Live a Life

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Professionally I work as a software developer. The industry has come a long ways since it exploded among the workforce a half century ago. A lot of those changes, particularly those related to work/life balance, I am very grateful for. Things are generally a lot better in the tech environment, although you can still find some sectors holding onto those less-than-ideal business patterns. For example, video game development studios and tech startups still commonly maintain a mentality that employees need to work 80-hour weeks, coding until they crash on mattresses under their desks. There persists an unhealthy expectation that if you work for these industries then that work has to be the single most important thing in your life. Family relationships, social interaction, and even mental stability are all secondary to pursuing the company’s creative vision, and must be sacrificed as needed.

Of course the tech district isn’t entirely unique in this mindset. Any sort of entrepreneurial or artistic field tends to demand the same voracious pursuit of craft and career at the expense of all else. And of course, given that story writing is also a creative industry, it is plagued with its fair share of workaholics as well.

And to be fair, professional competition and poor management are actually far less demanding taskmasters than our own inner passions can be. Sometimes people work ridiculous hours because they choose to do so. And so there is perpetuated the idea of the artist that cannot be tied to family, or community, or religious devotion, or any other obligation that distracts from their personal muse.

It’s an understandable conclusion. The natural assumption would be that minimizing certain aspects of one’s life in order to maximize others would result in more time for the things that matter most and greater advancements in them. Moderation in all things sounds far too limiting, a sure recipe for mediocrity in all things. Is it, though?

In reality this “focused” approach to life is nothing more a narrow approach to life. It only results in being less developed as a person, and, ironically, less developed creatively, too. For the sake of those creative passions, sometimes you really do need to take a break from those creative passions. Here are three reasons why that is the case.

1)  Experience

Write what you know. It’s advice we’ve all heard before and there’s some good reasons to heed it. On the surface level this means to draw from your actual experiences, to give your voice to the corner of life that you have inhabited. It means you shine a light that is informed and authoritative. When Herman Melville penned the experience of the Pequod in Moby Dick, there was an authenticity in his details that was only possible due to the years he had spent as a sailor and whaler. He not only captured the specifics of how a sailor would perform his chores, but also the specifics of what went on in the heart of the sailor during those very moments.

Even further, though, the advice is advising you to write about the truths and perspectives which you personally hold. Don’t write about some trendy cause if you don’t actually have passion for it. Don’t promote conclusions in your story that you, yourself don’t believe in. When audiences viewed Schindler’s List for the first time they were touched by the film’s deep earnestness, which in no small part was due to the fact that the subject matter clearly mattered to Steven Spielberg, given his personal history in the Jewish faith.

Write what you know, write what you feel, write what is true to you.

But how are you to write any of this unless you have been able to actually experience it? How can you convincingly write of heroes standing for what they believe in until you’ve gone out there and found a cause that is bigger than yourself? How can you speak of the power of love until you can say you would choose the happiness of another over your own? Going back to the example of Schindler’s List, Spielberg had the rights to the story a full 10 years before he began producing the film. Why? Because he didn’t feel “mature” enough to tackle the subject. He wanted to experience what it was like to have a family and find his place in the world.

Being grounded in the full breadth of life gives you a foundation from which truly sincere stories can be told. People want stories that speak to their heart, after all, and we find those in the ones that were spoken from the heart.

2) Breaking through the monotony

I remember writing my first little stories in my mid-teenage years. I churned out a fantasy adventure, then followed it up with another fantasy adventure, and topped it all off with a third fantasy adventure. Even when I wasn’t trying to write a sequel to a previous story, all my tales felt exactly the same.

It’s really not very surprising. At the time I was very much being influenced by the new Lord of the Rings films, as these had arrested my attention like nothing before. I knew I wanted to write about things that excited me, and there was very little else that did then.

Today I still think fantasy adventure is pretty exciting, and I still like to dabble in some of those original ideas I had. But I’m not limited to only that anymore. I’ve discovered a fascinating world of math and logic, and I’m excited by stories involving time travel, conundrums, and the systematic discovery of new theories. I’ve experienced very poignant emotions at home with my family, and I’m excited by stories that explore relationships, how they are built and how they break, and what constitutes a healthy one.

Even better, I can mix and match these various themes together for entirely new expressions. I could write about relationships among fantasy characters that travel through time. In fact, I did just that very thing and I loved it!

I trust my point here is clear. If you aren’t hunting for new life experiences then you aren’t going to be finding new wells of passion from which to draw, and your writing will run the risk of growing stale and repetitive. Next time you find yourself repeating the same tired paths in your stories, put down your pen, go outside, and walk a road you’ve never been down before.

3) Only as strong as your weakest link

Humans are complex beings with multiple fundamental needs. When it comes to our physical nature we know that each of those needs has to be met and kept in balance. We cannot give up on eating, and then compensate for that deficiency by drinking an excess of water. Though we may be wonderfully hydrated, we will still die.

Why would it be any different for our emotional, mental, or spiritual natures? Absolutely we have creative needs that we must make time for, but we cannot expect an overabundance in that category to compensate for starving our social needs. Any accomplishment in one area of life is only impressive insofar as it is not counterbalanced with a failure in another.

Celebrities provide the most public insight into individuals who strive to excel at some facet of their lives. It seems that a good portion of that pop culture is comprised of artists whose lives are falling apart due to dedicating too much of themselves to their singular craft. Fortunately, another good portion is also made up of stars whose lives are rebounding after they took a serious look inside, identified which parts were being left undernourished, and are now giving themselves the self-care they always needed.

When one part of us suffers, all parts of us suffer. If you give your craft 90% of yourself and your mental health only 10%, your work will not ultimately rise to the level of that 90, it will drop to the depth of that 10. Life is not a game where we can min/max our attributes and expect to come out ahead for having done so.

 

In conclusion, moderation in all things is not antiquated advice, it is not some myth that is obsolete in our world of speed and competition. It will always bear relevance to us, because our nature as humans remain the same, even though the world around us may change. That nature is such that we achieve our greatest capacities when we are balanced between all our various sectors of life. Moderation in all things is not mediocrity in all things, rather it is fulfillment in each. If you truly love your creative aspects, take a break from them to truly live your life to its fullest. You will be happier, fuller, and even more creative for it.

For my next short story I wish to focus on just one of the topics I referenced above, specifically that idea of taking inspiration from our real life experiences. At this point in time the seasons are rapidly changing where I live and my mind has been caught up with themes on the passage of time and generations, the death of one year and the birth of the next. I’m going to try and capture those sensations and write them into a short piece for Thursday. Come back then to see how it turns out.

Dreams to Realities

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On Thursday I concluded a short story called Free Cleaning Service. This piece featured two moments of abrupt menace, situations where the main antagonist appeared to startle the audience. I reworked those sequences more than any other part of the story, constantly trying to polish them into something truly memorable. I saw these moments as the crux upon which the entire work would be judged. Either the readers would be legitimately frightened and remember the experience for a long while since, or they might only be mildly amused and forget about it not long after, or they might find it outright clumsy and smirk at how my reach surpassed my grasp. Even now I can’t say for sure how successful the piece ended up being. I wouldn’t say that I dislike the result, but my feelings for it are definitely divided. On the one hand those scenes came closer to the ideas in my head than almost all of my previous written work, and I am proud of that accomplishment. On the other hand, I am very much aware that the gap between the idea and the outcome is still much wider than I would wish.

That chasm between vision and manifestation is not a unique experience. Anyone who tries their hand at something creative has felt the exact same disappointment. When an idea first comes to mind it seems so perfect. The images are so evocative, the emotions so real, the messages so timeless. We may not know all the little details of how the work should come together, but we do know how it should feel when complete. We get so excited about our own cleverness and are sure that our creation is going to rank among the finest that mankind has ever seen. Then we set about trying to make it into a reality and learn that the real talent isn’t in being able to come up with great ideas, most anyone is capable of that. The real talent is in having the skill to actually express them. Turns out those little details make a whole lot of difference!

Even those that don’t consider themselves the creative type have still experienced this sense of shortcoming in their work at some point or another. Just think back to your drawings as a young child. You knew what a person was supposed to look like, but did the pencil know how to imitate the image in your head? I have one such memory from when I was about four years old, it is my earliest recollection of where I came to understand the shortcomings of my creativity. It all started when I tried to draw a person wearing their shoes. Now I knew what shoes on a foot were supposed to look like, I had plenty of firsthand experience with the subject, and I held a perfect vision of how the end result should appear. That end result, though, looked a little something like this:

footInSockInShoe

In case you’re confused, that is a foot inside of a sock inside of a shoe. See, I knew that in real life that was was the process by which these shoe-things ended up on a person’s feet, so I logically thought if I drew them in that same process it should come out looking just perfect. It did not. At this point, I did not need anyone to come along and tell me that I had failed, I already knew that it was wrong. It was obvious, because I still had that image in my head of what the picture was supposed to look like and the one on the paper did not match it at all.

This is a common agony in creation. Perhaps you have heard that an artist is his own worst critic? It’s true. No matter how hard he works, how technically skilled his execution, how praised his final work becomes, there yet remains a deep disappointment in his own work. Why? Because he still isn’t capturing the image in his mind exactly as intended. The thing is, no one but the artist is burdened with that knowledge of what it was supposed to look like, they just see it for what it is. To the world it might be a masterpiece, but to him it wasn’t the masterpiece he was trying to create.

While it may be easier said than done, any creative perfectionist has to learn to accept these shortcomings if they are ever to be truly happy in their work. The frustration stems from a belief that ones’ work should be perfectly identical to the image imagined. Let go of that belief. It should not be the same, it is not the same for anyone else, and it will never be the same. The key to being a happy artist is being able to accept your work just for what it is and not rejecting it for what it isn’t. Your work does not have to be perfect, it just needs to be good enough. We rightfully praise the genius of Van Gogh, Da Vinci, and Picasso, but rest assured that they were just as surprised at how their creations turned out as you are.

This isn’t to say that you should avoid improvement. While we may not ever hit the mark exactly, we do want to get as close to it as we can. With time and practice, the shortcomings in your work will indeed lessen, and you will find ways to express yourself more accurately. As you do improve, allow yourself to enjoy the journey. Now, I am not sure what pattern improvement will take over a lifetime. Does creative skill peak and then decline in old age, or does it plateau and maintain its quality, or can it continually improve the whole life long? Is it even the same pattern from one person to another? Because I do not know the answer I am not going to hold an unrealistic expectation of how far I have to progress before I allow myself to be pleased in my work. It is possible to be both content with your abilities now and excited for where they might be in the  future.

Finally, if you require one more reason to let go of being a perfectionist, consider that even if the creator could flawlessly recreate the ideas held in her mind, it would still be received differently from what she had intended. Because we each have our own unique life experiences we will each process the same experience in different ways. And so, though you and I may be given the same character description, we will each have a separate mental image of what the character actually looks like and neither will be what the author even intended. That’s alright, so long as the work is quality we will both appreciate it in our own way and that is enough.

If you’ve struggled against the inability to express yourself I hope you’ll be able to go easy on yourself and trust in the process of practice and improvement, enjoying the journey along the way. On Thursday I will share a short piece that is meant to elicit a very specific sense of wonder and discovery from the reader. I have not written a word of it yet, but I do have a clear image in my mind of what I want it to look and feel like. It involves some strange creature awakening in a deep forest, unaware of the past of self or of this world. The creature will therefore be discovering everything simultaneously with the reader, and the whole piece will move forward at a slow, deep pace. I want the work as a whole to feel mysterious, tranquil, and full of rich ambience. That’s a tall order, particularly for me, and I don’t expect to finish the piece without any regrets. I already see shortcomings just in this summary. I do believe that if I put the work in, though, I will still be able to create a piece that I am proud of. Perhaps some small elements of it will even surprise me by being better than what I had imagined! I’ll see you there.