People are always looking for something new to read.
Millions of people have published a book, or several, and lived to tell the tale.
It creates jobs for publishers, editors, graphic designers, marketers, bookstore clerks, printers, warehouse stockers, truck drivers, and on and on.
Who are you to deprive the world of your work?
The worst case scenario is that nobody will read it, and that's HAPPENING NOW.
Another negative scenario is that someone will criticize it, but you can be criticized anywhere on the Internet or walking down the street for no reason. If it happens, at least it happened because you did something.
Is your unfinished manuscript really what you want to be thinking about on your deathbed?
Aren't you curious what happens in the last chapter?
You can always write it and then choose not to publish it.
You can always write another draft.
You can always publish it under a pen name.
The writing process makes you smarter and improves your writing skills.
Publishing a book is an opportunity to meet new people, people who like books.
Publishing a book is also a great excuse to lock yourself up like a hermit.
Compare it to training for a marathon. If you want an impressive achievement under your belt, which one is easier?
Writing is a much more interesting default behavior than most of the alternatives, such as watching TV or wandering around a shopping mall.
Get it out of the way so you can move forward. Maybe you choose never to write another book, or maybe you love it and you start another one right away. At least you're not stuck in the doorway wondering anymore.
You wouldn't even be thinking about writing a book if you didn't have a story somewhere inside you.
Your story deserves to be told. Your words want to be free.
You are not entitled to be the judge and jury of whether your story should be available to people. It belongs to the world. How dare you lock it away and leave your audience with nothing better to do than to watch reality television?
You are killing literature! You selfish non-writer, you. Where is it? Give it to me!
Start typing because we're out here waiting to find out what you have to say.
Heresy! I have razored pages out of a bound book! I have torn off the binding! Sacrilege!
Blank books used to be a major weakness of mine. I decided to start buying fancy bound books instead of cheap spiral notebooks as soon as I saw a stack of them at Ross for $2.99 each. Before I knew it, I had an entire shelf of them. I would be using one as my all-purpose writing notebook, but then I wouldn't have it with me, and I'd desperately want a notebook, so I'd buy a new one. The same project found its way into half a dozen books. Then there were the journals, the songbook, the poetry notebook, etc. It got a little out of hand.
I realized that bound books simply don't work for me as a writing tool. I could never restrict myself to only one topic per notebook, so all my work got mixed together. There was no way to rearrange pages or swap them between books, most of which were of different formats. I also went through a lengthy index card phase. Let's not talk about the various sizes of colored sticky notes.
If the goal was to track my work, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was to be able to easily find a specific note, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was portability and accessing my work remotely, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was to protect my papers from the action-oriented hands of professional movers, notebooks were not working.
The only thing that was working about the notebooks was that I liked how they looked. They had pretty covers (although they didn't look all that great next to each other). I have great penmanship. The notebooks made lovely props if my goal was to impress people with how writerly I am. Theoretically, that's what my published work is for, but in practice, people can probably tell by the way I mutter to myself and try to store multiple writing implements behind my ear.
I got a laptop. The paper note habit almost completely disappeared. I started writing about 5x more material. I developed a note-taking system that works for me, which is that I start a new note every month and label it with the month and year. IDEA LOG: SEPTEMBER 2016. Then I put the date each time I have something to write down. I can access it from my phone. I have successfully used the search function to track down notes. It's restful.
Then I started to feel more concerned about my older paper notes. I couldn't search them. There were several occasions when I wanted something off a paper note, but I was at the library or the cafe, and I'd have to wait until I got home. I couldn't always find what I wanted, because I couldn't always picture which notebook it was in. Madness, I tell you!
We had a problem with the sprinkler system in our yard while we were out of town one weekend. The landlord lives next door, and he noticed it and brought in a plumber. Meantime, the floor of our laundry room was flooded. The plumber was there when we got home, which was great, but my first thought was: "What if a pipe happens to burst in the wall right next to my files?" The thought of my sole copies of all those years of work suddenly soaking wet and running ink made me turn pale.
I've been scanning my old notes, and I'm nearly done. It's incredibly tedious. It does make good podcast listening time, though. Each time I label a file and store it in the cloud, I breathe a little easier. I'm that much more likely to be able to find something when I need it. That much more of my work is safe from ruin.
The process of going through twenty years of paper has brought up some interesting revelations. The sheer volume of it has finally convinced me that yes, I am a real writer. It turns out to be something that, over the last thirty years, I simply haven't been able to stop myself from doing. There were far more plays, stories, poems, song lyrics, timelines, and novel outlines than I had realized. Like, triple. The other thing I noticed was that I used to write very faintly in pencil, and over time, I switched to ink. It got thicker and darker over the years. It's almost like I gradually turned up the volume of my voice from inaudible to loud.
The drawback to that is that my earlier work doesn't scan well. I'm having to type it. Otherwise, I could pay to mail it off and have it scanned by a service for two cents a page.
I made the decision of whether to type or scan based on relevance. If I consider the project to be 'active,' meaning I have plans to publish it in the next few years, it gets typed and filed in the same cloud folder as the other notes on that project. If I don't plan to do anything with it, I scan it. I've changed my mind on older projects before, and they feel worth saving, but at this moment they don't feel worth the hours of typing I would have to do. It's also much faster to preserve them.
I took apart a bound notebook. It wasn't all that hard. First, I used a razor cutting tool to slice out the used pages. More than half of the book was still blank, which has been true of most of my notebooks. Then I tore off the binding, which I had cut up with the razor anyway. The pages with notes were much easier to sort into groups, based on project, and several pages went straight into the recycling bin.
How do we deal with the emotional pain of damaging a bound book, when we've been taught to revere books? We remind ourselves that the contents are what's important, and that storing a lone copy on paper makes it vulnerable to every kind of loss or damage. We don't want to be creating a home "Library of Alexandria" situation.
How do we deal with the emotional pain of "wasting" all that blank paper? We remind ourselves that we also wasted the paper on which we wrote. We remind ourselves of all the junk mail, brochures, takeout menus, and other forms of paper we've brought home over the years. We put it into context. What we're trying to do is to create a system that will cut back on paper consumption for years to come. We're recycling. We can't spend our lives torturing ourselves with guilt, dread, and anxiety over material objects. We redirect our focus and attention to PEOPLE and loving our loved ones.
The way I'm approaching my boring, time-consuming scanning project is to keep reminding myself that soon, I'll be done. Once I'm done, I'll never have to do it again. It's a blip. After an hour and a half, I feel like I'm losing my mind, and I stop and come back to it on a later day. Sometimes the next day, sometimes not until the next week. Inevitably, I start thinking about burst pipes again, and that brings me in to do another stack.
As I finish scanning file folders and bound books, I start letting go of others. I've been holding back certain notebooks because I wanted to keep them in handwritten form. They've felt like talismans of a sort. One is the poetry notebook I started in middle school and another is the journal I kept in Iceland. Today I looked at them and realized that the only way to keep them is to digitize them. The process has been more comforting than I anticipated. I only wish I'd started sooner.
The School of Greatness academy was scheduled for the last day of the World Domination Summit. We dragged ourselves in, exhausted from getting in at midnight after the previous night's after-party, brains full to overflowing after drinking from the fire hose of inspiration all week. We were expecting a live version of the School of Greatness podcast. That would be great, and also about all we thought we could handle at nine in the morning. It wasn't long before we forgot to be tired.
We answered questions and raised our hands. We partnered up and did group exercises. We found ourselves being drawn in, engaging in ways we hadn't expected. It's so easy to be cynical, awkward, flat, or distant from proceedings like this. Lewis Howes knows what he's doing. This is what happened:
A volunteer shared his experience with one exercise. He was holding himself back from something he really wanted to do, which was to start a blog. (Naturally, I perked up at this). He had decided to do it. "That's great. When?" Some hemming and hawing, which Howes wouldn't accept. "You're being vague about this." The guy was obviously squirming, as were the rest of us. Were we all going to have to take our turn in the hot seat? Were our own excuses safe? "Today," he said. "When today?" They went back and forth, and finally he committed: "By two PM." Whoa! That would be only two hours after the end of the academy!
Instantly I formulated a plot. I'm devious that way. I would go to him during the break and make him an offer he couldn't refuse. This is what I did. I went over and shook his hand and asked, "Will you do me a favor?" He'd never seen me in his life and couldn't possibly have any idea what I was about to ask. "My husband is thinking about doing his own blog, and he's nervous about it. I wonder if you'd be willing to be my guinea pig so I can show him how it's done. If you would do this favor for us, we'll buy you lunch." He was a bit gobsmacked, but he said yes. Another man had walked up while we were talking, and he said, "I was about to suggest the same thing."
So it transpired that the public commitment was made. Two perfect strangers both felt impelled to offer assistance. One was a writer and the other was a technical expert. We agreed to meet at the same spot after the academy, and everyone indeed showed up as planned.
This is where it gets funny. The hopeful blogger already had: a complete blog post written in his notebook; a registered URL; a WordPress account. Yet another perfect jewel of procrastination. I SO identify with this.
We sat on the lobby floor and I set up my iPad and watched as a writer did what writers do, which is to type really fast with a crinkle of intense concentration. THIS IS NO AMATEUR. It takes a long time before writers realize that we are allowed to call ourselves writers, that there's no exam to pass or certification to be stamped.
I couldn't pick up enough bandwidth to use my phone as a hotspot, so we all packed up and went to a Starbucks down the street. Over the next hour, we walked through all the steps and the dozen minor decisions. We figured out how to redirect the URL to WordPress. The blog was launched.
"We just made a baby!" I cried.
It's basically like this. 1. How often do you want to post? 2. Do you want to allow comments or not? 3. Are you going to use illustrations or not? 4. What do you want to call your blog? For some people, as in this case, there's also a 5: Do you want to post under your own name, or anonymously? Often, people have instinctive answers to these questions. Talking out the fuzzy areas with a disinterested, neutral party can be a big help.
When we think we're procrastinating, it really comes down to two things. We'll do anything if we want to and we know how. Sometimes, we're ambivalent about whether we really, truly want something, or whether we want something else more. Usually, though, it's a question of knowing how to do the thing. We get overwhelmed by the immensity of the project. We don't see a way to divide it into more manageable pieces. When we see that we're really facing a series of fairly simple decisions, it starts to seem clear and intelligible. We decide. We choose. It's up to us to make the rules about our own projects, to define the process and the finished product.
The trouble with watching someone else break through a block and produce something is that it's infectious. We keep saying, "You can do it! It's so easy! You got this!" Then we hear ourselves and realize we're really talking to ourselves. Note to self: Walk your talk. Now I have go home and publish my book.
This experience demonstrates several things. We can do a lot when we quit getting in our own way. We are constantly surrounded by potential aid and companions, whether we realize it or not. Helping people is really fun and fascinating. Art is its own independent entity and it wants to be free in the world. We can change our lives in an instant if we open up and allow it. Lewis Howes is a genius of emotional engagement.
Today was the first main stage event day of the World Domination Summit. There were so many speakers on so many inspirational topics that it was impossible to answer the question, Which was your favorite? The topic of fighting fear came up quite a bit, and of course that's the big one. Fear holds more people back from more things than anything else ever could.
I got into a conversation with a new friend about irrational fears. I shared my realization that I'm afraid of all the wrong things. I'm not afraid of spiders, dogs, snakes, jumping over fire, running a marathon, backpacking into the woods, traveling alone, being seen naked, going to the dentist, getting bit by a fire ant, climbing a rope, getting muddy, or a bunch of other common fears. I've been transforming my fear of public speaking into enthusiasm very quickly. On the other hand, I'm afraid of glamming up my appearance. As I shared, my friend responded that he was afraid of...shaving his head! He had been considering it because his hairline is receding (or so he claims), but was afraid to do it.
Hearing someone else's fear is often very funny. It's funny because until that moment, we've seen this person as completely competent and self-assured, and now we realize, Hey, every single one of us is paralyzed into inaction by something silly! It's also funny when it's something we don't fear ourselves. I've met people who were afraid of: balloons, moths, werewolves, and birds, of all things. People are often afraid of my parrot Noelle, which, to anyone who knows her, is patently absurd. Anyway, it seemed comical to fear shaving one's head, because hair grows back. I said, "What's the worst that could happen? You wouldn't like it, and three months later it would grow back." My husband chimed in, "Three weeks. In three weeks you'd just have a buzz cut." We collectively decided that he should ask a man who did shave his head regularly to tell him what it was like. You know, like what kind of razor did he use? Did he still use shampoo, or Turtle Wax?
We did a written exercise during the event. There was a picture of a circle representing your comfort zone. The exercise was to write something in the circle that you're comfortable doing, and then to write something outside the circle that scares you but that could be good for you. (Obviously, you should be afraid of things like taking love for granted, making life difficult for Future Self, or eating high fructose corn syrup). I wrote 'typing' and 'hair styling.' HEY! I'm making myself vulnerable here. Quit laughing!
Then I saw that my husband had written 'engineering' and 'blogging.' I laughed. "For me those would be opposite." He laughed, too, at the irony of it. Being expected to work as an engineer would be very intimidating for many people. I'm not sure he even realized at first that he had nothing to fear about blogging, because he happens to share a bed at night with someone who would happily walk him through the process. I told him during the break that I'd help him with anything he wanted. I'd even take dictation for him while he worked on his topic list. In five minutes we were able to determine what he wanted to call it, how often he would post, and a couple of people he would ask to guest post.
This is the great thing about collaboration. No matter the endeavor, parts of it will be easy, parts of it will be emotionally challenging, and parts of it will be mentally challenging or confusing. I'm convinced that we'll easily do anything that we 1. WANT to do and 2. KNOW HOW to do. What we often ascribe to lack of willpower or motivation, I ascribe to lack of enough ideas to figure out an approach. For instance, I'd happily go to live in Sevilla, Spain for a while, and I know my husband feels the same way, but at the moment we don't know how we would manage it. We know it's possible, we just don't know how it's possible for us any time in the near event horizon. On the other hand, if we did know how to do it but didn't feel the time was right, we'd wait, because we didn't want it. With the example of the incipient blog, my husband has the desire, and he can proceed without know-how, because he has a willing collaborator. He'll quickly know at least as much as I do, learning by doing. I pointed out to him all the ways he has helped me with various things, so he wouldn't feel like it was too much for him to ask.
Helping people is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and that's a hard fact of psychology. It is known.
An idea popped into my head, and it built throughout the day. I planned to host my own meet-up on Monday afternoon. I had the name of the meet-up, the location, my outfit, the verbiage for the app, and a list of exercises. By the end of the day, I was FIRED UP about this meet-up! I was just settling in to write up the submission, when I saw: a new meet-up. At the same time. About essentially the identical topic. This was equal parts disappointing and hilarious. Either I am tuned into the cosmic network, or my manifesting ray was turned on full force! I wasn't sure whether to be jealous or just to let myself be lazy and watch someone else do all the work. My idea could easily turn into a larger-scale project, which I may execute when I'm finished with my current gig. At worst, I'll learn something from someone else's presentation. At best, I'll be a great value-add who can validate the material.
This is what's become of my public speaking resolution this year. I've gone from a state of fear, dread, and inner turmoil to a state of anticipation and excitement. I now have the desire to be able to speak at a public event such as this. That's the fascinating thing about fear: greater knowledge makes the fear far less frightening. Sometimes it even starts to be appealing.
I was 37 when I bought my first (and current) laptop. I bought it with money from my first freelance gig, and I was so proud! It paid for itself with work I’ve done on it since. Now it’s not really keeping up with the demands I put on it, and I’m ready to go big. I’ll use it until I wear the letters off the keyboard. I’ll spend several hours a day interacting with it. It will be my spare brain. I’m using what could be a fairly ordinary consumer purchase as an organizing point in my life. If this upcoming fantasy purchase really has the potential to be a spare brain and transform the way I work, how can I use this time to create a watershed in my timeline?
Fantasy visions have a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ We tend to get caught up in just the ‘after.’ Wouldn’t it be nice if I could fly? Yes, probably! We’ll have to spend some time figuring out all the steps that come before “I’m flying” before we can make that happen. Same thing with any other dream that wants to become reality. If my ‘after’ is “I am changing the world with my keyboard every day,” where am I starting? If I pull up my map app and I want walking directions, I need both a starting location and an end destination.
The truth is that I’m currently caught between two worlds, the analog and the digital. I went paper-free as much as possible several years ago, and we’re pretty good about dealing with mail and incoming paper every day. The trouble is that I still have notebooks and paper files from the past that I haven’t integrated into my digital world yet. There is never a “good time” to deal with archival material; if it’s sitting there and it hasn’t been handled, that’s a 100% reliable sign that it hasn’t been needed. If I haven’t needed it yet, I may never need it. Still, when I’ve gone through these old notebooks in the past, I’ve felt that I wanted to keep the information. It happens that right now, I’m keeping it in a completely vulnerable, perishable, inaccessible format.
My paper files are irreplaceable. That means there aren’t any backups. If anything happens to them, they’re gone. I haven’t exactly memorized this stuff. We’ve had professional movers a couple of times, and for whatever reason, one of them took it upon himself to dismantle my file boxes and put all my paper notes in a moving box. In the process, a lot of papers got bent, crumpled, and smeared. The indignity of it all! Digitizing my notes is one way to protect what I see as their sacrosanct integrity. It will also make them accessible from the road.
We have another problem that goes beyond this full box of vulnerable papers. Photographs. It’s easy to see the point on the timeline when we got camera phones, because the hard copy photographs simply stop happening. What I’ve learned from dealing with old photos is that they have a lot of problems. Our old albums from the 70s and 80s lose their adhesiveness and the plastic page protectors get brittle and discolored. Whenever we pick them up, loose photos cascade out the bottom. I have an aluminum box with old photos and memorabilia in it. If these photos are damaged, that’s it. I once did a very sad clutter job that involved throwing away several years’ worth of photos. They had been left in a paper shopping bag in a garage and were pancaked together with damp and mold. We tried, but they proved impossible to peel apart without tearing. The irony of keeping things because we want to preserve them is that we often guarantee their ruin instead.
If you care enough to keep it at all, take steps to make sure it’s truly preserved. Water damage, mold, mildew, smoke, sawdust, paint, vermin, insects… Anything in storage that is not climate controlled and accessed regularly absolutely will show the effects of entropy and neglect.
We have tons of digital photographs, of course, and that’s part of what makes it easier to see the hard copies as less desirable. I can and do enjoy looking at photos of everyone in my extended family on a regular basis. We have hundreds of pictures of our pets. We don’t spend much time looking at older photos because the current ones are so fresh and available. The problem is that our photo folders are only organized by date, not content. I often find myself looking for a specific photo as an illustration, and I have no idea what year it was taken, much less which month. Part of this fantasy ‘spare brain’ project will be to consolidate the photos and tag them in a way that makes them more useful.
I have this fantasy project of making slide shows of the peak moments from different years and then watching it at the New Year. Maybe I’ll do it after I get the new laptop.
There are other digital things I would like to consolidate. It turns out that I have files on our shared desktop, my laptop, various thumb drives, a couple of formats of flash memory cards, a stack of data CDs and DVDs, my Dropbox, Evernote, and my phone. The stack of physical media has more mass than the equipment itself. A lot of it probably contains redundant or obsolete stuff. When I look at it, I’m sure I’ll wonder why I was keeping it, and maybe even where I got it.
Our office represents more than just a room. (It’s our pets’ bedroom, so a chunk of it is dedicated to a birdcage and a dog crate). What we wanted was a place where we could both work. What we have is more of a place where we store stuff we don’t want to look at in the living room. We both do most of our personal bureaucratic work and our side projects either in the living room or at a café on the weekend. Sometimes when the weather is nice I work on the back patio. Excavating some of the funky old electronic clutter could be a way of energizing the space.
Why am I keeping old paper notes? Because I think they’re relevant for some reason? If there are projects I intend to complete, I need to schedule time to work on them and set some deadlines for when they’ll happen. The longer I have them around, the less likely Future Me will even be able to decipher them. The more time that goes by, the worse I’ll feel if anything happens and they are destroyed. Why didn’t I protect and preserve them when I had the chance?? I could diligently sit and scan them all in a couple of hours.
Why are we keeping old CDs and electronic files? Because we think we’ll need them at some point? What’s on them besides photos? If it’s nothing more than a bunch of old backups, they’re probably redundant. If it’s something important, we’d better figure that out in case they get scuffed or cracked or the file formats become obsolete and unreadable.
Why do I have so many thumb drives? They aren’t labeled. I don’t have a system for keeping separate data on separate drives. Why do I have so many?
Looking at a stack of undifferentiated, unlabeled, untagged stuff is exactly like walking around in a confused stupor. It’s like a plastic sculpture of a disoriented, possibly hungover human brain. If my waking mind was that poorly organized, I’d be walking around in circles with my shirt on backward and my shoes on the wrong feet, babbling and playing with my lip. I should just put it all in a box labeled HERP DE DERP and then send it to the landfill.
The fantasy of a new laptop is the fantasy of mental clarity. It’s the fantasy of being current and not having old projects hanging over my head. It’s not necessarily procrastinating to choose not to spend time sorting old, probably irrelevant materials; at least 80% of that stuff I’ll most likely never need. Keeping it, though, is like keeping apple cores or empty cans. It represents the leftovers of time I spent, things I did, thoughts I had, and time that has passed. I’m setting myself the intention of liberation from these stale old calcified thoughts. ‘Decision’ means ‘to cut off.’ I’m cutting off the fuzz that clouds my workspace. I’m creating a space where I can feel fully confident that I’m working on the most important thing every day, that all my important data are readily accessible, and that there are no ancient tasks lingering around to distract me. That new laptop will be like a space shuttle to the future.
The most common interview question that artists are asked is where they get their ideas. To a creative person, this is a hilariously absurd question. It’s more a question of, how do you suppress the constant stream of ideas when you need to concentrate on something specific? Everyone has this innate ability. Not everyone recognizes it or knows how to tune in to it. This question of where ideas come from is a perfectly fair and reasonable question to ask. Good luck, though, finding someone who will give it the sincere answer that it deserves.
“There are no stupid questions,” says a friend of ours, “only stupid people.” I respond, in the immortal words of Weird Al Yankovic, “Dare to be stupid.” The place of not knowing is the place of emptiness. When we allow ourselves to be empty, there is room for stuff. What stuff? Who knows? Why not keep it empty and see whether anything eventually burbles up?
The place of emptiness feels like boredom. That’s important. Be bored! Be bored for a few minutes! Boredom leads the mind to wander. THAT is where the ideas start to pop into existence. What if? Why does? Who would? How would someone? Where is? When did?
Idea generation is our natural state. All tiny kids are really, really good at this. They will color pictures in whatever colors strike their fancy – until they are taught that “the sky isn’t purple,” etc. Sure it is, sometimes! Sometimes it’s white, gray, pink, orange, brown, black, yellow, and even green. Trees are purple too, sometimes, and I’ve walked under many a jacaranda in my neighborhood. As we get older, we’re taught standard unfunny jokes about spurious college majors such as Underwater Basket Weaving. Seriously, have you ever been to Las Vegas? Have you ever watched a viral video? If someone actually could weave a basket underwater, I would want to watch. Not much competition there. The other one is poetry. You should be so lucky if your kid grows up to be a poet, like Eminem or Jay-Z. You know who has a bachelor’s degree in English? Stephen King. Our kid is studying artificial intelligence. The career she’ll wind up with doesn’t quite exist yet, but it’ll be ready by the time she graduates. If she’d felt limited by what we were doing at her age, she’d be either a logger or a data entry clerk. With the benefit of hindsight, we see that creative inspiration actually extends to the boring, mundane business world. Inspiration and innovation, art and inventions, are the same.
Inspiration needs somewhere to go. It happens all by itself, unless we block it. The first way we block it is by telling ourselves stories about how impractical and useless our ideas are. What’s the worst thing that could happen if I have a useless idea? Nothing. It’s just a figment of my imagination. I have useless ideas every day. Often, they morph into useful ideas after I’ve had time to mull them over. Sometimes my useless ideas make me laugh until I snort. Sometimes a useless idea, like a dream I had about a non-functional riding reel mower, turns into a funny drawing. The key is to make a nonjudgmental space for ideas, in the same way we put out bird feeders even though they sometimes attract squirrels.
Good ideas come from the same place as bad ideas. We just have to unpack a bunch of the bad ideas so we can see them. If we stop when we generate a bad idea, we miss the opportunity for the good idea to spring forth. We cultivate an attitude of curious detachment. We are lying on our backs on a grassy hill, watching cumulus clouds and trading observations about what they look like. I see a swan, you see a Viking longship, we’re both right, and a moment later the wind kicks up and we see something else. We allow ideas to come forward, releasing the expectation that they will amount to something or be suitable for a specific purpose.
The grassy hill is a place where none of us spend much time. That’s because we pack our schedules past the breaking point. Sleep deprivation is the norm for 70% of us. If you are not sleeping enough, you are not going to have a steady stream of inspiration and interesting ideas. You’re turning off the flow of dreams, both the sleeping and the waking kind. Lots of famous people have had career-defining inspirations while sound asleep, and many of them took naps every day. When every moment is full of tasks, conversations, distractions, and passive entertainment, not much else can fit in.
A shower radio is a toy I’ve always found appealing, and I could have one tomorrow if I wanted. They keep coming out with more features at lower prices. I’ve made the decision, though, to avoid that sort of thing. The shower is reliably the place where I come up with the best ideas and most helpful insights. It may have something to do with lathering my hair. It may be that I’m not completely awake yet and I haven’t dived into the day’s work. It may simply be that it’s a block of time when I’m not reading or listening to anything. Maybe if I spent an hour sitting in silence and staring at the wall, I’d have more ideas. Maybe I’ll try it. I wonder what would happen…?
Getting out of default mode is a big help. Making a practice of trying new activities, constantly learning as much as possible, meeting new people, tasting new foods, listening to new kinds of music, and imagining oneself in various different lives are all potential ways to stretch the mind and make a little space for new ideas to come in. Unfortunately, the human condition is such that our default mode tends to consist of being annoyed with people, being annoyed by events, having hurt feelings, gossiping about what other people are doing, worrying what others think about us, complaining, reliving bad memories, and imagining negative future possibilities. There may be ways to get interesting ideas out of those activities, and if I spend some time on it, maybe I’ll think of some. Mostly, though, they’re static drowning out the pure chord of inspiration.
Ideas can work together like wheels on a kaleidoscope. Just as we can combine worry + any category of life, we can combine idea + idea and see what happens. Let’s do some common negative examples. Can you think of a way to worry about money? How about your family members? Different worry for each person? Great job! Can you worry about transportation? How about illness or injury? Lots of ideas there? Awesome! Can you worry about the economy, world affairs, and what various leaders might do? Mmhmm, I thought so. Nice work. See, everyone is creative, we’re just taught to focus it only on approved channels. Let’s take that amazing gift and try it out in some other ways. Imagine a person whom you know, just the first person who comes to mind. Now mentally rotate through other people you know and think about whether the first person knows the second person. If not, what do you think would happen if they met? This is one of my favorite games, and I’ve used it to introduce various people who have become friends. I see that two of my friends who live in different states both do the same type of workout. I see another friend make a joke that reminds me of someone else’s sense of humor. What starts as a random thought turns into a new friendship in the world. In the same way that strangers can become friends, random ideas can become friends, too.
We tend to rate other people’s ideas higher than our own. What comes naturally to us doesn’t seem special. Where artists have the advantage is that they focus on the idea’s desire to enter the world. The idea desires to be expressed. It is a seed that wants to sprout. We understand that we are not skilled at judging which of our projects will succeed and which will be duds. It’s not our job to criticize, it’s our job to execute. It’s our job to complete projects and release them. It’s our job to have ideas, allow them to be what they are, and record them in some manner. Usually we have to do this in private, because the natural predator of an idea is a fearsome animal known as the naysayer. They are venomous and their bites can kill. Naysayers are only big enough to bring down ideas when they are young and small. We foster them in safety until they are developed enough to stand on their own, causing the naysayer to slink away and skulk in the underbrush.
Inspiration builds on itself. The more time and space we allow for it, the more it happens. We start to trust the process and recognize the feeling. We learn to pause and take notes, because ideas that fluttered in so graciously will eventually fade and disappear. The notes begin to accumulate. It doesn’t take long before we realize that we have more ideas than we could ever use, and that they’ll keep on coming. Ideas are like pennies in the street, just as easy to find and just as easy to undervalue.
In celebration of the first year of the Dealing With Stuff blog, I am pleased to announce a free weekly e-mail newsletter. *cue applause* Those of you who wish I would post on weekends will now have something extra to read on Saturdays. Plus: a cartoon!
The newsletter will include links to the previous week’s posts. Some of my readers have let me know that they don’t always see my cross-posts to Facebook. Subscribing to the newsletter is an easy way to get around that. I enjoy Mark Zuckerberg’s reading suggestions, but I prefer a list of books rather than an algorithm determining what I do or don’t see in my feed.
I will experiment with additional content as I play around with the possibilities. One thing I have always wanted to do is to write an advice column. Another thing I would like to do is to accept anonymous photos of readers’ most stubborn clutter spots and offer suggestions. If you would like to be included, drop me a line. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to fill that space with photos of my pets. I might do that anyway.
In the interest of full disclosure, the newsletter will be a way of announcing new projects. I will be releasing a series of mini e-books expanding on many of the topics I cover on the blog. Along with the series of links to the week’s posts, there will occasionally be a marketing blurb. I promise never to spam anyone or send anything other than the weekly newsletter. I would never in a billion million years ever sell my subscription list or disclose names. You can always unsubscribe. Hopefully you’ll find it at least mildly interesting.
Thank you, dear readers, for everything.
Do you believe that a book can change your life? It’s a question along the same lines as whether you believe in love at first sight. If you do, you may find it happening to you; if you don’t, it’s hard to say. Books have changed my life over and over again. Sometimes, a simple article or blog post will. It happened tonight. Chris Guillebeau wrote a post entitled, “Taking Risks” is Not the Same as “Doing Hard Things.” I read it and found myself on the brink of tears, with chills running through my entire body. It hit me so hard that I’m still processing three hours later. This post will be a bit of real-time practical philosophy in action.
As a quick summary of a short, highly readable article, the main points are:
This hit me like a ton of bricks. I spend a lot of time and effort doing hard things for the sake of doing hard things. Essentially, if I am confronted with a weakness in myself, I want to dig it out, like removing an eye from a potato. I felt that I was physically cowardly and weak, so I pushed myself, doing longer and longer races and backpacking trips, jumping over flames, climbing ropes, crawling under barbed wire… because I’m too scared to donate blood. I tried once, but I fainted when they pricked my finger, and they asked me not to come back “for several years.” (Now I’m under the acceptable weight limit to be a blood donor, and that makes me feel both relieved and guilty, like I’ve gotten away with something unsavory). I know I am weak, but knowing that helps drive me in the direction of self-discipline, grit, and determination. Just because my legs are shaking doesn’t mean I get to quit.
Does it get me anywhere, though?
It seems that my biggest stumbling block in life right now is my reluctance to publish. I have a 95% complete novel, and when I say “complete,” I mean that I even have the book cover and the material for the book trailer video. I have about 75% of a project that I know will sell, with clear direction on how to finish it. I have an entire index card file full of dozens of viable project ideas. Whenever I get close to where all I have to do is open the gate and swat one of these projects on the hind end, I withdraw and work on something else. As I read the article I’m gushing over, it seemed to me that fear of risk was the missing piece. I was perfectly willing to do the hard work of writing, rewriting, editing, rewriting, and editing again. I reached the point years ago when critique started to feel useful and worth seeking out. Something is going on that doesn’t have to do with difficulty. Fear of entering new territory?
I turned to my husband and told him about this idea of risk versus doing hard things. Then I read him the article. We had a discussion about risk and hard things – and this is where the tide turns, because the conversation went in a very unexpected direction. The person who knows me best did not agree with how I categorized the things I did. In short, he sees risk in places where I see difficulty, and vice versa. This confounded me somewhat.
He put running my marathon in the risk category. In all my training, that never crossed my mind. I knew the course was covered by hundreds of volunteers and safety professionals, I knew the route, and I knew I was getting over the finish line even if I had to elbow-crawl until midnight. I just thought it was hard. Not even extremely hard. Physically difficult, yes, but mentally, emotionally? Nah.
I put my public speaking project in the risk category. He said, “How is that a risk?” I gave him fish face. Completely poleaxed. I realized he was right. I was in a place specifically designed for nervous beginners to develop skill and confidence. The room could not possibly be more supportive or friendly. Yet, in spite of the welcome audience, I am still physically shaking every time I get up to speak. I have done karaoke with no problem; I’m an extrovert, and I don’t mind being in the spotlight. (I don’t seek it out, but… ) There is something about being behind a podium that activates my fight or flight system in a bad way. The first time I managed to speak for longer than sixty seconds, I could barely walk afterward. My legs almost collapsed under me. I can run for 26 miles and carry a 42-pound backpack. My thighs are strong. The only thing that makes sense is that I’d be relieved when my speech was over – but I find myself still shaking five minutes later. My husband and I both agree that public speaking is difficult for me. Is he right that it isn’t risky? Are we interpreting risk in different ways? Or does he underrate it simply because public speaking isn’t a big deal to him?
I learned something funny from our conversation. Apparently my habit of walking alone late at night feels very risky to him. Good to know. It made me think that many of the activities I categorize as ‘difficult’ actually have a level of physical risk that doesn’t faze me at all. The marathon, the adventure race, traveling alone, walking around major urban centers alone at night, hiking into the back country for days out of cell phone range… Maybe I have it backward? Maybe I have no problem with risky things, and what I perceive as risk is really something entirely different?
We agree that there is a certain measure of risk in making my writing public. I have some very controversial views about a very emotional topic, and I often feel I’m on the edge of igniting a viral hate ray in my direction. We also agree that I have virtually no tolerance for financial risk. Largely, though, it seems that he defines risk in either a financial or physical sense. Emotional risk is a different territory.
Is there a bright line for risk? There are obviously situations anyone would agree are risky, such as trying to rescue someone from a burning building or to mediate a domestic dispute. On the other end of the scale, someone might feel real risk in asking someone for a date or applying for a job. (I just did the latter, and when I used it as an example of a risk I had taken, my husband thought it was not risky but difficult, and I couldn’t even figure out why he would think it was difficult. It’s really just writing a letter). Risk involves the possibility of loss. Loss of life and limb, certainly, that would count as risky. Loss of money? Yup. Loss of face? Risk of public humiliation? So much of the time, we fear humiliation, only to find that whatever we were planning to do barely registered on anyone else’s radar. We can really do almost anything, and much of the time, nobody else will care, or even notice. We don’t need permission.
I think there are two things going on, at least in my case. First, anything that stretches my self-image or boundaries tends to set off warning bells. I only want to do things that feel natural, that I can easily imagine myself doing. Second, there is the problem of The Resistance, as defined by Steven Pressfield. The Resistance seems able to attach itself to specific tasks or projects, even when I’ve done virtually identical things many times before. Under scrutiny, many things that feel risky turn out to be little more than mirages. Where is the risk in applying for a job? Where is the risk in speaking for one minute to a receptive audience? Where is the risk in publishing a book? Why are these things so frightening?
Why am I more afraid of publishing than I am of walking around alone at night? That doesn’t even make sense.
FEAR MEANS GO. I read that somewhere recently, and I felt it as a shameful burn. It’s so much more comfortable to suppress those spooky feelings and let opportunities pass by unexplored. I’ve managed to spend a great deal of time, energy, and focus doing things that are perceived as difficult, partly to prove a point to myself and others. I want to be seen as someone who does not back away from challenge. In some ways, that works very well as a diversion. Look over here, not over there. Ignore that whole part about how busy I am not doing the most obvious thing, because it makes me nervous.
Is risk all about our personal evaluation of risk? Are there levels? Is it like pain, in the sense that what one person can easily tolerate would shatter someone else? If certain things that seem risky to others feel easy to us, are we better off exploiting that advantage, or pushing harder on our personal weak points?
I’m not done stewing over this. It feels like the conundrum of a lifetime. It seems to demand a chart. For now, I’m going to move my focus away from ‘hard things’ to ‘hardEST things’ and expect more tangible results from myself.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book is that rarest of rare things, a super exciting new release that actually lives up to my inflated expectations of it. I’m crotchety about books, and I hate the feeling of even not completely disapproving of trendy things. That’s why I waited so long to read all the Harry Potter books, more fool me. That’s why I never bought Crocs or knock-off Ugg boots. That’s why I didn’t get a cell phone until texting was already a thing. Fortunately, I let go of defining myself by stuff I didn’t want, and that’s part of why I was ready for Big Magic. I hope everyone is always ready for Big Magic.
I listened to the author reading the audiobook. Not everyone is equally good at this, and not everyone will take the time to do it; Stephen King is a great narrator, for instance, but usually a voice actor reads his work. Gilbert is gifted. I listened to her at 1x speed, if that tells you anything. I was spellbound.
Big Magic belongs on the shelf next to Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. It’s a tutorial from one insider to another. Both books also openly acknowledge a mystical, preternatural or even supernatural element to creative inspiration and the art of writing. I may change my mind one day, but right now, I’m of the belief that certain things can be learned but not taught. That means the message will make sense to certain people who are of the disposition to receive it, but will not make sense to those who lack the ability to pick up the transmission. I checked for one-star reviews of Pressfield’s book (“bullying,” “crap,” “mess… ridiculous,” “garbage”) because I knew they would be there, just as I’m checking Gilbert’s single stars (“crap,” “who is the audience for this book – everyone, it seems,” “self-indulgent,” “this is written for girls,” “This is the worst book I’ve read in recent memory,” “Completely not worth it.”), because I knew these bad reviews would be there, and they would be hilarious. I can only hope that one day I, too, will get reviews like this. Whenever I absolutely swoon over a book, it appears there is a disgruntled hordette of people who loathe it and can’t believe it got published. I can think of several of my personal friends who probably won’t like it, either. It’s really up to you to figure out which camp you are in.
NB: You don’t have to finish reading books that don’t engage you. According to my LibraryThing, I have only ever given out a one-star review seven times out of over 4000 entries, once to a parrot training manual that included physical abuse, and the last time I used a one-star rating was 2009. As I look these books over, I wonder why I ever bothered choosing, finishing, or reviewing a piece of not-for-me genre fiction in my catalog. I think I picked it up on impulse before a road trip and then got stuck with nothing else to listen to. Even that seems funny to me now. Obviously this was before podcasts! I have a smartphone. There is never again going to be an occasion when I have “no choice” but to do something I find boring or irrelevant to my interests.
That is part of how magic works. We have to make ourselves ready for it, and we have to let it in. We have to discard the notion that we are obligated or duty-bound to do anything beyond the requirements of physical survival and basic human decency. It seems that the natural, mainstream human reaction is to regard this idea with ridicule, disgust, or annoyance. None of those feelings will ever get anyone anywhere, with the possible exception of avoiding a case of food poisoning. Skepticism and the critical faculty are necessary when it comes to pseudoscience, politics, and pickpockets, but they don’t make much in the way of art. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic is going to be read and re-read and discussed in book clubs and writers’ groups. Not everyone is going to get it or like it, but those who do are going to love it to bits and wear the cover off.
I screamed during “E.T.” I was 6 and a family friend sat with me in the very front row. Needless to say, that movie blew my little mind. One of the things that stood out for me was the contraption Elliott helped E.T. build so that he could “phone home.” Remember? It had a Speak & Spell and an umbrella. Pretty cool stuff. It makes me wonder what they’ll use if they ever do a reboot. They’re welcome to my old iPhone 4S; it would run a Speak & Spell app, and maybe it could do everything else, too. If space doesn’t have wi-fi, I don’t want to go.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much having a smartphone has aided my transition to minimalism. Much of this is due to the fact that it basically serves as a spare brain – a smarter, better organized spare brain. It turns out that more and more of my “stuff” exists only virtually. Most of what I use and most of the work I do lives on this little screen in my pocket. The best part is that if I break it or it gets stolen, the important parts can be quickly cloned and loaded onto a new one. The new one might even be a better model.
Ten years ago, I went everywhere with a huge bag I referred to as my “filing cabinet.” It probably weighed 15 pounds. I would have textbooks, library books, a cookbook, a day planner, my mail, a journal, a bunch of pens, old receipts, a wad of paper napkins, my lunch, gloves, an umbrella, a hat, lip balm, and who knows what else. Now I don’t carry most of those things. Almost all of them are represented digitally. I don’t need to carry as much outerwear because Dark Sky tells me whether it’s likely to rain later. I don’t need to go to the chiropractor anymore, either.
One of the most significant innovations for me has been the advent of the e-reader. Many book lovers are stuck in the 18th century, and they like it that way. I love books at least as much as anyone else, but I’m firmly in the digital camp. I can read in line at the post office. I can listen to an audio book while I fold laundry. No more discovering that my library book has a page torn out. No more food stains or smashed bugs. No more 15-pound carry-on bags just for my vacation reading. No more melted book lights. Even if digital books were the only feature on my phone, it would still have changed my life. The best part is that every year, there will be thousands more e-books available. In my lifetime, essentially every book ever printed will be there at my fingertips. Why, then, would I need to keep hundreds of pounds of printed books in my house, only to relocate them over and over again?
Frequent relocation has been a catalyst for me. It’s helped put my possessions in perspective. Even professional movers will only pack the stuff and move it. They don’t unpack it for you. I’ve realized that everything on my phone is available whether everything else I own is taped inside a box or not. I traded in all my DVDs and CDs two years ago, and I haven’t missed them. The books, including cookbooks, are steadily getting culled. What’s left is furniture, workout equipment, kitchenware, linens, clothes, tools, cleaners, and food. The handmade items I still have cause a certain amount of stress, because it’s so sad when something like that gets ruined during a move. Virtually all of our stuff is functional, rather than emotionally relevant.
Meanwhile, my phone is full of emotional relevance. Any given day, I’m texting my husband, my parents, or a friend, and usually I wind up laughing until I cry over something. I’m playing games with my brothers, both of whom win 99% of the time. I’m skimming Facebook and finding out who’s engaged, who’s pregnant, who’s moving, who got a new job, and who adopted a puppy. I’m obsessively reading the news, playing podcasts, and looking at dazzling nature photography. I’m checking stats on my website, looking at my bank balance, or replying to e-mail. My life is conducted on my phone. It does everything but cook dinner, and I’m probably looking up a recipe for that, too.
This makes it sound like I’m looking at my phone every 5 minutes, which I’m not, but only because my schedule is managed by a digital brain. I set up reminders for everything I need to do daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually. I don’t think about those things anymore; I just follow the instructions from Past Self as a favor to Future Self. I can focus on writing and know that no matter where I am, I can drop everything and take notes, research something, take a picture, or email or text someone. My house is my base of operations, unless it’s temporarily a tent or hotel room. My home is this magical device of portable work, instant information, entertainment on demand, and emotional connection on impulse.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.