All this month, I’ve been doing a Digital Residency for the State of Victoria Library in Australia. Thought I’d share one of my pieces 🙂 It’s about me and my grandfather and the Lord of the Rings.
“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” — Douglas Adams
As much as I adore Mr. Adams, work ethic was drilled into my skull at a very early age, and the thought of missing a deadline fills me with the sort of dread that perhaps can only be achieved by an earnest, Midwestern Catholic-raised boy like me.
My solution is simple. I overestimate. It’s an old customer service trick I picked up back during my compulsory training while working for subscription services at a theater company. “Under-promise, over-deliver”. So if I think it will take a month, I tell an editor six weeks. Then, when they get it two weeks early, they’re happy. I’m not lying, or trying to fool anyone, you understand. I’ve told every editor I’ve ever worked with that I always overestimate. Do they forget? Do they not believe me? I have no idea.
But what about the deadlines I don’t have control over? When someone tells me they need it next week, no matter what? This is a bit trickier, and depends on how well I know the person. I’ve found that 75% of the time, there is room for negotiation in these situations. But there’s also times when the deadline really is that tight, and that’s when I need to just buckle down, toss out anything unessential, and power through. I really try to not make that the norm, though.
My mother’s favorite movie is Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole. I can’t tell you how many times I saw this film a child. Despite the fact that it’s rather long (3 hrs 42 min), there are only two things I remember about this movie. But I remember them well.
The first is Lawerence toward the end, dressed in white, weilding a knife, covered in other people’s blood, his piecing blue eyes wide with maniacal glee after he’s just slaughtered countless people. I was 6 or maybe 7 at the time and I suppose this was a bit traumatizing.
My other vivid memory is right at the beginning, when he’s still a sane English officer. He lights a match and holds it up, watching the flame work its way down to his fingers until it slowly goes out. The whole time, even toward the end when the flame is clearly burning his fingertips, he looks completely calm.
Someone asks him how he does it. “What’s the trick?” they want to know.
“The trick,” he says, cool as you please, “is not to mind the pain.”
Anyone in any sort of artistic endeavour they really care about feels fear. It’s an inevitable, perhaps even necessary part of the process. People always seem to want to get rid of the fear or hush it up or ignore it somehow. I get that. I really do.
But honestly, the trick is not to mind the fear.
There so many things that, if we did them for just ten minutes a day, our lives would be greatly improved. Exercise, read, meditate, journal, catch up with an old friend. Even if you stacked them all up end to end, that’s still less than an hour a day. I know this.
So the question is, why don’t I do it? Oh sure, sometimes I do. Inconsistently. When the thought strikes me and I have a spare moment and I’m not feeling especially lethargic. But not with any real consistency. Not in a way that would actually amount to the cumulative effect desired.
I have many excuses. Some quite valid. Single parent with two full time jobs is at the top of the list, always handy to pull out as needed. But what if I decided that wasn’t good enough? What if I decided to reach past all those available excuses? Not to be hard on myself, to lash myself into a workaholic frenzy. But simply because I chose to go further.
What if, daily, I made that choice?
I stumbled across Warren Ellis’s new online journal project called MORNING.COMPUTER and I suddenly found myself missing my old blog/journal. Sure, I’ve got Twitter and Tumblr and all that. But there’s something about having a quiet space of one’s own, away from the dashboards and timelines, that I suddenly find really appealing. A place for slower, deeper thinking, I suppose.
I’ve always found Ellis’s tech impulses to be extremely prescient. I’m not sure why. Perhaps we have more in common as people than I think. Either way, without much fanfair, I’m quietly resurrecting this old blog. I’ve copied over a couple posts from my Tumblr so there wasn’t such a striking gap in the archive. Apologies to anyone who had this on RSS and got blasted by like 10 posts at once. Anyway, I’m not sure what I’ll do with this space yet. Perhaps it will fizzle quickly as I realize I don’t have time for one of those old fashioned weblog thingies. Or perhaps not. For the time being, jonskovron.com/journal is active again. It might get a bit more intimate or personal than I’ve been publically of late. We shall see.
Last night, fellow writer Sarah Brand and I attended a lecture at NASA Goddard given by Goddard’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Jim Garvin. The lecture was about the current exploration of Mars with the Mars Science Lab, aka Curiosity. Needless to say, I learned a lot about the history of NASA’s exploration and research of Mars, why they feel it’s important, and what they hope to learn. It was some really fascinating, inspiring stuff. Climate, geology, chemistry, and physics on Mars operate in ways we’ve never seen before. Because, well, it’s a different planet! Another interesting point he made regarding the need to explore other planets is that most animal species confined to a single island have difficulty surviving over a long period of time. Might the same hold true for single-planet species? Is it actually the natural order of things for us eventually need to expand beyond our own planet? I’m not sure I know the answer to that, but the question interests me a lot (which means at some point there will probably be a book about it).
But that’s not actually what I wanted to talk about here.
When Dr. Garvin described how operation of Curiosity worked, he said they sent some commands to “her”, over millions of miles, then “she” would follow those commands, and report back, again over millions of miles. He said, relatively speaking, it was like clicking your TV remote, and thirteen minutes later, the channel changes. By that time, of course, a new show could have started, perhaps even one you wanted to see. But if you then clicked the remote to go back to that channel, the TV would update thirteen minutes after that, by which time, the show you were trying to get back to might be over. So clearly, every move has to be carefully thought out, planned, and timed.
“This is patient exploration,” he said.
But it’s even more complicated than that. They pinpointed the spot where they want to end up. A spot that has a huge potential to show them whether or not Mars was ever capable of sustaining life, and if so, what that life might have been like. The problem is, the spot is right on the edge of a crater, so they couldn’t just drop Curiosity right there. So they dropped her in the nearest stable place they could find. Now they need to navigate it around sand pits, through ravines, and up a mountain. It’s not an entirely wasted trip, because they will be able to take and analyze a lot of samples along the way that they will then be able to use as comparisons for the final analysis along the crater. Essentially, they’re learning about the world they are in as they go, so that hopefully by the time they get to the end, it will all make a lot more sense.
To make it even more interesting, there have already been, and most likely will continue to be, unexpected things along the way. They recently stumbled across a stray, mysterious shiny bit of metal or plastic. Could it be natural to the area? Or from a meteorite? Or from an older Mars rover or satellite? Or even from Curiosity herself? They have no idea what it is and they have to pause all scheduled plans until they’ve examine it, because it could be unimportant or it could be the most important thing. And once they figure that out, all the careful planning they have done may need to be altered in some way. Perhaps in a major way. They simply have no idea. This is unknown country in the most extreme sense and they have to roll with events as they develop, hoping that it will eventually get them to where they want to end up, at the edge of the big, important crater potentially chock full of answers.
You know what this is starting to sound a lot like? Writing a novel.
A story begins out of curiosity. What would it be like if this or that happened? How would it feel if I suddenly could do such and such? We start with a question, hopefully a dramatic one, and through the story we attempt to answer it (and sometimes succeed, although that’s not necessarily a requirement for a good story). What would it be like to be a demon girl in Catholic school? How would you feel if you were the son of the most famous monster ever? I don’t know, let’s write a story and find out. That is curiosity.
Stories are big. Stories are complicated. You can’t just drop the reader off at the big exciting conclusion, because they have no context to understand the world in a meaningful way. So you have to start them somewhere nearby but relatively stable so they can get an initial footing and feel confident that whatever crazy things you through at them, they have some grounding in the world. Then you begin the journey. A physical journey, an emotional journey, hopefully a bit of both. But whatever it is, you have to plan it carefully so you don’t take a wrong turn or overshoot the destination and fall into a massive crater of story-fail. You must go with thoughtful intension. But when unexpected things happen, and I guarantee that they will, you must be patient. With the story, and with yourself.
Life on Mars
Because let’s face it, unexpected things are going to happen. You’re making up a new world. A whole new place. And nobody can anticipate every single aspect of this new world right at the inception. Not even you, the creator of it. You have to learn as you go, paying attention to discoveries along the way, some small and some so big that they might very well change the entire course of your story. And that’s okay. That’s writing. That’s life on Mars.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” — John F Kennedy
Writing is hard, my friends. It’s been my experience that anything worthwhile usually is.
I need time to stop moving. I need time to stay useless.
— “Stay Useless”, Cloud Nothings
My friend Eve passed along an essay in the New York Times called The Art of Distraction in which author and playwright Hanif Kureishi suggests that while focus and concentration certainly have their place, part of living a creative life requires embracing distraction, impulse, whim.
What I might have said to my son’s friend is that it is incontrovertible that sometimes things get done better when you’re doing something else. If you’re writing and you get stuck, and you then make tea, while waiting for the kettle to boil the chances are good ideas will occur to you. Seeing that a sentence has to have a particular shape can’t be forced; you have to wait for your own judgment to inform you, and it usually does, in time. Some interruptions are worth having if they create a space for something to work in the fertile unconscious. Indeed, some distractions are more than useful; they might be more like realizations and can be as informative and multilayered as dreams. They might be where the excitement is.
The author then goes on to talk about “Ritalin and other forms of enforcement and psychological policing” that make distraction less and less possible, and that’s all very interesting stuff that you will probably find rewarding to pursue. But what I want to think about right now is just that first part (I suppose I’m not very focused…). It reminded me of another NYT essay I read ages ago by Thomas Pynchon called Nearer, my Couch, to Thee about the deadly sin of Sloth:
But Sloth’s offspring, though bad — to paraphrase the Shangri-Las — are not always evil, for example what Aquinas terms Uneasiness of the Mind, or “rushing after various things without rhyme or reason,” which, “if it pertains to the imaginative power… is called curiosity.” It is of course precisely in such episodes of mental traveling that writers are known to do good work, sometimes even their best, solving formal problems, getting advice from Beyond, having hypnagogic adventures that with luck can be recovered later on. Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do. We sell our dreams.
Okay, yes, this essay then goes on to talk about a lot of other things, including lots of now charmingly dated references to VCRs and you should definitely check out the rest. But again, this idea of distraction as essential to the process of creation strikes a cord in me.
Maybe it’s because I have spent so much time trying to become “distraction free”. It’s one of those basic tenants of getting on the productivity bandwagon that you learn about on sites like Getting Things Done, 43Folders, and Lifehacker. And even those who don’t hold truck with “Distraction Free”, still basically advocate for the “Just do it!” mentality. Rarely does someone say, “Hey, you should let yourself get distracted sometimes.” But I think sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do.
Of course you have to have some sort of organization to your life. As a single parent with two full time jobs, I can attest to the importance of cultivating efficiency. And you will have to pry my iPhone todo list app from my cold dead hands.
But there is something really appealing to me about embracing the unproductive aspects of creativity. I know many of the snags I hit in writing resolve themselves when I’m not writing. When I’m washing dishes, or waiting for the kettle to boil, or taking a shower, or staring out the window listening to music. Yes, I stare out the window a lot. I always have. It began in 1st grade. The teachers yelled at me then, and continued to do so for my entire student career.
Now, there is a difference between doing nothing and frittering away hours on Twitter, or Tumblr, or Pinterest, or any of those places. That, in my opinion is not doing nothing. That’s dicking around.
No, what I’m talking about is when I’m staring out at nothing, lost in the swirling worlds of my mind’s eye. In those moments, I am working. Dreaming. Wuwei. Action without effort. Doing nothing.
Stumbled across the official Wikipedia entry for “teh”, aka, “the” in Internetspeak. A lot of language purists grumble about the corruption of language in text messaging, instant messaging, and other forms of visual/textual-based internet communication. I rarely argue with them, mostly because people like that not interested in hearing it from the other point of view. But the simple fact is, whether they like it or not, language is constantly changing, evolving, and txt-speak, leetspeak, or internet slang is a very real part of that evolution and it is not going away. It’s no more “wrong” than American English is compared to British English.And may I humbly suggest that this “corruption” or evolution, or whatever you chose to call it, is actually a good thing? More words, more ways to express yourself, more possible nuances to utilize in the craft of putting words together in a cunning order. Just think about it.
There really isn’t anything special about creativity. We are all born creative. But as we go through life, we are constantly bombarded by a society and educational system that strives to moderate, sometimes even block, this creative impulse. The people I know who, as adults, are especially creative, are not so because of any inborn special ability. Rather, they are so creative because of an inability to conform to the external pressures around them.
Recently, a friend of mine started getting reviews for their debut novel. This began the emotional roller-coaster ride of review addiction that has claimed many a writer or artist.
I don’t use that word “addiction” lightly. Reading reviews becomes almost a compulsion. It happens to the best of us. It happened to me a little, back when I was an actor. The agony of a bad review, the intoxicating high of a good one. It’s intense for sure. It lets you know you’re out there, making an impact! But in the end, even the good reviews aren’t helpful to the creators. Here’s why:
Reviews aren’t for authors. They are for people who are considering buying your book. You, as an author (or purveyor of whatever product is being reviewed) have no business reading it. They aren’t intended to help you, the writer, become better at your craft. That’s not the reviewer’s job. The reviewer is there to help readers become better informed as to whether or not this is the sort of thing they might want to buy. It’s not about the creation, it’s about the commodity. Reviews, therefore, only matter to creators in the sense that they can sell or discourage sales for a book.
Any other motive you may ascribe to it is entirely beside the point. Don’t take it personally, as they say, It’s just business.