If I am just a bag of meat, sitting on a rock in outer space…

I recently came across this quote on The Oatmeal in regards to religion:

Does [your religion] help you cope with the fact that you are a bag of meat sitting on a rock in outer space and that someday you will DIE and you are completely powerless, helpless, and insignificant in the wake of this beautiful cosmic shitstorm we call existence?

Me: No! Because I don’t have a religion! (You will not hear me speak much of religion; in short I am open-minded, but believe in logic and reason first.)

AND YET…

Bizarrely, I did take solace in the fact that I AM only a bag of meat on a rock in the vast expanse of all known universes here, now, and ever, and that one day I will return to the earth as nothing more than dirt in the wind, or a miniscule grain of sand.

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fiber your blood.

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Incidentally, here is what sand looks like under 250x magnification.

That makes all of our problems seem insignificant too, doesn’t it? If all my life and experiences– the good and the bad, the love and the loathing, the pleasures, the worries, the joys and the pains– will all one day fit a hundred times over into the crevice of somebody’s left shoe, or in the space between their toes, why should I let any one pea-sized, fleeting problem command any semblance of significance over me?

So I am lost and lacking direction. Only until I find my way.

I’m not yet published. But I will be.

Today my body aches. Tomorrow it shall be mended.

I have no cherished love. But I shall love again.

This, that, and all the bricks I bear on my back are heavy. But soon they shall be gone.

Everything in life is for now, for now, for now; tomorrow, we are gone.

Writing Challenge, Day 30: Reflections

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 30: What will you take away from this challenge?

This challenge has been a fantastic exercise in discipline. It’s helped me treat writing like a job: something I must show up for each day and see through, regardless of how energetic (lethargic), creative (stodgy), and enthusiastic (dead to the world) I am feeling.

Needless to say some entries turned out better than others, but in a world where deadlines and chip-away progress are very real and standard I come away with a sense of accomplishment at having simply completed them all. The progress and especially the unanticipated inspiration storms that result from butt-in-the-chair dedication are empowering, to say the least. If only I could apply the same tactics to writing my first book—incremental goals and regular deadlines, that is—I think it would go from dream to reality much faster.

One unexpected spoil I take from this challenge is an increased sense of writing community both online and off. I admit I often fall on the side of cynicism when it comes to social media, and yet—among all of the pontificating, photo-posting, status updates, and other time-suck frivolities—we get these rare gems like Writer’s Relief and WordPress actually, successfully used as platforms to facilitate exchange. Each day I enjoyed reading and relating with comments left by other writers in response to the facebook prompts put out by Writer’s Relief, and each day I was met by a flurry of likes and comments on WordPress after posting my extended responses. I really feel that, thanks to the challenge, I have been able to reach and connect with writers I might otherwise have never encountered.

Thirty days of consecutive posts have also, I should mention, done wonders for my readership 😀 They are modest milestones for my sapling blog, but since undertaking this 30 day challenge The Read Room has passed both 1,000 page views and 50 followers. Huzzah!

Oh, and did I mention I had fun??? I submit some of my favorite entries as evidence:

12 Reasons to Read Julie Israel. You’re Welcome. Here I get into one of my favorite writing forms—lists—and save polar bears as well as school children.

Good Idea, Bad Idea In which I play off the old Animaniacs’ game with a ridicu-list of Dos and Don’ts for facilitating productive writing.

Ghosts, Superhorses, and Sock Monsters The question for this prompt was “What did you write (when you first started writing)?”

Enter Peter McBunterbeans In this entry on my strongest genre (playful/humor) I include an excerpt from a recent short story. Check it out! 😀

Of Swords & Excuses In which I relate a humorous, but unfortunately very true, agenda of reasons for evading the hard work of sitting in the chair and making a start.

Revision, or: Hell & Hot Pockets Tell me you are not intrigued by this title. Um, it’s basically a ranting freewrite about all the things that go wrong in my revision “process”. Also know as Murphy’s Law.

Some of my less playful, but more informative entries:

Stealing Inspiration (#lifehacks) Why every artist should steal.

Fables & Folklore In which I babble excitedly about fables, folklore, and fairy tales as well as why, even as adults, we should read them. P.S. Magical Realism! Woooo!

The Myth of the Muse This post is on inspiration, imagination, and how to brainstorm and generally be a genius.

Of course I welcome reader feedback, too. For those of you who followed, joined, or simply stumbled helpless and unsuspectingly onto one of my 30-day posts, please feel free to enter questions, comments, and interpretive dance moves.

Writing Challenge, Day 28: Stealing Inspiration

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 28: When you write, to what degree do real-life experiences serve as inspiration?

So, my favorite writing teacher ever taught our English class an important lesson on the first very day. She said, to a room of eager, innocent young faces:

“Boys and girls, if you want to be a writer, you must learn to steal.”

The class reacted thus:

“WHAAAAA?”

She went on to explain herself: as artists, we run into the inevitable problem of everything under the sun having already been done before. Yes, even the sentiment that it’s all been done is a hackneyed old cushion that’s lost its whoopee. The solution then, as this wise teacher relayed, is to steal.

“Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.” –Oscar Wilde

(The more I learn of Wilde, the more I love him.)

This is not to suggest plagiarism. As a writer, artist, or any other creative type one should never plagiarize. However, when we encounter something that is compelling, it is our writerly duty to capitalize upon it. Sometimes that thing is a plot. Sometimes a rhyme scheme. Sometimes an amalgamation of ideas, characters, and distasteful cultural trends. Then, when we have seized the object(s) of our affections, we must make it (them) our own. Some examples:

1. “Green Eggs & Hamlet” is a delightfully witty poem which combines the stolen soliloquy of Hamlet (Shakespeare’s most famous “To be or not to be” scene) and a rhyme scheme purloined of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs & Ham.

2. 10 Things I Hate About You is a modern (1999) film adaptation of Shakespeare’s rom-com play, The Taming of the Shrew. The film filches Shrew’s plot as well as its driving characters, remodeling them and most of their dialogue to fit the rockin’ sockin’ nineties. The poem that Julia Stiles reads, for which the film is named, also seems to be a spin off of Elizabeth Barret Browning’s poem Sonnet XLIII which begins “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

3. Vampires Suck is the god-awful result of combining all three of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight books into a single cinema feature in a two-hour attempt at comedic parody. Characters are given slapstick makeovers (Bella Swan becomes Becca Crane; the Cullens become the Sullens; etc.) and there are references to pop culture icons such as the Kardashians, Buffy, and Lady Gaga that no one born after the year 2000 will give three beans about.

Says The All-Knowing Wiki: “Vampires Suck was given four nominations from the 31st Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay and Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-Off or Sequel.”

All examples considered, some thieving endeavors turn out better than others.

But stealing from something already written (said, done, painted, filmed, etc.) is only one part of the equation. Stealing from real-life is the other. I keep running lists of anything that I think will feed good writing: textured words, visceral images, character flaws, social phenomenon, and things that make me laugh, cry, drop my jaw, or want to write an angry, angry letter.

I challenge you, in the next few days, to be aware of the things and moments that strike you. When you are amused, or disgusted, or elated, defeated, or furious, write about it.

Your friends have weird habits? WRITE THEM DOWN.

There’s that oooone awkward coworker who doesn’t understand what’s socially appropriate and makes everyone in the elevator uncomfortable each morning with his ludicrously offensive remarks? WRITE THEM DOWN.

Your HTC phone is a malfunctioning piece of shite that, in the moment your two-year contract is up, you will personally place in the middle of the street and back over in a Jeep before hailing a stampede of elephants to trample its faulty remains? WRITE ABOUT IT (I suggest an angry letter).

Used effectively, real-life details are the perfect creative fodder. They not only inform our work with an automatic sense of authenticity, but make our writing something readers can relate to.

Writing Challenge, Day 25: Starting the Fire

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 25: What makes you want to write more?

I find there are a few things that stoke the creative fire:

  1. Real-world inspiration. Reading about people like Amanda Hocking with wild success stories is immensely encouraging. Hocking had tried for years to get her books accepted by publishing houses but they all kept turning her down. Finally, in a last-ditch effort to raise $300 so she could travel to see a Muppets exhibition in Chicago six months down the road, she self-published a book on Amazon. By the end of the six months she had made $20,000. Now, with a faithful and growing audience of readers, she has made millions selling subsequent publications. How can you NOT want to write after hearing stories like that?
  1. Talking story. You know how when you tell your friends “I’m writing a book” there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to ask (unless you are Chris Moyles*) what it’s about? Yeah. Well, when that happens and suddenly you have to explain yourself, it throws a lot of things into perspective reeeaaally fast. You don’t want to sound like an idiot, so you paint your story-in-progress as best as you can—sometimes amending plot holes and trimming excess along the way!

Of course, even if your novel doesn’t magically sort itself out under the pressure of describing it on demand (which is, I find, more often the case) the process of drawing a quick outline is an illuminating one. You realize what characters or details need attention as well as where the story needs development and change. The fire to improve can be a compelling one.

Telling a friend about your work is never more encouraging than when he or she is excited about it—then you know you have something. It’s the perfect motivation for putting your butt in the chair!

  1. Shower epiphanies. I do my best thinking away from the screen. This might be on a run, sipping an iced tea on the deck, or in the shower. I’ve talked about this before, but there is a lot of power in letting your subconscious connect the dots as it jumps from place to place. It just needs the time and space in which to do it. I tell you, there is NO better motivation to write than having a kickass idea when there’s no computer at your fingertips!!!

*See what happens if you ARE Chris Moyles and announce you are writing a book. Reaction starts at 1:40.

Writing Challenge, Day 16: Have No Fear

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge by Writer’s Relief

Day 16: As a writer, what are your biggest fears? How can you overcome them?

I don’t know which writing fear is worse: that of not being read, or that of being read, judged, and not liked. It seems contradictory to possess both, but there you are.

They say that with fears, like with bad dreams, the best thing to do is to sit down, run through all of the things that could possibly go wrong, play them out to their very worst scenarios, and then step back and realize either how absurdly unlikely it is those things will ever happen, or how ludicrous they are to fear. So let’s give it a shot.

Fear of not being read, Worst Case Scenario

I’m not read. Nobody knows who I am. I’m just another no-name writer without a distinct style, no recognized works, and no publications but a handful in small magazines that less than .00005% of the world has heard of (or would pay the price of a small pizza to buy). OH WAIT. THAT SOUNDS FAMILIAR. That’s how things already are. Nowhere to go but up…!

Worst worst WORST case scenario: I publish a book and no one cares. But there is no logical reason for this to worry me until I’m even ready to publish, which is ages away. And even with a novel—like all my other writing—the fact remains that in cultivating readership I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

What is there to fear?

Fear that I WILL be read, judged, and not liked, Worst Case Scenario

I am read. Everyone and their dog judges me. People I went to high school with unfriend me on Facebook, mothers frown at me in the store and herd their children away, and I am banned from several countries on account of offensively poor writing.

In this case, hey: at least I’m being read!

“Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius, and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.”

—Marilyn Monroe

If people are talking about you—even in the spirit of mockery and ridicule—at least they are talking about you. A notoriously bad book is still notorious, and that means it’s being read. It worked for Fifty Shades of Gray.

With any luck, even if a book is best known for its utter failure to be writing, the fact that it’s known will attract enough readers so that at least one person is statistically bound to like it.

Again, what is there to fear?

Perhaps the simplest solution to all writing-related fears is this (to be read in the voice of Dory from Finding Nemo):

 “Just keep writing, just keep writing, just keep writing!”

Writing Challenge, Day 7: the Myth of the Muse

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 7: Do you find that inspiration to write happens organically, or do you sometimes feel that you need to seek it out?

I feel that we must court experience: ideas sparked and new connections made are the organic results of exposure to new people, places, and things. Sure, a significant part of writing—and often what makes it the bewildering, enchanting, mind-bending journey that it is—is the ability to draw from one’s imagination. But what feeds imagination?

I have yet to read Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine (you’ll note it’s on my to-read list), however I did see Lehrer appear on The Colbert Report and speak about it. In his book-promoting appearance Lehrer explained that (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here) nothing in this world is original; what we assume are ideas invented out of thin air are really just new connections between old ideas. He even when so far as to call the Muse a myth.

If Lehrer is right, then what better way to foster new connections and generate ideas than to flood your subconscious with images, words, concepts, sensations, experiences, etc.? Courting experience is like adding colors to your mixing palette; the more materials in the arsenal, the better your subconscious can forge connections and lead to “organic” inspiration. In other words:

 Chance favors the prepared mind.”

—Louis Pasteur

Chance in this case, of course, being the Muse.

Lehrer said something else about creative generation, too. Something that every writer should know: daydreaming is good. “Although most people assume that to solve a problem what you must do is focus, focus, focus—chug a cup of coffee and chain yourself to your desk, stare at your computer screen—that’s exactly backwards. When you need a moment of insight you need to find a way to get relaxed.” (Yes, alright, I went back and watched the segment of Colbert Report in which he appeared. That’s a direct quote.)

A few months back I read Ogilvy on Advertising and was surprised to see that David Ogilvy, one of the fathers of modern advertising, recommended basically the exact same thing for copywriters and admen: to overcome a creative block, get away from your work. Go for a walk; take a shower; fold laundry, potter about the garden, do the shopping. Drink a beer. It is when we give time and space to our subconscious, allow it to wander and play, that our imagination churns out the best material. Ogilvy himself once dreamed of a wooden cart filled with baked goods drawn by a white horse; that horse-drawn cart became the brand image for Pepperidge Farms.

The one thing that’s important to remember, of course, is that you have to put in the work before you can daydream and expect to get results. If you really want to be inspired, experience the world around you! Go with an open mind, ready senses, and always be curious.

Writing Challenge, Day 3: The Inspiration Jar

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 3: What’s the BEST writing advice you ever received?

“Good writing is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” That both reminds me my frustrations are worthwhile and encourages me to keep sweating because it means I’m going somewhere. It means that any writer can start with almost nothing, or something quite shoddy, and with continued hard work transform it into a shining masterpiece.

It also makes me feel a whoooole lot better about the short story that I’ve been working on for over a month 🙂

Another thought this ratio begets: the value of saving up ideas for a rainy day. Last year I started a running document of ideas. It contains plots, lines, images, metaphors, concepts. If I can reach into that document like a jar and start with a single idea—just one grain of inspiration—and with time and effort turn it into a castle of stars, that’s a very good reason to jot down the smallest of whims or details. Better yet, maybe I will keep an actual jar. I feel an art project coming on!

What writing advice do you hold sacred?