New Year’s Blog: Keep on Trucking

Novel writing is a long-term struggle with little good coming of it. Why would I say something like that? After years of contemplating how long does it take to get one published, I found this quote: “What this means is that writing those three or four novels an average writer has to before they burn through before they write a publishable novel will likely take years.” John Scalzi, 6/09 Whatever, Probably just made of bugs Blog. http://whatever.scalzi.com/2009/06/24/why-new-novelists-are-kinda-old/ .
Again, I would like to return to my martial arts training for a comparative example. As an educator who was also a martial artist, I noticed that many of my martial arts students would smile and nod their heads as I instructed them on techniques. To their way of thinking, they had just mastered something new to them with little effort. My observation, to the contrary, was they executed the technique incorrectly before I explained it to them and continued to do it wrong after I told them and showed them the correct way to do it.
There was a gap between their assessment of attainment and mine. They sometimes had a look of disappointment when I, or another instructor, told the how to do it again, and again, and again. It was our practice as instructors not to tell students they were wrong or use any other negative assessment, but to show them over and over how to execute a technique correctly. Somewhere along the way, I might notice they began to doubt how perfect they were. It was only after that little spark of doubt warmed and glowed they began to improve on their technique. Some of them reached the level of mastery they only thought they had before. The wise ones began to doubt their perfection in other areas. That gave them room to grow. If they stayed confident in their perfection, they seldom progressed and eventually gave up on martial arts.
Once they got a technique right, when they practiced it perhaps 1000 times, it was theirs. They had the technique drilled into their muscle memory so completely that when a situation called for a certain technique, it was there without thinking. After years of practice, they had years of techniques at their immediate disposal.
For some examples: I fell off some airplane steps one foggy evening. As I was falling, I tucked and rolled and got up from my fall without injury. A fellow martial artist was standing on a platform setting up a display in a department store. He forgot he was on the platform and stepped back to get an overall look at his display. He fell, but managed a back fall technique and was uninjured. Another friend was riding his bicycle and a motorist ran him off the road. When his bike flipped, he executed a forward roll and was uninjured.
Each one of us had no time to think about the steps in a break fall. If it hadn’t been in muscle memory, any one of us would have been injured.
So, cross walking this to writing is obvious to me. Many beginning writers, including me, believe they are doing perfectly when we begin. We love our own work and think others will love it too. It’s only when we give it to someone who really knows what they are doing (often not your best friend), that we discover that there may be some holes in our writing.
As we continue, we may find that we have to go to grammar and creative writing books. Or, we may have to read many ‘how to write a novel’ books. We have the same kind of doubt the martial artist has just before they begin to make real progress.
For many aspiring writers, that doubt comes too late. They are discouraged and stop writing. They may give any reason like, “Editors were against me; I couldn’t find a decent agent; or the game is rigged to only publish New England writers.” But the real answer is they didn’t doubt their ability soon enough. They didn’t begin to grow after their third or fourth book.
For me, the conclusion I hope people reach is that it is important to keep on working on improving, keep a little doubt about your level of perfection and keep on trucking.

Lessons From a Tomato Can

As a professor, I reject out of hand students’ protests that they can’t do something, that they have never done that before (they don’t seem to realize that no one who hasn’t done it hasn’t done it before), or that they won’t even try. Here’s the reason.
September 28th, 1980, I had just come back from a two-week camping trip with three teens in the wilderness expanse of the Sangre de Christo Mountains in New Mexico. I went to work that day, ran five miles after work, and then joined some friends at the Bombay Bicycle Club for happy hour. I had a few drinks, and then dinner before going home.
Once home, I watched the news, talked with my wife and son for a while, and then went to bed. An hour later I woke up screaming. I was in intense pain and I couldn’t speak. I found out later that I had aphasia. I could think the words I wanted to say, but I couldn’t speak them or write them. I experienced confusion, apathy, fatigue, ringing in the ears, and depression. My arms were paralyzed.
Depression doesn’t really call to mind what I experienced. Have you ever heard someone say, “I felt a wave of depression?” That’s what happened to me; I literally felt the depression crash over me like a wave. There was no warning, no precipitating event. I would be normal one moment, the next I was crying uncontrollably. I found that most people are disconcerted when a man starts crying desperately.
I also learned that I, as a man, had defined some of my personhood as being able to do things. Since I was paralyzed, I couldn’t do things. I had to have people help me. I lost that part of my manhood.
After a few days, I went to the hospital and once there, I was put into rehabilitation. It was to last three years. Every time I reached the level my physical therapist wanted, she would raise the bar.
One day she told me I wasn’t like other patients, she said, “Most people give up.” I told her that as long as I could gain a single skill back, I would never give up.
At the end of three years, the hospital dismissed me from its outpatient rehab program. Their reason for dismissing me? I could lift a 10 ounce can of tomatoes ten times. By their definition, I was now normal. Before being paralyzed, I was a weight lifter. I don’t consider being able to lift 10 ounces as anywhere near normal. Before I left the hospital, I asked the physical therapist to help me with a home PT program.
I set up some pulleys and weights, and began my home physical therapy on my own. Every day after work, I did an hour of PT.
One day my son asked me if he could take Tae Kwon Do. I told him sure. We began going to TKD several nights a week. (I could use a car, but it probably was not safe for me to do so, looking back on it.) After watching him for a while, I went back to the hospital and asked my physical therapist what she thought about me doing TKD. She said, “Anything you do to get your arms moving and keeping them moving is good for you.”
The next day, I asked the TKD instructors if I could join their school. They welcomed me. When I reached this degree black belt, one of my friends asked me if I knew what my nickname was when I joined the school. I didn’t. He told me it was, “The basket case.”
Everyone referred to me as the basket case and all knew who they were talking about. Then he said, “You are anything but a basket case now.”
In time, I gained my strength back, stopped having depression, and overcame fatigue. I eventually earned nine black belts.
During my worst days, I realized I could have died from my reaction. I found out I was allergic to Bactrim. It sank in on me that I could have ‘bought the ranch.’ I decided I was going to do the things I had always said I wanted to do, but put on the back burner.
I went back to school and earned my Ph.D. continued with my martial arts training, and took a cut in pay to get a place at a community college. I went on to learn Spanish and how to play the guitar. I also began writing fiction.
I hope you’re beginning to understand why I hate to hear students say, “I can’t…” before they have tried. They are self-limiting just like I was before I realized that the things I was putting on the back burner would stay there unless I made the decision to do them and do them now.
I keep the 10-ounce can of tomatoes on my desk. It’s there for those times when I start to think I can’t. It’s there to remind me I can.

Writer’s Block

I have a friend, let’s call him Geo, who is talented in math and computers. He has a part-time job teaching elementary school teachers to do math. Most took math in college, secondary, and primary schools. Most have math anxiety. They acquired their anxiety when they were children and it has stayed with them as adults. It is affecting their jobs and their lives. Before he can begin to teach them math, he has to deal with their math anxiety. Once he has dealt with that, they can learn math, but not before.
You see they have learned, whenever math comes up, to go into an ego state that shuts down their learning. Say the word math and they react. They are not dumb, they are not incapable of learning, they have acquired a psychological pattern that is triggered by the word math or any variation of the word.
Their pattern reminds me somewhat of when I learned to sword fight. I noticed my opponents thought the object of sword fighting was to clang swords together. So instead of attacking their opponents directly, they fought like Hollywood pirates. They happily clanged away with their swords instead of taking their attacker out. My Sensi (instructor) taught me an Iaido technique of drawing my sword, blocking my opponents attack, cutting them, and returning my sword. The fight was over in a second. No clashing swords, no dancing around, no ‘aaaarg’s’ or other pirate relics.
Some writers have writer’s blocks. I think their blocks are like the teacher’s math problem. They are engaged in a struggle they can’t stop because they believe it is a necessary part of writing. They believe, “You can’t write, if you don’t struggle.” It is like the clanging of swords. It is a meaningless ritual that leads nowhere and has no purpose except to tire you. I am not belittling those who have writer’s block, I’m suggesting that if you change the way you look at it, they way you think about it, it will change.
Sword fighters can become caught up in fear, or they can learn to be constantly ready to meet an opponent and dispatch them immediately. The difference is in how you prepare. Someone with writer’s block prepares to write by experiencing their block. Someone without it, prepares to write by experiencing their writing rituals.
If you have writer’s block, how can you deal with it. First, you can imagine yourself writing without block. That is, meditate on writing itself and not on the block. Second, you can have your desk or writing area prepared so that you can begin writing immediately when you arrive there.
It really doesn’t matter what you write, writing something is the most important thing to do. It can be anything. For example, you can write a character sketch of the last person you saw outside your home. You can write a one page short story, a poem, a song, etc. This is called getting well mechanically. After a time, you will forget your block.
Next, be ready ahead of time by having an outline or schedule of your activities. Think about each problem you experience as being surmountable. Don’t think about your goal, but about what is happening in the here and now.
For years I wondered why some people with high intelligence, capability, and goals failed. While others with the same talents succeeded. The people who fail have their eyes on the horizon and trip over the first obstacle. The people who succeed have their eyes on the ground and step over and around obstacles.

How to Get Unstuck

Let’s say you are writing well, working every day, and then you hit a snag and stop. Struggle as you will, you can’t get yourself started again. How can you fix that? First you must understand your own thinking. Most people think using Single Loop Learning. They begin with assumptions, develop their Goals, values, and Techniques (their action strategy), and then get Results (consequences). They review their results and go back to their Goals, etc. Often, that approach does not lead them to get unstuck, or further down the road. They stay stuck, or are able to get some things done after a time, but get stuck again.
Double Loop Learning is quite different from Single Loop. Here, instead of going back to Goals, etc. you check your own beliefs about yourself and what you are doing to question your Underlying Assumptions. If you are successful in getting past your own Defensive Reasoning, and really doubt your Underlying Assumptions, then you can re-check your Goals, etc. and get different results. If you are successful in re-evaluating our Underlying Assumptions, you can at the same time question your theory of action, the stated reason you have for undertaking something.
It is not unusual for us to have a public, Espoused Reason, we are doing something, but a different Theory in Use, what we actually do. We are able to deceive ourselves into believing they are the same, when more often than not, they are different.
For example, Rodney wants to be a Christian writer to show his love and affection for humanity. His writing reflects his disdain for others with his patronizing attitude. He talks down to others. He has not been successful in publishing anything but pretends to fellow writers he is on the verge of a ‘big breakthrough.’
If his fellow writers talk to him about the voice he is using in his writing and point out readers may feel like he is talking down to them, he gets angry and defensive.
It’s easy to see that Rodney is going to get no where if he continues like he is. He must get past his defensiveness to look at his underlying assumptions to be successful in writing.

For a diagram see the following website:
http://infed.org/mobi/chris-argyris-theories-of-action-double-loop-learning-and-organizational-learning/
Another way of looking at this is to understand that most people have a negative evaluation process they have learned that leads nowhere. It usually goes like this. They write something and their internal critique starts picking their writing apart. This leads them to punish themselves, telling themselves things like, “Why do I even try. I’ll never be a good writer.” Or “I should have studied harder in school; I just can’t remember the rules of writing.” Then they worry about their writing and can’t get out of a worry loop. Even if they succeed in stopping themselves from worrying, they go back to being over critical and start the loop again. This process leads to nowhere. It wastes your time.
An alternative to this negative process is a more positive one that goes like this: As you work, you evaluate what you’ve done. This leads you to consider options you have identified for making your writing better. Then you develop a plan taking the best of your options and using them. Now, you loop back to evaluating what you are doing. This process leads to making your writing better over time.
Once you understand these processes, you can find where you are within the processes. Once you’ve identified yourself, you can stop yourself and switch to a more active process. So, if you find yourself being stuck, you can use one of these processes to get unstuck and make your writing better.

A Little Housekeeping

With a gap of a couple of months behind me, I’m now back to writing. Pneumonia takes a toll on one’s body and mind. I found myself one night trying to compose an email with two lines. In the second line, I had the word ‘care.’ I couldn’t remember how to spell it. After about thirty minutes of trying to muddle through the correct spelling, I stopped and wisely decided to finish it the next day.
Recovery has been painfully slow. The medical doctors tell me you spend about a week in recovery for every two days in the hospital. I will be recovering for about seven weeks.
I think I’ll use that time to edit things I have already written. Creativity will come when it does and nothing can force it. Even if creativity comes earlier, if being able to spell and punctuate don’t come back, it will be scribbling.
Recently, I decided to read some Sci-Fi for fun. I have been caught up in writing and editing so much that I put off reading for enjoyment. I have bought Sci Fi books by the pound before, just a large ten-pound box. So, when I picked two books to read, I picked one based on reviews of the author. You would know his name. The other won my approval by the title and cover (“…judge a book by its…,” yes, I know).
Anyway, I selected a book by its cover. When I began reading, I found many errors. For examples: the author over explained, there were spelling errors, using the wrong word, he switched character’s names without explanation, rescues dues ex machina, he interchanged he’s and she’s so that I couldn’t tell a character’s gender. I considered reading no more of the book early on. I didn’t stop, however. Why? He told a good story. It wasn’t a great story, it was entertaining. His most outstanding ability was his verbal descriptions. I thought it odd that his attention to detail problematic, but about the space ship in his story and the characters themselves, he provided detail.
I’ll have more later. For now, I am just keeping up with the little things I can and putting larger tasks on hold.

Light my Fire

Writers come in all types. Some are pantsers, they write whatever comes to mind; some are plotters, they plot their whole story before they begin writing. Outliners fall into the latter camp as well. Some write fast, others slow; some write in coffee shops, others in a secluded spot at home. There is no right way to write.
Some have inspiration that drives them like a wild-fire to produce much quickly. Others have a smoldering fire that keeps them cooking without mania. Neither is better.
In either case, if they stop writing for a while, the fire pops up in another place. It can’t be stopped.
I just took a hiatus from writing. The gap was self-imposed at the beginning, but then external factors dominated my break.
I began the summer by choosing to not write much, if at all. I was on no schedule. Instead of writing fiction, I thought about what I had written, how good (or bad) it was, and used that as a jumping-off point to think about what I would like to write. When I went on a trip, I didn’t take anything to read, just a blank notebook where I could record ideas. I had no expectation or requirement that I use the ideas later. I feel like I replenish my batteries when I do that.
I did succeed in developing pages of notes on things I might like to write. They may or may not ferment, bubble to the top, and get on my list of things to do or they may just stay there and eventually be forgotten.
After my travels, I had a little cough. Nothing to worry about, but it hung on a couple of weeks. About three weeks ago, my slight cough turned into what felt like a bad summer cold. Later, I found my oxygen levels were unexpectedly low (wife is a nurse). I went to the emergency room where I was rushed into treatment for pneumonia. It turned out to be bilateral pneumonia.
Mr. P (pneumonia) is an unusual disease. I went from being able to work out in the gym three times a week or more to not being able to lift myself from a chair; from being able to understand complex ideas to not being able to understand simple questions.
With only one blow from Mr. P., I was down and out—almost.
The faint ember that fuels my desire to write glowed through the thick fog Mr. P. shrouds himself in. Even so, I still observed doctors and nurses as if they were characters I could use in a story. I noted my darkest moments and those where I found the strength to power through. I was still writing, this time on automatic. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t put two words together to make a sentence. The muse still had me.
I remember one point where I was hallucinated a small animal under my chair and insisted my wife search for it. I didn’t retain my long-dead mother visiting me and only know about that because my brother reported it to me. I had a conversation with her while he was in the room. He could’t see her, only I could. Both could work into interesting stories.
In being sick, I found out something about myself. Writing has become so much a part of me that I am on automatic. The fire keeps burning.

Writer’s Break

I took my summer break from writing and music during the last two weeks. I’ll have another short break before September. After years of being in school and teaching, I’m still on a semester schedule. I’m not idle when I take a sabbatical, I take my Moleskine book with me to make notes, I call them sketches. I also have a music assignment I work on during my breaks.
I have a brother who’s an artist. He makes art sketches while he’s on vacation. I make author’s plans. Some character will sit near me in a restaurant and I’ll make up a story about him or her. It doesn’t matter that none of what I make up is based on any reality, it’s just a story. Sometimes I take headlines and make up a story about what I think the real content will be, then read the story. They seldom match. That’s not the point. I’m exercising my creativity.
It is not unusual for me to have vivid dreams when I’m vacationing. Maybe it’s because I’m in an unfamiliar place and don’t sleep well. Sometimes my dreams form a story I record when I wake up.
For the last several days, I was in San Francisco. There were many street performers that interested me. Someone could write a story about the artists who perform there. It could be a spin-off the actual ones and their life stories, or a fictional one. Many of them know each other. They are a community of performers for an ocean of tourists who may pause a moment or walk by. Some have advanced equipment, others, just themselves.
For me, part of the joy of travel is to see others with different lifestyles and cultures. My imagination expands as I take in all the different things I see.
Before SF, I spent a week at my cabin in New Mexico. It was more of a quiet, contemplative trip than the SF on. Texas was ninety-four degrees when I left home. New Mexico was at fifty-six. I wrote a few notes to myself there, but for the most part, I just relaxed. I fished for trout most mornings, a laid back activity that requires concentration, but little mental activity. (Yes, I caught some.)
Hiking was out of the question because of the cold rain. NM has had a drought for the last several years, and it was beautiful to see all the rain.
I go to NM to get my batteries recharged. The less I do in terms of meaningful activities, the more I get out of it. Though I don’t teach anymore, I’m ready to start a new semester (of writing and playing music) after a stay in NM.
I think it is good for writers to have some haven where they can think without distraction. When I attended UT Austin, I found a patio on the undergraduate library that was rarely used by anyone else. It doesn’t have to be an NM escape. There are places for quiet contemplation everywhere.

Blind Spots

While I was in training as a group therapist, a fellow student was distraught because she couldn’t imagine the colors red and gray. The therapist/supervisor parrots not seeing colors as he asked her about the qualities of red and gray. She was in a double bind. If you can’t imagine the colors, logically you can’t describe them; if you describe them, you can imagine them. She continued describing the colors while appearing emotionally distraught at her inability to express them.

There was another student in the same group which was holding back from going to school because, “I will be forty-four when I get out.” The supervisor asked him, “How old will you be in four years if you don’t go to school?” The reply, “Forty-four…that doesn’t seem right.” He was holding himself back by worrying about something that he couldn’t change.

On yet another occasion, a student said, “I’m stuck, out of ideas. I just don’t know what to do.” The supervisor asked him, “What would you do if you could think of it?” The student began responding, and then said, “That’s not fair, YOU made me think of something to do when you knew I couldn’t.”

I have noticed in my critique group that some of us (I include myself here) can’t see our own writing problems and repeat them. We come to a group full of hope that we have finally written a piece that will sail through critique only to have the same old problems pointed out to us. We can’t imagine how we could have missed those problems again. We can’t see red or gray. We will have to take some time, let’s say a year, and study our problems and fix them, but we will be a year older if we do that. Worst of all we can’t come up with any ideas about how to fix our perpetual problems.

The problem is we are in a double-blind that prevents us from seeing our own flaws. Interestingly, the same people quickly point to the flaws of others, even the flaws they can’t find in their own work. It’s a curious problem.

Here’s why I think it occurs: We typically use two ego states when writing fiction. The child within is the one that comes up with original ideas. Our adult within tells us to follow certain rules, but we don’t listen much to that when being creative.

Look at all the advice to writers when writing first drafts: Don’t edit, Don’t stop yourself, let it flow free without restriction. You can come back later and fix it.

Another way is saying the same thing is, “If you regularly stop your child from being playful when you write, it will grow tired of playing and you will lose your muse. You have to let the child play, then come back later and use adult rules to clean up the child’s mess. Or, filter the writing through parent rules and edit out the offending parts to make it acceptable.”

The problem occurs when we won’t actually turn into our adult. When we can’t see the child’s problems. We have blind spots.  When we let it run free in the literary supermarket, fearing we will damage its self-esteem if we correct it in public.

Editing requires an adult in the driver’s seat who knows the rules, knows markets and created their own goals.

Pumping a Dry Well

Every once in a while, my get-up-and-go gets up and goes. Coming up with ideas becomes hard, my mind seems to be blank, and projects that enthralled me yesterday are as dry as a cow’s skull in the Chihuahua desert. What to do?

People have many ways of dealing with writer’s block. One of my favorites is to walk away from whatever I’m working on and do something else that’s creative. I may start an entirely unrelated story; research an idea, exercise, or cook, anything that takes me away from the dead spot.

I used to race sailboats. At times, there are calms and you sit dead in the water, but there are things you can do. The best of those is to look for a spot where the water is rippled. That tells you there is wind there. You point your boat to where there is some activity and hope it will get good winds. The same applies to writing. You can sit in a dead space forever, but if you go to where there is some activity, you can get started again.

Another thing to do is to change your mindset about what you are doing. When it comes to writing there are several categories of activity, among them are: creative writing, rereading your work out loud, having someone else read it, scanning your work for known errors, designing book covers,  writing endnotes, preparing your book for epublication, and marketing your work.

I believe each of these activities use different ego states, different ways of thinking. When you go from creative writing to editing, for example, you change your perspective and use different parts of your brain.  Creativity requires childlike ideation; editing requires adult thinking. It is almost impossible to do those two activities at the same time.

Putting heavy demands on yourself when your creativity goes—when you dry up, hardly ever works. Why? It’s like telling a bored child to stop being bored and play. They sullenly stare at you like a zombie waiting for you to tell them how to play. You have to distract them by having them do something else, only then can they get back into their playing mode.

The problem is the same with many writers. If you tell them to just be creative, they give you the same look as a child you’ve told to play. You have to change your view of life if you’re stuck.

I believe this so strongly that I worked it into my lectures at the university where I worked. I didn’t intentionally include it. When I retired, my students gave me a plaque that read, “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Each of us can change how we look at the world at will.

Retiring and Writing Full Time

Tomorrow is my last day of employment. I’m retiring for the fourth time. Really this time. I’m not going back.

Imagine my surprise when this morning I asked my wife what she was doing. She was busy writing a long list of notes.

She explained she was preparing a list of things for me to do in retirement. Maybe I’ve forgotten if she did that before. I’m not looking for someone to plan my time, tell me what to do, make sure I stay busy, or any other way of saying the same thing.

I remembered a song from a few years back: Sunshine, by Jonathan Edwards, not the theologian, the singer. The song is from 1971. I reminded her of a couple of lines in the song: “He can’t even run his own life; I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine, sunshine.” Then I left to go to a bookstore. I do that on Sunday afternoons; spend a few hours browsing books and magazines at my local bookstore. I even buy something from time to time—they are an endangered species.

When I got back home, the list was gone. Hopefully, it is gone away forever.

That’s a problem with retirement.  Not having all your time structured by something ‘productive’ is distressing to working people. They ask with real angst, “What will you do?” When you answer them, they say, “You’ll get bored,” or “You’ll be back.”

If I answer them with “Nothing,” that causes them more distress. Doing something that may or may not be ‘productive’ like writing, or thinking, or playing music for no other purpose than enjoying those activities surely can’t be construed to be ‘productive’. Part of the reason for that is that people endure their work most don’t really enjoy it. They just endure. Hanging on is not living.