Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why I am Declaring Bankruptcy

Calling yourself a writer feels a lot like Michael Scott declaring bankruptcy: as Toby informs Michael, that is not exactly how it works. You can't just say something and call it into existence.

But maybe, you can declare something, and then take action. Maybe the declaration is necessary as a writer. I don't know about declaring bankruptcy; I think the rules for that are a little more cut and dry. But as for writing, let the record show I am pro-declaration.

Here's what I think (and where I disagree with Toby): If you write, you are a writer. If your writing is published, you are a published writer. Anyone who writes without a gun pointed at their head can call themselves a writer. But if you want to be called a good writer, well, there is no label so solidifying as that.

There are many writers who have been published, who are bad writers. Just because you are published, does not mean you are a good writer. So, that stinks. 

The thing is, if you are looking for validation, you will likely find it. Plenty of people will tell you that you are good at writing, if you ask around enough. Plenty of people will tell you that you are terrible at writing, too. Plenty of publishers will turn you down. As they have turned down many-a-good writer.

I want someone to tell me I have what it takes. But for every person who tells me that, there will be at least one other person out there who thinks I don't have what it takes. This is why you should never put your self worth in the hands of others. There is little comfort in their opinions.

Being a writer is about writing. It is not about being patted on the back. It is about being the best writer you can possibly be, because that is the best you will ever be, and no more. The only feedback you can ever trust is what is given to you by people you trust and respect. And in that case, you are only a good writer to them. There is also Time, which is perhaps the fairest judge of good writing. But it's still all a little shaky, isn't it?

There will always be doubts in the minds of writers as long as there are sentences left to form. But you won't ever be a writer unless you call yourself one first. I hesitate to call myself a writer because in doing so, I feel like an imposter. Because I am not published. Because I only have this blog. And also because calling myself a writer is totally terrifying. It means I have something to live up to. It means I am opening myself up for judgment. But this is the year for dispelling fears, so I am going to take the leap.

I'm a writer, because I write. I am a writer, because I am working on getting published. I am slowly but surely working on a novel that I will attempt to have published before I die. That may not be good enough for you, but it is good enough for me. And so, I am a writer.

The rock solid truth behind the sentiments of this post is: if you don't declare it, you can't fail. By saying I am a writer,I am throwing "failure" into the mix of possible outcomes of my writing journey. But failure is just as subjective as "good writing" is in this instance. And who is afraid of failure? Not me.

How silly this all sounds, now that it is in the open. How silly to be afraid. How silly to declare bankruptcy.

So I ask you this, all of you aspiring writers (or aspring anythings): will you call yourself a writer with me? Let us declare that we are writers as boldly and confidently as Michael Scott declares bankruptcy. And then let's write--and keep writing until we have become better than anyone else who shares our same thumb print.

P.S. Why writing is terrifying...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How to Change Your Life

 photo change-your-life-quote1_zpsecd63321.jpg
This year, all the voices in my head telling me that everything I wanted to accomplish before I die would happen later, finally became too much to handle. I don't know if it was a random feeling that fell out of the sky, or a culmination of undetectable thoughts conspiring against me slowly for the past few years. But the truth that the only time I have is now, is finally taking hold. And now is all I will ever have.

These thoughts I had did not cause a panic, as perhaps they should have. Because underneath the layers, their message is freeing. And not in the sense that I feel empowered to do things I want to do. But rather, I am reminded that I can't do everything, and I am not called to do everything. Because time is limited, and we live in time, and we are limited beings.

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us (J.R.R. Tolkien)-and that is the time we are accountable for. To-do lists and ambitions and goals must be kept in their place. When conquered, they are conquered in the present, enveloped by reality. And in reality, where dreams often go to die, is where things get done.  

(I am not necessarily a fan of John Maxwell--I don't know much about him--
but I like this quote out of context and as-is.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why I Never Cuss (but wish I did)

I wish I could cuss, dammit.

I hope this doesn't cause a terrible scandal, but, I think moderate cussing is punchy and effective sometimes. I am therefore not against it, in its place. I am just slightly disappointed that I never can find a place for it. I am waiting for the day when I can justify using the F word out loud. "Won't it be satisfying?" I tell myself, "won't it be delightfully shocking?". But every time I wonder if it is the time and place for it, I always find a better way of saying what it is I want to say. Which can be deflating.

In my writing, I will occasionally insert a mild cuss word or two just to test it out. But in my effort to be completely honest in my writing (it is only an effort, to be clear), I always find myself erasing it in the editing process. And I say that with some regret, because cussing is more fun. I think "hell" an especially fun, and barely-offensive word that can be very effective. I would argue that it should be taken out of the "bad word" box but then there would be no satisfaction in saying it. I would be more inclined to promote its becoming an even worse word, to make it all the more desirable.

I find that in all creative pursuits, there is usually a shortcut that is more enticing. But when I ask myself if there is a better way, there usually is. And oftentimes that makes me mad. Mad enough to cuss, in fact. I don't not cuss because I think cussing is evil. I don't cuss because I am a recovering perfectionist. I know a sentence cannot reach perfection, just as I cannot. There will always be a better way, so why can't I just lower the bar for myself just a little bit, and allow the occasional cuss word to stay?

“Don’t use words too big for the subject. 
Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very;” otherwise you’ll have no word left 
when you want to talk about something really infinite.” 
-C.S. Lewis

I have found that in writing, a little extra discipline can take the fun out of it but in the end, makes the finished product more articulate. In this instance, I am okay with being a recovering perfectionist. But secretly, I am waiting for the day when I can leave a cuss word in, and think to myself, "this is complete. It cannot be improved." I do think that day will come, if I wait patiently for it.

What is your take on cussing? I would love to know. Do you cuss on a regular basis? Do you never cuss? Do you think this post is nuts? If you do, you probably aren't a perfectionist, and I admire you for that.

P.S. More confessions of a recovering perfectionist...

Monday, April 14, 2014

My Solumn Thesis Statement

In college, I had a history professor I couldn't bring myself to like. I was a history major, and therefore had many history professors, most of whom I really liked. But this one in particular was my least favorite. She taught Ancient Egypt, which you would think would make her super cool and relateable, but it was not so. I am not one to easily jump to the conclusion that someone dislikes me, but I really do believe this professor hated me and I have no idea why.

My suspicions of her dislike for me began with the first paper I wrote in her class, which she returned to me with the first paragraph circled and this comment: "Where is your thesis statemet? Rewrite."

Where is your thesis statement? Okay. I've been wrong before. I'll just rewrite my first paragraph to make it more clear. And so I did. And so she was still unsatisfied. 

I wrote another paper for her, and again, she circled my first paragraph. I marched up to her after class and said, "Ms. ---, I am sorry, but I do not understand why you keep telling me I don't have a thesis statement." She proceeded to tell me that a thesis is a sentence, or two, in which you told your reader what your paper was going to argue. I proceeded to tell her, as politely as I could, that I knew what a thesis was, and that I was merely confused because no other professor had ever told me I had this problem, and plus, I thought it was pretty clear what my paper was trying to argue.

I read her what I thought to be my thesis statement in that paragraph, and she said, "it's just not very clear." I asked her if I could come to her with my next paper, before it was due, to have my thesis approved by her before I turned it in. She said she could take a look at it, but she could not actually approve it, because that would give me an advantage over the other students. It would be like giving me a grade before it was graded. And apparently that was a cardinal sin. 

^Turning in my Senior History Thesis (my final paper, not a sentence), The Scottish Struggle for the Establishment of Presbyterian Church Government in a Time of Political Change, that allowed me to graduate.

Needless to say, she was the most unhelpful professor I had, and I never wrote a thesis statement that pleased her, even though my next one literally said, "in this paper I am going to argue...", and was approved by both of my rooommates at the time. It still wasn't good enough for her, and she gave me a C in the class. To this day I remain confused, but not as confused. Because I have learned that life is, indeed, sometimes unfair.

And anyway, how can I blame her? I am sure she was only projecting onto me the abuse she had received sometime in her past from a cranky old professor who beat her over the head with a two-by-four for not writing clear first paragraphs.

That brings me to this: I still think about this professor every once in a while without bitterness. Despite her intentions, she did teach me to take thesis statements very seriously. And I mean seriously. After all, it doesn't hurt to go over your argument one more time, and take time to figure out exactly what you are trying to say. 

I think about this blog's thesis statement all the time. I consider my "about me" my thesis statement, and I would be lying if I said its length and wordiness didn't bother me from time to time. But the truth is, sometimes the marketing part of blogging bothers me. You do have to brand yourself in the sense that you have to tell people who you are, so they know what they are getting. And I don't always like putting myself into a box. Figure out your niche, they tell you, or you will never be a successful blogger.

My niche is that I am an aspiring writer, whatever that means, who makes experiments in creativity publicly to slowly, but surely, write the thesis statement of my life--the one that sums everything up in a nice neat bow and makes sense of every thought I have ever thought. My blog's thesis is that I am working toward a thesis. 

And now is the part where I recognize the truth in my professor's over-the-top criticism: thesis statements are hard. And figuring out the statement that will summarize my life or simply why I write? Well, it is always changing. It is always being tweaked. But I think it is the process of working toward it that I enjoy most; the uncharted path from the present to the future with all of its tall grass and thorns, that I have grown to accept and even love. 

What is your life's thesis statement? What does your writing try to argue? If you think about it, thesis statements are a part of everything, really. We cannot escape them.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Midweek Musing: my life as a diorama

Midweek musings is where I start a post without knowing where it will end up. I hate doing things without a plan first, so this is an exercise in stretching myself. Thanks for bearing with me.

Two nights ago I got a phone call at 3:35am. At first I thought the ringing was my alarm, and I felt robbed of a good night’s sleep. Come to find out, it was Eric calling me. I thought he had been sleeping next to me, so hearing his voice on the other end of the line was somewhat alarming, to say the least.

He had been called into work after midnight, and left without waking me. Now he was waiting on a tow truck because he had a flat tire and there wasn’t a spare in the trunk, like we thought. He didn’t get home until 6:30am, and then it was time to go to work.

It was really the last thing we needed in our lives. The last thing anyone needs is a flat tire in the middle of the night, isn’t it? Right now we are a little bit tired of job stress. Mostly, a little bit tired of feeling like job stress is just a part of life we have to accept.

Here is a great thing that has come out of being so exhausted with work and stress: making a bigger priority of taking care of ourselves. Did you know that there is a silver lining to every storm cloud? Pollyanna says so. But really, in our exhaustion we have been making the most of the few moments we do have at home. We have only been doing it because we have no other choice. It was take care of ourselves, or wallow in our wallowy-ness. There has been more of what we enjoy doing, and especially more music, which has done wonders to relieve the stress of the past few weeks. And yes, some nights we can barely muster enough energy to make a decent meal, so we eat pasta in front of the TV. There’s that, too.

Overall, we are just tired. And looking forward to the days when we can eat dinner before 8:00pm again. We are not miserable. Just on the verge of near-insanity.

The other night at our friends’ house, we got on the topic of dioramas. In particular, dioramas as a school assignment. We laughed about them, but I haven’t stopped laughing. The futility, the pointlessness, the single-mindedness, the effort, the hours, the parents who build their kid’s diorama from start to finish because they want the assignment done “right”, the lifespan of the average diorama…I really cannot think of anything more hilarious.

This means I am tired. It also means that I am writing a post that started out kind of depressing, and ended with dioramas, and as a writer I am naturally looking for connections and…

My life is a diorama.

 photo diorama_zps23e0e29c.jpg

I just realized this.

It is an empty shoebox that I am currently focusing all my energy on. It is small and can only hold items that work to the greater good of my single theme. The theme I am working on right now is not my favorite. When pressed, I would say that I would like to make a diorama of the New York City Ballet version of Cinderella, but instead I am assigned this theme of angst and horror: a couple that works too much and eats bland meals in front of the TV until it is time to collapse in bed. That is what I am working with.

But outside of my diorama is a much bigger world filled with mystery that cannot be contained in a single cardboard scene. A world where dioramas live short lives—long enough only to be created and graded. My diorama will be shoved to the top of my closet shelf soon, to be pulled down in years to come and ridiculed, smashed underfoot, and burned in a fire fed by dioramas. I am looking forward to that day. But right now, I have this stupid diorama assignment.
If your life were a diorama, what scene would you be building right now? Have you ever made a diorama? Do you collect dioramas? Are you tired?

P.S. 11 reasons I'm thankful I am not Kate Middleton

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why We Like Mad Men

Mad Men is a show about a lot of unlikable people, so why do we like the show so much”? I have said this myself, and heard other people ask it plenty of times.

When I tell people The Godfather is one of my all-time favorite movies, they are usually surprised, considering my other favorite movies are Anne of Green Gables and You've Got Mail. But seeing The Godfather for the first time was an eye-opening experience for me-- and not because I was completely unfamiliar with the mafia, hiding dead bodies in mattresses, or how to prepare meatballs and spaghetti sauce for a large group of Italian men. No, it was because for the first time while watching a movie, I saw myself in the bad guy, because he started out good. Or at least decent. Anyway, he was the reliable one. And hey, aren't I reliable?

Since The Godfather, I have also come to love The Brothers Karamazov, Flannery O’Connor's short stories, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. It took a few years, but I finally realized there is a common thread woven through all of my favorite stories, and that is this: there is a “bad guy” in all of us and these stories provide us with clues to the warning signs. It is the warning signs that I find fascinating, which Mad Men is filled with.

We relate to, or at least sympathize with, the protagonist in every story if he or she has an ounce of truthfully portrayed human nature. In a lot of stories, the hero is a virtuous person, or at least someone with a little integrity. And a flawed human overcoming adversity is also a part of our humanness.  Those are good stories. But they aren't always my favorite.

Oftentimes, equally as moving, is showing ever so subtly how a person’s decisions add up and ultimately come to something they never really planned for. The Godfather is a guidebook on how to change so slowly that even your heart of hearts won’t be able to tell the difference between good and bad, pure motives and tainted motives.

I recently saw 12 Years a Slave, in which we as an audience are forced to watch a psychopath slave owner treat fellow human beings in ways we would rather believe don’t exist in our society today, and most certainly not within ourselves. There is no sympathy for his character and naturally, as a viewer, we are on Solomon’s, the free man turned slave, side. As a viewer, we don’t know much about the wicked slave owner at all, except for what we see in the present, and it is grotesquely appalling.

But if we humans are truly all equal, and truly cut from the same cloth, then we are no better than he. We have just as much potential to become twisted and evil as the worst person who ever lived. The path to damnation is not quick (and thus we think we are safe). The process is slow and often undetectable. And that is part of the reason why we love Mad Men. Because Mad Men, like The Godfather, The Brothers Karamazov, Flannery O’Connor’s stories, and Breaking Bad, show the process.

Don Draper is no twisted slave owner, I’ll give him that. But when we meet him, he doesn't exactly fit into the good guy category. Don Draper is prone to the same temptations we are all faced with, so therefore he is relatable in the kind of way that makes it easy to judge him or think better of ourselves because we aren't cheating on our spouse. I like to tell myself that though I may share in his temptations as a fellow human being, I make better choices. Whether or not that is true, the fact still remains that the repulsive qualities in every flawed character are buried deep within all of us. And that is a terrifying fact that we all must be prepared to face at a moment’s notice. And like Don, we don't like thinking about it.

Whether or not Don Draper is redeemed in any way in the final season, the show itself presents a redeeming quality if it challenges the viewer to take a second look at their oft-undetected motives.

In Mad Men, and in other stories where the characters are not clearly moving in a better direction from where they started, human nature is captured in the subtlest of forms. Mad Men zooms into the smallest pixel, and tells the story while only rarely zooming back out (I am thinking of Don's childhood). There is not a lot of apparent change or growth, but there isn’t always in our own lives, either. So in watching these characters that change ever so slowly, we have a chance to catch our breath and assume that because it is a story, there must be meaning. 

In our own lives, we don’t get the big picture in two hours, or even over the course of five seasons. We aren’t even promised the big picture in the end. But maybe the big picture is not always more revealing than the individual parts. Maybe we are able to recognize that in Mad Men, and that is why we like it. 

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Father Zossima imparts this wisdom, which, although written in the 1800s, summarizes Don Draper just about as well as any modern critique could: 

“Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” 

It even sounds a little bit like one of Don's moving sales pitches, doesn't it?

As Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show says: Don Draper may not believe he is capable of being loved. If his inability to be loyal to one woman is any indication, I believe it. And I am willing to bet that if Don does indeed believe he is incapable of being loved, that seed was planted a long time ago with a small lie to himself. As viewers, we can pick up on that from our vantage point.

In a way, Don gives us a second chance, whether he will get one or not. These people in books and films and TV shows who are not so likable, they reveal the un-likability in ourselves, if we let them. And we like ourselves. We hold out hope for Don, because we hold out hope for ourselves. We realize we are no better than he is, and that the only difference is that for us, there is still a chance. That is hopeful. And that, I think, is why we like Mad Men.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Favorite Finds

Everyone is talking about this Divergent movie, but I am way more excited 
about the new Muppet movie, Muppets Most Wanted. I hope we go see that this 
weekend. It should be a slightly different feel from what we saw last week 
(12 Years a Slave). Should be.

This week was a big week for JenEric. She got quite a few new visitors when 
Jennifer L. Scott (author of Lessons from Madame Chic!) shared my style tips 
collected from the book. I realize I was giving Ms. Scott free publicity, but still. 
She said she liked my blog so, I am officially chic.

In case you needed another reason to read more: scientific studies 
on what fiction does for your brain.

I am loving this series of interviews with grandmothers on Lydia Mag. 
I especially enjoyed this one.

(My dad's mom passed away when I was young, but this is the closest 
thing I have to an interview with her)

Do you find the day to day lives of others as interesting as I do?

A new (to us) yellow chair I found recently for a mere $20. 
I didn't buy it when I first saw it, but then I couldn't stop thinking about it, 
so I went back to adopt it. I can't stop staring at it, quite frankly.

Great food for thought from an expert on why you're not getting traction 
from your platform (blogging). But also good for anyone trying to promote anything (a business, a product, creative pursuits, etc.)

Who else is counting down the days till the final season premiere of Mad Men (April 13th!!)
This interview with the creator of the show just made me like the show even more. I have such great respect for Matthew Weiner as a writer now.

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from the interview:

"What you’re watching with Don is a representation, to me, of American society. 
He is steeped in sin, haunted by his past, raised by animals, and there is a chance to revolt. 
And he cannot stop himself."

"I don’t know if Ted is as great an ad man as Don is, and he certainly has a lot of character flaws—we met him a few years ago as this total trickster, a thorn in Don’s side. 
But what I liked was Don going up against this guy and trying to destroy him. 
Because he hated his virtue. And who does that, except for someone who hates himself?"

I am not much of a DIY fashion person, but this tutorial looks kind of fun. I would do a different design, but the idea opens up so many possibilities! Would you do this?

Soooo many good blogging resources all in one place.
 Have you found anything great around the internet this week? 
Include a link in your comments. I like finding favorite things.

I hope you all have a great weekend!

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