give a shit about high speed dark tunnels and things that loop. They make me queasy, they make me anxious, I’m always afraid of losing my glasses in the dark on some stupid whipping bend.

Sometimes, the paths we take to success are all the rides we like and don’t like, every day for as long as it takes us to get the thing made. There are turns and darkness and anxiety, and there’s fun in squishy corners.  But you can prepare a little for it by knowing you’re going to run into parts you like and don’t like, but not always where those parts are going to be. Again, lean on support, trust yourself, and keep being consistent and disciplined in your march towards success.

12. Love, give love, joy, give joy love.

If you’re not in a place to love yourself throughout the process, if you’re not in a place to love the support you receive, if you’re not in a place to love the people who recognize from the outside, if you’re not at a place where you can recognize from your side of the fence that success is changing you for the better, that you can accomplish your goals with consistency and discipline and a good support network and a plan, then you’re in for a struggle.

Running a campaign about a project I love, creating more of that project to love, CHANGED ME. For the better. And it can keep me changed or not, that’s my choice. (Hint: It’s going to, I am liking myself more, and not just because I raised over $30,000)

It’s just easier to be less of a dick sometimes when the things so often worrying you aren’t worrying you anymore

 

Arrival and Some of Its Layers

We start today by talking about layers. I like layers existing in certain things – cake, bricks, geological strata – but spent a great deal of my life thinking that when you mention layers around any kind of art, that it immediately becomes the cue for pretentious wankery and arrogance to emerge to show you how smart other people can be while showing how clearly smart you’re not.

People would bring up the idea that this book or that film or the painting over there would have layers and I’d nod and make very agreeable sounds, really just in an effort to make them stop talking. It’s not that I couldn’t see all the layers, I just wasn’t very interested in getting that deep into what have been a very one comedy or nice piece of desktop wallpaper.

This changed a great deal over the last few years when I started getting my hands dirtier in story structure and developmental editing, because “layers” (the concept) had layers to it, and once you get past the part where people want to tell you something  some tweed-sucking academic once told them something in an airy tone that they later used to try and get a dry handjob in a closet from someone in their dorm, you see that layers are coiled springs of potential energy – the ability to convey information in a concentrated form without overtly stating it repeatedly.

I’ve seen Arrival 3 times now, it has layers, and I’d like to talk about them. In no way am I saying these are the only layers, these are just the ones I’ve seen in my 3 times. I absolutely encourage to go check it out for yourself. And before we go onward, yes, there are spoilers here, because it’s going to be impossible for me to mention these layers without giving away some plot elements for context. Don’t ever let spoilers dissuade you from checking something out, learning what Point B is when you’re at Point A still leaves you to discover the route, and still lets you draw your own conclusions as to how you felt.

Layer 1 – Challenging the traditional sci-fi organization

Arrival is a great movie. It’s enjoyable. It’s visually engaging. It’s got great acting. It’s well edited. The soundtrack is cool. Past that, it does a really interesting job in taking on one of the major elements in alien/monster-encounter media, the knowledge-malevolence axis (that’s not its real name, it’s named after a lady who wrote about it in the ’60s, I think her name started with an R, I cannot remember it, but we’re gonna talk about it as the axis because that’s what my notes have)

The knowledge-malevolence axis is the measure of how the alien or monster (also called “a creature” when you go back to B-films), regardless of whether they’re a time-traveling murder robot from the dystopic future, or they’re a benevolent water mirage, or a Xenomorph or Mr Hyde or whatever, interacts in a positive way with the humans in the media.

If you want the audience to assume the alien’s purpose is to rack up a body count, they rank higher in malevolence, because there’s no “positive” interaction, the humans don’t gain anything from the experience except possibly not dying.

If you want the audience to assume the alien’s purpose is to help or challenge humanity, then they’re not aggressive, and in fact are represented as smarter than humanity.

The shorthand is “as intelligence grows, body count drops”

Traditionally, if your aliens are straight-up murder factories, their intelligence isn’t really developed as a story point past whatever utility it serves in making the body count rise. They’ve got to smart enough to trap, fight, and kill humans, period.

And if your aliens are super geniuses with a mission, they don’t have to murder anyone, and don’t pursue that unless the antagonist of the film ends up meeting their end via tentacle, mental power or nifty CG.

Arrival smartly packages the knowledge-malevolence axis not in the aliens, but in the humans.

In the film, all the violence (from an aborted bombing to some tanks, helicopters and I think threatened missiles) is human-generated. Because the movie smartly points out that in the absence of a traditional alien antagonist that bleeds so we can kill it, we default back onto our second greatest fear – inferiority.

This tension is so often discarded in alien media. We see some uniformed guy questioning the protagonists as to the alien’s intentions, some lasers go off, and sure enough we know the alien’s intentions to invite us all to the dead body pile.

Here the uniformed guys take that same stance, but no lasers go off. So … they wait for the lasers to go off. And no lasers ever go off. But we have to assert some kind of toughness, so we’re ready with all this military bluster. The tension is one of humanity’s design.

So there’s no body count, there’s no overt threat (we’ll get there in the next layer), so what kind of alien-encounter film is this?

It isn’t. It’s a character study, there just happen to be aliens in it as vehicles for that study.

Onto the next layer.

Layer 2- Narrative Toolbox

I think we need to do just a little plot and character setup here. Our protagonist is a linguist (Amy Adams should get an award), and she’s recruited by the military to work on figuring out what our aliens are saying, so that we can figure out if there’s going to be a body count. She’s partnered with a physicist (because you can’t have a science fiction movie without science), and the pair of them go figure out how to talk to aliens.

It’s worth pointing out here that 2 things become pretty clear: first, our protagonist has an easier time talking to aliens than people (and not in that overused Aspergers-is-a-superpower-way), and second, that this is a movie about what people say and what it means. Now before we get to how the alien language is fucking super rad, we need to lens this movie through the idea of communication. Who has what to say, and what does it mean?

Our protagonist has to, on a plot level, figure out what the aliens are saying.
Our protagonist has to, on a secondary level, figure out what her visions/dreams/thoughts mean (they grow progressively more intense as a b-plot and bookends in the film)

The aliens have to, on a plot level, communicate a particular set of ideas to the humans.
The aliens, have to, on a secondary level, validate a decision they make that’s not immediately apparent or stated to anyone else (we’re gonna talk about it, hang on)

The army has to, on a plot level, interpret the alien actions and take appropriate response.

Communication is the primary currency in power dynamics. It doesn’t matter if we communicate through words, gestures, asses getting kicked, or dance offs (dances off … is like courts martial and surgeons general?), characters communicate with the intention of either maintaining or changing a power dynamic.

Our protagonist has a unique position in the film – she’s subordinate in every power dynamic she is a part of, but she never loses agency and is a pro-active character for the majority of the film.

It’s her actions that lead to alien conversation. Her actions that resolve military tension. And ultimately her actions that end the film on brilliant gutpunch. She’s got agency for miles, and she uses it.

The other element in communication is about the distribution of information that we communicate. We know that based on the shapes of symbols we see as letters, and the sounds we know to associate with them, that a few lines and dots turn into words. And we know that because of where a word is in a sentence, it has a certain importance and value to the information we’re trying to convey.

For example:

My dog is asleep on the couch means you picture my dog, being asleep, on a couch, in that order.

When we jumble those words up (not change the words, just their positions, the package of information doesn’t make sense.

The on dog couch my is asleep isn’t something we understand based on how we’ve come to interpret language. Left to right, finding nouns, verbs, prepositions, and all that.  (I’m way simplifying the study of word order typology here)

Yes, foreign language readers, many languages either operate as subject-object-verb as well as subject-verb-object, so you can tumble that sentence around and see how it comes out in Korean or Quechua for instance and still makes reasonable sense to both eye and ear.

Now we get into something a little deeper. Let’s talk about embedding, because it’s part of the alien language and it’s one of the two primary elements that tie the protagonist and the big story question together (the other being the last 2 minutes of the film)

Embedding is the idea that you take an idea that can’t stand on its own (a clause) and you nest it like one of those Russian dolls in and around other clauses within a sentence. You bury the idea not to obscure it (at least not intentionally), you bury it to give it a context.

Like this:

The man that the woman heard left.

To dissect this, you’ve got some unpacking to do:

  1. “left” refers to a past tense verb, not the directional
  2. A marker like “that” should clue you in to find the next nearest verb (“heard” in this case) and consider that to be a clause on its own.

So, if we were going to visually organize this sentence it’ll turn into

The man || that the woman heard || left.

You can, rightfully for the sake of parsing, chop the sentence down to “The man left.”

But what about that clause, what about “that the woman heard”, it’s important, right? It gives a context in addition to us pictured an absent dude, yeah?

Yes, it is important. If we’re establishing that what happened to the person she heard is more important than the fact that she heard him at all, it’s super important (because the sentence ends with “left”, meaning his absence is the last thing we take before going forward). And if we’re establishing a contrast between people the woman did and didn’t hear, the it’s super important because it distinguishes one man from another.

Embedding as an unconscious writing practice (where we shoehorn in all kinds of stuff because it’s important but we’re not really sure where to put it but we don’t want to lose it so it has to go somewhere) is one of the most comment manuscript murderers that I see at Parvus. It’s a congestion of information that makes it difficult to follow along and develop the intended mental picture.

Embedding as a conscious writing practice, being deliberate in the packaging of an idea inside similar ideas, is a great way to add layers inside sentences, or put another way, layers inside layers.

This is like a turducken quesorito, which sounds gross now that I’ve written it out.

So why did I have to lay out embedding? Because it’s central to the other big part of the narrative stuff here – embedding allows for non-linear development.

If you can package an idea within a sentence, and then take that sentence and put in a paragraph, and that whole paragraph creates a picture in the reader’s head, and that picture is shaped by context of all the other surrounding pictures, then it won’t matter what time this or that piece came into the mix if you’re already looking at the whole ensemble.

Back to the plot – the visions our protagonist has are due to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (no not the Klingon), which says that language either determines or at least influences thought, meaning that immersion in a material produces thoughts and therefore dreams in that material (like when you listen to the Moana soundtrack enough times you start thinking about being a voyager).  These visions are dreamlike, but they’re revelations of her future. The conceit of the alien language, the semagram nature of it and its ability to be embedded with information means that time is no longer constrained linearly, as in you can reach point C from point A even though B in the future that hasn’t happened yet is known to you and tells you how to do it.

Armed with future knowledge, she can take actions in the present to make sure the future happens.

Relevant to the subject of her visions (a dying child and a broken relationship), we go down one more level.

Level 3 Terminality

This is the level where I cried. I have zero shame in saying that, because it’s rare that I find this sort of idea expressed in a satisfying way that’s not playing completely for maudlin necessity. No one’s dying a noble sacrifice, no one’s dying to complete prophecy, people just … die. And it sucks, and it hurts.

So, you’re our protagonist, you find out that after you deal with these aliens, you’re gonna end up in a relationship, have a daughter, then lose that daughter early. The question then is – why have the daughter if you know how it ends? (See how this parallels to our spoilers mention up top?)

Our protagonist says yes, and we the audience take an uppercut to the breadbasket over it because we’re immediately shown the title and end credits. She knows what’s coming, she accepts it anyway. It’s gonna suck, but that’s her choice.

This isn’t a movie about aliens teaching us about linguistic relativity. This is a movie about embracing life and making decisions knowing that it will end in something more pointed than “everybody dies.” This is a movie about communicating and sharing that information even though it has consequences.

Her relationship ends not because the daughter dies, but because she knew the daughter was going to die and she didn’t tell her husband. Did he have a right to know? Would he have said yes to having the daughter or the relationship if he knew?

And likewise, if you needed there to be the daughter (Point C from the above layer) without the daughter how could you have reached Point B at all?

What we’re left with at this level is the question of knowing the future and allowing it to impact the present. To me, for me, that’s a big giant shout-out to terminal illness. Granted, I’m biased, but hey this is my blog and I’m me, but knowing the future absolute influences the present in positive and negative ways.

It’s great motivation for finally accomplishing dreams. It’s terrible reckoning as to the reality that a pet will likely outlive you. It’s great for encouraging a change in character, and woeful for coming to terms with just how awful that character was.

But it’s not all bad, just like it’s not all good. In Arrival, she got to have that relationship and a daughter, for a little while at least. Yeah, you can argue that it was unfair to be taken away so short, or that it was her own fault for inciting it all, but … she still had it, and it had to have some good moments, right?

And for me, yeah, it can suck knowing that there’s a finish line to the marathon I only recently starting caring about participating in, but I’m still running (well, ambling, I mean, shit, I’ve got bronchial pneumonia at the moment) and I’m not done yet.

It has good moments. And you hold onto them and you use them as raft, bumper car, touchstone, lighthouse, reference point, and starlight to get you through the bad moments.

Go watch this movie. Please. And then go create things.

 

Happy creating.

The Post About The Shift

As I promised here, I’ve noticed a both intended and unintended substantial change I’ve made over the last few months. I suppose it’s been percolating for years, but because I’m often slow about absorbing or accepting ideas when they pertain to or affect me, I’m only just seeing it now.

Way back when, I was, bluntly, a mess. I was a dishonest, manipulative, arrogant, obnoxious bully of a guy. I can write that off to unchecked mental illness or addiction, but I don’t entirely want to excuse it. I saturated and perpetuated a climate where I was encouraged to stay not-nice, because it was easier to be a death metal porcupine with flaming quills than anything sensitive, empathetic, or sincere. That stuff was scary, because honesty always carries with it a pile of potential rejection or judgment.

Granted, yes, being a complete dick carries judgment and rejection, but I very artfully was able to say that was the fault of other people. How dare they not want to hang out or love or get to know the guy who treated them like shit! What was so wrong with them, because clearly John-in-his-20s was perfect.

I would love to say that this shift away from that trash-human was all due to sobriety, but I think the roots of this shift come from three elements: the sobriety, the people I put around myself after I realized how important happiness was, the material I chose to put my focus on instead of where it was before.

So let’s break this down.

The Sobriety
It’s undeniable that getting off booze, pills, and the wealth of poisons I was stuffing into my body played a huge role in how I lived. Sure, it revealed some way-less-than-great health issues that have some serious and big-time consequences, but between one thousand one hundred and thirteen days ago (at the time of this writing) and today, I am less engaged in efforts to actively kill myself because I’m angry at the world for not giving me enough love or success or attention or validation, like it’s all portion controlled and not the all-you-can-plate buffet that I’ve come to discover it is. I didn’t want to do the work of going out and asking or seeking those things I needed because I thought I wouldn’t get them, and when it became apparent to me that I had just as much right as the person next to me to be happy and cared about, this big personality and productivity and professional shift began. Sadly, I don’t remember the exact moment that switch was flipped, but I can ballpark it to a particular week and roughly say it was snowing that day, based on my recollections.

I’d be dead by now if I wasn’t sober. Period. Full stop. I am proud of my efforts, I have zero doubts that it was the right thing to do, even though the path to get me there wasn’t the easiest and along the way I had to change along the way. The clarity of mind and the appreciation for being alive matters in a way that’s greater than blog follower count, or client list, or bank account. I can grow and improve anything now that I’m not actively playing a part in my own destruction.

The People I Put Around Myself After I Realized How Important Happiness Was
Okay, let’s go back to me being a dick in my 20s and even my early 30s. I had friends. I had some good friends. I may have treated them poorly, we may have treated each other poorly, but this is where my life was. It wasn’t about being happy because I’d helped people (like now) it was about getting happiness in the misery of others to create some paradigm that I get my jollies from knocking other people down. It’s not healthy. I am zero percent proud of what I did and said back then.

Even after sobriety I didn’t know any other group of people to cluster towards, and I admit I did myself very few favors moving through the orbits of people back then. I was trying to make good and smart and healthy choices without recognizing that it’s hard to find them when you’re not seeing the red flags.

I discounted happiness as I thing I qualified for because I thought I had to atone for living poorly. I thought that these people around me would provide that happiness just because I was around, but my silence about how I felt and what I wanted didn’t clue them in that there was a thing to address. That’s on me. They’re people, so they’ve got their own issues, but I can only be responsible for myself.  I gotta put on my oxygen mask before I can help somebody else with theirs.

So, after painfully extricating myself from groups of people who I never meshed with the way I wanted, I floundered a little. I felt like that grape that sits at the bottom of the package – it’s not part of the cluster, but it’s not an inedible grape even though it gets overlooked because it’s not part of the cluster.

The best advice I can give to someone when they feel like that grape is that the only way you’re going to get different results is to take different action. And yes, you need to accept that the new action has risks to it, but that’s the cost for taking it. I took risks.

Okay wait, that makes it sound like I went skydiving into a volcano. I didn’t. I mean I started talking to new people. It only felt like skydiving into a volcano.

Here’s where I start name-checking people.

Bar none, the best improvement I made to my life was letting good people who legitimately care about me help me go forward one day and one action at a time. I would be completely and totally lost without Jessica Pruneda. She is at once my sherpa, my confidante, the kindest and best human source of compassion and caring I’ve ever met, and someone I am deeply pleased to go through life with. Also, she makes sure I do things like nap and drink water and not lose my shit. Her fondness for tacos also makes lunchtime a treat. I cannot say enough good things about her, even though she blushes super hyper easily and will totally deny most of it. She’s amazing.

Without Jeremy Morgan, Matt Jackson, and Mark Richardson, my life would be missing some of its crucial colors and scope (Cinemascope, the best of all Scopes, take that peri-!). They make me laugh and think and encourage me everyday. They make it easier. They’re awesome.

I cannot understate how crucial it is to do the tough act of looking at the people and habits you surround yourself with if you’re not getting what you want from life. Whether that means business or personally or casually or creatively, the climate you osmose affects your work and life. Tricky here is the idea that it’s not their fault if you need to change things. Nor is it a complete sign that you’re doomed to suck, it’s just a thing you need to change to do better, be better, and go forward. It’s fixable.

Happiness is vitality. It isn’t this thing you earn or work up to like trading in tickets at some prize counter, it’s a kind of lifeblood all its own, and despite what angry or loud people will holler on the internet, there’s nothing wrong with you that you don’t deserve to be happy. And other people can be happy concurrent to your happiness even and especially with the things making them happy aren’t the same as the things that make you happy.

People can contribute to your happiness, but you can’t expect them to fill the tank. It’s not all on them to be your everything-resource. Tough lesson, but worth it.

The Material I Chose To Put My Focus On
Before you can affect a change in yourself, you have to first accept that you’re a product of the environment and scaffolding you’ve built around your day-to-day life. If you’ve built an echo chamber, if you are only steeped in one particular avenue of thought or action, then what you’re doing and thinking is only going to show the hallmarks of that influence. We all do this.

Sometimes, this isn’t an issue, because the people and thoughts around us elevate and illuminate us. Sometimes though, it’s building sycophancy and perpetuating codependence.

For me, I put media and content around me that was disguised as intellectual or provocative, but was really no different than the stuff I was spewing in my 20s. It had some new window dressing, it had all new jargon, but it was still … people treating each other poorly under the guise of “educating” or “correcting” them, a position that no one appointed them to, and a position that wasn’t actually doing anyone any favors.

It stopped being funny or interesting to hear the same tired opinions or outrage or jokes. The horses were dead and beaten. It was time to move on, and when these other people didn’t, that meant it was time for me to go.

I found Movies With Mikey. I found Epic Rap Battles of History. I found the WWE Network. I stopped listening to angry dudes and ladies making mountains out of molehills. I started checking out people making stuff that was fundamentally not about how awful things were and how good things could be. Not counting the shirtless guys hitting each other with chairs. That’s more nostalgia.

It was a simple thing, to prune the Youtube subscriptions, to cull the blogs I read, and find new outlets. I asked this question – Is this bringing information and giving me something I can take away, or is this something I’m watching because I find the emotional outburst attractive?

It’s a question about whether or not I want to be actively engaged in checking out material or passively checking out because I’m checking out an echo chamber different than the one I just left.

You add all these things up: the decisions and the people and the thinking, and you can track me moving towards being a different John. The tweetstorms began to add in elements of motivation, I blogged less because I was focusing on learning how to do things in new ways and more ways that reinforce the vector I’m on. I started a Patreon as one more place to put out content where I could speak when typing didn’t cover all the bases I wanted.

In the very near future, over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to start talking about and sharing interviews and experiences I’ve given and had this year where I think (and hope) you’ll see this changed me.

I can’t twist your arm and make you see it, all I can do it is be that guy and do the best I can every day.

Thanks for reading this, I really appreciate it. Happy creating.

The Messy Filing Cabinet

Next to the left leg of the table that I use as an office desk, there’s a two-drawer filing cabinet. It’s littered with magnets. There’s a Thoreau quote. There’s a whole pack of that magnetic poetry and two buttons that reference clutter, genius, and being underpaid. Some of this stuff has been on these drawers so long I can’t remember where I bought them or when.

In short, it’s one more overlooked and underused part of the office.

Hold on to your seats, we’re going deep in today’s blogpost. SEO be damned, we’re on some personal tracks today. All aboard the John-train, destination: realizationville.

I have this habit, and if you’re a long time reader of the blog you can guess this, this habit where I get really great plans for stuff then barely follow through in the way I intended or hoped for. Sure, we can all write this off as the results of living with mental illness or actively sabotaging myself on a regular basis, but I’ve come to think of this as my looking for a best-fit. Best-fit is important to me: I was a kid who didn’t feel like he fit in anywhere, and I’m an adult who doesn’t think he easily fits in to categories about expertise and job description and experiences.

So back to this double drawer. It’s the best fit for the space under the table. There’s maybe a quarter inch of space between the top of the drawer and the bottom of the table. It fits, it belongs there, I don’t give it a second thought.

Again, no surprise for the long time readers, I have had a life with some twists and turns, and I’ve documented them, as both an effort to salvage-stroke my ego when appropriate, but also as a way to render toothless the venomous serpents and snarling beasts before me. In those two drawers, I dumped things. Things I fully intended to use later, things I wish I felt good enough or smart enough to say “Oh yes, I have these things here in my drawer, one moment please” but more often than not, the drawers became a graveyard for things that are best kept behind whatever metal this is.

I’ve recently come back from a trip, a week away from the house, and I spent a lot of time on this trip reading books about improving my mindset, dealing with self image, successful principles and maxims, as well as finding your purpose. Usually these books are in some way masturbatory (not like that), I mean that I read them so I can say I’m making some effort to improve myself, but it’s very detached: I read, but I don’t apply. Or more like I won’t apply until something takes me right to a precipice where my status quo is going to radically be affected … then after that I’ll change, and I’ll be all enthusiastic, but that just becomes the new status quo.

Are you seeing this? Does this sound familiar? Am I putting words to a thing in your life? Or is this a guy writing out a stream of thoughts because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself, and he’s too tired to clear off the bed?

Right, the drawers. Last night I came home from 13 hours of travel and saw the state of the room and felt like I was coming back from this great experience to a soiled oasis. This is my office, this chair and this creaky old table are where I connect to people and share work and share passion … and it seemed like this corner of this room was just the sewage treatment plant for a city best remembered in a Springsteen song.

It was more than just dusty, it was cluttered and heavy with everything. It didn’t fit me anymore. It isn’t how I wanted things to be. It had to change. No precipice. No imminent radical upheaval. I was just sick of there being two drawers of shit in the corner of a room.

Out comes the last giant trashbag in the house (something poetic about that). And I start filling. I pull open the first drawer, and sort it out. Then the second drawer. No drug paraphernalia, but here’s SOME of what I found:

  • An empty box of condoms that I neither remember buying or ever using.
  • A note inside said box of condoms about a series of blogposts about Plot (more on that in a second)
  • Three halves of three different mobile phones I’ve had
  • A bottle of long-expired horny goat weed that I remember vaguely getting as a freebie from a job I had 15 years ago
  • A small plastic box of pen caps, three WCW Nitro trading cards, and a keychain from Borders bookstores
  • Eight DVDS (and assorted notes) from seminars on building confidence that I am very deeply ashamed that I ever spent money on (more on that in a second too)
  • A broken Neti Pot
  • Two web cams, their cords and plugs removed
  • Three credit card bills for cards I no longer have, all from at least 4 years ago
  • A pile of discharge paperwork from various colleges that no longer requested my attendance (they were in a folder labelled “Fuck ’em”)
  • A half-completed application for information regarding becoming a private detective
  • A page of notes I wrote when I was high all about how I wanted to lose thirty pounds and start making YouTube videos with fancy graphics to talk about writing
  • A page of notes explaining how I should beg, borrow, and steal the equipment and software necessary to make those videos
  • A page of notes about how to quickly lose weight without tapeworms, self-harm, or crossfit (my solution was apparently saunas because women in towels … again, I was really high)
  • An aborted note to myself about how I should throw the lamp out the window because it never worked (I did get rid of the lamp when I got clean)
  • A stack of business cards in a folder labelled “Scary”, these cards are all from companies and people who I to this day am still intimidated by, even though I know them and have been paid by them to do work

Basically, it was two drawers of shit living in the corner of a room that I “filed” (can’t make the airquotes bigger) away to be forgotten, rather than acted on.

And now it’s in a bag at the top of my stairs (I’m gonna need help getting it out to the curb), and what’s in the drawers now?

  • My business card holder, all nicely filed
  • Eleven boxes of pens
  • Six packs of notecards
  • A mini 3-hole punch
  • The VIP pass I got when I saw Dave Matthews in concert
  • Three of the six portable hard drives I use to catalog my creativity

That’s it. My past sits in a bag at the top of the stairs, I can’t even see it from where I’m sitting in this chair. It’ll sit there until it goes out to the curb, and then it’ll be gone. I can’t think of a better way to signal that I changed something without having to have someone threaten to leave me or that I was ruining a life or that I was a disappointment or that I was bankrupting them emotionally and financially.

I got tired of cluttered drawers, and I did something about it. All me. By myself. Took maybe twenty minutes of effort to open drawers, make a pile, sort pile, and dispose of it.

So I’m sitting here now, writing one of the longest blogposts I have in months, and I feel better. I feel good, even. Like this is the way the books I’m reading about self image and goals and success are supposed to make you feel. Fuck you clutter, I’m succeeding!

I’m sorry if my life has derailed a lot of the ambitious plans I set out. I would hate to think that’s the definition people have of me, that I’m the guy who starts like a bat out of hell then quickly calms away to an occasional breeze. Hey look, I just cleaned these two drawers and realized that my passion and on a greater scale, who I am and how I identify as a creative was cluttered up too.

Cluttered up in expectations, in panicked “reality checks” where I talk myself out of attempting things for irrational reasons, in fear of rejection, in fear of losing control of the rudder that steers me so that I don’t go back to the paranoia and depression, in fear of losing what makes me me, even if I’m never really sure who that is unless I’m writing about being passionate and being brave and being good when it’s not easy.

I don’t know if any of this reaches you. I don’t know if this matters to you. Maybe this one’s just for me. And I’m way more okay with whatever the answer is.

I want to end with a quick note: Part of that trip that had me hours away from the house, and reading all these books was that I finally took the big professional risk of having Noir World recorded on One Shot, as well as giving a really candid and intense interview for Talking Tabletop. The game was great (it was a new experience for me, I don’t think I actually did a lot of talking, and yeah, I’m shocked too), and I think the interview was maybe me at my most honest and sincere. I’m excited for you to hear them both.  (Other note: Save some bucks for March, Noir World’s gonna go to Kickstarter then)

Thanks for reading this long blast of thoughts. I hope you found in it something to take away, even if you’re just shocked about the amount of shit a person can pack into two small drawers.

Go create, be happy, and don’t you ever give up. We’ll talk real soon, I’ve got this whole page of notes on Plot blogposts that I need to decode and write for you…so that’ll be fun.

The Great Metatopia 2016 Recap Post

(originally this went up on Facebook, but it got long and I thought it deserved wider distribution)

Metatopia is the single greatest convention I attend every year. Period. There is no better professional setting I’m aware of, and this is absolutely the best place for designers new and old to congregate and flourish. That is 1000% due to the tireless work of the Double Exposure staff, and even with everyone heaping deserved praise at them, it’s not enough. This convention is the place to go if you want to create games or learn about the business of telling stories and engaging with people.

If there is a downside to convention culture, it’s that a lot of it orbits bars and a drinking culture. For the majority of people, this isn’t a problem – you have a drink or two, you laugh with your friends, you gossip and chatter, then haul off to bed. But for those of us working sober, for those of us who don’t have as easy a time in that atmosphere, the fact that each night (or frankly any time of day with downtime) brings everyone to a central alcohol dispensing locale is a challenge. The call to have a drink after a tough conversation or a shaky panel is a siren’s song, and I am so proud not only of myself, but my recently sober friends for working their programs and getting through. Good job us.

This year was honestly a departure from my usual routine of panel after panel, because this year I added co-panelists when I had the opportunity. Here’s why that’s flat-out not what I normally do – I love to hear myself talk, and I worry that sharing the stage is going to prove to people just how negligible my contributions to any discussion are.

But there I was, having conversations about everything from narrative structure to marketing strategies to the Oxford comma with other people at the table. And it didn’t suck. The panels weren’t all dumpster fires and CGI-less explosions. Sure, I had a few moments of “What the holy monkeyshit am I doing here?” but those were fleeting, and I was able to slip past those and get back to the task of informing people about things while making pop culture references and garnering laughs.

While it didn’t suck, it wasn’t easy, and I suppose that’s lesson #1 I learned – other people in your sandbox doesn’t totally prove that you shouldn’t be in the sandbox in the first place. I am supremely worried that because of other people my visibility got diluted, but if it is, then that’s due to me being all up in my head and forgetting to promote myself, it is not the fault of there being a second person on the stage with me.

That said, those other people were amazing. Like staggeringly smart, and I think our conversations and concept coverage was delivered better because there was a breadth of angles to address. From therapists to podcasters to legal editors to actors to people who tell stories about pole-dancing merfolk sex workers, they’re not stupid, and I won’t stand for anyone disparaging any of them just because you may have heard of me but not them.

There are few personal things to talk about in some detail for the remainder of this post. So yes, there’s gonna be a tonal shift, but I urge you to stick with me on this ride, please. Here we go.

I didn’t drink. I didn’t go get high. Holy sweet things was I ever tempted, but I picked up the phone and got the help I needed even if it was hard to hear and tough to bear. I needed that salvation, I needed that rescue, and without out, there wouldn’t be anything else in this post, or anything else to talk about. I had my life saved, and I am so thankful to know amazing people and count them as a true family.  Onward.

In the last year, I’ve had some serious professional setbacks. I’ll own them, I’ll point out that my lack of communication prompted many of them, and those setbacks were scorched earth to my pride, ego, and how I feel about what I do. I can’t say it’s been a tailspin, but I’ve certainly more time this year questioning what I’m doing and where I’m going forward than any other year, including two years ago when I first got clean and sober.

But there are the nagging ideas that some of these setbacks are due to factors out of my control – that the climate of where I work has changed due to people making different elements a priority. This is not to say that these social conversations shouldn’t be happening (they should and must), but I think too there needs to be an awareness of the people who aren’t “toxic” or “problematic” being swept up and affected in the purgative efforts to bring in new voices and new creatives. What I’m saying is this, I believe that as we have more conversations about inclusivity and equality, it’s worth monitoring who gets pressed to the margins by those efforts in secondary or unintentional ways. The notion that you can just invert the dynamic between superior and subordinate as though you’re going to “teach people in power what it’s like to be powerless” is a dangerous one, and suggests that people lack a certain degree of self-awareness that going from bullied to bully doesn’t do much to stop the practice. A rising tide lifts ALL the ships, not just the ones you handpick.

Politicking aside, it was good and vital and helpful to me to get a bit of closure on some the setbacks that prompted the crisis I’m still experiencing. I got a chance to apologize, to own my shit, and I got a response that comforted me. I needed that. And that’s lesson #2 – owning your shit, owning who you are, what you do, how you sound, what you want to do, what you did, owning the mistakes, owning the willingness to admit those mistakes and try again helps you, even if you think it’s not dissimilar from dry-humping a hot cheese grater while you’re doing it.

This came up in a marketing on Sunday and blew my mind when it clicked into place – I have defined myself professionally and personally as this one sort of person who isn’t actually as bad a human or professional as I feared I was. I am by zero means perfect, and I certainly not everyone’s first choice or cup of tea, but I’m also not the leper at the city walls forever looking in and lost amid the masses. That’s a big deal for a guy who thinks of himself as the small kid who was sick all the time and driven to be smart so that people would want to hang out with him.

I have many people I hold as heroes and role models, and I am lucky to be able to spend time with them at this convention. We go eat sushi together, we sit on couches and talk not of work but of families and things we’ve done. New people come around and they’re not excluded. I like that. And this was the year I found out that I hold that hero/role model role for other people. Shocking, I know, because I’m just me, and I just do this stuff, and sort of get all long-winded about it, but it felt good to hear that I said or did things to help people. Which takes me to lesson #3 – you can have a positive impact on people without intentionally masterminding it. Being yourself, and being yourself passionately is visible and that’s totally fucking cool to do because people see that and it leads them to doing it to, in this positive domino chain of people being awesome.

I’m still working on how to process that one though. It’s one of those I-know-it-intellectually-but-emotionally-it-makes-as-much-sense-as-snakes-thumbwrestling things.

Speaking of heroes, there are those I have but have never interacted with directly, just been out on the edges near. They produce content where I’m an audience member, one of the many who say, “One day I’ll work with them. One day I’ll perform the right ritual and sign the Faustian deal and I’ll be lucky enough to work with them.”

I guess that ritual was the one where you walk over to a person and say hello and then ask them if they want to do a thing together, because that’s what I did, and I did get a chance to be a part of something huge and splendid and amazing. You’ll hear more about in the coming weeks and months, but if you jump on Twitter later today I’ll be talking about it somewhat.

And that’s lesson #4 the final lesson today – If you want to go do the thing, you have to go do something about it, and it’s not going to be handed to you. Want to be a _______? Then you need to go do that _________ so that people can see it and experience it. Want to have a chance to tick an item off your bucket list? Go have the scary conversation and be nervous and puke up eggs in a hotel garbage can then go do thing where people who you are 10000000000% sure have more talent in their toenails than you could muster over a thousand lifetimes work with you then shockingly spend the time telling you it was amazing. Yeah, that happened. It was awesome.

Stick around for more sweet blog action later this week. I’ll see you then. Happy writing.

 

1,000 Days (Musings and Feelings)

A very wise woman told me “Perfectionism isn’t about pleasing yourself, it’s about pleasing others and protecting yourself from criticism.” She’s right, because I’ve been working on some variation of this post for two days, but more broadly, I’ve been working these ideas for the last several hundred days. And it doesn’t have to be perfect. Because I’m not perfect.

Let’s start at the top. Today, while also being Halloween and the last day of October, is my 1,000th day sober. No booze, no pills, no drugs. To be honest, I never thought I’d last this long, because while there have been some great moments of happiness and pleasure in these thousand days there’s also been a whole lot of really tough and intense things going on. It’s a balance, even though when you compare quantities, it seems like the scales are way tilted.

Do I need to back up? I feel like I need to back up. In early February 2014, my life was (in not very Fresh Prince style) turned upside down by the honest and necessary decision to stop trying to end my life either actively or passively by putting stuff in my body that was creating a buffer I felt was necessary between me and the outside world.

This decision didn’t have a lot to do with the fact that I made it in a hospital room, or that I argued with myself about it as I was getting driven from one place to another. It was about hitting what I describe as “the bottomest bottom.” I can describe it to you like this: Life is reduced down to just existing on such a primordial level that you start to question why you bother breathing. There aren’t colors in the world (think Wizard of Oz), and sounds don’t have fidelity. You’re experiencing someone else’s world while you’re underwater wearing an old-fashioned diving suit that’s been filled with flavorless gelatin. Disconnectedness, a loss of any sense that you matter, and a loss of all the feelings and ideals you believe to be primary (for me that’s creativity, humor, sensuality, and a sense that people can-slash-deserve to be their best). The feelings didn’t evaporate, they migrated to other people.

And it’s not like you’re angry that they’ve ditched you, you find new and exciting ways to agree with the exodus. Of course you don’t get to feel good things anymore, look at you, (INSERT NEGATIVE REASON DU JOUR HERE). Likewise it’s absolutely reasonable that everyone else should be happy and do better (than you) because they deserve it. You don’t, they do. That’s the gap under the self-esteem door under which slide all manner of broken coping mechanisms and bad decisions to float into your personal bubble.

It’s those bad decisions, made and reinforced over so many years that had to stop. I wasn’t happy, I was pseudo-happy. I was pretend-happy. I was happy for others when necessary, because that was the right thing to do, but I was as hollow as a chocolate holiday bunny. That had to stop.

So on February 4, 2014, I found myself sitting in a room, in one of a few uncomfortable chairs, telling a group of strangers how I was a mess, and how I messed up my life. There wasn’t an immediate sense of camaraderie, we weren’t all sharing stories of how we messed it all up so we could earn some kind of “woe is me” cred. I had to put all my guts and thoughts and fears and feelings out of my body in that room, and hope that someone could help me be better than how and what I was doing.

Dudes, ladies, brothers, sisters, that was HARD. It was Day 1. I wept giant tears and wiped a lot of snot off my face. I got hugs from strangers. I wiped my nose on a lady’s shoulder as I blubbered. Day 1. In the books. Come back for Day 2.

And I have consistently come back for the all the Days. Seldom is it easy, but I have the tools to stay on this path, and I know this path is a better one for me. It’s been a messy path. It’s been a lonely path. It’s been an awkward path. But it’s taught me so many things. Here’s a few of the big lessons.

1. Not only should you have dreams, you must be relentless in your pursuit of them, should you truly and honestly deem them important to you. We all have dreams, and while some are fantasy-in-waiting, not all of them are. You can’t term all your dreams to be so far out of touch that you won’t even bother taking the steps to reach them. I’ve met people who think that all life provides is a series of opportunities for disappointment and rejection, no matter the effort taken. That life is rigged against them and they’ll never meet the unknown criteria to “make it.” This, fine and good creatives, is applesauce.

Even if the criteria is at times unknown, we do not exist simply to live out a series of fretful failures. Skip for a minute any sense of faith or spirituality and look at the math of it – eventually we have to succeed somewhere. Which is why it’s so important to continue trying. Because that success could be up ahead. And if that’s important to you, if you have a goal and want to have it happen, then go towards it with all the effort and experience possible.

2. There’s zero shame in making a plan, adapting an existing plan, or following a plan to get you to your goal(s). I used to be plan-averse, because I thought that only if I were spontaneous would people want to be near me. That was a complete disaster because in the absence of structure, I become a hedonistic vacuum cleaner sucking up whatever experience is within ten feet. So I swung the pendulum the other way, and became inflexible. The plans I made were everything, and while it took longer to get things done, because I was thinking about all the permutations and outcomes so I could tailor a plan to reduce (or eliminate, I thought) failure.

Rigidity in this way does not make the goal easier. The goal isn’t rigid, it’s your view of possessing it that’s unyielding. Don’t confuse rigid with concrete when you’re talking about goals. A concrete goal is defined and has boundaries – you want Book X published, you want to sell 20 widgets – but a rigid goal is over-defined – you want Book X published by Company Q with an advance of Amount G.

Adaptation will keep you from seeing a success (getting published) as a not-good-enough-thing (published but not by Company Q). So many people partner rigidity with legitimacy – that things have to go in a certain way else the things aren’t good or right. There are loads of ways things could go that will net you your desired end result that don’t look anything like the one specific way you had in mind. I thought the best solution for resolving addiction was not being alive. I was pretty firm on that plan, until this other chance presented itself, and I’m glad I was able to ditch the rigidity.

  1. Take failure as a moment of instruction or reflection, not as some sign that you’re supposed to give up. You’re in charge of quitting. It’s up to you and nobody else if you walk away from your dreams or goals. So when you fail, and you will fail, and you will even feel like some of the successes are failures because you’re just “not there yet” (wherever “there” is). The problems you encounter, those setbacks large and small, it’s only failure when you don’t try again. Keep going, and it’s a setback. Stop, and it’s a failure.

  2. Invest time every day in doing what you love, even if you have no idea how to make that switch flip from “I just love doing this” to “I make money doing this.” Whatever the “this” is, it’s never an instantaneous consistent success. It takes time to produce the “this”, it takes more time to get it out to the hands of people who want to trade money for a “this” of their very own. So since it takes time, make time and use your time to be productive.

“Productive” doesn’t mean be perfect, it means make progress. Remember this is firmly in marathon territory. I invest in myself everyday by working on sober living. I invest in my creativity every day by building a business and a legacy I’m proud of. Get in the habit of listing and doing the activities you invest in, and keep an eye to the goal of why you’re doing it – what’s the end result? How is what you’re doing getting you there?

  1. Rewards and milestones aren’t evidence of anything other than your progress. Along this marathon journey of creativity, you must remember that the course is not going to be, nor should it be, run all in one day. There’s a whole lot of distance between where you are and where you’re going, and it’s important you be able to look back and see how far you’ve come instead of always looking forward and feeling like you’re coming up short. Little rewards help you. They perk you up. For me, those rewards are snacks or an extra long nap or taking an hour to read a book I like. The reward for doing X doesn’t have to be X in order to help keep you motivated about X. In fact, I’ll argue that getting space between you and X from time to time will help you when you need to make headway on X.

You’re more than your projects, or your lack of progress, or your inflexible deadlines that of course you missed because anyone would miss them. You are not your perfectionism. You are not your dreams that forever exist in drafts and outlines. You are not your incomplete work.

Though you may yet be a work in progress, you are so much more than you may ever realize or appreciate. That’s my greatest takeaway from these 1,000 days. I am committed to delivering the best help I can to those who need it, and I am committed to being the best me I can be, scars on arms and all. I don’t need to be perfect to be me.

I’ll be at Metatopia the rest of the week. As you can tell, I’m in the process of getting this new blog into shape. Your continued patience is appreciated while I work out the kinks.

We’ll talk soon. Happy writing.

Stop Aspiring, Start Doing

I’m an aspiring author.”

I hear those words a lot. I read them a lot in tweets and emails. And we’re going to talk about them this morning.

Good morning, welcome to Friday, good job getting through another week. Got any good weekend plans? I’ll be playing video games and editing manuscripts, which is a pretty good time. Oh, and I might treat myself to a steak.

Today we’re going to talk about aspiring, and why that word isn’t doing what you think it does. Because I don’t want you to be aspiring, I want you to be doing. Doing what? Doing whatever it is you do creatively.

So many people talk about aspiring, so let’s look at the definition first. Here:
Aspire1Aspire2Aspire3

Aspiring, from what I get in these 3 definitions, is wanting to do a thing or having a plan to do a thing. I don’t see in these definitions the actual effort, just the preparations.

There’s nothing wrong with preparation, it’s how we improve and effort towards success. But preparing to do X isn’t actually doing X, and that’s the important point.


I want to take a second to point out that moving forward from aspiring to doing can bring a lot of people and their opinions into whatever you’re doing. They may say things like “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” or “Are you sure you want to do X that way?” or they become some sort of oracle when previously they had just been critical. Take their feedback with a few handfuls of salt. Critics are not the boss of you. It’s okay to move forward and do the best job you can, even if that job requires time, patience or learning some new stuff. You’re allowed to make mistakes, and you’re allowed to get better. Okay, sidebar over.


We use aspiring to talk about stuff that hasn’t happened yet, but we’d really like it to happen. As if we’ve placed the order with a server, and we’re waiting on our entrees. This suggests that what we want is subject to external forces, and while that is partially true depending on circumstance (selling a million books means a million books need to be produced), the bulk of what we aspire to do is within our ability.

Maybe it’s not automatic. Maybe we’ll need to raise money, get training, change a habit, start a new habit, talk to some people, take a risk, fill out a form, get on a plane, write an email, or whatever. But we can still do those things. We’re not wholly incapable of performing the task, it’s that we’ve mentally resigned ourselves to a position where we think we can’t accomplish the task.

It would be expensive to travel. Equipment to do that thing is expensive. Getting something done takes time. You don’t know who to talk to. What if people laugh at you? What if other people, society, the universe, determines you’re awful? Note: It’s been pointed out to me that awful people can run for President and get their party’s endorsement, so don’t give up hope.

We imprison ourselves in a little comfortable low-risk cage, with shackles made of fear and excuses and projection. We could be doing stuff, but “our place” is over here where we don’t let ourselves take whatever steps necessary, or even take the steps beyond those. Because we might fail. Because we might be rejected. Because we might find out we’ve wasted time or money.

Says who?

Who’s going to laugh at you for taking that vacation? Who’s going to think you’re a failure because you’re taking noticeable steps towards your goal? How is making an effort the same as failing?

It’s time to stop aspiring, and start doing. This is how we got to the moon, landed a dishwasher on a comet and know what DNA looks like. This is how we created national parks, got a black guy elected, and learned that graham crackers get even better with chocolate and marshmallow.

But how? How can we excise this word and this idea out of our heads when we see it repeated over and over?

We prove it wrong. We prove it to be an inadequate descriptor of what we’re doing.

We’re not just people staring out the window, diddling around, with big hopes and blank spaces. We’re creatives. We make stuff. We tell stories. We make art out of cheese. We shake our moneymakers. We hammer metal into shapes. We do stuff, sometimes with pants on.

Every day, every chance you get, not just when convenient, not just when you remember to, do something substantive that gets you towards your goal.

A writer? Get more than 1 word on the page. Aim for multiple sentences. Not revising them. Fresh ones.

A maker of stuff? Sketch, prototype, develop.

What I’m saying is do more than just think about it. Do more than fire up the imagination and wouldn’t-it-be-nice engines. You can make this stuff happen.

No, not right away, nothing happens right away. It’ll take time. But you have time, more than you realize. And you’ll accomplish the goal, you’ll get where you want to be, you just need to make progress.

No, it won’t always be easy. Some days you’re not gonna wanna do anything. Some days you’ll feel like you haven’t done nearly enough. The goal is going to look a million billion miles away.

But that’s when you look at the work you’ve done. The actual work, not just the time spent thinking or staring out the window watching the neighborhood pass you by. See the words on the page? They weren’t there before. See the sketches? They didn’t poof into existence. You did that. You took a step forward. Good job.

And celebrate when you take that step forward. I know, it’s not the goal, but if goals were only one step away, you probably wouldn’t be lamenting them not happening, would you?

This is all predicated though on taking your goal and breaking it into reasonable steps. And the key there is “reasonable.” Reasonable means not only a manageable size given the current time frame and all the other stuff you have going on, but it also doesn’t require extraordinary intervention. Winning the lottery so you can pay off your crushing student debt is not as reasonable as say, having 2 and not 3 drinks when you go out, so that eleven dollars doesn’t leave your checking account is reasonable.

Your goal shouldn’t always means an end to your life as you know it. Sometimes, yes, it can, if you wanted to become a monk and live in a cave, you probably don’t want to living in downtown Seattle going out to microbreweries every night. But on the whole, you can develop incremental steps towards your goal (those steps are goals themselves, don’t forget), where the rest of your life doesn’t detour.

My point is, you don’t have to keep aspiring. You can go do it. One step at a time. Set up your own steps, and make your goal happen. I believe in you, even if I’m just a guy on the internet blogging three times a week and tweeting a lot.

 

Have a great weekend, happy writing, I’ll see you back here Monday.

Of Identities and Legacy

I write this post on Sunday afternoon, starting less than twenty minutes after returning home from a friend’s memorial service. This post is not to detail what was said by whom and how, nor is it to eulogize a man the vast majority of you never met, but it is to talk about two elements brought up in this service.

To do this right, I have to sit you next to me. There, in bleached yellow church, in the old cherry pew, on a burgundy cushion that’s likely been in place since the Nixon administration, though it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the cushion was somehow responsible for the Croatoan mystery. We sit here in a large room of stale air, where the stuffiness reminds you of old people’s living rooms just after they invite you in, and the atmosphere fills every gap and space with a kind of foamy quiet. And we listen.

We listen to people speak, and people grieve, and we’ll go past that, because really what else can we do as writers, our minds forever swirling away with how these moments of our raw lives might be mined later with either delicacy or vulgarity, everything influencing us, intentional or otherwise. We’ll sit and listen and dissect. Not on the merits of the speaking, not their technique, but the undercurrent. There, in those favorite quotes they pick, and in the memories they share.

In so much of this pomp and circumstance, we grab onto the sadness. We wad up tissues, we stifle sobs, we feel the emotions like blades carving us apart. We hurt. Our pain fades over time, our ache morphs into not a raw wound with ragged edges, but a dull weight that takes hold in some part of our being. It’s there, in between all the happy times and funny memories, and those weird quirks that you start to see mirrored elsewhere and then take them as a sign from elsewhere that the person is with you.

But today I saw the legacy of a person. And that is sadly only something truly appreciable in their absence. So let’s talk about legacy and identity today. Who we are, who we were, who we effort every day to be and become, this is the path to legacy.

Will we be known by our pretense? By our attention seeking? By our victimization? By our faults? By our incomplete lists? By our successes? By our ambition?

It’s easy to forget that we have a great deal of control over what we provide the world as to how they can remember us. I, for instance, assume I am forgotten easily, that I am unremarkable, just a guy who writes and talks to people, punctuating the rants about grammar and technique with complaints of ill health or mention of food and video games.

I have an appalling sense of how I am remembered, and a worse one still of how I am regarded. In every glance, in every person moving out of the way without seeing me, I read disgust or shame. That I am contemptible in some contexts by some people is irrefutable, because I make no attempt to hide that I spent many years being a rotten little shit of a person, and only recently have I begun to climb my way from the slag heap and cesspit to hopefully scratch out at least a tolerable sort of pleasantry usually reserved for that aunt you only see every third holiday. At least my eyebrows are natural, and not carved into leathery flesh with a sharpie and dime store hope.

Identity is not the fact that I prefer a t-shirt to a suit, or John to Mr. Adamus, or cold soda to fancy wine lists. Identity is not my physical or mental health, my abilities or disabilities, my vices or virtues. What I broadcast as my identity is not bound in my heterosexuality, my gender, my age, my hair color, my astigmatism, or even my education. These these do not define me alone, and I routinely snarl at the forces and people who look to say that because of them I can be so easily categorized.

And you should too. It shouldn’t matter who or what you are, and it is, I tell you, very likely that the reason it matters is because you’ve brought it up like it’s a sticking point rather than a simple fact like you enjoy a certain food, or prefer your sandwich served a certain way. Creativity transcends all these labels, who you are informs what you make, but does not, should not, and cannot limit it.

Your art doesn’t suffer because you’re a woman. Or because you’re genderfluid. Or because you’re in a wheelchair. Or _________ (that’s where you fill in the blank with whatever element you like). You can and should still go make art. And it won’t be like anyone else’s art, because it’s yours. Your identity is within the art, it’s not separate from it.

And when you keep making art, when you stay true to your identity, not the politics of it, but the substance of it, so that you can do away with the ephemeral nature of buzzwords, that becomes your legacy.

What you leave behind, who you leave behind, that’s all going to get judged, and there’s a big pile of nothing you can do about it. People will try and slap labels to you, try to make you posthumously conform to their narratives, even when you spent all your life trying to establish your own.

Let the art do the talking when your own words can’t. That partnership, let that be the reference for people when they try to affix some label on you.

Build that identity in your art. This is what you make, to the best of your ability, no matter who gives it one or five stars, who buys it or pans it, who calls it ruinous or sings it praises.

But beware, there’s an edge to this, that you become only identified by what you create. That you forget the other elements of identity, the things not found in what you make. Your love of trout. The way you like sunrises. How you feel about conversations with someone through a closed bathroom door. Or whatever.

You are more than your creations, you are more than the things you don’t get around to, you are more than the things you’re still working on. You are a person who creates. And your life extends past the easel, the keyboard, the legal pad, the potter’s wheel.

Bring that life into your creativity, and your creativity into life. It’s not something to hide, or keep tucked in the back of the cupboard until everyone’s fast asleep and only then are you permitted to indulge. It doesn’t need to be some secret. It’s creativity, not the technologies we acquired from the lizard people who live among us and wait for the day of their uprising when their leader is elected on the Republican nomination, after all.

We can spend so much time looking forward to our legacy that we forget we’re still standing in the present. These are our opportunities, right here, one word at a time. We may draft them in our heads during the lulls of a memorial service, but we give them a half-life when we put them out into the world for consumption.

Let your words and worlds and whirls live. They carry with them the silhouettes and fingerprints of who you are. They matter, just as much as you do.

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I’ll see you Wednesday when we dive back into the inbox.

Happy writing.

Starting The Year Off

Blank pages and I never had this relationship before. I didn’t think twice about them. I never became aware of their size. I never courted their infinite potential. They were just the space where I put words. They weren’t scary. They weren’t ominous.

So when I spent the whole of December filling them, day after day, the blank page was just this workspace. It had no greater meaning to me than a legal pad or the notepad I keep in the kitchen to write grocery lists.

But then I took a much needed day off. Technically, it was a weekend off, as I’m rewriting this post on Monday morning. There was a post here, but it was raw and a little desperate … but we’ll get there. I took that day off, and looked backwards. That’s not something I normally do, but we’ll get there too.

Reflection is a trap. Reflection can lead to nostalgia, envy, comparison, and a host of other distractions. And into that trap I fell.

The blank page of the blogpost became prison and torturer all at once.

To fight it, I did what I always do, I did what I tell everyone to do, you go spit in its eye and you get to work. Writing with that edge of proving the doubt wrong. Full throttle, no brakes.

Now I could tell you that just bull-nosed slogging through that moment of doubt or fear fixed everything and I’m all 100000000% back on track, but that would be a lie. Sure, making my fingers put words on the page helped there not be a blank page, but reflection doesn’t just evaporate just because you do something.

Oh no, reflection takes the words you’re making and snacks on them. It sees what you’re doing and (if you’re like me) it starts to compare them to other words. Maybe other words you wrote, maybe other words other people wrote.

Now I’ve done some checking and I am not Tesla, Pressfield, Doyle, Wendig, Stout, Miranda, McKee, Dawson, Baker, Henry, Engard, Balsera, Hicks, Macklin, Edison, Ford, Foley, or King. I am none of those people. I am a guy in a bathrobe that smells like woodsmoke. I am a guy who sees success like it’s a light at the end of a tunnel. A tunnel that I’ve been running like a marathon, with both my legs chained together, dragging behind me the assorted cement covered ghosts those who doubted me, adults who abused and infected me with doubt and fear, a number of rejection letters, professional faux pas, and unspoken envies and regrets. One foot in front of the other. I feel the ghosts clawing at my shins and ankles. One foot in front of the other.

What I’m saying is, I see what other people are doing, I look at what I’m doing, and I often feel bad about what I’m doing. It makes me melancholy. It makes me desperate. You won’t see the blogpost that I originally wrote, where I went on and on about how much pneumonia sucks. You won’t see the stream of consciousness I needed to exorcise from me. That was the frustration and vulnerability and fear taking my ideas and tinting them.

Sure, it was a good post, some of those sentences have so far been repurposed here, but this mess of reflection and comparison feels like quicksand. Struggle in it, become aware of it, and you’re going down.

And because now I’m aware of it, the blank page is white quicksand.

When that pull grabs you, when you start going under, you start grabbing at anything to stay afloat. For me, it’s shocking transparency and raw honesty. Tell the world how I’m hurting. Tell the world how tough, hard, scary, and grim the world can be. Talk about mental health. Talk about poverty. Talk about health care and heartache and fleeting happiness. Be vulnerable, so that people won’t just read my words, but they’ll feel something. They feel something, so I’ll feel something.

That doesn’t stop the quicksand, it still pulls, but at least then I’m not sinking so quickly. But I’ve lost something along the way. It’s not terribly “professional” to be talking so horrifically about the downsides of being me. It’s not encouraging for people to come hire me if I’ve spent blog page after blog page talking about chest pains and hospital visits. It’s not the start of a great working relationship if I get angry at one group of people for not hiring me while I do get the chance to work for another group of people.

So what to do?

I go look for the magic sword. mastersword

There’s this moment in Legend of Zelda, where your little guy is wandering around the maze of woods, trying to get his shit together, trying to overcome obstacles, trying to keep going (does any of that sound familiar?) and eventually, after a few adventures and some hard work, you come to this clearing and there’s this sword in a stone. You of course have recently discovered the ability to wield said sword, because quest logic, so you yank the sword from its pedestal, and it’s go time.

Armed with that magic sword, you are ability to mow down your opponents and feel pretty sweet while doing it. It’s a pretty awesome sense of accomplishment. I’ve always liked that moment. It’s wonder this little warrior guy doesn’t slice his thumb off, but he does alright.

To find my own magic sword, I go find things that inspire me: today it’s a hardcore wrestling match where I watched a man fall twenty feet and not die, and a little boy building with Lego, and turn that perseverance, turn what those things mean to me, into my own I-can-do-this magic sword, which I get to wield because it’s my own damned magic sword.

Armed now, I go attack the voices in my head that tell me I don’t know what I’m doing, or that I’m not good at doing whatever it is I think I’m doing. I stab and swing and carve a swath of “Go fuck yourself, voices” into that screaming chorus of no-one-loves-me-and-no-one-could-because-look-how-bad-I-am-at-doing-things and I equate bad with failure with wrong. So of course I need to stab the ever loving hell out of those ghosts. There’s good work in me, I just need to get this crap out of the way first.

All this came from the reflection, remember, from taking time away from writing daily. I see this, I hear the voices, I swing the sword, and say to myself, “To avoid doing this on the regular, I should probably stop reflecting, I should probably stop stopping.”

Yeah, that’s a completely reasonable solution (that’s sarcasm). Swinging from one extreme (go full super work) to the other (do nothing) is not a solution for anything that isn’t turning on a light switch.

Which means my only option is to put the words on the page and keep trying.

I don’t know how to be that ideal professional. I don’t know how to blog “Effectively” according to Pinterest articles. I don’t know how to do a lot of that stuff.

What I do know is writing. Word craft. Story structure. Creativity. Words.

So let’s spend 2016 getting better at things. Let’s go together on this trip where I go get FiYoShiMo published. Let’s march through lessons about writer’s block and story structure for bad TV and movies. Let’s talk professionalism and audience building and good networking. Let’s have a laugh at the number of stories I have that start with, “So I have vague recollections of meeting this person when I wasn’t sober…”

Let us make 2016 a year where we do good work together.

And don’t worry, I’ve got this magic sword.