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 Hustle, 2016 edition

Good morning, welcome to Friday. I think were I a wacky morning zoo radio DJ, this is where I’d play some sound effects and then tell you the time, temperature, and traffic. Let’s all be thankful I’m not a DJ and get down to business.

We’re going to talk hustle today. Not the dance, I mean the Rocky chasing chickens, training montage, people doing stuff and getting stuff done hustle. WordPress was being pissy today, otherwise you’d be seeing images not just text right here.
So let’s define “the hustle” as all the things you’re doing to get better at being the best creative you can be while accomplishing your goal. That includes writing regularly. That includes blogging often. That includes … I don’t know, making sure you knit or paint or seed torrents everyday.
The goal, whatever it is, is where we’re going to start today. You need a goal.
There needs to be something driving your creative efforts. Maybe you’re trying to get a book written or published. Maybe you’re writing a script and aiming to get on the Blacklist. Maybe you’re trying to get a business off the ground. Maybe you want to be a wacky morning zoo radio DJ.
Without a clear goal, your efforts don’t have a trajectory – you’re just sort of doing stuff while time ticks by. Sure, things get done, but there’s that “why am I doing this” question hanging around.

What’s your goal? Why are you doing what you’re doing?
Picking that goal, if you haven’t already, is one of those simultaneously simple and scary decisions to make, like when you decide that Taco Bell is a good choice for lunch, or when you decide to call your aunt to see how she’s doing.
The lure of the goal is the end result. If I do all this writing and revising and querying, I’ll have a published book when all’s said and done. If I do a little coding, I can set up a website.
But there’s a trap with goals. It’s a trap of perspective and it’s one I fall into a lot, so let me pry my leg loose and tell you about it.
Yes, sure we can all set a goal. But is that goal set because you can reach it or because you want people to see you reaching it? What’s your reason for doing whatever it is you want to do? Want to see your book on a shelf? Want to earn enough money to take a vacation? Want to get over your fear of weasels? Those are goals for you, based on your own wants and thoughts. There’s this danger though, and I know it well, that you can set up a goal so that someone else will come along and tell you that you’re so brave or good or strong. And you keep at it, because as you work on it, they keep praising you. And there’s nothing wrong with praise. But (and here’s the tough part) some of that praise has to come from within you. You have to love what you do and like doing it and enjoy doing it even if no one sees you doing it.

Yeah, I know, it can suck sometimes.

I’m right there with you on getting my internal I’m-good-enough motor to kick over.
I’m saying that not because I want you to tableflip and walk off, but because part of the hustle is being honest and clear in your efforts. It’s not a bad idea to open a business selling socks, but it might be beyond your scope to start a business where you put all other sock makers out of business. There’s this concept called “target focus” at work here.
Target focus is seeing the small goal(s) within the larger one, and working to accomplish them, while realizing that you’re also accomplishing the larger goal.
Think of a marathon runner. There’s 26 miles to run from start to finish. That 26 seems huge and maybe that makes the runner worry about sore legs or blisters. But, if they think about just running that first mile, then another, then another, a mile at a time, the marathon gets done. They complete the marathon (the goal they set out to do), but there were smaller targets along the way that got done. And each target completed gave them a little momentum and incentive to keep going.
Take that goal, and break it down. What smaller targets can help you build to the larger one? I want to clean a room, I can stare at the voluminous mess and feel overwhelmed or I can quadrant off the room and work in 2 square feet of space at a time until I’ve finished. Or I can do one pass through the mess to collect all the laundry, and a separate pass to pick up all the books off the floor. There’s no wrong way to make targets.

A target is defined by:
a) A practical simplicity that advances you to completing the bigger goal
b) It’s something you can do that is actively productive

That (b) part is critical, and I was hesitant to talk about it until recently. Because anyone can take a goal and break it into pieces, but you can break pieces down again and again until you’ve sucked the effort and challenge out of them, until they’re inert. It might look like you’re doing something, but you’re not making a lot of headway. That lack of measurable progress can lead you to frustration.

Go back to that messy room. I can clean in 2 foot squares, which might be physically taxing or time consuming or I could at each pass, just pick up one piece of paper at a time and throw it out. I’d be here cleaning all day. Sure, I’m making progress, but I’ve slowed down to the point where it’s almost not seriously going to matter. And moving towards your goal should matter. You should want to accomplish your goal, for you, for your own reasons.

I say that as someone who knows what it’s like to set a HUGE goal that generates a lot of buzz, and then feel overwhelmed and undermotivated to go accomplish it. Maybe undermotivated isn’t the right word, so let’s pick a new one … how about terrified? Terrified of failing, terrified of succeeding, terrified of discovering I’m either good or not good at it … just plain scared to make progress.

Setting target helps. You can reach targets. Targets are realistic and not scary, they’re activities that happen every day. Set targets that have a bit of challenge, but that you can do. It’s not being anti-ambitious, it’s tempering that super-ambition down to a practical level. So that shit gets done. Try it, let me know how it works for you.

Geared up with a good goal and a motivation to do it, targets focused on, we get to the obvious yet not-obvious part of the hustle: <strong>you actually have to do whatever it is you want to do</strong>. If you want to be someone who makes soap, you have to make soap.

Here we find all kinds of distractions. The Internet. Relationships. Other goals. That whole stupid part where you have bills and taxes. Day jobs. Pants.

Keep that goal and its targets in mind. Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. The distractions will still be there for you to handle later, but when you’re on the hustle, when you’re being that creative doing that creative stuff, tell the distractions to wait outside.

I know, I know, some of that stuff doesn’t feel like a distraction. You need that Spotify playlist so you can write. You need your coffee. You need to make sure the dog has water. You just need to check one more thing. You say that’s not a distraction, you just need to be doing it instead of hustling towards your goal. (Feel free to repeat this paragraph out loud a few times, I’ll wait.)

You’re not working in a vacuum. Unlike Matt Damon, you haven’t been stranded on Mars. There are interruptions. That phone’s gonna ring. The kids are gonna need something. The dog has to go out. Yes, there are things that are going to break your momentum.
Let me give you a tool for getting back to hustling after you take a break (either intentionally or not). This is what I do, maybe it’ll work for you.
You’re going to come back to your work after whatever paused it, and you’re going to picture, in your head, in as much detail as you can give a single snapshot, your goal being accomplished. See that book on the shelf. See your foe vanquished at your feet. See the Kickstarter funded. See the yolk not breaking when you flip your eggs. Get that in your head, then count to 10. Then push yourself into work.
You can get the momentum back. Really. You just need to push. And that push (I don’t have a fancy term for it, if you have one, tell me) takes energy, force of will, whatever you want to call it. But you’ve got your goal in mind, right, so getting back to work is what’s going to make that goal a reality.
You lose the momentum, you lose that vector, you get it back. Trip, fall, get back up again. There’s no penalty for however many times you stop, stall, stutter, tumble, break down, pause, uhh, or swear you’re going to give it up but keep going anyway. You’re not a bad creative because you didn’t do whatever you’re doing in one super long productive period. You’re not a bad creative because you tried and failed and then had to try again.
The important thing is that you got back up and tried again. That you put your fingers back on the keys. That you didn’t just close the laptop and say you were right all along about never getting your dream made.

Get back to work. Hustle. Make it happen.

The Tease Of The Bookshelf

So, it’s Wednesday. Middle the week. Hump day. That day where I always feel like it’s too early to make weekend plans, but that if I don’t make those plans, I’ll let it go too far and miss out on something.

First, let me take a minute to thank all the new people who have come to the blog within the last few weeks. I am sincerely thankful for all of you, and if given a chance would write you all emails expressing how much it means to me that people even take a few minutes to read my words. My reach is never something I understand, but it is something I’m very eager to expand. Sort of like a toddler, or a small drunk dictator. I suppose there’s very little difference between the two.

Second, let me give you an update on #FiYoShiMo. If you’ll look at the toolbar, you’ll see a FiYoShiMo index page. That’s a whole list of links that will take you to each post in the month. Yes, I know day 2 is a pdf, but that’s because WordPress is a jerk, and I have no idea where the post went. The entirety of the posts exists now as an MS, which I’m busy polishing (read: fixing the internal links so they’re text, and formatting) and my next goal is to get it proofed and start querying. I’ll be putting everything from the querying process onward on the blog as a series of posts. It’s been far too long since I was in the publishing trenches, and I’d prefer to be in the thick of things and not upon some pedestal looking down. I may fail, I may succeed, but no one will be able to say that I didn’t try.

On we go to today’s topic, which was suggested to me via Twitter conversation. Maybe conversation is too broad a word, it was more: “Hey John, write something about this, I’m struggling with it.” And the good news is that I struggle with it too, so I’m going to spend some words expressing my own experiences. I’m hopeful you’ll find a parallel in your experiences. Maybe together we can work this out.

So I’m writing this from the upstairs office (read: the computer in my bedroom) of the house. I could have written this in the actual office in the house, but I didn’t. I could have written this on my phone, and then I wouldn’t have had to get up from the couch, but I didn’t. The majority of my writing takes place in this chair, on this machine, and it’s so ingrained me as a process that writing anywhere else feels awkward and even a little scandalous.

The problem with writing in this room (aside from the fact is that there’s no fireplace and no couch), is that there’s this bookcase on my right. It’s currently a post-holiday mess, as I haven’t filed away any of the new books I’ve picked up over the last month, and I haven’t cleaned up the spilled business cards from my last convention. It is an obelisk to and a microcosm of my writing career – crammed with material, often in need of organizing.

On those shelves are all the books written by the people who influence and inspire me. Some are friends. Some are authors deader than disco. Some are clients, or were once. I look at that bookshelf every few sentences when writing. Because it is one of the many lighthouses by which I orient myself. Yes, I have several in my life. We’ll talk about that some day.

That bookshelf is where I go when I need a boost. It’s there when I don’t know how to structure something, it’s there when I need a reference. All useful stuff. It’s a bookshelf, it’s a tool to aid me, and also it keeps clutter off my floor.

But stacked along with all my references and notes, is anxiety. And to be blunt about it, envy is a jerk. Anxiety is a huge fucking jerk, the amalgam of every bully, every blowhard, every abuser, every torturer you can imagine. And that’s because anxiety is armed with a barbed nagyka of self-doubt.

Anxiety uses it competently to flay the nerves, skewer assumptions, and scourge confidence.

And here’s how it happens.

So you’re writing, or you’re thinking about writing. Maybe there are words on the page, maybe they’re still forming semi-orderly lines in your head before they paratroop down screen or page. All things are going well. You’ve got something to drink. The dog doesn’t need to go out. The phone isn’t ringing. You’ve got a good playlist queued up. No one’s knocking at the door. It’s go-time, writer. Time to make the words happen.

In that instant, in that small moment of pause between one word and the next, you catch the faintest whiff of worry. You have words down, your fingers are dancing over keys, but the pace is slowing. The worry grows. The writing stops. Your stomach does a little toddler’s tumble. And so begin the questions.

Is this okay? Am I good enough to do this? Is this going to do alright? Will an editor shred this in their toothy maw? Will anyone buy this stuff? What the hell am I doing? Crack crack crack goes the flail. In those wounds, already festering and raw, more self-doubt seeps in. Until you’re comparing yourself to other people. Until your fingers aren’t on the keys. Until you’re unsure of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Now this is even before we can talk about anxiety burgling its way into your head when you’re not writing. There’s material there for a dozen lifetimes of blogs by a thousand billion people. I’m looking at the panic, worry, and doubt that comes when the words are supposed to be coming out.

I look at my bookshelf, and see the names. Would I ever be as good as them? Would they recognize me as talented? Would they let me into whatever fantastic club I believe them a part of? Am I good at anything? Will I leave a legacy like theirs? Am I shouting into some void? Would I be better off moving to some orchard and picking fruit? (I bet I’d be a great orchardeer, or orchard caretaker, orchardtaker or whatever)

There was once I time where these thoughts would send me angrily to pull the shelf down, and throw the books every which way in the room. There was a time when I’d write a very large “Fuck Everything” on social media, or any media and just go play video games and sulk. That anger has been pulled from me, with regular leeching of comfort and wisdom. And I’m thankful. Because now I get to sit here and see the anxiety coming. Now I maybe know what to do about it.

See, I don’t know if I’ll leave a legacy. I have no idea if anyone but a few people will remember me when I’m gone, let alone remember me fondly. I have no idea if there’s a secret good-writer club. I don’t know if some of the people whose books are on my shelves know I exist.

It’s hard to say that I don’t care. Because I do care. I just try not to care so much. That’s not easy. I know it’s not easy. But it’s what I need to do to get my fingers back on those keys. It’s what I need to say to myself, over and over, even out loud, even at meals, even just before I post to the blog, so that I assure myself that these efforts aren’t lost.

No, no, this isn’t some blather where I’m seeking your praise. Sure, I’d love some right now, but I’m trying to be objective here, don’t you see? The answer to the anxiety is reassurance. We can debate whether it’s best from yourself or others later, the fact remains that reassurance from somewhere is often enough to kick anxiety to the curb.

So I look to my lighthouse again. And yes, there are plenty of writers to be envious of there. Book after book share the same names. But tucked between them, there are the books I worked on. The things I’ve done. My name may not be on many covers, but my name’s in there. Reassurance.

Here’s where you tell me, John, I’m just (WHOEVER YOU ARE)) and I haven’t been published. What good does your lighthouse do me? All I have are these books by other people, and I feel so small and insignificant.

And I will say to you – the act of writing is reassurance. Yeah, I know, it’s not as reassuring as being published, but I’ll tell you that plenty of people I know have been published more than once and they’re never coasting on some idea that they’ve “made it.” There’s that hunger, that drive, that hustle. (We’ll talk hustle Friday)

Do whatever you can to reassure yourself that what you’re doing, what you’re making, belongs on a bookshelf. Even if it’s your bookshelf. Maybe you go play with your kids when you’re done writing for the day. Maybe you go look at SpongeBob porn (I just found out that was a thing). Maybe you go into the backyard and stare at clouds. Maybe you play Spider Solitaire until your fingers cramp. Whatever you do, whatever balm you can provide yourself, go do it.

And then go write. One idea, one word, one step at a time. You lose your bearings, you look to that lighthouse, you look to that waiting reassurance, and you get back to writing.

Let’s make a deal. I’ll believe in you, you believe in me, and we’ll go shake anxiety down for its lunch money and buy tacos when we’re done writing for the day.

You’re good enough to do the amazing things. You’re good enough to write what you want. You might need help, it might take a while to write what you want. but you can do this.

Don’t give up. You’re not alone. (maybe I’m saying this as much to myself as to you) Go write.

See you Friday, when we talk hustle.

Some things to do now that you’ve read this post —
Check out the Google Community where you can congregate with other writers doing writer-stuff.
Want more John-words? Got a few bucks? Check out Smashwords.
Find me on Twitter, and see what I’m talking about today.

Just Before Takeoff …

I originally started this post with a roller coaster metaphor, then there was the roller coaster incident over the weekend, so I thought I’d play it relatively safer and use a plane metaphor. Not because there haven’t been plane tragedies lately, but because the feeling I’m about to describe is most acute for me on planes.

Imagine you and I are on a plane. Doesn’t matter where we’re going. Doesn’t matter how long the flight is. No, I don’t care if you make me take the middle seat, I’ll be happy to have two arm rests. Now let’s assume we have plenty of leg room, because you and I are travelers of distinction, and because this is our imaginary plane, so we can just eliminate the row of seats where the unshowered guy and the screaming babies sit. Cool? Great.

The captain, who can sound either like Picard or a smooth jazz radio station DJ (your choice), makes his announcements and we all watch the safety video. And then we’re told that we’re like number 30 in line for takeoff, because while you and I are travelers of distinction, our imaginary plane isn’t. Which is sort of bullshit, and I totally blame you for not making us fly in a private jet staffed with curvy redheads who serve us milkshakes and potato skins. But anyway, we’re waiting on the runway, and The Moment strikes.

This Moment is best described as an acute feeling of having the middle of your stomach pulled through your groin by a sharp hook, then looped back around between your kidneys then squished back into position upside down after a vigorous shaking. Compound that with a baby dual-wielding blowtorches at the back of your mouth and just above your stomach and you get a sense of what I feel in the moments before the plane reaches its cruising altitude. I’ve had this feeling for maybe two decades, and it seems to crop up only when I’m flying. Other people tell me they have it when speaking in public or when they have to talk to their boss or they had it randomly in conversations when things got dicey. Whenever you have it, it sucks.

I bring this up because two days from right now, right this second from when I’m writing this, I’m going to be sitting in an airport, waiting to get on a plane. Sure, unlike all the other times I’m not going alone, but I’m still going to get on the plane.

See, The Moment is just a Moment. The same way that you reading this sentence is a moment, the same way that you trying to figure out if it’s too early to start thinking about lunch is a moment, the same way that pouring your coffee in the morning is a moment. They pass, is what I’m saying. And not all of them are scary. Unless you’re afraid of coffee pouring or lunch or something. Then yes, those moments are scary too. But you know what I mean.

Identify your Moment. Say it out loud, give it a name and a set of conditions. Do you want to melt into the space between floorboards when you have to talk to someone you believe to be “a big deal”? Do you try and do everything in your power to avoid giving the presentation at work? Do you stare at pages morning after morning, bleary eyed and tired, unsure of why you’re writing or convinced it’s not any good?

It’s just a Moment. It passes.

Do I believe that? Not always. Which is why I carry this in my wallet.

 

They totally pass

They totally pass

You can get yours right here, for easy printing and reminding.

When you find those scary Moments, remember they’re just as temporary as you let them be.

 

Gen Con fast approaches, and my schedule is action-packed. If you’re attending, I hope you have a great time, and if we’re lucky enough to see each other, may our interaction be delightful for everyone involved.

Happy writing, whether you’re attending or not, but seriously, you’re going to miss some awesome panels.

This is a Mental Health Post. You Might Find It Worth Reading

(Note: This is a mental health post. We’ll get back to talking about publishing and writing in a second. I know that these posts don’t get a lot of traffic, but it’s not a bad post, and I think you might find it worth your time. This is a small trigger warning for suicide, a larger one for codependency and a larger one for low self-esteem and self-value)

I woke up this morning about four hours ago, pretty convinced that everything was going to suck at some point in the near future. The laundry I didn’t finish folding last night would be in various states of disaster. People were going to call and tell me that they never wanted to talk to me again. People weren’t going to call and never wanted to talk to me again. The shower wouldn’t work and I’d be left a stinking fetid mess. The sale I’m running would collapse. The dog would run away because I’m such a terrible person. You know the sort of suck-age I’m talking here. The stuff that we work extraordinarily hard to keep under lock and key that only manages an escape when we’re tired or intoxicated or already feeling damaged. Epic suck-age of the highest level.

All these morning horsefeathers come after a late, tired night after a long and draining day. See, among the less-than-lovely mental health issues I deal with on a regular sometimes moment-by-moment basis, I’m codependent. I don’t handle separation well. I don’t feel good enough about myself to know with any certainty that the people I love are going to come back to me if they go anywhere further than a twenty minute drive, like they’re going to hit that twenty-first minute and say, “Holy shit, what the hell am I doing with John?” I don’t know how to be a 100% me alongside another 100% person, so that any relationship is a partnership and two-way street of communication, not just some weird conglomeration of people that occasionally includes food, humping and watching TV.

This lack of self esteem partners with a stunted emotional development growing up. I grew up in a barely demonstrative home. I only heard “I love you” when I was on the verge of tears or about to something consequential (like when I had to go to court for moving violations and was scared) or it would get written to me in emails while my parents were on vacation somewhere. It wasn’t bantered around, and as a result I had no real sense of how to express it. Hell, I thought even hugging a person of the gender you’re attracted to was a prelude to getting into bed with them. This left me fumbling when it came to sex, since I had learned from religion and my parents’ view of it that you only do it with the people you love, that you do it in private, and you do it only in “normal” ways. I’ve spent the last 15 years expunging the sense of limitation and shame that gave me.

I’ve gone through a lot of relationships, dates, and experiences to bring me far enough to where I can see that how I used to be, pre-therapy, pre-working-on-myself was remarkably unhealthy, immature and held back. I tend to use the phrase “-starved” to describe it now: I have been touch-starved, love-starved and affection-starved for more than a decade. Getting it now is like discovering an oasis, it brightens everything, but at the same time because it’s new, it’s feels ephemeral. Most of the good things in life feel ephemeral. I don’t like getting something I like then feeling like it will be taken away. It’s why I eat quickly and give myself hiccups. It’s why I mope around when people go off for a weekend. It’s why I feel jealous when people I know are making awesome things and I’m not asked to help.

Because my moods were unstable and I was mentally volatile for so long, I heard from a lot of people (family, friends, relationships) that I had to “control” myself. I don’t know how to explain what it really feels like, it’s somewhere between feeling shame that you’re doing things that upset others and feeling out of control and off the tracks – you’re trying to make things better so as not to keep hurting people, but the harder you try, the worse you make things, because you don’t really know what you’re doing or how to fix it. So, at some point, I just learned it would be preferable (read: I wouldn’t feel like everyone hated me) to clamp down on all my feelings. Not feel them. Deny them. Lie about them. Skimp on pleasure. Skimp on connection. If I didn’t have to feel anything or risk anything, then I wouldn’t upset people, and then because I wasn’t upsetting people, they’d be happy with me, and (nebulously) love me.

This is probably the same decision that brought me loneliness, worsened my depression and sent me into a spin of really bad decisions and consequences. Because I was constantly trying to avoid upsetting people or avoid any feelings that didn’t conform to what I thought people expected, I never got a chance to develop familiarity with a lot of skills people need. It retarded my growth and rather than learn things in my early 20s, I’m learning them in my mid-30s. I don’t always have enough words to express how ashamed and embarrassed I am of that.

For instance, I never learned really how to miss people. My first experience with the feeling that I would miss someone came in the sixth grade when my friend Alex yelled from one backyard to me in mine that he was moving to Michigan, and did I want to come over and play kickball. I remember telling him no, and I think I said that I had to eat dinner or something, but the truth is that I didn’t want to play kickball because it would end at some point and then he’d be moving away. This began a lengthy game of tag between me and loneliness. People leave to go to different places for different reasons and I don’t know how to deal with that – I’m not okay with them going, I don’t want them to go, they’re my friend/partner/lover/co-worker/whatever and I selfishly ask, “What am I supposed to do?”

Codependency is loneliness’ toady. I don’t like being lonely. Loneliness and disconnection from others is what led to me slice my wrists on more than one occasion. Loneliness convinced me long ago that I was worth less than garbage, and that’s a thing I’m still trying to disprove. Oddly enough, I don’t feel that way when I’m not alone. It makes for a neat little destructive cycle.

Here’s a nice chart that sort of describes my terrible thinking

This goes on in my head A LOT. It sucks.

This goes on in my head A LOT. It sucks.

See how screwed up that is?

  1. It’s incredibly selfish. Notice there’s no box about the other person having to do whatever they’re doing – they might be at a job, or on a business trip, or dealing with hostages or whatever. To my panicked brain, self-preservation becomes self-absorption. AND I’M NOT EVEN UNDER ANY THREAT OF ATTACK OR HARM. I JUST DON’T WANT TO FEEL IGNORED, DISCARDED, NEGLECTED OR LIKE I DON’T MATTER.
  2. The only positive is when I’m not alone. Now, granted, I shower regularly and make an effort to smell good and am, at times, very pleasant and funny. But sometimes, people just can’t be around me (again: jobs, other responsibilities, other things they like that aren’t me). It basically says that if I’m not the center of someone’s universe, then I’m awful.
  3. The negatives are REALLY negative. It’s not that I’m boring or that I only tell the same three jokes, it’s not a matter of being “not fun” as to why I’m alone, it’s because I’m whatever’s beneath pond scum and garbage’s garbage.

This was a majority of my thinking yesterday. It was incredibly draining. I’m pretty sure it frustrated my friends to hear me go on and on about how not-good yesterday was. I know it frustrated me when SIX different people said variations of “Dude, you’re being way clingy and anxious. Sit down and be cool.”

What to do?

Last night, feeling like needed to get a handle on it today, I argued with myself (the dog was asleep by this point) as why I felt the way I felt. Normally I bounce this sort of stuff off someone, but when that someone is the same someone you’re in the middle of missing, you end up talking to yourself and feeling horrible for burdening them with anything less than glorious purpose. Because I know that if didn’t arrest this line of thinking, if I didn’t derail this craptastic train of doom, then it would get worse and then that dread I was uh, dreading … the bad stuff I didn’t want to happen would happen, and I’d be alone. Learning that I deserve and am good enough to be with people, be in a relationship, be good enough to work as hard as I do, be good enough to have friends, be good enough “not to suck” has been a tough struggle over the last three years, with a lot of tough times and a lot of thoughts that sap and erode the idea of “deserving” anything other than boxes of misery and sadness.

After a tough and teary conversation with myself, where I didn’t let myself off the hook until I got into the reasons and feelings that underpin the craving for attention and love and people, I promised myself that the next day would be better than today – not just because I felt I needed to do better by others, but because I didn’t need to drain myself and feel crappy like that again.

Which brings me back to this morning.

So I’m up early, laying in bed, feeling this sense of “Oh this day might blow” when I catch myself and remember the promise I made last night. And then I start applying the tools I’ve acquired. I made a list of facts, things that are true no matter what I feel or think or worry about. Things like “I know that today X Y and Z things will happen” (I’m not going to detail the list, that’s for me, but I’ll give you the broad strokes) or “I know this person said _______ to me.” Because I have these facts, I know I can reference them with two taps of my phone whenever I’m worried or anxious about something happening out of my control or not happening out of some imagined neglect. This list took me a good forty-five minutes to generate 11 things, because they’re all relevant to the problem I’m feeling and I skipped the stuff like, “I know the sky is blue” or “I know the dog likes me”.

This list, even knowing I have it, before I even look at it, helps. Facts get written down, and facts kill anxiety in the face, because anxiety is generated by my lying brain trying to get me to do things (however negative) that I’m habituated to doing thanks to brain chemicals.

I could have stopped there, because it’s enough to know I have 11 statements providing me some manner of grounding and comfort, but I didn’t. I wanted to temper the other side and make a list of wants, although looking at them now, a lot of them read like goals or regular efforts I’m going to do everyday, “I want to be better at _____” and “I want to _______ every day.” It’s good to have these too, although they don’t ground me like the facts do, they give me a vector and a “job” (that’s not the right word) that isn’t worrying about things that are on the fact list. They also snap the cycle of “how legit do I think these facts are?” because I’ve written them down, so they’ve got to be accurate – why would I write myself nonsense?

Doing that motivated me. I got up, I had breakfast, I started my day with a commitment to make it better than yesterday. Is today going to be tough? Yep. No doubt. But I’ve got these tools and I’ve got this resolve, so I’m going to do the best I can (and honestly, it wouldn’t be hard to have a better today than yesterday, that’s a low-ass bar). Then seconds after I got out of the shower (Hello, ladies.), I got a chance to express this plan and what is more or less this blogpost verbally. I’m a verbal guy. Words have a ton of meaning to me, so if I can say to someone, “I’m going to do this better” you can bet I’ll do everything I can to do it, and then exceed it.

Which brings us to right now. I sat down to write this post, knowing full well my mental health posts get as much traction as a running puppy on a wood floor, but I don’t care. Words have meaning and power, so I’m writing this down.

So onward. To make today better. To not be anxiety and codependency’s bitch. To celebrate the good. And put away laundry. And read a book. And pay some bills.

Maybe not in that order.

Yes, I swear, we’ll talk about writing and publishing next.

The Other Side of Depression

If you don’t know, if you’re new to this blog or new to me, then I want to tell you up front that I talk about three things: writing, mental health and food. My blog traffic goes crazy when it’s recipe day, and less so when I talk writing or mental health. I tend to think this is because I put my guts on the page when I talk about those things, and that either makes for tough reading or it truly isn’t interesting when compared to blogposts elsewhere that spew the same ten superficial pieces of advice or take lengthy hate-screeds and pot-shots at people.

I already talked about writing today. Let’s get into mental health.

I’m a suicidal depressive, in treatment, medicated and presently stable. I have tried to kill myself on a number of occasions. My body tells the stories of those efforts and the pain and the heaviness I feel in life. I don’t hide them (most aren’t on my arms), and I don’t run from the fact that it’s a part of my life and it rolls its nasty face around my way usually from September until April, and I’m spending those gray months either thinking about not living or trying to avoid thinking about not living. Often I talk about my depression and my pain while I’m going through it. Over the winter, I even tried to livetweet a depressive episode.

It’s important, I think, to be open about how we feel, what our issues are, what shitty traps we convince ourselves to fall into time and again and what we’re really wanting out of life. It’s honesty, it’s raw, it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. The point isn’t to make people uncomfortable, the point is to clearly express what’s going on. Expression beats silence and expression promotes encouragement. It’s through encouragement and support that the scary things of mental health are made less scary, revealing the dark spectres to be more Old Man Jenkins from the amusement park  and less foul Dementors.

But when I write this, I’m not depressed. I feel great, though I think this is a combination of new blood pressure medication, a lot of new and healthy relationships and a positive change in my work habits and diet. Depression isn’t “cured”, so much as it wanes and withdraws like a tide. I’ll never be cured, but I can remain vigilant and disciplined and alert to how I’m doing every day. So, this post is about depression while not depressed.

Depression is the greatest motherfucker I’ve ever discovered. It lies. It manipulates. It skews perspective and encourages unhealthy behaviors to escape the pain it amplifies. It takes terrible activities and ideas and makes them appealing. Hurting because you feel no one understands you? Have a drink, pop a pill or shoot this into a vein. Aching and nauseous because you feel you’re alone on a rock in a stormy ocean while the rest of all existence experiences calm Caribbean waters? Seclude yourself in a bedroom. Feel like you’re suddenly speaking Martian and all your words and expressions and body language are angering any living thing around you? Eat hurriedly and feel like you deserve that indigestion.

Everyone has those doubting voices or passing thoughts about how they’re not good enough or could be better. I don’t trust anyone who says otherwise or who gets all extra swooshy and metaphysical about how those are egoic constructs that I need to jettison. While I’m willing to agree they’re habituated thoughts based on faulty evidence, I’m also willing to believe the bloodwork and tests that tell me there’s a chemical element to it. The little white pills I take aren’t placebo. And unlike what I thought at age 16, they’re not a shackle or something I take so the world doesn’t hate me, they’re tools I need to do what I do in the best ways I can.

Depression isn’t me. It’s my sometime jailor and tormentor, but it’s not my identity. I don’t walk the floors of conventions or into classrooms and hear people say, “Hey Depression Guy”. It doesn’t mention it on my business cards. There’s no giant blinking neon light calling attention to my illness or subsequent disordered thoughts. In this regard, I see it a lot like hair color or diabetes or a stutter – these are things a person has or lives with, but are not defined by. This attitude is hard fought and sorely won, and I’m sure months from now when I’m laying on the couch paralyzed by paranoia and a sense of failure, this is all going to read like applesauce and fluff.

Likewise, depression isn’t a giant block-letter tattoo on my forehead. As with many illnesses, you don’t see physical signs. I might carry myself different sometimes, my already questionable posture might contort more, my shoulders might sag and I might make less eye contact, but there’s no sucking chest wound or trail of gore fanning out behind me.

But the experience of that straight jacket made of suffocating fiber and weighed down with stones carved from your failures and shortcomings is hard to forget. I might drop something and make a mess or I might print the wrong thing out, but right now I can look at it and say, “Okay try again.” Not so when smothered by feelings of inadequacy, where the spilled mess or wrong pages printed are endemic of my absolute pointlessness and sheer stupidity. It feels weird typing that out, because I don’t feel that way now, but it’s like knowing a summer place – it’s familiar, you return their often, you know where all the light switches and towels are.

People want to help, and I love them for it. They offer support, fistbumps, encouraging messages and company. They invite me to places, they bring tea. I only barely get a sense of what it must feel like to watch me go through this, and I know that while I’m in that headspace, I’m making numerous apologies for sucking up their time and for being a downer. They all tell me it’s okay, that it’s part of being a friend, companion, partner or lover. And even now, I struggle with that. I’m not sure I’d have the patience they do.

I try not to talk sex on the blog, but it’s a relevant slice of this depression pie. Depression eats away at feelings of attractiveness, and leaves behind nice giant truckloads of performance anxiety and a junkie-like craving for intimacy, connection and any sensation that feels good. So you might totally want to do some pantsless partying, but some of the parts don’t get the invite, and then you double up on your dosage of failure and inadequacy. Depression generates feelings of wanting to get down and then like a school bully, takes away the ability to do so. It’s cruel.  (Okay sex-talk over. That was a little awkward, right?)

Not feeling these things now, I get to observe them at a distance. I often get to this place and wish I had some kind of weapon to snipe them and eliminate them before they come surging back, but I’ve started to realize that they’re part of the forces that helped to shape me and continue to help to influence me. I don’t think I’d have the appreciation for good craft and work or the ability to tell wracking tragedy without the knowledge of just how bad things can get. Not sniping them is a challenge, but there’s also a sense that by not engaging them, by leaving them all the way over there, I don’t have to worry about being overrun by them.

And that remains a great fear – the fact that I’ll need another course of treatment, but that I wouldn’t ever come out. I’d lose contact with the world, I’d lose connections and I’d be trapped in some medical hell where I was stuck without the ability to do anything other than suffer. It’s the part of the future that frightens me. Winter is coming, and it brings the scary. But that’s what constant vigilance and therapy and talking about it is for – a thing is less scary if you’re open about it and build a good support network.

I’d be dead (literally and otherwise) without the support of people. I cannot repay them, there aren’t enough dinners in the world to cook for them to show them my gratitude for all their help, there aren’t enough ways to tell the people you love that you love them like you do. I hope that any day I’m still upright and kicking is a testament and a thank-you. Building that support network meant taking a good hard look at who I put around me and what they actually brought to me, and then making the hard choices of excising the elements and people who did more harm than good. Thankfully, I majored in Burning Bridges in college, so I have expertise in excising people.

Time to go back to work. The day’s nice and there plenty of things to do.

Thanks for reading.

Happy writing.

 

 

I Have An Idea For A _____, Now What Do I Do?

This very awesome idea (which totally replaces the angry post I was writing about the problem with repeated descriptions) comes from Jeremy Morgan, who I believe a lot more of you should be hiring to read and edit your things. C’mon he’s got a family to take care of. Don’t let him, like, starve and stuff. That’s not cool.

Now I left a blank up in the post title because it doesn’t really matter what it is you’re making: a book, a movie, a television pilot, a statue, a big painting of celebrity navels, whatever – the initial steps of the process remain the same. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to talk about storycraft, but you can swap “book” with whatever it is you’re making.

We’ll also assume you’ve already thought of the idea in some capacity. It doesn’t matter if it’s just a title, or a scene or just some rough picture of something frozen in time. You’ve got a hook into SOME part of what will become the draft or rough sketch.

Onward.

Step 1Get the idea into another medium. For me, a lot of the ideas for things start off as thoughts in my head like, “What sort of music does a disenfranchised dudebro secretly listen to?” or “I wonder what would happen if you made a hot sauce built on a base of butterscotch and Indian peppers?” A lot of these ideas don’t go anywhere (like “Why don’t I own the complete filmography of Jason Statham?”), but the ones that do survive do so because I’ve done more than just think them. I usually say them aloud a few times, then copy them either onto a nearby steno pad or into a text file in my Dropbox called ‘Ideas For Later“.  Translating the idea into some other form – even if you’re leaving yourself an audio note or a Vine or a whatever-chat the kids are doing these days helps it persist and be less of an ephemeral bubble drifting through your head in between thoughts of what to watch and what to eat.

Step 2. Give the idea a stick figure skeleton. No, not an actual stick figure, I mean, I guess you could do that if you wanted to storyboard it, which I guess is a combination of the this step and the next one below, but I mean this step to be about giving the idea a little spine and some limbs, and see if you still get fired up about it. If this is a story idea, think about one part of it (a character, a setting, a question it asks) and put words to it. If you’re writing a story about a corrupt judge and his sex addicted daughter, do they have names? Where do they live? Do they live well? Do they have secrets no one else knows? Use your base idea as a starting point, and come up with more details. Not loads more, just one or two that really stand out to you.

If Step 1 and Step 2 combined keep making you feel like this idea is a good thing to pursue, move onto step 3. If not, either scrap the idea or save it for later – you’ll never know when they pay off.

Step 3. Make a mess, then make an outline/blueprint/rough sketch/whatever. There are many great people who flip the two parts of this step, and that totally works for them, and I’m way more than envious about it. Is there such a thing as super-envy? I either just invented it or jumped on its bandwagon. I like to throw some words down on the page before I get serious about mapping something out. The first pages of something are a crash course in the idea’s survival skills. If I can write out a scene, or describe the picture in my head in more than a sentence, ideally a paragraph or four, and it’s not awful, it stays in active rotation among the things I’m working on. If it’s awful, I put it in a folder called “Graveyard” and hopefully harvest it later for parts when the next idea strikes.  Once the premature idea has some paragraphs or description on it, I can sit down and more consciously outline it. Like so many other things, I outline in my own way. I’ve talked about outlines before, but I never really thought about THE ACT of the outline as anything other than some horse-apples people say you’re supposed to do. And yes, maybe that rigid “outline” they teach you in school is crap on a stick. But the note card trick? Using Fate Core? All outlines. Don’t tell old me that I’ve been outlining all along, that guy doesn’t need the stress.

Step 4. Schedule an appointment. I’m totally stealing this idea from my local Honda dealer and their awful website. My car is due for an oil change and an inspection, so I thought these were things I could schedule via their website. Instead I found the most mansplain-y videos and how-tos on how to change your own oil, change a tire and when you need to call for a big man with greasy hands to take of a problem for you (right ladies? we can’t be worrying our pretty little heads when we should be in that kitchen fixing dinner, right? — seriously, those videos suck). I ended up calling the service desk directly and after a rousing version of mariachi Barry Manilow, got my appointments. The idea of scheduling makes my division of time easier. So too for writing. If I know that tomorrow I’m going to be writing another scene involving a recovering addict named Saturday who breaks a guy’s hand for making homophobic comments at his favorite bar, I can look forward to that, and ballpark that the scene in my head (the scene that’s gone through this exact process already) should take me about an hour or so to get down in the shape I think it’s in. The rest of my day can then get sliced up into time spent editing, designing and some errands best done when it’s going to be in the mid-70s.

Is there a fifth step? Yes.

Step 5. Create. Create regularly. Feed your word-beasts. Yes, sometimes the words are a trickle and other times they’re a raging flood. But you won’t know which it is until you’re tapping those keys or moving that pen. Work on that sketch. Test out that recipe. Edit those photos. Work on your dance moves. What’s that? You don’t want to? I thought you said you wanted to make something. The idea’s not interesting anymore? Then have a new idea and start back up at the top. That’s not it, you say? You just “Don’t wanna”? Am I allowed to make clucking noises at you? Hey, if you want to procrastinate, I can’t stop you. If you want to prop up a billion illusory fleeting “reasons” (read: excuses) as to why creating this thing slips further and further down your To-Do list, that’s not something you have to justify to the guy on the internet. That’s all you and your commitment. Which will continue to be the subject of many posts to come.

Let me leave you with one last idea: Writers write. Creators create. You have to invest your guts and soul and courage onto and into the thing you’re making. Be brave. Be honest. Art hard.

 

Happy writing.

Some Maxims For Writing

Hey look, it’s Monday. Fine, okay, none of you seem pleased about this. It’s still a nice-ish day, though, even if my local weather-human is telling me it’s going to snow tomorrow. But between now and then, let’s talk writing.

I talk a lot about “rule 1” which is Writing is the act of making decisions, which is to remind you that you’re in charge of the words and worlds you put forth, not the other way around, and you can have whatever you want for however long you want, until you change your mind. For the curious, the next few rules are: everything is fixable; the only failure is when you give up; and don’t beat yourself up, this is about evolution not single-instance rewards.

But let’s look at some more.

Risk is the yeast that makes your story grow. I have fond childhood memories of my mom laying out bread dough and covering it with a towel, then hours later the dough practically mushroomed and spilled out over the top of the pan. It seemed magical. It seemed related to the magic of pouring soda into a mug and watching it fizz up, or the time I put pretzel salt in my bottle of Coke. Science aside, the sense of change and flow translates nicely to writing. Risk, loss and the possibility of that loss (more on those two in a second) help a story expand. Sure, okay, if you’re writing a children’s book about puppies, there’s not a lot of reason to risk things, but if you’re writing about characters with an arc and a plot to resolve and the general sense of “things gotta change”, risk is a great way for that character to take strides forward. Likewise, risking yourself as an author, creating stories that are outside your comfort zone, working in new habits rather than however complacent your old ones are, putting your guts on the page, that’s how you discover new facets of your craft. Your craft, developed your way, tailored and shared by you. It’s one of the unique expressions in existence.

Loss isn’t the enemy, it’s part of the engine. You build a character. Give them looks and a plan and wants and dreams and talent. So that’s their length and width. If you want to add a third dimension, take away something. Maybe not in the pre-story times (meaning they start the story with loss), maybe during the story, maybe the story IS the loss, but it’s the darker side, the sadder side, the melancholy and the meandering away from sunshine and rainbows that takes a character from “Oh yeah” to “OH YEAH!” (Kool-Aid man sold separately)

There are going to be times when you have to hear things you don’t want to. Accept them or not, but understand they’re not always fruitless. You’re going to face tough spots in your road from Point A to Point B as a creator. Whatever your course, which is dependent on what you do and how you do it, you’re going to face criticism, rejection, disapproval, lousy reviews, weird social politics, melodrama, excuses, cowards, bullies, sycophants, jealousy, boredom, regret, and a thousand dozen other things I can’t rattle off the top of my head. Some of this stuff, good and bad, is going to be groundless and petty and come out of left field and hopefully you’ll be able to shake it off. Some of this stuff, good and bad, is actually important and has been told to you in an effort to help you. The notes about your draft? Likely some of it is helpful. The aberrant one-star review that cites the problem being the name of your main character? Not helpful. The conversation where people tell you get your shit together? Hard to hear, but ultimately helpful. You have to weigh each piece individually, look at what it’s trying to accomplish, don’t get too out of shape about the delivery system (because tough things to hear or read don’t get pretty packages and bows), and learn something from it. 

Excuses do not put words on the page or tick items off the to-do list. Maybe you’re not a paid writer. Maybe you’re not working on deadlines for a magazine or periodical. Maybe you’re just someone who reads all the writer blogs and comments about how this post or that post is a shot in the arm, but then later, in those hours when you could be writing, you’ve elected to watch a show about pruning hedges that you’ll later complain about on social media … yet that’s what you chose to watch. Maybe you’ve got real responsibilities and people counting on you, maybe you promised to pay people and run businesses and stand up and be accountable, and now that seems friggin’ huge and terrifying. Maybe you wake up everyday and slog off to a job you hate, for a boss who doesn’t respect you, and then come home to dishes in the sink, bills in the mail and your roommate four months behind on their share of the rent. And you do all this, because you raise up this shield of excuses. There always seems to be a reason, always seems to be some way that what you want to do isn’t getting done, and very seldom does it have anything to do with you. That guy’s late with the check (and you’re not hounding him for it). You want to make a thing (but you’re not writing diligently, nor organizing others to aid you). You’d love to be someone who does X or Y or Z, but you don’t own the shoes/you’re so tired at the end of the day/someone might see you/that might be when the ninjas attack. Guess what? You might think those things are important, you may elect to make those things important, and act as though they’re the big damned deal, but … they don’t have to be. Excuses don’t get the work done, they don’t ease the stress, they don’t make the problems do anything than just get bigger later. It’s a stall, and stalling on stuff isn’t the best attitude or strategy for being the sort of pro-active, disciplined, healthy, boundary-having, responsible, upright person that so many of use state so clearly that we want to be. You know that phrase, “See a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck.”? I propose a new one – “Make an excuse, you’re just afraid. Take the action instead, and find your way.” Take the action, dispel your fear. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Own the successes as quickly as you own your mistakes. I know a lot of people who love to point out what they did wrong. You ask them how something went, they’ll tell you it went okay but then spend the other 80% of their conversation talking about what went wrong. This stems from having unreasonable expectations on how things have to be or how they have to behave (in order to get acceptance or esteem or love) or from assuming that in the presence of shortcomings, they’re less than who they are. Hint – mistakes happen. The coffee comes out cold, your shoe comes undone, you practically ruin your intimate night running to the bathroom after the mushrooms in your appetizer don’t agree with you. No one sets out to make the mistakes. It’s the response to mistakes that matters. Throw your hands up, surrender, make excuses, complain, and stop forward progress and you’re not changing any circumstances. Realize that mistakes are a part of action and evidence of effort and that no one’s really freaking out about these things to the same degree as you are, because coffee’s coffee, because you can tie your shoe or because everyone poops, and take the step forward. Get past it. Find the successes. Maybe you didn’t spill anything on your outfit. Maybe even with terrible bathroom trauma, you still got quite cozy. Maybe you discovered a pretty spot to sit and tie your shoe. Figure out for yourself which you give more weight to, the failures or the successes, and consider applying that to your writing. Is it really failure when you knock out 300 words the day after you did 1000? You’re still up 1300 total words in two days. That’s pretty awesome.

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. The phone rings. The kids are acting up. The dog has to come in. The wash is done. The TV is too loud. It’s almost lunch. You don’t know what you’re having for dinner. Life is made of all these events, all these actions and reactions and when all you’re trying to do (and saying it that way makes it sound so insignificant, right?) is write a story about a sexy lady looking for a sexy guy for sexy times in the sexy not-present, these distractions, these things seem to keep you from writing. Okay, yes, you can’t always tell your kids that you’re writing and expect them to be as silent as people in a dentist’s office. But have you tried telling them that while they watch the cartoon about the googly eyed kid, you’re going to be writing, and you won’t interrupt them if they don’t interrupt you? Take it another way – If you want to appreciate A, you really need to have a B and C in your life to give some perspective. And managing the time you spend on them, and doing your best not to co-mingle them, is part of the discipline of creation.

Be willing to be wrong. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to goof up. You’re going to say the wrong thing, bite off more than you can chew, make a misstep, or plan for one thing and get another. This is part of all processes, though writing makes it feel particularly pointed due to the emotions involved in making stories and in offering them to hungry readers. Just as we can look at the math and know that not everyone is going to like what you write, and it’s kinda irrational to expect so, we can look at the math and say for all the opportunities presented to you, you’re going to muck a few up. And those mistakes might be costly. They might fracture your ego, sap your resolve and sour you on being creative. Wrong happens. In any instance, you’ve got a 50-50 chance of being wrong, not because your “right” isn’t “good enough” (I might get cramps from all these airquotes) but because you weren’t “right” and it’s not about “right” or “wrong” it’s about doing something, then reacting to its outcome, then basing your next action on what just happened, and repeating that until the universe decays or the Jets make a smart draft pick. You’re not perfect, and nothing is gained by holding yourself to some ever-elevating standard that you can’t reach. (I’d also like to point out that you’re the one who keeps raising your own bar, so why are you doing that to yourself?)

May your art be awesome this week.

Happy writing.

Good Enough vs Perfect

I have toyed with the concepts of this post in various forms for a day or two, and this is probably the best way to organize these ideas. 

I’m making a game. I work in the company of game makers. The game I make must be at least as good as theirs.

I’m writing a novel. I am surrounded by writers. I must write something as good as what they write.

I’m running a business. I have many friends, colleagues and associates who also run businesses. My business must be run like theirs in order to have success like theirs.

Do any of those ideas resonate with you? These are the professional thoughts that plague me, though to figure out my personal thoughts, just swap out business-y things for issues about loneliness, heartache and fear, and it’s really not rocket science to see that I’ve got a lot going on in my head.

I come to my desk every day hopeful that I can accomplish great things. I come to my desk and read my email and look at Twitter, and see my friends’ talking about things they’re doing or that they have plans for, and I’m happy for them. But sometimes, when I’m not involved in those things directly, I feel pangs of “Why aren’t I doing that?” or “Why/How can they be able to do that and I’m over here with my own problem? I bet he/she/they don’t have to deal with my sort of problem anymore.”

And then I get more critical, more self-flagellating. I remember this success someone else had, or that success somebody had. Or I find out someone’s getting married, and someone’s else’s kid is a teenager now, and it’s all very hard to wrap my head around. Because I’m still here, at this desk, with my problems, and with my feelings, and all that success seems many parsecs away for me. Like I’ll never get there, or if I do, there won’t be a lot of success available for me, or it’ll be fleeting or I’ll screw it up or the minute I succeed that’s the day aliens show up on Earth and my moment in the spotlight will flicker out, and I’ll stay ignored, even if I do something tremendous.

So I throw myself hard into the production. I write thousands of words a day. I think about what I’m going to write the next day until my head hurts. I push myself to make whatever I’m doing the best thing anyone’s ever seen, and I don’t tolerate anything less than that while I’m making it. Criticism destroys me. Suggestions cripple me. Feedback, however well intentioned, however supportive, knocks over the house of cards I’ve built while I’m doing 110% to make something perfect.

Because in my head, “good enough” sounds like I just scraped by. “Good enough” is the land of almost-did-as-good-a-job-as-someone-else. “Good enough” is the pat on the head right before someone moves right past you towards something “perfect”.

“Perfect” is exactly where I want to be. It’s the Shangri-La, the Utopia, the forbidden doughnut. It’s what I want, it’s what I crave, it’s what I can’t stop trying to chase down. Being perfect is the only way I’m going to measure up to those around me, right? My friends run companies that make money, produce material, have huge audiences, write books that are raved about, get opportunities to work in film and television, and what am I? I’m the guy who write things on the internet, and the guy who occasionally makes a video. I’m the guy who puts words on paper, deletes paragraphs like they’re on fire and then rewrites them, certain that what I’m doing is going to be laughed right off.

And I worry. And I panic that I’m worrying. And when I don’t write, for whatever reason, be it stress or other plans crop up, or I get distracted by other things, I kick myself hard because when I’m not working on MY things, I’m failing. I’m slipping farther away from perfect. It’s a race, and perfect is leagues ahead of me, and I’ve got cement in my pockets and weights on my legs, and the next part of the race is uphill. I might not get there.

So then I don’t write, because I won’t get there. Because my ideas aren’t as good as what one person did. Or what another person is doing. Or what someone else plans to do. I enter a cycle that looks like this:

This thing I’m making / thing I’m doing isn’t as good as what other people do –> I should just work harder, right –> Work harder and still not be good enough? –> Maybe I just need a new idea –> Get really excited about new idea –> This thing I’m making / thing I’m doing isn’t as good as what other people do etc etc

And it doesn’t break unless I walk away from things for “a while” – hours, or days, or months or even years. And sometimes when I do go back, I’m not sure I can pick up right where I left off.

All of this sounding familiar to you? All of this sound like you could be saying it, maybe right now, or maybe you did yesterday? Or maybe you’ll say it later today?

I don’t have the sole right answer for you, and I’m sorry. I can rah-rah your face off, but look, we’ve all had people pump us up and then we feel encouraged but also obligated to do a good job, as we’re now aware of the people supporting us, and we can’t let them down. (Can we?) But here’s what I can tell you.

  1. The only person in charge of your success, is you. Not your company. Not your business partner(s). Not the fan base large or small. You are in charge of YOU.
  2. If you want to change anything, change it. You want to grow that audience? You can. You want to write today? You can. You want to try and see if someone attractive will talk to you today? Go for it. What you do is YOUR DECISION.
  3. The more you think about the gap between where you are and where you want to be, the more “reasons” you’ll invent to keep you where you are, because making those changes, taking those steps forward, is scary, and it’s a lot easier to stay where you are and bitch about it than appear vulnerable or possibly fail.
  4. Yeah, you might fail. You might not.
  5. Nobody starts off as a bestseller. Nobody starts with an rabid fanbase. Nothing starts big. It’s all one step at a time. One step. Not two. Not five. Just one.
  6. All those posts about wildly successful entrepeneurs? Those galleries of images about celebrities and overnight success? I’m pretty sure they didn’t come out of the womb like that. It took talent, time, training to get there. Anybody who promises you a quicker path to success that doesn’t seem to focus on the work is just selling bullshit by the pound on sale with coupons.
  7. Yeah, life’s hard. We have loads of responsibilities and bills and obligations that take us away from those projects and ideas we could be working on. But that’s not their fault. It’s not your kids’ fault they want to spend time with you. It’s not your landlord’s fault he wants your rent check. It’s not your bank’s fault for wanting you to pay your mortgage. And it’s not your day-job’s fault that you have to go to it so that you can do those things, or spend time with the family.
  8. Making good art (a story, a game, a painting, a recipe, a love note, a whatever) means you need commitment, love and discipline. Commitment to see the idea all the way through, love to keep the idea interesting and discipline to keep you working all the way to the end.
  9. Seriously, if people can get recognition for standing around on television and showing off their lifestyle, I’m pretty sure you can some praise and gold stars for actually doing something.
  10. Fuck “good enough” and double-fuck “perfect”. Make something you’re proud of, make it the best you can. Get help when you need it. Challenge yourself, not because it’ll make a better thing that will sell better, because you’ll learn something and be able to make a better thing next time. Everything has flaws, things the creator would change when they look back on it, and things that could be done differently. It’s not good enough, it’s good. And good is an awesome thing to be.

It is my fondest wish and hope that today, you keep doing whatever you’re doing to make awesome things. If you haven’t started, this is a pretty cool time to start. If you’re coming back to it after a break, welcome back. If you’re scared, say so, but let’s be scared together and let’s make our stuff anyway. I can’t always say I love myself or that I’m feeling like I’m good at what I do, but there are flashes when I know, when I remember, that I am pretty good at this stuff, and it’s okay to be impressed by your own work. But I keep doing it anyway. One step at a time.

Happy writing.

When You’re Busy, But Not Succeeding

Who wants to start off this week with a deep thought?

I spent a mighty long time being busy but not succeeding. And by “mighty” I mean “most of my career to date”. And when I say “most”, I mean “Everything before last Thanksgiving”.

How do I know this? How can I say this? Because I’m looking at my bank accounts after paying all the people I need to pay and there’s still money in it. Which, if you have known me in the last three to five years, wasn’t always the case. Money came and went, but it was never steady, and I just accepted this as a condition of the type of job I do – that sort of nomadic existence moving from client oasis to client oasis in a vast desert of it’s-hard-to-make-a-living.

So, being a reasonably smart guy, I saw the connection between money and work. If I had more clients, I’d make more money…so what I need is a lot more clients. I filled up my schedule and took on a lot of clients. This sounds great, right?

The Freelancer’s Dream
It would be, if all the clients required the same type of work, paid the same amount of money (and on time) and all took me the same amount of time to do that work.

Note – the above sentence is often called “The Freelancer’s Dream”.

What I had though was not the Dream. I didn’t have the Nightmare, but I did have a lot of clients and jobs and things that paid erratically, inconsistently and didn’t actually make me feel like I was succeeding. Sure, clients got stuff they wanted (websites, sales copy, etc), and I got a check….but it wasn’t success.

And it wasn’t success for a few reasons:

1. I didn’t think I deserved the job, so I way cut down my rate. Like ridiculously. Like 40+ hours of work for a single $200 check that I took up front. This, I thought gave the impression that I was easy to work with, but it in fact turned me into a doormat. What I learned: If some people can’t afford me, (and not everyone is going to, and no I can’t go out and help EVERYONE, despite urges to do so), there will be people out there who can afford me, and I shouldn’t lowball myself, ever. ((Still working on that believing in myself part))

2. It wasn’t very challenging work. I got paid to do things I’m good at. I know, that sounds wonderful, and it’s sort of the point of a job, but if you look at the work I’m doing now and compare it to the work I did then, there’s a HUGE change in both the quality of my work and my happiness. What I learned: I do better with a challenge. I’m more satisfied by a challenge, and more satisfied by the reward of saying and knowing that “Wow, I had a hand in making XYZ a great product.”

3. I took the work for the wrong reasons. This revelation didn’t occur to me until a month or two ago, when I was saying yes to more work and more opportunities and really “putting myself out there”. I used to take work because someone suggested I go help that person out, or because I felt guilty because this person knew that person and somehow it reflected poorly on me if I didn’t do the job. What I learned: The best reasons for taking a job is knowing that I can make a difference for someone and that I will enjoy doing it. Yes, there are going to be jobs I like more than others, just as there are companies and people I prefer working with over others, but the best reason for work isn’t wealth accumulation – wealth is a byproduct of happiness and success.

John’s Formula
I’d prefer not making this section grossly metaphysical, mystical or new age-y. I just want to share with you my view on how I judge my wealth and my success and how busyness doesn’t factor in.

Wealth = 
Happiness + Success + 
Future Doors Opening + 
The Best/Right People Around Me

The order doesn’t matter, but for me, I say wealth isn’t just a fat bank account, wealth is the sum total of all I got, all I get to do and all I will get later, combined with people around me who want not to take their slice of the pie or claim credit (because it’s not about percentages or proof, it’s about just having it) who make the experience all the more satisfying because there’s a celebration rather than a finger-pointing hootnanny or a pat-me-on-the-back-too shindig.

Do I have the best people around me? I do now. I didn’t always before. And occasionally I let other people tell me who were and weren’t the right people or what was or wasn’t the right job, even though this is my life, my career and my path to tread.

For those who want me to break down the above formula here you go.

Wealth (Life wealth, not financial) = Being Happy + Being Successful (seeing the fruits of efforts, tangibly, financially and personally) + Having Opportunities to Repeat This Happiness & Success Later (like being brought on to do more work, or one job turning into multiples or meeting great new people with the promise of meeting more great new people) + Having Fun, Intelligent, Practical, Rockstar Princes, Princesses, Hooligans, Geniuses and Lunatics Around Me.

Note – if you think I mean actual insane people, I don’t. I mean the crazy-like-a-fox people.

The End Result
I used to be busy, and wasted SO MUCH time running around from underpaying task to underpaying task to relationship where I wasn’t invested to activity I couldn’t give a shit about.

Now I’m working on what I want, at a pace I dictate, doing the jobs I’ve always wanted to do, and am so very invested in so many parts of my life (that I didn’t even realize were previously there).

I encourage everyone reading this to take time to really sit down and ferret out the reasons they’re working as hard as they are, and if they still feel “stuck”, and look at what they wish they could do, and how they can make time for it. You can do the things you want to do, whatever they are, even if you just start doing them a little at a time.

Make yourself happy, success comes from happy.

Rock on.