Monthly Archives: January 2010

Slow Down Slow Before You End Up Like a Bug on a Windshield

The Tortoise and the HareIf I had sat down to write this piece yesterday morning it would have been very different. As it was, since I was forced to wait by virtue of being at work, I had time to ruminate for many an hour on this simple thought: people need to slow the heck down. Everyone is running too fast. Certainly they are in my neck of the woods. By the way how do woods get necks anyway? After ruminating, chewing the cud as it were, I was handed a magazine called Good. I haven’t seen this magazine before but I bought this issue immediately because the cover proclaimed: Slow Down; perspectives on a smarter, better, and slower future. Leafing through the articles on driving slower, Slow Food, and building things to last reflects many of the thoughts that had been tumbling like stones in my brain, slowly being polished in anticipation of this essay.

Was it serendipity or fate that I was thinking ‘Slow Down’ just before someone handed me a magazine of the same thought? I think it was synergistic. It’s time we all start slowing right down before we grind to a messy halt altogether. Drive too fast and you risk crashing. Oh yeah, you think you have to get somewhere in a hurry? You need to save a few minutes of your precious on the go multitasking lifestyle? You save no time when you end up in the emergency room, or on the mortician’s steely slab. Worse yet you save no time when you put someone else there. Are you saving time when you rush through all of life’s experiences to get to the next one? We’re choking on our fast food lunches. We’re giving ourselves ulcers and cancer and diabetes. We’re speeding by so fast, all so we can get to the grave just that bit faster. And fast people are cranky people. Trust me. I have to deal with them every day at work and on the road.

Life expectancy might be higher than ever, but I have a feeling that the humble farmer of a century or two ago, plowing the soil, moving through the seasons at a sedate rhythm, even if he lived less years than you will, had a longer life for he was there for almost every minute of it, rather than rushing through them so that they die like bugs on your windshield.

I’ve looked at some of the other sites and articles about slowing down, and most of them seem to focus on relaxing more and doing less. I’m not necessarily going to say you should stop reading your email, or spend more time in bed, but I am going to say that I am determined to do everything with a little more deliberation, a lot less rush, and always allow time for stopping, smelling the roses, and just plain breathing while I absorb the experiences I’m having, instead of always projecting my thoughts into the future, ignoring the now. I’m going to cook my food, eat less of it on the run, spend time in the garden, write without distractions, drive at the speed limit, not honk or cut people off, or drive so fast through the pouring rain I take out someone’s beloved pet. I promise to appreciate the moments of my life. No matter how I do the math I’m at least halfway through my life and many days, weeks, months, and maybe years of it I have spent in a speedy blur where I can’t remember what I did or why I did it. I promise not to waste what’s left. I’m going to slow down slow.

Join me in slowing down on my new Facebook page: Slow Down Slow – let’s see if we can start spreading the word and making a difference to the quality of life. I’ll also be including other articles on slowing down, multitasking less, and related topics here on my blog in the future.

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Bombs Bursting in Air

I suffer from multi-taskitis and project-overload. No matter how I try to trim down on activities and interests and procrastination it seems I keep on piling them on my head until I’m in danger of drowning. When that happens I find myself stuck on mindless distractions (anyone that is a FaceBook friend of mine will know exactly what I mean) to turn off the anxiety or napping, but of course both of these end up giving me twice as much anxiety in the long run because I become more self-critical of myself for wasting valuable time. I feel like I’m on that proverbial treadmill at the gym, going nowhere fast.

Another symptom of my over-involvement and the impossibility of focusing on one task at a time is the increasing tendency towards losing the thread, brain stutters, and memory lapses. When I sit down to work I make repeated resolutions that this day I will start to focus my energies, cut out my time-wasting activities, and structure my day. I never follow through. The miracle remains: I still get shit done.

I’m like a poor mule beaten about the back to keep on pulling in the traces, but the whip hand? That’s my own. I beat myself black and blue every day just to get through the day and get something accomplished of the long list of projects I have set myself due to the incredible firing of my brain. Basically I get ideas. It never stops. Day in day out, night time too, I’m getting ideas. I find almost everything interesting. Inspiration sparks me where ever I go, from the slow times when I actually walk somewhere and have time to smell the gardenias, to the crazy overload times where my fingers are racing across a keyboard to get the ideas down somewhere before they vanish in the ether.

Of course the key to all of this is two-fold: make a plan and stick to it; and pick less projects. Maybe even schedule projects to be consecutive instead of all at once? How to reject great ideas though? It seems such a shame to consign interesting little tidbits to a murky “might never get around to this one” file.

Hey, I know. I could gain 32 hours a week if I quit my job.


Who Cares What Color Their Eyes Are?

Really – who the hell cares what color their eyes are? Heck, most of us don’t even remember the color of our own spouse’s eyes. I think they are sort of a grey green and mostly I remember that because she told me and it’s important when picking out colors for her to wear. When I meet a person I don’t say “gee, it was nice to meet Bob, he had brown eyes.” I don’t remember people by their eye color or their hair color or their height; unless it’s unusual for some reason. So why is it so many writers write lines like this:

Darkly handsome Antonio, with bronzed biceps and chiseled jaw, gazed deeply into Allura’s violet eyes, so big and moist, fringed with thick luxuriant black lashes.

Yawn.

I’m pretty much done with a book right there, aren’t you? This kind of description tells us nothing except that the characters are artificially good-looking and probably going to be one dimensional. I bet he’s sardonic and prone to misunderstanding the heroine until he takes her roughly, and she’s rebellious and spunky, but she’ll yield in the end.

Writing the introduction for a character that starts with a physical description is, generally, a pretty good signal that whatever follows will be clich├ęd and hackneyed. Yet I have seen decent young writers make this mistake and follow it with a ripping yarn. They’re going to be fortunate indeed if they can get away with this and expect someone to keep reading. I don’t know about you but nothing about the color of the heroines eyes tell me much about her personality, and eyes simply are not windows on the soul. You can’t see anything in their depths. All the nuances of expression we human beings observe in each other is caused by hundreds of muscles in the face causing the skin around eyes and brows to crinkle and furrow, the turn of a mouth. Body language is a whole body affair and so the tilt of a shoulder, the jut of a hip, or a slouched back is telling us more than a study of an iris.

Here is a great quick sketch of a person:

He is not a guy who cares a lot about how he looks, unless he cares a lot about appearing not to care. He has angular eyebrows, and tousled hair. His disposition was serene, but you could sense a prickly, Jesuitical undercurrent coursing beneath it. He speaks softly with a gentle Texas twang.

No hair color there, no eye color either, but you get a real sense of a living breathing person with personality. I took this quote from a description of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey by Nick Paumgarten in the January 4, 2010, issue of The New Yorker. The writer has picked out some salient features because they stand out and they tell us more about John Mackey than a mere physical description. After reading the article I know a lot about Mackey but not a thing about the color of his eyes. Tousled hair: he’s not fastidious about his appearance. Angular eyebrows: gives him an intense look that accents what the author said about the prickly undercurrent underneath the serene casual appearance. Speaks softly? As Whole Foods CEO he’s knows people are listening. He doesn’t have to shout.

Here is how F. Scott FitzGerald describes his tragic hero Jay Gatsby for the first time:

He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished – and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression he that he was picking his words with care.

No idea what color his eyes are – well probably he’s blond and blue-eyed and that’s because he was portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie, old sport. This description, that concentrates so much on the smile and how it affected our narrator, while seeming spare in physical details actually tells us a great deal about Gatsby. He’s self-made, very self-conscious, and yet he has a gift of making someone feel very special. Gatsby himself is very concerned with the external: his appearance, his speech, his house, but at the core there seems to be something empty. This image of Gatsby is then amplified and then drawn to its tragic ending throughout the rest of the book. Even more cunningly FitzGerald doesn’t even introduce Gatsby until he’s fueled our interest in through several chapters of mystery and gossip about the elusive Gatsby.

The fact that the movie version tends to stick in the mind of anyone that has seen and read the book is another good example of what it really shouldn’t matter what color your heroine’s eyes are. Casting Robert Redford as Gatsby was an admirable choice because his boyish good looks, so blond, really mirror FitzGerald’s characterization of his protagonist. Movies are a visual medium that need to make the choice about exactly what a person looks like whereas books do not. But once that choice has been made it becomes fixed in the mind. I cannot read The Great Gatsby without seeing Robert Redford but if I had read the book prior to the movie I might see a dark Gatsby, a small Gatsby, a burly Gatsby. My own mind would add details to the important clues that FitzGerald has drawn me and this internalized version of Gatsby would hold far more meaning to me than one created for me of whole cloth.

If you do end up picking an eye color or hair color for your heroine or hero it should mainly be a detail for your own imagination, and unless there is a pressing reason otherwise, probably isn’t important for your reader. How many times have you heard a person exclaim over the movie version of one of their favorite reads that the director got it all wrong? It clashes with their own internalized version of the story. What the author does is paint enough of a picture to grab their reader’s imagination and desire to know about the character, and then the reader fills in the rest, creating a truly original symbiotic relationship between writer and reader. You need to know more about your characters than you write down, and what you end up giving the reader should be revealing of their inner nature, what makes them unique, not what color their eyes are. Better you should tell us just how they organize their sock drawer.


Letting the Genie Out of the Bottle

I just watched an amazing presentation on the source of genius and creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, that I want to share with you all on my writing blog this morning. Not only did it answer a few questions for me as an artist but it confirmed some of my own beliefs about art and the myth of the tortured artist. Elizabeth talks not only about writing but writing as an art form and the writer as an artist but about the other arts as well so this talk is essential for all creative people.

As a student majoring in fine arts (I have a Masters in painting) and as the offspring of artists I’m, more than most, fully aware of our stereotypes, culturally, about artists as tortured souls that pay for their genius (modern definition of the word being that genius is being really smart or creative) with terrible mental and emotional problems. The quintessential poster boy for this viewpoint is, of course, Vincent Van Gogh. The viewpoint is so all prevailing that I know artists who have considered themselves failures when they didn’t die young, or bemoaned the fact they haven’t had a nervous breakdown yet.

Normally sane people, in other words, will drink, take drugs, cultivate disruptive and destructive behaviors, just to fulfill society’s prophecy that the creative individual is doomed. There are, naturally enough, tons and tons of examples. As I was studying art, being a rather sane individual that really didn’t want to booze myself to death or suffer from mental illness just for my muse, I had plenty of cause to think about this topic. I was also studying art history at the same time and it’s pretty easy to trace the history of the idea of artist as tortured individual from its origins. Great art has been produced of it, but is it really that useful of an idea? Can we change it?

Elizabeth wants to give us a new myth about artists and creativity and it’s actually a very old myth. Watch and rejoice:

Elizabeth Gilbert on Genius


Counting Towards Completion

Old Pan Historia logoAs of this morning I’m 14,460 words, 28 pages, and 6 chapters into writing my first novel. I also have 1,667 words of saved cuts.

What’s with the numbers I hear you ask? It’s not about cranking it out there, but about the writing, man. Alright, that’s not what you’re asking – that’s what I’m asking myself. I have often criticized the whole NaNoWriMo phenomena as a way of pushing output over quality. I think I understand better, now, why it’s a good idea to overcome writer’s block by short circuiting the whole anal retentive “it must be perfect” self-editorializing funk. Still my new obsession with numbers is not about writing 50,000 words in a single month. I am editing as I go along, and I started this particular resolution back on November 8, 2009.

I have long known that I needed something to push myself out of my own personal procrastination cycle when it came to writing my novel. I have written of my process here a couple of times in past blogs. Then in November I had the idea to start a writing group at my community web site, Pan Historia, which I dubbed Write Together. The purpose of the group, in all honesty, was twofold. One obvious reason was I felt that maybe a writing group of my peers where I was expected to show results would be a great way to give me a kick in the pants I needed. My other goal was to show that Pan Historia was not just a site where people fooled around and wrote purely for fun (though those are perfectly good and acceptable reasons to be there!) but also was a great hot house of creativity that could be a positive way for serious writers to have fun and improve their writing while doing it.

To prove that I needed to make myself a good example of it. It wasn’t enough for me to know that there were a few published writers on the site, and a few people that had taken their writing to the next level after sharpening their tools at Pan. I needed to be one of those people I talk about. So here I am to tell you that I am 14,460 words farther along on my goal than I was on November 8, 2009, and that feels damn good. The counting is a game that helps me to keep my eye on the ball, and my feet on the trail. It’s not about quantity, but the act of moving forward and having something I can measure to let me know I’m getting somewhere.

What game do you play to keep yourself on track with your writing goals?