Me — How to Find Your Energy

I had a really heavy workload last semester of school, as you might have guessed by my unprecedented absence from this blog. I was working a lot, directing a play I wrote, and doing what I would simply describe as a mini dissertation for one of my classes.

Towards finals, I was starting to get really stressed. I would get home from work or class, and based on the schedule I outlined for myself, I would often have a single two hour chunk of free time to get work done before it was due in the morning. Problem was, I would get home with no energy to do any of that; the only thing I’d want to do is sleep.

This problem was surprisingly and miraculously solved when I watched a video from one of my favorite “public” figures: Day9. He’s a streamer (known for Starcraft) that I’ve talked about a while back, an old post of which I did not re-read, so browse at your discretion. He has a very casual and sociable persona, and he’s one of the people I admire most because of that.

That video was a snippet of one of his streams; just a conversation where he’s talking about this very thing: How do you structure your life in a way that allows you to get the work done with the time that you have? You can watch the video with that link, it’s about 9 minutes long (he does occasionally curse, though). But I’ll also just talk about it in my own words.

The solution is actually alarmingly simple. You can start tomorrow, in fact, and you don’t need to prepare. You’re not going to like what I have to say, but let me tell you, all it takes is the discipline to commit to your own promises and the ability to restructure your day to day.

All you gotta do is wake up early and do all the extra stuff then. If you’re trying to learn a language, write an essay, whatever doesn’t matter, don’t set yourself up for failure by pretending today will be different. It won’t. You’re going to get home from work exhausted like always and then you’ll hate yourself for looking at Instagram or Reddit for two hours after you get home.

But let’s say you have work at 9. Here’s what you do: You get up at 5am. Yup. 5. You cry a little inside, maybe take 20-30 minutes to get up and you curse me for convincing you to do this, but then you get up and get ready for your day. By 6am you’ve showered and eaten, you’d be ready to walk out the door now if you had to. But now you have 3 hours to just do stuff. The house is quiet, nothing going on, you’ve got the whole day ahead of you, and now that you’ve woken up you’ve got the energy to work.

That’s when you write that essay, or go to the gym, whatever you want to be doing more. You devote some time in the early morning, and by the time you get home after work, you’ve already done the stuff you want to, so now you won’t hate yourself for wasting the rest of your night. Maybe you’ll go to bed a few hours early, but who cares? You’ve already done the things you need to. Plus, if you go to bed early, it’ll make getting up earlier that much easier.

I tried this in the middle of a work and school week, throwing caution to the wind, and it changed the way I did my day-to-day. I’d get home with so much more energy because I wasn’t dreading the work I’d still have to do after work. And because I got up at 5am every week day, sleeping in on weekends meant getting up at 7-8am. I felt like every day suddenly and magically had 3 extra hours.

So, that’s it. Watch that video if you’re not convinced. Give it a shot. Trust me, I know waking up that early is awful. But if you can do it, you’ll feel better, and every day after that will be easier and easier. Especially if you’re a morning person like me, sleeping in until even just 10-11am feels terrible because there’s no morning left.

I wish you the best of luck, and as a farewell note, I highly recommend doing things that wake you up immediately. Shower and eat right after you get out of bed because there is no being tired after that. If you jump out of bed and immediately start working on an essay, you’ll just fall back asleep and you’ll hate me all the more.

Me — Procrastination as Efficiency

I’m a person mostly characterized by hyper-productivity. I have to be making the most of my time by multitasking 24/7, if I can help it. I listen to podcasts at 1.25x speed and when I’m relaxing, playing games or whatever because in a way, playing video games feels like a waste of time. Not that I mind, of course, because time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

So I like being efficient with my time. Obviously I can’t be multitasking when I’m doing more intensive things like writing. I can have a podcast on in the background of course, but I either won’t be listening to the podcast or, much more likely, won’t be getting any writing done. So if I’m writing, I sit, sometimes in silence, and write.

But I’ve noticed something, and that realization has led to something terrible. That is the fact that I use my time much more efficiently when I procrastinate my writing, whether its for school, my blog, or just personal projects I’m working on. If I’m working on a project when the deadline is a week or two away, I get distracted very easily, because I know there’s no pressure. Anything I get done now is ahead of schedule, so I don’t even need to work. This leads to me wasting a lot of time trying to write but not being able to work up the discipline to hunker down.

On the flipside, if I wait for the last possible moment to write, I can crank out whatever it is in minutes. Take blog posts for example. I have them set to publish at 5am, so often I’ll end up writing them at 11pm the night before, literally the last thing I do before I go to bed. It would put my mind at ease if I got it out of the way in the morning, (especially on Sundays like this one where I didn’t actually do much else), and yet I didn’t.

You see I’ve noticed that I’m far more efficient when I don’t get to work until there is only one time slot I have free between now and that deadline. No, I never let it get to the point where I’m chugging coffee as I vomit words on the screen at 3am the night before my 8am class, but when this happen it does tend to cut into my sleep schedule and it often makes the next morning harder to bear.

This has led to a strange moment where learning something about myself has actually been to my own detriment. If I never realized how much easier it is to write when I don’t have any more time to write, I probably wouldn’t let it happen as much as I do now, which is to say, pretty much always. When I wait for the last moment to write, I’m often tired and my priority turns into getting it done so I can go to sleep rather than creating a masterpiece. As a result, I do think it harms the quality of whatever it is I’m working on, but it’s a tough habit to get out of.

I’d like to come up with a solution that allows me to be efficient with my writing and proactive so that I can relax as the deadline approaches, but working up the discipline to complete a project well before it needs to be done is tricky, as I’m sure you would agree.

At the same time, perhaps it’s just a professional work habit I just need to learn how to live with and get better at. Maybe I can find ways to better prepare myself for working on things at the last minute, such as outlining or officially dedicating time slots in the day towards work. Who knows.

 

Me — Deserving to Win

I’ve been working on my application for the Writing Excuses Retreat Scholarship that’s set for late September, and it’s gotten me to asking a few important questions. This isn’t the first time I’ve applied to the cruise, and (if it isn’t obvious), I haven’t won any scholarships… yet.

The application process is simple. You write a personal essay about your merit and why you deserve the scholarship, then attach three letters of recommendation and up to three writing samples (to a max of 10,000 words). I tried to be cheeky (and thus memorable) last year by writing my personal essay in prose, in which I talked to one of my main characters about myself and the book I was writing. His book, actually. Since that didn’t win, I’m taking a more traditional route.

My first essay sucked, and I wasn’t surprised when my writing group said so. They said it sounded as though I had already lost, which is fair, because that was pretty much exactly how I wrote it. I don’t know how many hundreds (or thousands) of people apply for the scholarship each year, but can I really expect to be one of the three best, most qualified applicants? Brimming with confidence as I may be, I wouldn’t presume to think I’m anywhere close to the best of the best.

So I knowingly gave my group this awful essay, and one person in my group said something that was really profound.

She asked if I thought I deserved to win.

And I didn’t have an answer. The more I thought about that question, the more I had to ask myself. Objectively, of course, a panel of judges will be reading the submissions and picking who is the most deserving. But on a deeper level, what does it mean to deserve something? Potential isn’t enough. Confidence isn’t enough. Tenacity isn’t enough. You have to have the exact right proportions of each.

Somebody too poor to afford a proper education is already at a severe disadvantage, for example. If they can’t afford the schooling, they won’t be able to write a strong enough essay, let alone the fiction to back it up. So a minimum threshold of disposable income is all but required. Writing isn’t simply an innate art, but a skill to be practiced and trained. Better training and teaching will simply yield better results.

Somebody too arrogant to think that they can have whatever they want simply won’t come across as deserving. Nobody wants to give a jerk money. Not even a smart one that can do a lot with it. But you won’t give somebody riddled with insecurities money, either. There’s no promise that they’ll grow into somebody that can work despite failure, which is something that this industry is practically characterized by. You have to find somebody that believes in themselves, but not so much as to bridge into arrogance. Somebody that can press on in the face of adversity and has the courage to keep going even though success is never guaranteed.

Somebody too stubborn to give up when they aren’t learning isn’t suitable, either. Rejection is a tough thing to handle, sure. A budding writer might hear about how writers get rejected dozens of times before they can be successful, and submit hundreds of times to compensate. They don’t understand that perseverance isn’t the only requirement. Sometimes, a rejection doesn’t simply mean that you’re knocking on the wrong door. Sometimes it means that you’re not selling the right product, and what a lot of writers don’t understand is that the product isn’t the book you’re holding. It’s the author. Products don’t sell if they don’t have a strong name to back them up, and it’s the same way with books. If you’re rejected, that could just mean you haven’t grown enough as an author and a person to be worthy of that sell. So a person that doesn’t realize this isn’t deserving, either.

I’d like to think that I have enough schooling to be competitive. I’d certainly expect my writing to be of a higher caliber than most people my age. I’d like to think that I’m confident enough to know where I am. I can see just how long and arduous this road is. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if anyone can do it, I can. I’d like to think that I’m determined enough to succeed in the long run. I fully expect failure, but instead of letting that stop me or ignore my failures for what they are, I’ll treat them for the learning experiences they are, for nobody has led a life of pure success.

Do I deserve to win? I really don’t know. But in the end, the answer to that question isn’t up to me. I just have to put my best foot forward, and if its not good enough, I’m going to have to find some new feet.

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 — Fending off Procrastination

We all know what procrastination feels like. It sucks when you run out of time to handle what needs doing and you’re forced to do everything at once, only doing a passable job with the time constraint. I’m sure I’m not the only one that has been given a major ten page essay to do months prior to it being due, only to write the entire thing in one sitting on what would otherwise be a relaxing Sunday. You tell yourself that you’re never going to let this happen again, and it probably isn’t even a full month before you rescind that promise.

I’m not going to say it’s easy to stop procrastinating. It’s a habit, and a rewarding one at that. You reward yourself early by relaxing when you should be working, so when the situation comes and goes, you can’t remember it being entirely bad because it started off so well. But you can’t train a dog to sit by giving out treats followed by directions. That’s just not how it works, and our brains are programmed the same way.

There are two ways that I’ve found out of this hole, and unfortunately, my experience says these solutions are only case-by-case, and not cures to the disease that is procrastination, but perhaps with vigilant and unyielding practice they can turn into habit. The first way is what I’m sure many people have heard, and that is to parcel out the assignment. Work on it for an hour every other day or so, depending on what the assignment is. Even if you end up getting to that fateful Sunday night with a half-finished essay, it still yields some success, because now you only have to work half as hard as you would have without trying at all. I’ve personally found this method to be the worst, because its hard to think “Oh, I’ve got free time today, I should spend it working on the essay.” Rather, you’d say to yourself “Oh, man that was a long day of work and/or school. I can’t wait to relax!” and you continue to do that to yourself until you realize that you’ve spent no actual time on it. (Plus, I personally have a hard time devoting only one hour on something, even if its video games! If I’m working on something, I’m giving it all my attention which means I need a good chunk of free time that day.)

The method that I prefer is what I call reverse procrastination: you get everything done immediately, the first chance you get. This gives you the most time to relax afterwards, and the feeling is amazing. I can only recall a few times I’ve pulled this off, because it’s incredibly difficult to jump on something like a ten page essay as soon as its assigned when you doubtlessly have other things to do, but if you can get it done, it’s incredible. You can sit down with your free time and think “Do I have anything I need to be doing?” and then remember you already finished the essay that isn’t due until two weeks from now and you get an extra sense of happiness and accomplishment every time you think about it. Rather than this essay being a stress inducer, you’ve just managed to make thinking about it a stress reliever, and it makes your life so much easier.

Now, I totally get that saying “Just do the thing,” is a terrible way to stop procrastinating. To make it easier on yourself, target things that you cannot procrastinate on. Let’s say you’re taking five classes in high school or college (doesn’t matter). Tell yourself whenever you get an assignment in specific class X, you do that assignment immediately. You handle the other classes like normal, but for that one class, challenge yourself to do everything as soon as possible. As you’re doing this, you’ll find that you probably enjoy that class more than the others, or at least more than you think you would have, because that class is not a source of any stress whatsoever. This advice doesn’t have to be school related. It could be something along the lines of your job, or housework/chores, etc. Take one piece of your life that is a constant source of stress, and tackle it ruthlessly, compressing all the air out like a plastic bag with a hole in it. If you can manage to do that, tackle two things. If this works, keep adding more until deadlines don’t stress you out anymore.

Learning! — Writing Essays

I’m going to go out on a limb here and wing this post. One could argue that I wing every post, and while that’s certainly true, for Learning! posts I actually do research to make sure I know what I’m talking about, giving links to the websites I did research on to help anyone that wants to cross reference or whatever in case I didn’t explain something very well.

Today, though, I’ll mostly be talking about how I write essays. It’s worth mentioning that I put relatively little effort into these things, but I’m fortunate enough to be able to intuitively know what works for me. These strategies may not work for you, but this is how my mind works when I go about handling essay writing (regardless of topic or length).

First and foremost, you have to have at least minimal interest in what you’re talking about. If you are writing about the imports and exports of China in the seventeenth century, you’re probably screwed, but maybe you can find some aspect of even that that you find interesting.

If you’re writing an argumentative paper (which in my experience is by far the most common), find something you can actually argue. Something you’re passionate about but has an opposing view. If you just talk about how X game is the best selling game of all time, making it the best game of all time, and use only facts throughout the essay, there’s no debate. For argumentative papers, you need to use your own opinions and then back those opinions up with facts. It’s a small but very important detail.

In college, most of my essays have been about books or papers I’ve read (big surprise for an English major, I know), so that works a little differently. If I’m discussing the theme of mortality expressed in Hamlet or the allegory of the cave in Plato’s The Republic, I obviously need to know what I’m talking about. Now, of course, its ideal that you will have read the thing you’re writing about, but if you mess up big time and find yourself with an essay due tomorrow for a book you haven’t read, you’re not out of the game yet. For me, even if I have read the book, I look up sparknotes or shmoop. Very often they’ll have clear summaries of how themes are expressed in the work, so I can get an idea of what the author meant when they used X theme a lot and how Y character enforces it. After that, I read some other essays (google “Z book critical analysis” for some quality content you can cite in your own essay) and use their words to help make my own argument.

I’m not going to go over how to construct an essay, because pretty much any teacher in any English class should have covered that at some point. But as far as outlining goes, the thesis is everything. I’ve had professors that graded me more heavily on my thesis than the actual content of the essay, so it’s imperative that you know how to write one. I’ve heard somewhere that in essays, all you have to do is this: “Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you said”. Deconstructing that, the thesis should tell the audience exactly what the essays about. It should say something like this:

In The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne shows his audience that while everybody has a noble goal to strive for, a single ‘sin’ or misstep leads them to social banishment, as is the case with Hollingsworth, Zenobia, and Coverdale as they each seek Priscilla’s affections, which ultimately leaves the reader to conclude that no person is beyond fault.”

That is an actual thesis that I wrote less than a week ago for one of my classes. These are my major ideas that each had their own (several) paragraphs, and they are ideas I went into in the same order I described in the thesis: ‘everybody has a noble goal’, ‘a sin leads them to social banishment’ (which I further went on with each of the three characters), ‘each seek Priscilla’s affections’, and my last point was ‘Hawthorne says no person is beyond fault’. Each of those quotes should have at least one paragraph. In this essay, since it was eight to ten pages, each idea in this specific circumstance typically took two or three paragraphs.

So, the thesis is a little mini outline, if you want to think of it that way. It certainly helps structure what you’re going to say. After you write body paragraphs that reflect that thesis, then you can wrap it all up with a conclusion. When I write my concluding paragraphs, I ask myself these questions: “What does it mean?” aka “So what?” and “Why is this information important to ME the reader of this essay?” I try to use the information I discussed, briefly summarize it, then explain what it should mean to you and how you should go about life having read it.

Here are some (sort of irrelevant) links if this wasn’t helpful at all!

http://www.fastweb.com/student-life/articles/essay-tips-7-tips-on-writing-an-effective-essay

http://www.internationalstudent.com/essay_writing/essay_tips/

http://writingcenter.fas.harvard.edu/pages/strategies-essay-writing

Learning! — Italics, Underlining, or Quotation Marks?

Let’s face it, whenever we’re talking to a friend or on social media, we never formally distinguish titles of anything using italics, quotation marks, or anything other than a mere capitalization in the appropriate places. In casual conversation there’s no need to because whoever you’re talking to will know what you mean.

If you’re like me, it means you have to look up whether movies or video games are italicized every time the information is relevant simply because you store that knowledge in the short term and you forget it within ten minutes. If nothing else, this post will help me remember when to use what so I never have to waste time verifying that Star Wars IV: A New Hope should be italicized.

After doing a bit of extensive research here, it seems to be a bit arbitrary, but I’ve found some general rules. If you read nothing else here (aka TL:DR;) this is the simple go-to. Use italics for everything except short works, and underline things when you would italicize but can’t (i.e. handwriting).

In my mind, it’s best to work with the assumption that everything should be italicized and include exceptions rather than provide a list of both (especially since the list of italicized instances is far longer). This means books, movies, video games, and tv shows would all be italicized. If you’re writing something by hand (and obviously can’t italicize it), just underline it instead. You almost never underline something when you’re typing.

So when I say to use quotation marks for short works, what qualifies as “short”? The easy answer is essays, poems, short stories, and song titles. You also use quotation marks for using pieces of longer works. This means if you’re quoting a chapter of a book, or an episode of a tv show, that title would be in quotation marks because its a specific piece of the entire work. This also applies for music albums versus song titles (italicize the former, use quotation marks on the latter). A website should be italicized, but a page on that website should have quotation marks.

But why bother at all, you ask? Wouldn’t it be easier if we didn’t have to learn this? Perhaps, but like many specific grammar rules, it’s all for clarification. As I said before, your friend will know what you mean when you’re talking to him about the new Scooby Doo movie (making up an example here). But if you write in an essay or on social media “I saw Scooby Doo” without any formatting, nobody will know what you mean. Did you see the new movie? Or are you saying you saw the fictional character walking around in real life? We don’t know if there is a title in that sentence because since it is the name of a character, it would be a proper noun anyway (and thus the name should be capitalized no matter what). So, when you can, say “I saw Scooby Doo“. That way people can differentiate between your words and the name of something that’s been pre-established.

Though, now that I think about it, this doesn’t apply to social media at all. You can’t use any formatting on a Facebook or Twitter post. Oh, well. Maybe you have an essay to write (or two, like me), and I saved you a minute of looking it up by eating a few minutes forcing you to read this whole thing.

 

Bibliography:

 

http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/punctuation/titles-using-italics-and-quotation-marks.html

http://aldenschools.org/webpages/asobol/resources.cfm?subpage=853740

http://theeditorsblog.net/2014/05/12/marking-text-choosing-between-italics-and-quotation-marks/