What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
There is always another game on Saturday.
Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, a Unitarian minister, summed it up decades ago:
The master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his work and his play, his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether his is working or playing. To himself, he is always doing both.
What is more important than happiness is involvement. We want to be involved with our lives, other people, projects, and the creative process. In that involvement, we will experience a range of moods, emotions, feelings from high to low. It comes with the territory. And, in those wonderful moments, when you are happy, it is something to appreciate for what it is, an exquisite interlude that makes up in height for what it lacks in length.
Many pro authors say you should try a dumb trick if your writing is moving frustratingly slowly: just banish a certain part of your A to Z for a bit. This paragraph can’t contain any “A”s. Try it. You find that your brain has to slow down and focus on that arbitrary limit. It distracts you, making you pick all of your words with caution.
Okay, that was just one paragraph without using the letter “E” and it took me about three hours to assemble. It’s a great writing trick because all too often, you get trapped by your own writing style. Water carves grooves in rock after a number of years, you see. When that happens, that’s becomes the only path the water wants to take. An arbitrary but ironclad rule forces your writing to flow into new directions.
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[I]n nooks all over the earth sit men who are waiting, scarcely knowing in what way they are waiting, much less that they are waiting in vain. Occasionally the call that awakens—that accident which gives the “permission” to act—comes too late, when the best youth and strength for action has already been used up by sitting still; and many have found to their horror when they “leaped up” that their limbs had gone to sleep and their spirit had become too heavy. “It is too late,” they said to themselves, having lost their faith in themselves and henceforth forever useless.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
“A character who needs the accoutrements of worldly success will never be seen by the audience as heroic. Heroes are invariably ascetic, denying themselves pleasures and comforts that ordinary people take for granted.… In war films, the hero often declines invitations to partake of food or sex…. The hero can’t relax, can’t have fun. In westerns … all he owns in this world is in that tiny bundle behind the saddle we see when he first appears. We don’t know if he ever changes his shirt or if he even has a shirt to change into, so minimal are his earthly possessions. In detective, police, mystery, and spy films, the central character usually lives in a one-room apartment … but it’s hard to say the hero lives there – it’s where he flops when he’s overcome with exhaustion.… Like religious and mythical heroes of earlier years, the hero is in this world, but not of it. He denies himself the pleasures ordinary mortals yearn for precisely because he isn’t an ordinary mortal.”
—Howard Suber, The Power of Film
All stories, no matter how fanciful, consist of information, and it behooves a serious young writer to simply know a hell of a lot so s/he can draw upon it for fictioning. Also, dig deep until you touch the mystery of things; as Ford Madox Ford (I think it was) said, “Upon close examination, a good literary style will consist of a lot of small surprises.” And where do those surprises come from but an ability to pluck from the riches in a mind’s lexicon?
Actually, I’m pretty much of an independent, thinking that the chief error of Republicans is the assumption that people are grownup, rational and honest; on the other hand, the chief intellectual sin of the Democrats is their assumption that people don’t have to be any of those things.
His advice to would-be scriptwriters is “just write. The big break is easy if you’re good enough. I hear people saying, ‘I’m desperate to write – I’ve written this script.’ And I want to say: ‘Why haven’t you written 50 scripts?’
“The first 50 will be shit and so will the next 50 and probably the 50 after that,” he continues. “You have to write all the time and not worry so much about going to the right parties or the contacts you have in the business – they’re completely irrelevant. And stop badgering people for advice because there almost is none – If you write a truly brilliant script, it will get on the telly.”
If the sad truth be known, writers, being the misfits we are, probably ought not to belong to families in the first place. We simply are too self-interested, though we may excuse the flaw by calling it “focused.” As artists, writers hardly are alone in this failing. In Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork, “Sunday in the Park With George” (at least the first act was a masterwork), we are shown the gloriously self-involved Seurat dotting away at isolated trees and people in his all-consuming pursuit of the famous park painting. Among those consumed by his zeal is his mistress — not technically family, but in the family way. He ignores her, leaves her high and dry. He’s an artiste, after all. If one took a straw vote of the audience a few minutes before the first act ended, they gladly would have stoned the miserable son-of-a-bitch artiste to death. But then, in the very last scene, the separate parts of Seurat’s painting coalesce before our eyes. Everything magically comes together. And the audience gasps, weeps in wonder. So who is the superior character — the man who attends to the feelings of his loved ones, or the artist who affects eternity?
The world of orderly decency, harmless ceremonies and modest expectations, i.e., family life, is not the writer’s. One morning at breakfast, when she was in the first or second grade, E. L. Doctorow’s daughter, Caroline, asked her father to write a note explaining her absence from school, due to a cold, the previous day. Doctorow began, “My daughter, Caroline… . ” He stopped. “Of course she’s my daughter,” he said to himself. “Who else would be writing a note for her?” He began again. “Please excuse Caroline Doctorow… . ” He stopped again. “Why do I have to beg and plead for her?” he said. “She had a virus. She didn’t commit a crime!” On he went, note after failed note, until a pile of crumpled pages lay at his feet. Finally, his wife, Helen, said, “I can’t take this anymore,” penned a perfect note and sent Caroline off to school. Doctorow concluded: “Writing is very difficult, especially in the short form.”
Computer programmer Garry Hamilton articulated the following “Game Rules.” Give examples of how they have worked in your life.
1. If the game is rigged so you can’t win, find another game or invent your own.
2. If you’re not winning because you don’t know the rules, learn the rules.
3. If you know the rules but aren’t willing to follow them, there’s either something wrong with the game or you need to change something in yourself.
4. Don’t play the game in a half-baked way. Either get all the way in or all the way out.
5. It shouldn’t be necessary for others to lose in order for you to win. If others have to lose, re-evaluate the game’s goals.
So my point is that you can learn about yourself by seeing what you focus on day to day. That’s what you’re going to do well in. And the stuff you hate thinking about? That’s the part that will never improve.
I once interviewed Tiziana Casciaro, professor at Harvard Business School. She does research on social skills in the workplace. Midway through the interview, I started to panic and I asked her how I could tell if I have terrible social skills.
She told me that it’s nearly impossible to judge one’s own social skills. But there’s one good way: Measure the amount you care about your social skills. If you care, and think about ways to make them better on a daily basis, you probably have decent social skills.
This is true for most things in life: It doesn’t matter so much exactly what action you choose in working toward improvement, it just matters that you’re trying, with genuine intention. The common problem is not wrong action so much as it is no focus.
It’s no accident that election races and and military battles are both called campaigns.
I asked if there were any photographs of my father as a boy because I’ve never seen one, but was told my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s, had burned all her albums shortly before she died. In the only picture I have of my dad as a child, his face is turned tantalisingly away from the camera.
It’s important to feel I’m running my work instead of letting it run me; so I’ve forced myself to get into the habit of daily meditation for 30 minutes in the mornings, even on days when I’m itching to get on with things. Meditation isn’t a productivity tool, but the productivity benefits of stopping and putting things in perspective every day are huge.
A cleareyed Malcolm Gladwell discusses the American penchant for reducing all activity to a moral lesson that can be imparted through the powerful cocktail of stage presence and rear-screen projection. Drawing a line from Benjamin Franklin to the homilies printed on Celestial Seasonings tea boxes, Mr. Gladwell says that even knotty concepts from fields like quantum physics and philology can be made attractive to large groups of people if the concepts are rendered as anecdotes involving a cabdriver, a small child or an obscure Flemish botanist. “Start with a personal anecdote,” Mr. Gladwell suggests, “and then extrapolate to the 18th-century cocoa trade in Malta.”
It is so hard to change behavior and to face oneself honestly. This author has my total admiration. I used to work with a woman who had a brain injury and dealt with it by reciting to herself the very true mantra “everyone has SOME deficit,” which is very true. And this author has made me twist that to “everyone has SOME addiction.”
Plato could have warned me. In “The Republic,” he advises “temperance” in physical training, likening it to learning music and poetry. Keep it “simple and flexible,” as in all things, don’t overdo. Follow this course, and you will remain “independent of medicine in all but extreme cases.”
Hospital managers at Gloucestershire NHS Trust (in 2001) and the catering staff at Flintshire County Council (in 2009) renamed the pudding Spotted Richard on menus because of the use of the word dick in the original name, a common dysphemism for male genitalia in the English language. Gloucestershire NHS Trust restored the original name in 2002. Flintshire County Council reversed their renaming after a few weeks.
Doris Betts cut to the chase. To those of us engaged in writing the Great American Novel, she would say, “That’s lovely. Now how will you go about earning a living?”