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Here’s something that puzzles me. Almost every story ever told conveys the message that happiness doesn’t come from material things. Stories (whether in books, in movies, or told around a campfire) almost always say that happiness comes from stuff like love, friendship, family, meaningful achievements, and/or adherence to higher principles.
It’s really really hard to find a story that says otherwise. I’ll grant that material things are often thrown in as an extra reward; Lizzie Bennet (from “Pride & Prejudice”) doesn’t just marry the man she loves, she also ends up rich. But the money is just icing on the cake. Contrast Lizzie with her friend Charlotte who ends up with money, but doesn’t love the man she marries. We instinctively see Charlotte as miserable, while we know that Lizzie will have a happy life.
Even “Atlas Shrugged” is idealistic in its way. None of its “admirable” characters are merely chasing money; they endure a fair amount of grief “in the name of the best within them”. They could all be materially comfortable, but they give it up on behalf of higher principles. I think they’re all pretty despicable, but they sacrifice a lot of material gain in pursuit of their beliefs.
So with pretty much all of human fiction making the point that “stuff isn’t enough”, why does so much non-fiction uncritically assume the opposite? I read article after article which take it for granted that readers are all mindless materialists. Often the articles are making points like, “Don’t kill yourself trying to have it all,” but they start from the premise that readers have never heard this before…as if readers have never read a book, seen a movie, watched TV, or even played a video game.
It’s not that people don’t realize materialism is shallow and stultifying. It’s just that the structure of modern society makes non-materialism very very difficult. We’re brainwashed by ads, even though we know better…and if we want to feed our kids or eat anything ourselves, we’re often forced to grub for money, even though we know it’s not going to satisfy our inner hungers.
I just wish non-fiction recognized that people aren’t totally naive about the hollowness of acquisition. We need strategies, not sermons. We aren’t stupid, we’re stuck.
Traditionally, the seven deadly sins are Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, and Sloth.
Now first, an aside about Sloth. “Sloth” is one English translation of the Latin word acedia; other translations include “apathy”, “world-weariness”, or even “cynicism”. I like those translations a whole lot better. Sloth is a judgmental word you use to accuse someone else of laziness. Apathy and world-weariness, on the other hand, are feelings we can often recognize in ourselves. So let’s keep that in mind moving forward.
But why are the deadly sins so deadly? Why is Gluttony on the list, but murder and rape aren’t? This puzzled me when I was a kid; but in high school, an English teacher explained it in a way that clarified the whole thing for me.
The deadly sins are deadly because when you’re in them, you don’t think they’re sins.
When you’re angry, you think you’re right. You think the people who made you angry are the ones at fault, and they deserve some kind of punishment.
When you’re proud, you think you’re right. You’re the one who “gets it”. Other people are stupid or thoughtless or even evil. In some way, they’re less than you are, so you can write off their thoughts and feelings.
And so on.
Classic Catholic theology lets you get past your sins by making sincere confession and doing penance. But when you’re in the grip of a deadly sin, you often do bad things without feeling bad about them. Maybe you won’t confess them as sins—they don’t feel wrong. But even if you do confess them as sins, you aren’t really sorry for them. You think you were justified.
So the deadliness isn’t in the action, but the underlying attitude. Once you recognize this, you can see yourself doing it umpteen times a day. Whether or not you believe you’ll go to hell for bad behavior, I hope we can all agree that we should avoid acting like self-justified dicks.
That’s why it’s useful (as I said in The Brain as a Sense Organ) to develop the skill of identifying thoughts and emotions as they arise. If you recognize you’re angry, you may also be able to recognize that your judgments are coming from a not-ideal place. You may then be able to set aside the stories that your brain is inventing (“I’m good, he’s bad”) and deal with situations in a less biased way.
What does this have to do with writing? It can be a good entry point into portraying “villains” and other people who make problems for your protagonists. Antagonists often believe they’re perfectly justified in the terrible things they do. They’re probably in the grip of a deadly sin. Pride, Envy, Greed and Wrath are the most common culprits…but I think we shouldn’t forget about the others. I eagerly await an upsurge in villains who do what they do out of Gluttony.
In connection with my post on Writer’s Block, let me add a useful way to think about how your brain works.
It’s common in Buddhism to regard your brain as a sense organ, just like your eyes, ears, etc. This isn’t anything mystic; it’s simply an observation about similarities between thoughts and the five senses.
You only have partial control over your senses. For example, you only have partial control over what you hear. You can listen to specific music, you can avoid places that you expect will be noisy, and so on. Still, you can’t control everything: you hear every sound that reaches your ears. Inevitably, your ears will deliver sensations you don’t expect.
The same applies to the other four conventional senses. You see whatever is in front of your eyes, you smell whatever wafts into your nostrils, and so on. You can try to control your life’s circumstances, but you’ll always end up with surprises.
And the same applies to your brain. Your brain delivers thoughts, just like your eyes deliver visual input. You can partly control your thoughts, but only partly. Inevitably, your brain will serve up thoughts you don’t ask for, and maybe thoughts you don’t want.
We’ve all had the experience of walking down the street and suddenly remembering some embarrassment from long ago. We’ve also found ourselves having inappropriate thoughts, unkind thoughts, prejudiced thoughts, etc. At times like this, I find it useful to consider the brain as a sense organ. Just as our eyes sometimes show us sights we’d rather not see, our brain sometimes serves up thoughts we’d rather not have.
And that’s okay. We don’t have to think about such thoughts as us, any more than the things we see are us. The brain is not our complete identity; it does a lot of stuff without our input.
What matters isn’t some random thought we never asked for, but how we react to the thought. We have a great deal more control over our actions than we do over our thoughts.
Or at least that’s the goal. We sometimes have trouble controlling our actions too―we get caught up in emotion and do things we aren’t happy with. But that’s a topic for another time. (Hint: it’s related to the seven deadly sins.)
I’ve recently become (a bit) active on Goodreads, and that means answering a few questions about writing. One of the questions is, “How do you deal with writer’s block?” So let me deal with that by coming at the question sideways.
The English word “meditation” covers a lot of techniques from a lot of different traditions. However, one common type of meditation is (silently) naming what you’re feeling. This can include physical feelings (“My nose is itchy”) as well as mental ones (“I’m restless”).
Specificity is useful. For example, what are the physical qualities of restlessness? (Perhaps tense shoulders, a tendency to bounce your foot, and so on.) Specificity helps you pay attention to what’s going on in your body and mind. Specificity during meditation may help you recognize the same symptoms when you aren’t meditating, so perhaps you’ll be more aware of your feelings and better prepared to deal with them.
What isn’t useful is interpretation: stories to explain why you feel a certain way. “I’m restless because I have so much to do…” etc. Telling yourself this kind of story distracts you from your real feelings. It’s not that the stories are false (although they very often are). It’s that the stories take over your brain. You put your time and energy into the stories, letting them spin and suck you in. The stories replace your actual experience, so that you stop being aware of what you’re really feeling. Even worse, you can cling to stories for a long long time…as opposed to real physical and mental sensations which tend to come and go relatively quickly.
For example, suppose someone cuts you off in traffic. You get a jolt of fear and adrenaline. Then the actual experience is over. You may have a reaction of anger immediately after. Fair enough―you feel what you feel. But if you start making up stories, you can ruin the rest of your day: you feed your anger, you attribute all kinds of horrible qualities to the other driver, you might reinforce unfortunate prejudices (“Any driver who wears that kind of hat is a moron!”), and so on. The stories inflate a momentary experience into something that eats up a chunk of your life.
And for what? The incident only lasts a second. You may never encounter that driver again. Making a big emotional story about the experience does you no good at all. Conceivably, it might be useful to have some clearheaded thoughts about what happened―“At this corner from now on, I should drive extra carefully”―but that’s different from getting carried away with the story.
Now let’s come back to writer’s block. Writer’s block is a story. It’s a phrase that blinds you to whatever you’re actually experiencing. The actual experience may be sleepiness, or restlessness, or (often) some internal monologue about the story, your abilities, or whatever. But just like obsessing over a brief incident, calling an experience “writer’s block” isn’t useful. That’s just feeding an unhelpful story.
So if you’re having trouble putting down one word after another, try stopping for a few minutes in order to become aware of what you’re experiencing. Identify your physical experiences as specifically as you can, but just labeling, not interpreting: “I’m hungry”, “I’m cold”, “My mouth is dry”, “My arms are tense.”
Identify your thoughts too, but be careful. If you’ve got some big internal monologue going on, just identify it as, “Talk” without any further comment. Otherwise, you’re likely to get sucked into the story. If the monologue keeps going, every few seconds identify it as “Talk” again. If you can retain enough detachment to do that, the monologue will usually settle down and dwindle away. A new monologue may spring up again, but you can label that as “Talk” too.
After a few minutes, you’ll have a better idea of where your body and head are at. You can then deal more clearheadedly with your situation. Are you hungry? Have something to eat. Are you cold? Put on a sweater. Are you tense? Do some pushups, go for a walk around the block, or take five minutes to relax in some other way. (Notice the difference between this and procrastination. Procrastination is avoidance, whereas I’m talking about dealing with issues that you’ve observed through direct experience.)
Improving your clearheadedness also helps you with creative issues. You may realize that you’re having trouble because you can visualize a scene, or because you don’t know what happens next. Okay, that’s just a matter of brainstorming: get a piece of paper and scribble down a bunch of different ideas, or make a mind-map, or open a separate file and do some freestyle experimentation. Pull out the tools in your writing tool kit, and see what you can make.
So my point is that “Writer’s Block” is an unhelpful story that masks what you actually experience. If you’re having trouble writing, take five minutes out to pay attention to your body and mind. Identify what you’re feeling, and label your thoughts, but without interpretation. That will help you clear your head and make you aware of actual problems that you should address…as opposed to feeding unproductive narratives that just spin and use up your energy.
In a way, this is like the internet maxim, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Don’t feed unhelpful stories. Stop. Step away. Clear your head. Then do something that will actually be useful, rather than getting trapped in emotional quicksand.
When I recently revised my web site, I revisited the Seminar on Writing Prose to put it into WordPress format. This gave me a chance to read stuff I hadn’t looked at in several years. One part that particularly stood out for me was the section on comedy: specifically, the idea of commitment to comedy. This got me thinking about commitment…so let me talk about that.
Comedians have a reputation for being hard to live with. It may not be true for all comedians all the time, but most of the funny people I know are more interested in being funny than being nice. They’ve made a commitment to comedy; if they think of a joke, they’ll tell it, without worrying about hurt feelings or propriety.
I’m not a stand-up comedian, but I do write a lot of comedy and I’ve made my commitment. When I’m writing a joke, there are only two questions I ask: “Is this funny?” and “How can I make it funnier?” Later, when I’m editing, I may ask, “Does this work here?”…and occasionally I decide that a joke is out of place in a particular part of a story. But one thing I never ask: “What will people think of me because of this joke?”
Making a commitment means ignoring, “What will people think of me?” I only care about, “Is this artistically successful?”
The same principle applies to other aspects of writing. Writers often put their characters through hell—good sympathetic people can suffer terribly. But writers can’t allow themselves to flinch. Writers have to commit to the story, no matter how awful or tragic it might become. I’m sure there are readers who want every story to have a happy ending, but some stories simply can’t be like that. A happy ending would betray what the story needs to be.
You have to commit to fulfilling the story, wherever it ought to go. You should never soft-pedal a story’s pain simply because you’re asking, “Am I going too far?”
Commitment applies to a writer’s discipline as well as to story content. A writer must be able to say no to friends and family: “I can’t, I have to write.”
I don’t mean telling your blood-soaked child, “Sorry, I can’t drive you to the hospital until I’ve finished my 1000 words.” But writing takes time—more time than you can find in the gaps of a normal day. You truly can’t have it all; you can’t watch all the good TV, and read all the good books, and have an active social life, while also putting in enough time to produce high quality writing.
Commitment means sometimes saying no. You don’t have to turn down everything—if you do nothing but write, you won’t acquire enough experience of the world to have anything to write about—but you have to carve out enough time to do the work.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had a significant web presence, but I have a new novel coming out and I’m really excited about it. The new book (ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS WERE SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT) is a whole lot of fun, and an excellent start to a new series.
Also, I’m leaving my part-time day job, so I can devote all my energy to writing and editing. And let me repeat: editing. In the past, I’ve given editing feedback to friends, but now I’m hanging up my shingle for paying clients. If you’re interested in what I can do for you, click the “Editing Services” button elsewhere on this page to see what I’m offering.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to chatting with you all here. Hurray for a new beginning!