Filling Your Notebooks

My brother and I aren’t very big gift people. Sure, we’ll spend money on other people, but for ourselves and each other, we don’t really go for it. For years we’d skip each other’s birthdays or christmases, maybe making a token effort if a parent or someone else prodded us with guilt.

That changed a bit in the last few years, as our financial situations and personal situations evolved. My brother moved away and got an amazing job with stable income. I got clean and sober and treated. It’s two different kinds of stability, I guess.

But we started giving a shit about gifts, when budgets (mostly mine) could stand it. Now it wasn’t just “hey I got you a gift card” it’s “I got you this one gift card for this one thing that I know you value because your time is precious to you.” We don’t make a big show of trying to do that gift thing that maybe happens near you – there’s a great big production made of showing off how much you can afford or how much you know the person values it, as if the being seen giving this gift is more important than the why you gave the gift.

This year was a slightly better year than expected financially. I can’t say it was the best, but I ended the year with a few checks that got me a bit of cushion during the holiday season. I wanted to get my brother something nice, so my mom and I pooled some resources to get him a few housewares and some fun stuff.

What he got me was a complete set of moleskine notebooks. Here they are on the desk beside me as I write this post.

Probably one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.

Now if you’ll notice, there’s still plastic wrap on two of them. And up until about two minutes before I started writing this post, there was plastic wrap on a third.

It meant a lot to me that he got me notebooks. That on some level it was him recognizing that I do a lot of thinking and writing and notation, so notebooks are a perfect gift. I really appreciate these gifts.

I appreciate them so much, I feel like I don’t have ideas worthy enough to put in them. As though I haven’t earned the privilege and honor to use these pieces of paper because none of what I have done to date is “good enough” to be immortalized in these little notebooks.

Sure, I’ll save it to one of a dozen thumb drives or a portable hard drive or Dropbox like it’s no big thing, but there’s … something suddenly more concrete about writing it down in a notebook. That’s what I want to talk about a little today.

Initially, I didn’t unwrap these things because I was too busy telling everyone how much they meant to me, that it was just really nice to carry them around in my bag. That it was one of those elusive “Writer Bucket List” items where I got to carry a moleskine.

And after I think everyone got sick of me saying I was grateful, the shock of it set in. And up until about 5 minutes ago, I couldn’t express that shock beyond just saying that I didn’t think I had an idea good enough to go in them.

See, the other issue I have with them is that they’re finite. There are only so many pages to each notebook. Space in them is precious. The digital stuff, that’s practically infinite, because I can Ctrl+N a new document out of the ether and because the content in a document disappears when I tap the Backspace. That digital space seems infinite.

It’s in that gap, in that difference, that the paralysis lives. We see it in other places: people who say they’re going to pursue a resolution or a lifestyle change versus those who do the work or in politicians who make campaign promises and then upon election act wholly different.

We all possess the ability to talk a big game and make these big plans, but when we have to act on it (hell, even our language speaks to it in an aggressive way, when push comes to shove), there’s not just the inertia of activity to overcome, but there’s this whole ocean of doubt – is my idea good enough, am I going to get rejected, is this going to fail, am I wasting my time and energy, will it matter, do I matter?

So here these notebooks sit. Only one of them has any info in it. One of the smallest ones has four addresses written in it – all possible places to eat. I could have done that on my phone, so why did I write that down, but I can’t crack into the larger books?

Because the little notebook is about the size of the post-it notes I often write things down on. It doesn’t have the same weight (psychologically) that the bigger books do. It’s practically disposable, and I’m sure if I left it in my jeans pocket and it went through the wash, it would be disposed of.

Maybe for you, you don’t have these notebooks. Maybe you don’t have a stack of physical products in actual shrink wrap. Maybe you come at this from another direction – maybe for you, the act of typing your idea up and saving it as a file has more heft to it than the scribbling you do in that little notebook you keep tucked somewhat away. Either way, an idea becomes more real when it is made more concrete.

One of the toughest things we can do as a creative is make the idea (something intangible, it lives in our heads and dreams and we can describe it, but it’s hard to share exactly and precisely) into something tangible. But we have to do it. We have to find a way to do it.

But, you ask, having read the 1024 words that precede this one, what about those questions of doubt and possible future rejection? What if I type my MS up and it gets rejected, what if you write down an idea in that notebook and it doesn’t pan out, haven’t we both wasted time and stuff?

There are two  points lurking under the water here.

a) That you’re saying your time is wasted if you do a thing and it’s not perfectly received, and you need to know how a thing is going to be received before you do it

b) That if the idea gets rejected then you’re a failure, so writing it down hastens defining/discovering/confirming that you’re a failure

Look how precarious that is. Look how they’re both points about control – In (a) you need to control the future so that you can control how you spend your time and effort and in (b) you need to control how you’re thought of or labeled by other people.

All because of writing something down! That’s how we got to these two points.

I can name on one hand the number of people I’ll show the contents of these notebooks to. They’re not going public, I have a blog and Twitter for that. Now, yes, maybe later, an idea from a notebook will make its way to some other medium where other people will see it, but as the notebook, not so much.

You cannot control how other people perceive your efforts, and naturally, yes, you don’t want your first draft to set the standard for how we regard later drafts (though isn’t it interesting we treat first impressions of people so seriously?), but you can’t make the people like you to such a degree that they’ll never have a bad thought of you – you’re not in charge of them and their thinking. The best you can do is be you, and be the kind of you that makes you feel best while inspiring others to feel and be their best, all while everyone is doing the stuff that makes them feel good and inspires others to go do stuff too.

We all live with, we’ve all adopted, this notion that we’re seconds away, one tweet, one draft, one email, one pause, one word away from another human finding out that we’re undeserving of their love and help and attention and respect because of what we do, who we are, who/what we love. We all have this feeling, and we all perpetuate this idea that we’re the only one who has this feeling, that it’s unique to us.

It’s not. It might not always take the same form with every person, but the feeling isn’t just yours. This one version is bespoke to you for a variety of reasons, but we’re all there.

We are who we are, and we’re never undeserving of love and respect and care and attention and help. No matter what we make, who we love, where we go, how we are, what stuff we do. We might not all agree on things, we might present each other with differing points of view or ideas that don’t fit neatly with other ideas, but we’re all capable of existing in a world where there are multiple people and multiple ideas. I checked.

So open your notebooks. Write down that stuff. Make the transition, one step at a time, to doing something more than worrying about whether or not you’re good enough. Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll all find new reasons to keep thinking we’re going to be revealed as impostors later, but for right now, let’s just take a few seconds to take some steps forward.

Here’s mine.

I think that’s a pretty good start, don’t you?

Happy creating. One step at a time.

The Post-Dreamation Post

This post is coming to you on Monday the 22nd of February. If it sounds a little janky, it’s because I’ve been writing it in sections while I’ve been at Dreamation, one of my local conventions.

I’d also like to point out that this is the ONLY post you’re going to get from me this week, I’ve got some surgery scheduled for mid-week, and I’m not going to be anywhere near any shape to be blogging later this week. It’s kind of a big deal, and yes I hope I’ll be okay too. On to other points.

Normally I do not shy away from giving panels to anyone, but catch me at the end of a day, or a bad day, or just when I’ve reached the end of whatever rope, and I would much prefer to sit and talk casually. Since I didn’t give a panel on Sunday, allow me now to write out what I would have said. Here goes.

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I believe, absolutely and fundamentally, that people should create art, and that art is not all that impossible to create. We face a lot of problems though when we make that decision, and while I have never yet successfully predicted the order in which these problems are faced by creators, I have to date always seen these problems in one form or another, creator after creator, no matter if we’re talking manuscripts or screenplays or little origami notions. They are universal, and I think the first step in unifying and normalizing our experiences is to get rid of the idea that you’re alone as a creative. Yes, you might be working by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you’re alone on a blue orb that hurtles through space. I mean c’mon, you’re not a Jedi on a rock watching the ocean.

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There’s the idea that what you’re making has to be of some certain level, whether that’s quality, or how marketable it is, before you’re allowed to proud of it, or think it’s a good idea. And that, I’m sorry, is complete horseshit and applesauce brought to you by whatever assumptions you’ve made or inherited that you’re only good because of bank accounts and sales figures. This idea shows up a few times in development, first in the idea stage, where people question whether the idea they just had is good enough, then again while they’re working on it, and it moves from some larval stage of notes to drafts or prototypes. Lastly it shows up in latter stages, like when it’s nearly done or when people can support crowdfunding it, or when there’s a big shiny “submit” button on an email or uploader for self-publishing.

The question of is it good enough is the same as the question of whether or not you, specifically you as a creative person who’s done this thing, are good enough. Good enough to be proud of your efforts. Good enough to be rewarded with other peoples’ time and attention and money, as if you wouldn’t be good enough without that manuscript or box or doohickey.

You must remember that you are not your product. Whatever the hell it is. However long it took you to think up, draft, revise, tool, develop, or create. You are good enough thanks to the sheer facts of being human and being creative and being brave enough to take an idea and birth it into the world.

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Along comes then the question as to what art is? Does art have any responsibility to do something? Not “do something” in the press-a-button-get-a-pellet way, but more like serve as advocate or soapbox or broadcast beacon for some cause or group or idea. By its very creation, art is a challenge, an attempt to fill a void that people haven’t perceived or thought about, so existence is already advocacy and broadcast. The contents need not take on some extra potence in interpretation thanks to cultures of politics or victimhood: sometimes it’s just a story of a trans man trying to buy his partner a Mother’s Day themed dildo, and not a treatise on lost culture. Don’t lose perspective, and certainly don’t adopt messages that you don’t want to stand behind.

Art exists, the artist cannot control how it gets interpreted, nor should they try. You might paint the word “Garbage” on canvas and tell me you’re discussing American politics, but I’ll tell you it’s awfully reminiscent of a 90s grunge band who had music that got stuck in my head. The question is not if I agree to your premise, but if I had a reaction at all, and can I, as an audience, appreciate the work, even if it’s not something I like? So when you’re making a thing, just make it. Make it for you. Make it your way. If that way means you get to give voice to people not often heard, or shed light in often dark spaces, or make conventional what so many believe abnormal, do it. But do not take on the extra baggage in some attempt to win points and curry favor. This is creativity, not the lightning round of a game show.

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Whenever there is a question of is it bad or wrong to do a thing or to do a thing this way, whether we’re talking about having a flashback at some point in a story, or having a piece of salescopy mention a product feature, or a character saying they drink Pepsi, I always respond the same way – no it’s not wrong, no one’s going to take your keyboard away for doing it. This is different than doing the thing wrong, like messing up how dialogue goes on the page, or misspelling congeniality. Doing the thing wrong means correction should happen, but just having something happen is not in itself reason enough to break out the knout and cilice, begging forgiveness from people on message boards and social media alike.

Permission isn’t meant to come externally, and in too many cases, the older models of publishing, with their emphasis on gatekeepers and exclusion, permission was this piece of meat dangled in front of the starving artists, so that there might be dancing for the amusement of those in ivory towers. That model isn’t dead so much as it’s had its control fractured, as new mediums and methods of publication offer a variety of options in place of waiting for anonymous people to respond to queries and dispense pronouncements. Because the power now sits in the hands of the author right up until the moment of submission, that permission has to derive internally, and be persistent through all the stages of creation. You can write whatever the hell you want, it can get edited and shaped into whatever will be clearest for the reader, and it will find an audience. Of course, the previous sentence has assumed you’ve given yourself permission to write and finish something without fear of later judgment, that you’ve given yourself permission to have drafts not be the finished product, and given yourself permission to go do the work necessary to figure out and find who the product’s audience is.

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Now let’s suppose just for a minute that you’re like me – a creative with some health issues (mental and otherwise), a few responsibilities, not as much time in the century to do all the things that can be dreamed in those moments when work is supposed to be happening – these are all factors that can erode the idea that you’re supposed to be making anything at all. How can you? There are bills that need to be paid, the phone never seems to stop ringing, no one at the office seems to care that you just totally figured out how to kill Maude in chapter 5, and that last night you wrote seventy-seven words about the way the car sighed like an old person sighing in a church pew. Life seems to make some distinction from the creative process, that one has to be separate from the other, that a creative has a life, and then goes off to some secret lair where they can create when the rest of the world isn’t looking, so long as they don the cloak of a pen name.

Creativity is not life’s kryptonite. It’s not to be kept in the shed like your zombie best friend, or locked away in the tower until you get miles of split ends. Creativity infuses life with necessary color and hope and imagination. Creativity takes the mundane into extraordinary places, and challenges conventions while inspiring everything from debate to contention to interest. So what’s wrong with admitting that you’re creative and that you’re making something?

Is it scary to do that? Sure. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
Does that mean that someone could judge you? Sure. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, and it also doesn’t discount the fact that you be judged right now, and not even know it. So why the hell give it that much mental real estate? Is that helping you in any good ways?

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Look, don’t give up. Tell the doubt and the doubters to go suck lemons. Like the man says, they’re going to laugh, but you keep writing. Don’t go down without a fight. And don’t give up the keyboard, the canvas, the microphone, the whatever. Not until you’re done doing your best.

There are loads of problems you can face – rejection, lack of appeal, poor technique. Don’t shovel extra weight like crushing doubt like Jupiter’s gravity and fear of a future that hasn’t happened yet compound whatever you’re doing with some grievous notions that it’s supposed to be some way or else it’s not good enough. You are the definer of your own success(es). You are the definer of when you give up.

What you do every day is up to you, creative. You’re good enough, and this guy on the internet believes in you.

 

Go make cool stuff. Go be awesome. Rock on.

Motivation: Internal, External, and Why You Need To Figure It Out

Good morning everyone.

So many of the things I write have an idea that gets birthed in a conversation where at some point I’ve reached a critical mass of frustration or passion.

For many years, I have considered myself a man driven by passions. I have a love for a thing, so I go do that thing. I get excited to learn something, and I go pick up books and find information and immerse myself in it. It’s how I’ve learned a lot of things, and I don’t think that will ever be a bad outcome.  As I’ve gotten older, as I’ve slowed down, I’ve noticed that by following passion more than anything else, I’ve built a hopscotch pattern of discarded efforts and attempts. It’s not something I’m proud of.

When something starts passionate, I find that it can wear off quickly, when it gets difficult or when something new and shiny comes along. And I, somewhat blindly, jump to the next thing after finding some way to rationalize whatever investment I made in the last thing. In the past, this has led to arguments and discussions alike as to my maturity, as if this is a phase I’m supposed to grow out of, as if part of settling down means the cooling of passion into sort of an acceptance of whatever is in front of you. I’ve always felt that through that lens, passion is something for children, not adults. This conflicts with my thinking that a lot of the passions you have require that you be an adult, both in terms of affording the pursuit, but even the more realistic sense that you need to be tall enough to reach things on shelves or be able to do things without a permission slip.

Breaking this down, putting the newness or excitement about a thing aside (it doesn’t matter if we’re talking a new book, television show, video game, project to work on, or whatever) I start to think about how motivation and passion co-mingle. I think the two intertwine and merge, like highways, carrying us forward through life experiences. Maybe that’s the inner Romantic in me. Maybe that is childish. I couldn’t, and frankly don’t want to say.

What is motivation? Where does it come from? Where can it come from?

This droid had a bad motivator. Don't be this droid, else a farmboy will whine.

This droid had a bad motivator. Don’t be this droid, else a farmboy will whine.

Motivation is the want to do something. That’s all. We can dress it up and get very woo-woo over it, describing it as some quantum force of vibration that needs congruence with the capital-U Universe, and we can get biological about it and say it’s a bio-electric and chemical reaction to a thought, but that means we have to figure out what and how thought works. Because motivation starts with a thought. Your thought. And that’s the critical thing. You’re not going to be motivated without a thought.


A note here before we go further – we can’t talk motivation and have the ideas stick in our minds unless we can agree that honesty, even when painful, is essential for understanding motivations. You have to be willing to be honest with yourself, and that’s no small feat. This is likely not something that will be forever transformed permanently and perfectly because of a blog post, and I’m not looking to do that. I just want to get you thinking, get you moving, and get you challenging yourself. Okay, back to it.


There are two kinds of motivation, and this dichotomy fascinates me. The circumstances where both emerge, and the ways they disguise themselves as the other has become something of a focal point in my work as a coach and editor. I think we should do some defining before we go further.

Internal motivation is your feelings, thoughts, interests, and efforts to do a thing for yourself, or for some reason you supply. Maybe it’s sating a need like having a meal, maybe it’s going to bed, but no matter what the activity is, the itch for it gets scratched because you start a chain of events to accomplish that task. When we create a thing, internal motivation partners with discipline to put our butts in the seat and create, even when so many other things could distract us. For me, internal motivation trumps nearly everything else, even if external motivation seems more intense.

It is internal motivation that sits at the base of wanting to do a thing, of wanting to see that book in-hand or on-shelf. It is internal motivation to commit to the craft, even if external motivation is what it may take to get you started, but we’ll talk about that in a second. I believe that everyone has the capacity to be internally motivated to some degree, and that what catalyzes that is (and should be) different for everyone. I’m driven for my own reasons, just as you are for yours. We may have some overlaps, but we can distinguish our drives from the other.

I write and create because I feel better about myself when I do. That’s not something someone pointed out to me, that’s something I discovered in the eighth grade when I wrote a story about a man taking on the mafia. I edit and coach and help people develop things because it makes me feel useful and good and it seems to be the best thing I’ve ever done in my life today, and again, that was a self discovery. No one can divorce or disintegrate those reasons and those moments of decision from me. The external motivations have and likely will change again, or a dozen agains in my lifetime, but I can always count on the internals.

The external motivations lure us towards effort by bringing stress or expectation. We have to do this thing so that we can make money so that we can keep the lights on. We have to do this thing because a teacher and class expect us to this. We do this to make other people proud of us. We do this so that we can call ourselves members of a group, and it’s important that we have a sense of membership and belonging.

There’s nothing wrong with having external factors motivate you. We all have them, and I think as we get older, and navigate the waters of adult life, they outnumber the internal motivations. But do not confuse quantity for quality. Just because there are more does not make them superior. I leave it to you as how you decide which are superior, though I will give you a hint: look for the satisfaction.

Would you, for yourself, be satisfied with your efforts because they’re done, or because you did this thing so that someone is off your back? Yes, sure, you might be relieved to have someone leaving you alone and not pressuring you to go faster or do something urgently, but is relief the same thing as satisfaction? In your quiet moments, when there isn’t a pressure exerted on you, how do you feel about what you’re doing?

External motivations are ephemeral. You have certain ones based on the job you’re doing, or from the specific circumstances at the time. A parent’s motivations evolve along with their child. As a writer, the motivations to start a project are different from those to continue or conclude a project. The problem with anything ephemeral is that you lose perspective. These issues don’t seem as momentary or as motile as other things in life, so we inflate them and treat them only in their larger and scarier states. And then, when things vanish as ephemeral things are wont to do, you’re left with this sort of void to fill, which naturally leads you to find some other temporary motivator.

Is this good? Is this bad? That’s not for anyone who isn’t you to decide. Yes, we can all have opinions about how someone gets motivated, but ultimately, it’s not our circus and those are not our monkeys.

I lean away from framing motivation as good and bad, and see it now as helpful versus not-as-helpful. Knowing I have to write because people benefit from help is more comforting to me than knowing I have to write because the silence is frightening. Yes, I want to work to support myself and a family one day, but what I do for that work is up to me, and I am at a point in my life where as a follower of passion, I cannot easily settle without making sure I’ve taken my shot.

You can go ahead and blame @snarkbat and @d20Blonde on Twitter for exposing me to Hamilton.

You can go ahead and blame @snarkbat and @d20Blonde on Twitter for exposing me to Hamilton.

It may be tempting to judge someone’s motivation, thinking it will give us a sense of certainty, that through comparison we’ll find where we rank. But, question whether we need to rank in the first place. Why are we competing? What’s the prize? Do the other people know we’re competing?

Spend some time making a list of motivations, then sort out the external from the internal. It may prove tricky because the internals might really be externals you’ve just really buried and bought into for so long, and maybe you won’t even be able to tell the difference with some of things that motivate you, and that’s okay.

Are you motivated? Good. Then go relentlessly, furiously, aggressively, smartly, thoroughly towards whatever your goals are. Run into an obstacle? Educate and train yourself so that you can adapt and keep going forward. Run into doubters, critics, and haters? Don’t let them taint your efforts with their negativity. Keep moving forward. Keep working.

Keep writing.

We’ll talk Wednesday, see you then.