It’s exhausting to live your life in such a way that you are constantly signaling to other people that they should value you. It’s much harder to do everything with one eye on everyone else, to see what they think of you, whether they approve of you, whether they are impressed.
And regardless of what it may look like, my life has been spent pretty much constantly signaling to other people, instead of–as my father would say–tending my own onions. It makes me twitchy, sad, and irritable. It’s stupid. It’s also a habit.
Like a lot of people, I have a chronic case of Impostor Syndrome. I constantly feel that my clients, my bosses, my students, will wake up one day and say, “Holy cats, this guy really isn’t very good at (insert task here). We gotta get someone else.” In order to prevent this dire happening from…happening, I pose. I signal. “Look, I’m doing good work! See how I’m at my desk? See the books I bring to class? See my bright smiling face? You like me, don’t you?” I stay late. I send email at 1am. Much of what I do is designed to make sure people see the performance I think I’m supposed to be giving.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. Except, it keeps me from doing two things that would have a hugely positive impact on my personal effectiveness: one, it keeps me from enjoying myself, and that’s a tragedy, because most of my work is quite enjoyable; and two, it keeps me from working.
Right. I spend time trying to appear to be working, when I could be doing the actual work. Then I’m annoyed if people don’t notice, and I compose elaborate defenses in my head in case anyone accuses me of not performing. Instead of simply doing the work and getting the actual results.
Look, it’s not an all-the-time thing. I do real work sometimes. One reason I can send email at 1am is that I am not infrequently awake at 1am grading papers or writing or running mortgage numbers. So I’m not hopeless. But oh, how I wish I would just stop watching everyone else to see if they’re watching me.
Thesis: The reason the Super Bowl is super is that the next meaningful football game is almost seven months away.
We love champions, and part of the reason is that they are the winners of the last game that will be played in that sport for a considerable period of time. In other words, flipping it around, what makes a champion is the presence of an offseason. Offseasons are critical parts of seasons, though we rarely think of them as such.
Bodies and minds need time to not be engaged. We sleep–we should sleep–in order that the mind may process the information of the day and the body may rest for the morrow. Over time, though, we need more than that. Farmers have winter (which isn’t time OFF, necessarily, but the rhythm is different, slower). School has summer. God made the Sabbath (not that we use that for rest, any more).
What do we have, in the modern era?
Despite our having more tools to do more work faster than ever before in the history of man, we take very little advantage of it. Despite having a longer average retirement than ever, we do less retiring when we have great physical capability and try to pack all of it into the part of our life when we have the least.
Last year, I took May off. I still wrote 50,000 words, of course, because that’s sort of like brushing my teeth, something I just do because it’s part of me, but I didn’t do anything else. No mortgages. No teaching. I stayed home. I read. I went to Oregon with my wife and went to Phantom of the Opera. It was a time so rich and so full of peace that I think back on it almost like a dream.
I’m going to do it again. I don’t have a huge number of choices with regard to when, anymore, as I’ve committed to teach class at Lumen through this school year, but May is the end of class, and I’m going to take another month off then. This time, I’m not going to answer the phone. I will be off Facebook and Twitter. I won’t do regular meetings. I’m taking sabbatical, which I know is supposed to be a seventh of my time, and this is just a twelfth, but that’s what I think I can do. My Super Bowl is May 8. And I’m going to win. And then I’m going to stop playing the game for a while.
Already, I can’t wait. In the interest of sanity and peace for your soul, let me encourage you to find some time off as well. Find it, make it, and take it.
I’ve sounded that note more than once, here and elsewhere, but it’s a tune I believe, and I’ve lived nearly half a century now, so I think I’m able to comment on how good things are with some accuracy.
Beyond the awesomeness that is record-cheap energy, fuel, and travel, is the astonishing array of resources the author can draw on to help make her better. Just a few examples:
Thesauruses. You want a new word for “walk”? I have, next to me, a Roget’s Thesaurus, the gold standard, in book form (best option, for me, because of the serendipity of finding words I wasn’t looking for). Centuries-old tech, of course, but I got it from Amazon, shipped to my door. If you don’t like books, there are hundreds of different thesauruses out there for you to use (including some just for writers). Seconds, mere clicks away.
Research. I’m writing a novel of surpassing elegance and charm, a thing I can handle on my own, but it happens to be set in 1920’s New York, and my Big Apple experience is limited to my running down all 106 flights of stairs at the Rockefeller Center when I was fifteen. Not to worry. I have bookmarks for close to seventy sites that have resources for me to use, including photographs, maps, and original research. It’s astonishing. If I want to know it, I can. As a writer, the research has never been easier.
Books. It used to be very difficult to find books in the genre you wanted to read, or if not difficult, then expensive. And now? Playah, please. Any genre, any title, it’s all there. Some of it is a penny. Some more of it is free.
Discovery. This one is a double-edged sword, because everyone else is discoverable, too. But your natural market can find out about you more easily and less obtrusively than they ever could before. If you’re publishing good stuff, people can find it, and they can buy it.
Today is the last day of my 47th year. Last year at this time I was riding a wave of leisure, having good things ahead but not all that much happening at the moment. This year is hair-on-fire crazy, with more projects and possibilities than I have space or inclination to write about. So let me hit a couple of highlights, and let that suffice.
Tomorrow I’ll be starting Camp NaNoWriMo (again, yes I know I just did one in May). I need to be writing 50k a month, and despite the exceptional difficulties that seems to me that it will occasion, you have to do what you have to do. The project really is to write an entire novel in a month, something I’ve never done, despite my 50k run over the past couple of years.
This July will see the birth of the first of what I hope will be a long series of novels featuring America’s newest and brightest star, Trinity Flynn. Think Indiana Jones and James Bond packed into Amelia Erhart’s leather cap and goggles, racing through the international adventure of the 1920s. Prohibition, Rhapsody in Blue, Albert Einstein, the League of Nations, penicillin, Mickey Mouse, the Jazz Singer, Louis Armstrong, Al Capone, and a powerful gangster in New York’s Five Points neighborhood named Monk Eastman, lying in a pool of blood on a Brooklyn sidewalk, the day after Christmas, 1920. The killer unknown. Suspects everywhere. A gang war brewing. And a naive, compromised freshman from Barnard College caught up in the middle of all of it. Anyone that comes to her rescue better plan on taking on the whole city.
How could Trinity resist?
Trinity Flynn and the Five Points Gang. I’ll let you know how that goes.
I will, of course, continue hammering out the Harmon Brothers book, currently titled (this is working title number four) And They Saw That It Was Good. Progress is being made there. Editing continuing apace for Cheating Death as well, and should be complete this weekend. “Three Boodles” just appeared in Eagle Mountain’s Summer anthology, I have another story (On the Bridge) appearing next February in an anthology, and if I had time to submit stories anyplace maybe more of them would be.
Beauty and the Beast rehearsals are going well. The class schedule for fall has eleven courses on it. Defense Against the Dark Arts has been a whole lot of good fun this summer. Libertas is about to get into a serious scrap with the state over occupational licensure, and I just landed our largest grant ever.
Couple of things going on. It’s been fun, and to me, it looks like the fun is only beginning.
I’ve written on this before, in terms of relationships, but it applies to professional achievements as well. I just spent the weekend with a group of undeniably passionate people, spending hundreds of dollars to consume (quite excellent) advice from successful and kind-of-successful professionals in their industry. I love these people. There was passion everywhere you wanted to look.
There was also, in a few places, commitment. Purpose. Persistence. And a heaping pile of tenacity.
Without those things, all the passion in the world will get you precisely nothing.
I’m a working writer. I make consistent money turning out content, some of it okay, some of it good, occasionally something brilliant. The key is, though, I’m a factory. I make stories (among many other things, but that’s a post for another day). I sell those stories. I intend to make more and to sell more.
Prosaic? Why, yes, actually, although I also sell poetry. But writing is art! It’s supposed to be, I don’t know, where the Muses come and whisper genius in your ear. Newsflash: the Muses are more like Rosie the Riveter than they are like Madam Trelawney. If you show up with your lunch pail and put in a shift, they’ll help you more often than not. If you wait for them to get there, you’ll be like Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) in You’ve Got Mail, sitting at the table, waiting, while the love of your life sits opposite you, dismayed and incognito. You’ll never recognize him as opportunity, because he looks too much like work.
There’s some burgeoning discussion of this these days, and about time. Passion is a lovely thing. It’s entertaining. It makes movie plots and book deals. What it doesn’t do is write books or make movies, both of which are hard, long, complicated processes that require a lot of thankless, stultifying, often boring work.
I’m coming off a year and a half of such work, writing 50,000 words a month, every month, to where I’ve now written about 920,000 words of new fiction in that span (to say nothing of blog posts, letters, essays, and suchlike, none of which counts). I did that not because writing is my passion (though I am, often, passionate about it), but because I wanted to find out if I could make writing my purpose. Appears I can. Okay. On to the next phase of the career.
Writing with purpose, learning with purpose, marrying with purpose is far more likely to lead to successful outcomes than waiting for the white-hot blaze of passion to light up your life. And in my experience, purpose is far more likely to stack the wood so that when the heat of passion ignites, there’s fuel there to sustain the blaze.
I often say that my job as a teacher isn’t to teach; it’s to light kids on fire. Maybe I should add to that encouraging them to build a woodpile, so that the fire has something to burn.
Don’t look for your passion. It will find you. Instead, put your shoulder to the wheel, and push along. Then when opportunity sweeps by, you’ll have the muscles to catch it.
I actually demarcate my year in four bits. July 1 is my birthday, so that’s a logical. Christmas/New Years is a given, because that’s the break at the end of a hard (they’re all hard, aren’t they?) calendar year. BYU Education Week and the start of school used to be important-but-not-critical, but now that I’m teaching this is pretty much the biggest day of the year.
But there are two events that mark the first and middle of each year, for me as a writer. One is, not surprisingly, National Novel Writing Month, November of every year. For those not in the know, that’s a month where the entire writing world comes together to write 50,000 words in a single month. If this doesn’t sound like a lot, consider that this blog post is right now 140 words long. The average news article is 400 and change. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is 47,000. I’ve competed with myself three times on this, and am a three-time winner.
The biggest day of the year for me, though, is today, the first Friday in May. It’s LDStorymakers. It’s a wonderful writing conference in Provo, UT, one of the best you can imagine. But for me, it’s more than that. This conference changed my life. Twice.
Once was three years ago. I came to Storymakers looking for writing inspiration, and left having quit writing altogether. Not because of the conference itself, but because of a loan that threatened to blow itself to smithereens while I was there, which took me out of the conference more than I would have liked. I decided that I would have to quit writing, give up this hobby and become an adult.
The second was the following year’s conference, 2014. I didn’t go, because I had no money, because the year of not writing was the least successful of my life, in every area. EVERY area, professional, personal, spiritual, ecumenical, grammatical.
I’ll never miss it again. I’ll never come here not having written. These are my people. This is my tribe.
P.S. That first conference, that I thought was such a failure, did feature one class on writing dialogue that I remember quite well. I remember it, because as part of it we did an exercise wherein we had to write a page of dialogue entirely without tags (no “he said”, or “she warbled”, stuff like that), but keep it intelligible. I did it, it was hard, and I forgot about it.
A year or so ago I was leafing through the forgotten pages of my hard drive, and found the dialogue snippets, and thought, huh. There’s something interesting happening here. I wonder where this goes.
Where it went was a novelette called Cheating Death, which is now a full novel, my seventh. It’s also the most publishable thing I’ve yet written, and I’m convinced that relatively soon someone is going to pick it up and you’ll be able to buy it.
So even when Storymakers fails, it succeeds. Best. Thing. Ever.
That is not a title that can possibly be written. No purely American sports fan can possibly understand how ridiculous it is.
Listen. In the last 26 years of English soccer, up to this year, a grand total of FIVE teams have won the title. Let that sink in. It’s as if Notre Dame, Alabama, USC, Texas and Florida had won all the national titles since the BCS began. As if the Super Bowl was only won by Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Dallas, San Francisco, and New York since Clinton beat Bush. As if the World Series were the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox, and Cardinals.
Oh, it’s more than that, though. In English soccer, if you aren’t Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, or Manchester City, you don’t win the title. You just don’t. It’s not only that you don’t win the title, because that’s a pipe dream, but that you don’t crack the top six, which is always populated by the four above plus a rotating group of Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton, and some other big clubs. Leicester City? You must be joking.
Except that today they won the league. No team of their size has ever finished in the top six. Last year in mid-April they were cast-iron locks to be sent down to a lower league.
I can’t relate this to Americans. There isn’t any upset even close to this. Butler beating Duke for the NCAA title (which they didn’t quite do)? No. Butler were 10-1 underdogs. Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson? 80-1. The USA beating Russia for the gold medal, arguably the biggest upset in the history of sports? 1000-1.
Leicester City were 5000-1 underdogs. 5000-1 are the odds you can get in Vegas that Sasquatch will be found to be real. FIVE THOUSAND to one. Those are the odds that, say, you could put the North Carolina Tar Heels in the NBA and they would win the title. That the AA River City Mudcats would win the World Series. That Amy Poehler could actually become President of the United States. That you could personally run the Kentucky Derby and finish in the money.
Five thousand to one is what you do with a bet you can’t really value at all, because it CANNOT HAPPEN.
Your odds of having Simon and Schuster take your manuscript and make it into the Hunger Games are SIGNIFICANTLY better than that.
All those movies about how hard work and discipline and focus can accomplish anything? They’re true. They really are. Manchester United spent more on ONE PLAYER this season than Leicester spent on their entire starting eleven. The Foxes (that’s Leicester) spent $48 million pounds on their whole roster. That ranks SEVENTEENTH in the league of twenty. Chelsea spent 215.6 million (and will finish tenth).
I can’t even process this. The impossibility of this marvelous thing is off the scale.
Why would I do a whole post about this? Because it’s a validation of the little guy. It’s proof–not one-game, any-given-Sunday give-it-a-shot stuff, but 40-game eight-month proof–that a plucky band of hardworking nobodies can, actually, pull off a miracle and win what is reserved for the bluebloods.
Because it leaves me without an excuse. The next time I start saying, “well, I’ll try, but it can’t really work,” my son Nicholas will say, “Leicester City”, and I’ll shrug and say, “okay. Fair point.” Nothing like this can happen.
This will be short. I’m only blogging because I promised myself I would.
See, this is almost a week off for me. I only have 53 hours of scheduled time this week, where last week was in the high 60s, so really, it’s like I have fifteen more hours to screw around than I did. Which is awesome, except that I’m filling those fifteen hours with productive tasks I haven’t been able to get to.
That sound at all familiar? I bet it does. That’s modern life.
Two things I want to say about it:
Taking time to do nothing is critical. You do have to do that. Working more than about 50 hours in a week is truly unsustainable, even if you’re doing things you desperately love (like, say, teaching history to the best groups of teenagers in the world). You must take time to do nothing at all, if you’re to be creative. If you’re not, if you’re all ant and no grasshopper, please continue your very important pebble-lugging and don’t pay any attention to me.
Schedule, schedule hard, and trust your schedule. I regularly (not to say always, by any means) schedule my week up on Sundays. Sunday is a good day for me, generally relaxing and quite peaceful, and it’s filled with music and the things of the Spirit. That means I feel a deeper connection to the things that matter, to my core priorities, so that’s when I schedule. Then, on Tuesday, when the world blows itself up and fifteen different people are clamoring for my attention, I have to trust that what I put down was good and necessary, and actually do what I said I would do.
This is not to say no audibles are called. My Heavens, people.
This is also why I use a Lego Schedule (TM). No, there isn’t actually a trademark. I just made the term up. But it works. My schedule is zsufolt, which is Hungarian for packed until it dies from suffocation. But the schedule is in blocks, and the blocks are moveable, though they shouldn’t be deleted. Here, I’ll show you.
I have eleven calendars on this account, each with its own color. That gives me a visual on what’s taking up my time, and what isn’t, and whether those things need adjusting. No blue blocks equals no writing. Not acceptable.
The blocks start at 5:30 am and they end at 10:30 pm. But you don’t need to see what’s in the earliest and latest blocks to get an idea of how this works.
All the blocks are important, because the tasks in them have to get done. WHEN they get done is often less important, so I move them around like Lego blocks, but I try not to delete or ignore them. That’s when life gets into choke points and tries to kill you.
Yes, generally that means that I don’t have a to-do list. I carry a 3×5 card around on which I write down things that have to get done. Then I put them in a block on the schedule, and when that block comes up, I do them. Simple. Necessary.
Those are my messages for today. I have checked my dark blue box. And see the white space in the schedule? That’s doing nothing time, which is when I get the idea that I should write a book about a counterfeit investigating organization that investigates counterfeiting. Stuff like that. No, you can’t steal the idea. Aw, heck. Go ahead. There’s more where that came from, this afternoon between 5 and 5:30.
Ha. I have never, in all my life, been less bored.
But that’s my first, very glib, answer when people ask me why I’m running for the Alpine School Board. Fortunately, I have others.
The Board has seven members; I’m running in District 6, which is the city limits of Lehi. Currently sitting in that seat is a man named Scott Carlson. When he first ran four years ago, I put his sign in my yard. I still think he’s a good man, and has done about the job I expected. Under ordinary circumstances, I’d be satisfied with that and pay small attention to the race.
Circumstances are not ordinary, not by a long chalk.
Alpine School District is the largest in Utah, and has for a number of years reached the state normally seen when bread rises too long. It’s puffy and dripping over the sides of the pan. When it is baked, and it will be baked, it will sag into a dense, bitter mess. That’s where we are in this district. We need a plan to split, and we need one now. I don’t see that there’s any impetus on the Board level to make such a plan. That’s the first reason I’m running.
The second is, to me, not as important as the first at this stage, but it still has an impact, and that is the curriculum program called Common Core. I am a teacher of junior high and high school kids, and as such I am unalterably opposed to any kind of program that limits the flexibility of teachers to teach what and how they deem necessary for their students to learn and grow. No program, ever, in the history of school, has hamstrung that flexibility more than Common Core has.
Note: I’m quite sure that current members of the Board will say either that 1) they are working on these things, but the work is going on behind the scenes or 2) that these are things that they can’t do. Some of the Board will say this. Other members of the Board–specifically the ones that asked me to run–say differently, and that the thing holding up action is the composition of the Board. Either could be true, but one reason to run is to find out.
I like and respect Scott Carlson. This isn’t a vendetta, or a negative mark on him. I don’t even consider myself to be running against him. I’m running for something, not against anyone.
The job is a hard and thankless one, and one I wouldn’t have considered standing for until the last couple years. I’ll say this, too: I don’t want it. I would strongly prefer not running, and not winning, if there were someone that I thought would do the job I think needs doing. I have no pride in this thing; if there is such a person, I will gladly throw my support behind them. But I’m done sitting and watching. Things need to be done, and we can’t wait. I can do them. So here I am.
Note: there are two other candidates in the race that I think could and probably would do at least as well as I would, and one of them probably better. If the time comes that he convinces me he wants the job enough, and will do it the way it needs doing, I’m happy to step aside. As I said, I’m not bored.
But as long as I’m running, I’m running to win. If you get to know me–and the best way to do that is reading this blog–you’ll see that I do what I say, I’m not afraid of work, and I can argue without fighting. I’m persuadable, and reasonable. I think first and don’t shoot my mouth off until I know what I’m talking about. If that sounds like the kind of person you’re looking for, I’m asking for two things. One, paypal me $10 (firstname.lastname@example.org). Two, post on Facebook that you’re going to vote for me. That’s it. For now (muahahahaha).
A certain candidate that I refuse to name–this is really an admission, as I will say “Voldemort” any time–has sparked a national debate about civility and decorum, tolerance and accommodation. It’s a good conversation to have, and I am a small voice of not much volume in it, but I have a thing to say that I hope you will hear.
First, to get this out of the way, the Candidate-that-I-wouldn’t-stoop-to-mention will not get my vote any more than Mussolini would. Under no possible circumstances. Ever.
With that taken care of, a word about “loving” people. My various feeds have a lot of love on them, and a lot of admonitions to “just love” other people. I find these wholly appropriate, and I encourage them, but I think we need to be pretty clear about what the word means, if we’re going to use it so freely.
I have friends that are going to vote for Candidate Slimeball. I love them. I do not like them, and I think they are deluded and in some cases terrifyingly so. Thus, I do not want to be around them, and I have no feeling of affection for them whatsoever. The contrary, if anything. And yet I choose to love them because that’s a path open to me that is good for my heart and soul. Love as choice, not love as emotion. See the difference?
I have a specific friend that is in great pain because of the death of her father. I love this woman. I also have great affection for her, although she has said things that are moderately hurtful and somewhat unfair about people I care about (and by extension, about me). In one sense–love as emotion–I care about that. It matters, and I wish she’d stop. But in another sense–love as choice–I don’t care. There is nothing she could do that would make me stop loving her (I’m pretty sure. She is awfully creative, though, so maybe that’s not true, but I think it is). I will extend myself to care for her. I will defend her. I will give what I have to her, and help her if I can.
In the first, most common usage, love is an emotion. “You can’t help who you love” is a popular modern phrase for this usage. Translated, it means “you can’t help who you have feelings of affection for”, and in that sense I think it’s true. But if you translate it as “you can’t help who you choose to love”, it’s nonsense. You absolutely can. I’ve been doing it all my life, and so have you. I got married twenty-five years ago. I chose to love Jeanette Joan Jensen. I have therefore chosen NOT to love three-and-a-half billion other women, many of whom (heck, I think MOST of whom) are quite attractive, intelligent, and worthy of love. Some of these women, heartbreakingly, have never had anyone choose to love them the way I love Jeanette. Many men have never had a woman choose them the way she chooses me.
I’d be lying if I said I had never regarded another woman with affection–love as emotion–in the last twenty-five years. But I choose one woman, because there are things I cannot give to more than one. Jeanette is the one. Nothing will change that. Ever. No matter who she is or what she does or what she looks like, she is the one I choose. I promised this, I vowed it, I pledged all that I hold sacred to it. So while in the one sense of love I have very little control–emotions are what they are–in another sense I have complete control.
When we talk about politics, we must talk to people that we cannot feel affection for. It is a necessity, if we are to have any sort of meaningful dialogue. But in the face of this lack of affection, we can choose–we must choose–to love one another. Whatever my emotions about people that think some races inferior to their own–and my emotions on that score are ferocious–I choose to love them anyway. Whatever I think of people that see nothing wrong with arresting their enemies for saying things they disagree with, I can still choose to love them.
Nor does that mean that I will not oppose them politically, or argue with them. I will. In fact, I think that loving them requires that I do so, the same way I would oppose the efforts of my beloved seven-year-old to run into the street without looking. I must try the best I can to explain why they must not do what they are intent on doing, politically, or religiously, or what have you. But I will not oppose them with shouting and viciousness, or attacks on their looks, or age, or physical threats. I would never do that to someone I love. And I do love them, because I have chosen to.
Imperfectly, of course. I’m perfect in nothing. But love is the standard, and I don’t back away from it just because it’s very hard for me to live up to. To me, the best political goal is unity. Unanimity. Policies we all support, not just 50.001% of us, and devil take the other side. There’s no way we’re going to get to that with hatred. We have to get there with love.