Posts tagged Goals
For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to answer the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?”
This is strange, because since I was a child I’ve never struggled to find activities I enjoy. I am, first and foremost, a creative person. For as long as I can remember, I’ve made things. As a child I drew pictures, wrote stories, built things out of Legos, recorded audio productions, wrote scripts, made movies, came up with inventions, and generally constructed realities that I enjoyed, then shared them with others.
As I grew older, these habits came with me. I won an all-school fiction writing contest in the 5th grade. I got pretty decent at art. I borrowed video cameras from anyone I could, and created dramas by drafting siblings and cousins into my casts. In college, I studied radio and television production, where I collaborated on some extracurricular student films, had a radio show, and even had a popular column in the student newspaper. During my semester in Europe, I wrote long, serialized journal entries about my travels. These were sent by my mother (unbeknownst to me) to large groups of family and friends via email. I started to gain a following.
As I neared the end of my college career, people would see me at a wedding or a party and take me aside. “You are really talented,” they’d say. “You need to be a writer.” And I glowed inside, because really, that’s what I wanted to do. Since that time in the 5th grade when I won the writing contest – and was awarded a trip to a major publishing house with my dad – I wanted to write novels, and in particular novels of science fiction. This was the genre I had always enjoyed most. As a boy, after all, I had turned those Legos into spaceships. I spent long evenings in the cold, under the stars, searching the sky for UFOs. I tore into novels about cyberspace and robots, and reveled in stories about the great adventures among the stars. I, too, wanted to create worlds that people would love as much as the ones I enjoyed in the books I read, the video games I played, and the movies I devoured. I wanted my own stories to be made into movies, to some day stand on a set and help them better understand some scene or character as my work was brought to life before me. That was my dream. It was woven through all the various layers of my education and experience.
But at some point along the way, I had decided that it was silly. Impractical. As a young man, I was perhaps unusually committed to my Catholic faith and found that I was rather articulate in writing about it. It wasn’t long before I was writing professionally on these topics for national publications. I was also ghostwriting at work for big executives at client companies. Perhaps, I thought, this was where my gift was of greatest benefit. Entertaining people with escapist fiction never felt as important as evangelizing people, winning the war for souls, or practicing good corporate communications. Not to mention that in my opinion, good fiction was rough around the edges. When I wrote, I wasn’t afraid of coarse language or scenes I knew my fellow Catholics might find a bit scandalous, because they felt right in the story. And I could never escape the idea that all those people whose respect I had earned as a Catholic writer would shake their heads at me and think I had lost my way if I wrote from the gut. I also couldn’t help thinking that the people who would like my fiction would wind up reading all my religious writing out on the Internet and turn their backs on me as well. SciFi and orthodox theology make strange bedfellows. It was like my brain was split into two opposing halves. Would I need to write under a pseudonym? Would I have to hide the work I did on each side of the divide from the people who liked what I did on the other? Not to mention, I kept hearing how so hard it was to become a successful novelist. Writers of fiction have to be really exceptional, and also lucky, just to make a living. Plus, there was the doom and gloom about the “death of publishing.”
So when people would ask me what I wanted to do, I would say, “I don’t know.” Because I couldn’t answer with something that wasn’t viable. That just felt stupid. Who would aspire to that? Who would take me seriously? I convinced myself that I didn’t want to do what I had, in fact, always wanted to do.
As has often been the case in my life, I was killing my chances at success long before I ever took the steps to achieve them. I was giving myself permission to give up, to fail, to never pursue a dream I secretly feared was too hard for me to accomplish. I didn’t want my life’s ambition to turn out to be something I wasn’t capable of doing. So I found endless reasons not to even try. Instead, I did other things. I looked for ways to write at work, or design, or create, but these were always paths that took me in another direction from what I really liked to do. These things, I knew, would make me more money. It didn’t matter how much I enjoyed them, because I was pretty good at them, and that’s how people make a living.
But I was never really satisfied with that answer.
This summer, I will celebrate my 10th wedding anniversary. My wife Jamie is a truly exceptional woman. She is also a uniquely challenging one. I have a big personality. I can run people over when I want to. I’m no slouch in an argument. I’m incredibly stubborn, and I have a temper. I’ve notoriously been what I call a “realist” and others call “negative” or “pessimistic.” I’m also a physically big man, which can be intimidating to some people. All of this is to say, when I’m on a path and have momentum, it’s a bit hard to change my course. My wife, on the other hand, is physically small. She is generally a calm, happy, optimistic person. She lights up a room with her smile, and brings order where I bring chaos. But she is also tenacious, persistent, and focused. She is a fearsome negotiator. When she sets her mind on something, it happens. She can also transform into a warrior queen. This transformation is only brought about by extreme conflict, usually in circumstances where my stubborn self-defeatism meets her indomitable spirit.
In other words: she will not take any shit from me.
Jamie has never stopped pushing me toward success. She has never stopped telling me to find what I love and do it. She is still practical and expects me to hold down a decent job – after all, we are about to have our 6th child. But she knows I am capable of so much more than I give myself credit for, and she won’t let me weasel out of it. And oh boy have I tried to weasel. Always with the making of excuses for why I just can’t. Her, always telling me I need to get the word “can’t” out of my vocabulary.
So for the last two years, I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, that’s short for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I have yet to complete it. Last year, I only wrote about 4,000 words by the end. This year, I wrote 15,000. Not great, but hey – progress. And I haven’t stopped. I’m still working. Still plugging away. At this moment, I have committed 23,143 words to (virtual) paper. By NaNoWriMo standards, I’m almost half-way there.
I don’t like my story all that much, but that’s beside the point. This is a learning adventure. I am writing to the end, and then I’m going to revise, and if a workable story comes out of it, so be it. If not, I will finally understand the scope, scale, pitfalls, and problems of my writing process as applied to such a large, complex task. And I will know, at long last, after 30-some years of writing stories, that I can reach. the. finish. line.
And if it still sucks after I’ve given it a big fat editorial makeover, I will write another one. Because I can.
I received a reminder of why this is worth doing when I got an email this week from a certain novelist whose debut book came out in 2012. It’s a science fiction book, and a good one at that. We’ve corresponded in the past, and he approached me to ask if I’d be willing to nominate the work for a Hugo award.
I was touched by the request. He has reached that next level. I’m still working on Big Scary Challenge #1, finishing the book, but he’s made it to Big Scary Challenge #2, recognition. He’s in the next part of the race, the one I only dream about right now. And I realized that I can help him take this next step. I can be a part of that journey, just as others who have encouraged and assisted me have been a part of mine.
This particular author came to writing fiction at the end of a fruitful career in another industry. When I asked how things were going since the book came out, one thing he said really stuck with me:
I’ve just finished my second novel and I’ve started work on my third. I wish I’d done this earlier – I feel it’s what I was made for.
That. Is. Awesome.
That is a feeling I want to know. To finally be doing what you’re made to do. I’ve been kicking this can down the road my whole life. Avoiding doing the necessary hard work (and believe me, writing a novel is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do) is one of the worst mistakes I’ve made. I see authors out there like Veronica Roth who already has a mega-major-bestselling series and movie deal at age 24, or Larry Correia who has quickly become my favorite writer and has at least one bestseller out of 8 books currently published and 18 more books coming at age 35 (my age), and I wonder what I’ve been doing with myself. Maybe it couldn’t be helped. Maybe I needed to reach this place, this time, this level of experience before I could be ready to do this. Maybe I just wasn’t mature enough before. Maybe I was too damned arrogant and thought I was special and that I’d find some magic shortcut to success without having to really try all that hard. (That last one makes me cringe, but it’s true.) Whatever the case, at long last, I know now that it’s finally time.
I’m done being afraid of my own dreams. I’m over being embarrassed about them. I only get one go round in this world, and I want it to be enjoyable. I want the satisfaction of accomplishing something I can be proud of. In the back of my mind, there’s this voice always telling me to lay it out for everyone, to let them know that yes, I know that I might fail, but this is no time for the hedging of bets. I won’t fail. I will succeed. I may not be good at a lot of things, but the good Lord decided to make it so I could write, and write I shall.
Every morning these days, I have a new prayer. I ask God to give me the strength and courage and ability to be a successful writer of fiction. No more hiding from it. No more feeling like I should be asking Him for something more important, or looking for some greater calling. It’s not my lot in life to cure cancer, but maybe it’s my lot in life to tell the kind of stories that ease the suffering of someone who has cancer, because just for a little while, they can escape their world and go on an adventure in a world I’ve made. I can live with that. That’s a noble enough calling for me.
And with the Hugo awards on my mind, I’ll double down and publicly state another goal: I’m going to get one. I don’t know how long it will take, or when it will happen, but one day I’m going to have that beautiful silver rocket sitting on my shelf, next to the books I’ve written and all the ones that have inspired me, and I’m going look at it every day and grin like a little kid who just made a particularly cool spaceship out of Legos.
During a recent conversation with other thirty-somethings at a party, I mentioned how I thought that my senior year of high school was the best year of my life. Others said that college was. One friend pointed out that best time of his life is right now.
The more I think about it, the more I know that he’s right. Not just about his personal experience, though. I think that for everyone, right now is the best time of your life. Think about it: you may remember things fondly from the past – the freedom and fun of your younger years, falling in love, having your first child, taking that trip to Europe – but these things are all just memories, nostalgic images of good things that happened that can never be taken away from you. The old line from Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris,” comes to mind. But there’s more to that statement than that line. Try to dismiss your familiarity with one of the most-quoted scenes in movie history, and pay attention to what precedes it:
Rick: I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Ilsa: But what about us?
Rick: We’ll always have Paris.
Rick is advocating putting the past behind because the present moment provides an opportunity for greater happiness. We like to hold on to “Paris,” to the old memories, but that’s all they are. Today, you have choices before you. You get to decide what you want to do with every minute today. You get to capitalize on opportunities, share joy with others, experience beauty, and chart a course for future happiness.
For some of you, this may ring a little hollow. Life can be cruel sometimes. Loved ones die. Jobs are lost. Hard times happen. I won’t dispute any of this. In fact, I’d say I understand it fairly well.
In 2007, my mother-in-law was murdered. In 2009, after my father-in-law fell ill, I quit my job so that we could move out to Arizona to take care of him, and help manage his businesses along with what remained of his late ex-wife’s estate. After he returned to health a year later, he betrayed us, and we were left with nothing for our efforts. In what seemed to be a positive change, my wife got a job offer, so we moved to a new city and signed a lease on a house. Within a month, though, she was let go with no explanation, and we were suddenly without any income. We had already burned through the little savings we had. And we had just found out we were pregnant with our fifth child. There was such a backup on food stamp requests, we couldn’t get them for over two months. The best I could manage was to get a job paying only $13 dollars an hour with no benefits and no overtime. I was working 60 hours a week and barely covering our most basic expenses. Friends and family were loaning or donating money to us just to keep us afloat. Every day I was wracked with worry that my family wouldn’t have enough to eat, or would wind up out on the street. We needed new brakes on our van. Then our tires started to blow, one by one, because we they so badly needed replacing. I was desperate.
But for the first time in my life, I didn’t give up, or hide, or get stuck on the idea that the world owed me something. I prayed and I worked and I did my best to find some peace. I took my camera and shot my sister’s wedding – a first for me, and a much-needed distraction from my anxiety. I started applying for jobs back East, and when a guy I knew only through the Internet offered to loan me $2,000, I pounced. We got the car fixed, put our things in storage, found new tenants to take over our lease, and moved back to Virginia. We had no choice but to live in the basement of my parents’ town home, which was way too small for a family our size. Still, we were in a lot of debt, and couldn’t hope to afford a place of our own. Within 30 days, though, I managed to land a good job. Despite the way things had been, I had managed to keep positive, and I was able to build great relationships with my new employers during the interview process. 11 months after we landed in my parents’ basement, we closed on a beautiful home in the woods where my kids would at last have the room to play and grow that I had always wanted to give them.
And now we continue to thrive. My wife just started her own business. I continue to develop in my profession, I’m getting healthier than I’ve ever been, and I am pursuing personal growth with a new found passion. Yesterday afternoon, Jamie and I went to see a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Baltimore Concert Opera, and then went out to dinner with friends. Just two years ago, such a simple evening out would have been an almost unimaginable luxury. And while we’re still rebuilding our financial health, I am confident for the first time in my life that we can experience these little pleasures in life more often, because we’re only getting started on our path to success.
Life is full of struggle. Being a grownup requires that we embrace discomfort and responsibility. I remember high school with fondness, just like I think back on college nights sitting out by the bonfire, drinking too much and staying up too late and talking about all the important questions in life. But now I am answering those questions. Now is the time for accomplishment. Whatever your situation is at this moment, you can be working toward your goals and a better life. You can show the people you love how much you love them. If you have children, you can spend time with them, nourishing their curiosity and watching them grow. You can take the steps that will bring your work to the next level. You can grab a cup of hot coffee and go outside and breathe the cool, spring air and see that life is pretty damn good right now.
My advice? Get up early every day. Be grateful that you have another chance at life, and commit yourself to doing the best you can, just for that day. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t lay around in bed. Don’t drown your sorrows. Don’t plop down in front of the TV. Don’t just put on your “Carpe Diem” t-shirt. Actually go out and seize the day.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite bits of poetry, from T.S. Eliot’s Portrait of a Lady:
Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in her fingers while she talks.
“Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
What life is, you who hold it in your hands”;
(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
“You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.
“Yet with these April sunsets, that somehow recall
My buried life, and Paris in the Spring,
I feel immeasurably at peace, and find the world
To be wonderful and youthful, after all.”
I haven’t made the time this year for goal setting. Not personal goal setting anyway – work requires it, so I’ve already turned those in. But there are certain goals floating around in my head, just waiting for the right precipitate so they can coalesce.
One of the things I’ve neglected in the long creative drought that ensued following Arizonageddon at the end of 2010 is my writing. I didn’t have a single thing published in 2011. I barely touched the blog. I failed at NaNoWriMo (though I was moving into a new house, so perhaps that’s a valid excuse.) It was a good year in some respects, but a bad year for getting personal agendas accomplished.
2012 is going to be better, because it simply has to be. If I’m a writer (which the preponderance of evidence suggests that I may very well be) then I have to, in fact, write.
I came across some interesting quotes from Hemingway today. On writing, he says,
First, there must be talent, much talent. Talent such as Kipling had. Then there must be discipline. The discipline of Flaubert. Then there must be the conception of what it can be and an absolute conscience as unchanging as the standard meter in Paris, to prevent faking. Then the writer must be intelligent and disinterested and above all he must survive. Try to get all these things in one person and have him come through all the influences that press on a writer. The hardest thing, because time is so short, is for him to survive and get his work done.
And that’s not enough. Hemingway identifies the silver bullet:
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.
Now, working backwards, I can state with confidence that I have a built-in, shockproof shit detector. Surviving, per se, is less of strong suit for me, but it’s within the realm of possibility. Intelligence isn’t really a problem (for all that it’s worth) but disinterest likely is. Who creates art because they’re disinterested? We’re all compensating for some insufficiency, perceived or actual. We want the validation of not only our loved ones, but total strangers. If possible, we want the validation of a paying audience. Surely, if someone is willing to put down hard-earned cash for the work of our pen, it must be worth something.
As for conscience? I have one, but it’s never served me particularly well as a writer. It tends, more often than not, to vomit up moralistic tripe as I’m attempting to work and therefore just gets in the way.
Discipline? I know the meaning of that word about as well as I could name the works of Flaubert himself (Which is to say not at all. Wasn’t he some sort of impressionist? I’m so poorly-cultured.)
Talent? Yes, I think I can say so without engaging in embellishment, though for what it’s worth, it’s a rather unrefined talent. And it’s all the worse for wear due to the lack of any sort of exercise in the last couple of years. The writing muscle is no different than a bicep or a quadricep. It get gets flabby and unsightly if it’s never used. Let’s face it – Twitter killed the blogio-star. Micro-blogging has been the death of a lot of longer-form writing from undiscovered or otherwise unappreciated talent. It’s easier, it’s lazier, and it gets the endorphins pumping just the same. (For heaven’s sake, I have a higher Klout score than the CEO of Klout, whatever that means.)
The point of all of this is that I need to hone in and get back to basics. To that end, a 2012 goal for me, as a writer, is to write something every day. I can’t overstate how simple this sounds and how difficult it is. I have five kids and a fairly demanding day job. I am burned out. But I also am suffering from the deep dissatisfaction that comes with not creating, not doing the things that are at your core. Writers write not necessarily because they want to, but because they have to. And I’ve managed to tune that out.
So watch this space. I won’t only be writing here – I have some stories and personal items to work on – but writing every day this year is only going to happen if I have an outlet. And even if it’s only a few sentences, a paragraph or two, something is better than nothing. Of course, I’ve been known to make pie crust promises on this topic before. I highly recommend that you don’t trust me on this.
I’m sure there’s an applicable Japanese sword proverb or something about constantly perfecting or slicing cleanly through bone or some such, but I don’t have time to Google one. My kids are calling, and I need to read them a bedtime story.