Me — Overcoming Doubt

I know the everyone gets moments of doubt. That feeling of uncertainty where you don’t know if the choices you’ve made are right, and you don’t know what you can possibly do to keep moving. I’m lucky in that those moments are rare for me. I consider my being a writer a given, and that someday, somehow, I’ll be making a living telling stories.

But after watching The Wind Rises, I had that terrible thought. “How can I be so arrogant as to even attempt to construct something to rival this?” The movie gave me ideas—amazing ideas I’m very interested in exploring—but ideas that end up being shadows of their origin.

It really makes me wonder. If people like Hayao Miyazaki exist, why bother? Even if I end up writing something amazing that is on par with the greats, the world will still be the same. It basically doesn’t matter in the slightest whether or not I do write anything worth experiencing. There’s no hole that needs filling—there’s no shortage of great writers, and it would be ridiculous of me to assume that I would be the person to fill it if there was a hole.

But at the same time, that line of thinking doesn’t help. When moments like this happen, it’s important to remember that you have not just had an epiphany that you’re the worst and will never amount to anything. You’re just not letting the optimistic side of the argument have their say. It can be hard not to give the nihilist the wheel when falling into that pit, because it’s so easy to just think of how much things don’t matter.

You’re right, nihilistic Kollin. The chances of you being successful enough to make any tangible influence on the world are minuscule at the very best. But there are two glaring flaws in your argument. The first is that giving up isn’t an option. It simply isn’t. So entertaining that is silly. You would feel way worse for not trying than you do for trying and failing. The second flaw is that you don’t actually care about making an influence in the world. All you want to do is tell cool stories people love. So really, nihilist Kollin, your entire argument is moot.

Well, somehow I sort of used logic to convince myself to feel a bit better, so that’s good. Good job, optimist Kollin. Thanks… also optimist Kollin? You can go now, me. Argument’s over. You got it, me.

I think everyone’s goal in life is just to be happy, when you boil everything down. What “being happy” means changes from person to person. I don’t know if I’ll ever reach the point where I’m satisfied with the stories I’ve told or with the people that have read them. But pursuing that is the only logical thing for me to do right now. Otherwise, I’m just twiddling my thumbs and complaining about how unhappy I am.

You gotta work for it. Don’t let your nihilist steer the wheel, cause he/she will just steer you into calm waters, and there’s no growth or happiness to be found there.

Me — Knowing Yourself

Recently (within the past few years) I’ve noticed that I really don’t know myself all that well. I, like everyone else, have this nebulous list of wants and needs, but lately, I’ve realized that in order to figure out the “how” of achieving this list, it’s important to understand the “why” those wants and needs are in place. If you don’t know the “why”, figuring out the “how” can be nearly impossible.

It isn’t enough to say “I want to start a family and be successful.” There are lots of ways to accomplish this. If you want a family because you think it will make you feel validated as a person, you need to dig deeper. There are lots of ways to feel validated as a person. This isn’t to say that your list of wants is wrong, just that the why can inform your decision making. Why is having a family the way you choose to pursue your goal of validation? Is it because you never felt like you had a supportive family? Or because you want to leave something behind? Or something completely different?

These aren’t the questions I ask myself, but the idea is the same. Figuring out the “why” will make the “how” much clearer, but it’s not always easy to see. Sometimes, the wants themselves are difficult to understand. This happens a lot with teenagers who are just finding things (and people) they like. I’m sure we’ve all heard stories about (or are) people who dated people against their sexual preference because they didn’t know themselves to act differently. It’s a learning process, and the path is really obscure. As in, the canopy is four feet high and we can’t even see where we’re going because we’re constantly getting whacked with leaves and branches.

I don’t have any clear cut answers that will help you figure out who you are. I’m a little busy asking myself hard questions. There are two things that I’ve made a habit of doing, though, to ensure that I’m at least on the right path. One: ask yourself if you’re happy, or if you feel you’re taking steps to get there. If not, what steps can you take now that will put you in that direction? Two: Constantly keep tabs on how you feel. Keep track of what makes you feel good and bad, and use this as a road map. Play Hot-Cold by yourself, and soon you’ll develop a compass that will get you somewhere. It may not be the place that you expected to go, but constantly questioning everything, and thinking about why you are the way you are is bound to yield good results, even if it doesn’t happen right away.

In my experience, everyone older than you seems to know what you’re doing. It’s amazing, if you think about it. Everyone 50% older than me seems to have their life on track, but as soon as I get that old, I realize I’m wrong. I’m probably showing my age a bit by asking this half-rhetorical question, but I’m curious: do people ever really “figure out” who they are? Or are we all just swimming around in a pool of confusion and only barely figuring out where we should be?

Life — Scheduling a “Catch Up” Day

Recently my life has been so busy that I’ve had things piling up more and more. The sort of things that aren’t urgent but do need to get done, like ordering textbooks online, or talking to people about future plans, etc. This sort of thing is almost never in the forefront of my mind, simply because there’s always something more pressing, and when there isn’t, I’m too tired to do it.

So, how do you make sure you don’t let those things fall by the wayside? It’s pretty simple, really. Maybe you’ve heard of the priority analogy called “The Jar of Life”. Important things like livelihood, family, friends, etc. are ping pong balls, less important things like your job, house, and hobbies are marbles, and the trivial stuff like what you do with your free time is sand. If you start big and add the unimportant things in later, you’ll have room for everything. If you fill the jar with sand first, you won’t have room for ping pong balls.

Now, this analogy is intended to teach you about priorities, so it’s not entirely relevant, but bear with me. These side jobs that need to handled but aren’t important for your direct, day to day life can often be forgotten. They’re marbles, but they are also a source of stress because they can be unconscious baggage on your addled mind. You know you’ve got lots to do, but you’re too busy to get it done, and when you get home you know you won’t have the energy to do any more, so it becomes a vicious cycle.

Here’s how I handle it. I keep track of everything I need to get done. (I put this list on my phone so I always have access to it.) Then, I resolve to spend the most convenient day off working on those errands. I don’t treat it as a day off at all, in fact. For that day, all of those errands have top priority, and I need to get as much of it done as possible. Depending on how quickly errands pile up, this “Catch Up” Day could be weekly routine for you. Otherwise, you might only want to schedule it once you have enough stuff to justify spending the day doing them.

This accomplishes two things. One, knowing what you have to do and resolving to do it all at once will get it done quicker. You won’t have to worry about squeezing in an errand between work and relaxation. Two, it is extremely relieving to get everything done. You may not consciously perceive that burden of things you know you have to do, but once you clear it up, it feels great. You can rest easy knowing all the non-urgent stuff that needs doing has been done.

Personally, I’ve found this to be a great conclusion to the week, because when I get back to work/school the next day, I’ll feel like I’ve already been extremely productive. Even if, realistically, it means discarding my only day off, that one carefree night of sleep is worth the trouble.

Life — The Three ‘Me’s

I measure a lot of my success based on the progress I’ve tracked for myself, and how much further I am from my goal. I have endpoints for three distinct things I want to achieve in life, and those endpoints are actually people. Figures whom I admire for very distinct and different reasons, but all who have become something that I want to match (or surpass) in the coming decades. Now, I’ve talked about all of these people before, so I’ll include links to previous posts where I talk about each more singularly.

The first person is probably the most obvious and the most distant goal, and that is Brandon Sanderson. Now, obviously he has achieved things in the sci-fi and fantasy world that is extremely impressive. Having such a name for himself and working on multiple highly anticipated book series is nothing to sneeze at, but the reason he’s one of my endpoints is that he has such a knack for worldbuilding and putting giant concepts into edible chunks. I doubt he’ll ever be as famous as J.K. Rowling because his world is so expansive, but success isn’t necessarily measured by a paycheck. I’m the furthest away from achieving anything he did because he’s so far out of my league professionally, but his ability to constantly write new and diverse worlds never ceases to amaze me. Brandon Sanderson is therefore my aspired “Professional” identity.

My aspired “Hobby” identity is Matt Mercer. Him being an endpoint represents everything I want to achieve in my free time. Not only is he an amazing dungeon master for D&D, but he is also an incredible voice actor. His status as one of my endpoints is a little more ephemeral, because I also attribute this to my career as an improvisational actor and teacher. I don’t really care about doing anything with my abilities as a voice actor, improv actor, or dungeon master, but these are all nonetheless a part of my life, and I want to be able to be awesome at each in my own right. In this sense, I don’t think I can ever achieve this endpoint by virtue of the fact that he does those things as a professional and not as a hobbyist, but they are aspirations of mine all the same.

Lastly, and this may or may not be the most accessible goal, is my “Social” identity, whom I attribute to Sean “Day9” Plott. He is a streamer that plays games like HearthstoneDota 2, and made his name for himself by talking about Starcraft. The reason he’s on this list is because I think his most admirable quality is his personality. When you’re watching him play, (and I think this is pretty rare for streamers), the focus of the content is not on the game, but on him and his reactions to it. He’s built a community with the people that watch his stream, and is very engaging with his viewers. Not only that, but he also loves to tell stories and give advice. Day9 is an extremely charismatic person, watching him would be enjoyable even if I had absolutely no interest in the game he was playing in. While I have no intentions to have any sort of ‘online personality’ (outside perhaps this blog), I want people to have that sentiment towards me, as well. I want to draw in people based on my social character, not my accomplishments or anything like that. This endpoint is the hardest to gauge because, while all it takes is a change in character, that’s by no means easy. In fact, it’s pretty contradictory to the way I’ve lived my life up until recently. I’m taking steps, but it’s difficult to say how far the path leads, and I doubt I’m on the most direct one there.

I think a lot of people might interpret this information and incorrectly conclude that I’m not happy with where I am. On the contrary, I think I’m doing okay. But I think it’s healthy for us as people to have goals, both short term and long term. And it’s okay to have goals you will probably never achieve, because you’ll still get somewhere by trying. I would be lying if I said I expected to actually accomplish any of these endpoints (except maybe one). But that’s not really the point. All of these are markers to help me find the path I want to take, and while I might not get where I’m going, I’ll probably be content with wherever I end up.

Learning! — Common Grammar Mistakes

Lately I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing, and while I haven’t really learned anything about the craft, he did answer some of the ‘why’ you shouldn’t do some things. Stuff that I had known was bad, but couldn’t really explain what was bad about it. I’ll reiterate some of the things he said, using my own examples, but really the best way to learn the things in that book is to read it. Even in a half memoir-half advice book, he still has a great sense of humor.

He describes the writer as needing a toolbox when they get to work. They need all kinds of things, first and foremost are a vocabulary and grammar. He emphasizes that having a big vocabulary isn’t necessary for a writing career, but it would naturally improve with time as one reads and writes more. He gives lots of examples from famous novels with large vocabulary and a small vocabulary.

What he does not explain, is that there is also something that certain words do to prose. An obvious example is that when your narrator speaks formally using large words, it implies that they are more educated or even above the action of the story (proverbially), especially if the narrator is not actually a character in the story. By contrast, somebody who uses small words can often come across as slow, but it also sends a message that they are simple. ‘Simple’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be. You can have a wise old grandmother that knows a lot yet speaks only in one or two syllable words. There’s quite a bit of implication that goes with words, but don’t let a limited vocabulary keep you from writing. That’s a point that he really hammers down on.

As far as grammar goes, he points out that a lot of people shy away from that word because of what they think it means. It means knowing what all the parts of a sentence are called, being able to identify what is past perfect tense and what instances it is and is not okay to use such a tense. But really, a writer doesn’t need to be equipped with that sort of knowledge. The idea that you need to know what a prepositional phrase is before you can even use it in a sentence really gets under my skin (see what I did there?)

There are two things that Stephen King makes clear when talking about grammar. These are two rules that every aspiring writer hears a lot, but On Writing is the first time I’ve read why these rules are a thing.

The first is to never use passive voice. If you don’t know what that is, the short answer is when the subject of the sentence is letting what ever verb is happening happen rather than making things happen (like in active voice). “The door was closed” is passive, but “Jeremy shut the door” is active. Why make the subject of the sentence the door when you could make it about Jeremy? A door isn’t important. It’s a door. You’re not going to hurt its feelings by excluding it as a character from your story.

To Stephen King, passive voice makes the author seem timid or nervous. Using passive voice makes the writing feel a bit more authoritative. “There’s no questioning what happened to the door now!” the novice thinks. But that makes it no less weak. In the first sentence, we have no way of knowing whether ‘closed’ is simply the state of being that the door is in, or if somebody closed it. You could amend this by saying “The door was closed by Jeremy“, but why in the world would you willingly construct a sentence like that? This is a story where things are happening, your narrator should feel more like a commentator at a sports arena than David Attenborough describing the behavioral patterns of a frustrated Jeremy.

The second rule is to avoid adverbs. These are words that end in -ly. You could say “Jeremy shut the door angrily“, and it works. It really does. But a lot of people would argue that adding the word ‘angrily’ takes away the impact of the sentence. Why? You shouldn’t need to tell us how he shut the door. The context of the rest of the sentence and the paragraphs prior should tell us what mood Jeremy is in, leaving the reader to conclude for themselves how he shut the door.

Stephen King says that the use of adverbs expresses not a lazy writer, but an insecure one. One scared of being misunderstood. In good writing, the addition of adverbs would be redundant. Pretty much any time you would use an adverb, a writer should look back at what came before and think “Do I give the impression of ‘angrily’ in this context?”

If the answer is yes, don’t use the adverb. It’s a word that doesn’t add anything to the story, and your story shouldn’t have any useless words! If the answer is no, then you need to work on your subtext. Put ‘angrily’ in the paragraphs without using the word ‘angrily’. Make Jeremy express anger through his words or actions. Use different words! “Jeremy stormed into his room and slammed the door.” There, now we can be sure that the reader needs no help understanding what kind of mood Jeremy is in.

This is a sliver of the things Stephen King points out in his book On Writing, and I’d highly recommend it. I believe the audiobook is also read by the writer himself, which is pretty neat.

Life — “Hand versus Eye”

Recently I’ve been bogged down with the fact that I’ve been watching and reading so many masterpieces, it’s been hard to think about how I could possibly compare. Now, I realize that every artist experiences this, so I know it’ll wash off in time, I just hope it goes sooner than later. Watching the film adaptation of Count of Monte Cristo and (unconsciously) comparing Lisa Stenton to the Dresden Files has left me seeing how far I really have to go before I can ever be on any comparable level. I’m making a deliberate effort to steer away from a Dresden Files vibe, but everything I make distinctly different feels like a downgrade rather than a different artistic choice. Maybe this means I’m turning at the wrong junctions.

Through all of this,the concept of “Hand versus Eye” comes to mind. Yesterday, my brothers and I were talking about the inevitable difference between what your hand can create and what they eyes can perceive. I can draw, but I can’t come close to the level of detail Michelangelo could achieve. I can write, but I can’t forge a work of art others in my craft can. If my hand was slightly better than my eye’s ability to perceive greatness, I would never have to deal with this discrepancy.

This all derives from the mind’s drive to compare and find patterns. We like frames of reference, and sometimes all of the easily accessible frames of reference are all way better than you. I imagine learning to pitch a baseball is tough because you want to be in the Major League, so you have to think about how you just can’t throw a 90mph fastball yet. You don’t want to compare yourself to the rest of your team, who is on the same level as you, because they aren’t people you aspire to be.

I could easily browse websites full of awful writing to boost my morale. I know how much better I am than any high-schooler trying their hand at writing their first fanfiction. That was me once upon a time, after all, and I can see how far I’ve come.

And in the end, that’s all that should really matter. “The only person you should compare yourself to is you. Your mission is to become better today than you were yesterday.” A quote whose only credit I could find is to John Maxwell. This is a much safer comparison, really. You can’t compare yourself to people you aren’t. If they’re in the field you want to break into, you may be inclined to think that the comparison is one of pure volume of skill alone, but it isn’t. You’re comparing the volumes of two different liquids, with different densities and properties and everything. There is no fair comparison there.

You’re only going to get disheartened if you keep letting your eye see things way above your hand’s level. Don’t let yourself dwell on who you aren’t. Just look back and make sure you’re happy that you aren’t who you used to be. If you’re an artist, just draw something better today. It doesn’t have to be “Starry Night”, or “The Last Supper”. As long as you can see improvement from the day before, and the month before that, and so on, then you’re on the right track.

Life — Having What it Takes (390)

I’ve been writing since I was around twelve. I had this idea in my head about two friends that were so powerful they could fight an entire army on their own. One was a wizard, the other was a ‘dragon keeper’. I even had a bit of a plot twist set up where it would be revealed that they were literally the same person with different fates and lives, somehow. No, I didn’t figure out how that was supposed to work, but it was an idea I had.

I have been writing more and more in those seven plus years since, but before I started this blog early 2016 you could have read everything I had ever written in two sittings (one, if you spent the day doing it). Nowadays I have a substantial amount of output (several novels worth, if you count my blog in that tally), and I’ve finally gotten into the habit of writing even when I don’t want to. Not to mention the fact that I’m starting to be able to enjoy certain aspects of writing.

But if you had asked me the probability of me becoming a “published novelist” only five months ago, I would have said “at best, fifty percent” (this being an almost direct quote from one of my blog posts). Why? Well, a lot of reasons. Writing is hard, even when it’s fun. It has never been something I do in my spare time, and even now I don’t consider writing time “free” time. Instead, I would liken it to going to the gym with the hopes of being a bodybuilder one day. You don’t get in shape without putting in the work, and it’s the same thing here.

But if you asked me today the chances of me making a living off of my writing one day, I would say over ninety-five percent. Because a few things have finally clicked.

When I was first starting out, I read Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal that he did for aspiring writers. In his parting words, he said something that never really resonated until this moment in my career.

If you stay the course and break in, you are going to acquire a ton of absolutely necessary skills. You have to learn to motivate yourself to write even when you don’t feel like it: Discipline. You’re going to have to learn the ropes of the business, and how to work with an editor: Professionalism. You’re going to face what might be years of adversity, facing a monumentally difficult task and you’re going to overcome it: Confidence. You’re going to do it with very little active support, and when you look back at this time in the future, you’re going to know that it was something YOU did all by yourself: Strength.

My brain understood that an author’s path is a hard one, and most walk it alone. But now my heart finally gets what that even means. In the Writing Excuses podcast, Brandon Sanderson mentioned that his editor commented on how young he was for an author. He was twenty-six. For me, that’s another seven years.

I can take that to mean I’ve got a long way to go before I actually sell anything, or I can look at it optimistically. Sanderson was considered young for a published author when he made it. That means that even if I need another seven years of writing practice before I publish, I won’t have lost any time in the professional field. They’ll say I’m young now, and they’ll say I’m young then. (To clarify, this is because a lot of authors looking to publish are retiring people. Comparatively few people start their working class career as aspiring writers.)

I’ve learned so much with this blog and now my writing group in this past year alone, that I’m finally starting to really see how daunting a task becoming a writer really is.

If I get a job offer elsewhere. If I start making a living off of something that isn’t writing, I’m not going to stop. It’s my firm belief that nothing at this point can stop it from happening anymore. The train has left the station, and I don’t know where the next stop is, but I can’t well get off now.

I’m a writer. I’ve made up my mind to walk this path. There’s no turning back now.

 

As a side note, Jim Butcher’s advice is really inspiring, and they’re words I live by at this point. I found a hard time only quoting one chunk earlier because I kept wanting to expand it more and more, so I decided to leave the whole post below. There’s also a link to the LiveJournal itself, if you’re so inclined to read it that way instead. Continue reading “Life — Having What it Takes (390)”