Tag Archives: The Writer’s Life

Goals vs. Objectives – Who is Really In Control?

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” ~Helmuth von Moltke

I am highly motivated by progress and will often get frustrated when I feel like I am spinning my wheels in a task. This probably explains my penchant for lists. I know that I’m not the only one who gets a sense of satisfaction by drawing a bold stroke through a particularly challenging line item. However, I have found that it is all too easy to focus on the list itself and forget that it exists to serve my objectives. Recently, I’ve put a lot of thought and effort into living a purposeful life, driving towards and realizing my objectives to the best of my abilities. Through trial and error, I have found that the key to effective progress is self-aware honesty, maintaining a life balance, and having the courage to change course when results do not line up with what was intended when I set my goals.

The first step to living deliberately is to determine what you truly want out of life. There are countless voices in the world, some benevolent and others selfish, that seek to guide our desires. Many people never look past what society, advertising agencies and our loved ones tell us we want. If they are happy that way, all the better for them. It takes work to quiet all the voices and achieve the self-awareness necessary to decide what you really want free from the influence of others.

Once your objectives are set, it takes practice to be able to manage all the distractions and necessities that the world demands of us. Though there are a thousand obligations competing for our time and attention, many things that we view as “essential” can actually be minimized or eliminated entirely. It is a matter of understanding one’s priorities. Once you achieve the self-awareness to determine your life’s objectives, sorting the essential from the non-essential becomes much easier.

Finally, I have found it necessary to be proactive in evaluating and adjusting my goals. Though it is easy to simply stay the course until things start to fall apart, it is a much less effective strategy than taking time periodically to honestly evaluate the results of my efforts. If a course of action isn’t working, isn’t supporting my objectives, there is nothing holding me to them. Try to make a change and see what effects come. I look at it like sailing by the stars. Having a heading does no good if you don’t look up every so often.

I started out my blogging year with the Fictorians by describing the system we use to set annual goals at work. Though I stand by the idea that goals should be SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time bound), I have come to realize that they need to be adaptable as well. Action is not progress unless my objectives are being achieved. Therefore, goals should be designed and maintained to support objectives, not the other way around.

Webbed Toes and Dream-Memories

I almost never remember my dreams. I am certain that I dream most nights, but at best, I retain only a vague synopsis or a phantasm of the feelings inspired. Despite this, I have one reoccurring dream that my mind holds onto despite my efforts to forget the morbid stillness of the tableau.

In the dreamspace, there exists only a room. The floor is covered in white tile that extends into an undefinable vagueness around the edges. At the center of the room is a sunken pool, a large square depressed into the ground about a foot. The tub is mostly filled with gently rippling water which reflects the glow of lighting that feels coldly institutional. The grout between the squares of ceramic are a pale brown-red where water had been splashed during a struggle. The water of the pool is pink with what I am certain is my blood.

I never understood why this image inspired dread upon awakening, until I mentioned the dream one day in passing to my mother. She had been washing dishes at the time, and stopped to listen as I talked. I remember the silence that followed my description, and the deep breath she took as she set the item she had been holding back into the sink. Turning to me, she told me that she had hoped I would not remember that place, but because I had, I needed to know.

You see, when I was almost 3 years old my parents had left me with the sitter they and many of the families in our neighborhood had been using for years. The woman ran a childcare service out of her home, and unknown to all the parents was over the capacity she had been legally licensed to care for. This fact came to light when one day I was loose in the kitchen while she was making Jell-O. With the infamous timing found in nightmares and fiction, I managed to get underfoot just as she lifted the steaming bowl from the counter to bring to the fridge to cool.

The burns on my little feet were horrific.

I was rushed to the hospital, where my parents met me. In a twist of luck also rarely found in the real world, one of Canada’s best plastic surgeons was in the receiving area of the ER as I was dragged in and decided to take my case.

Each day, my toes had to be cut free from each other and the wrappings the doctors had to use to keep them separated. Despite medications and the other treatments they used, necrosis had been unavoidable. To keep the infection under control, my dead skin had to be scraped off with a stiff bristled brush nearly daily. My mother, late in her pregnancy with my younger brother, had to hold me down as I screamed and thrashed so a nurse could do the gristly task in a shallow depressed pool in a white tiled room.

It was both brutal and necessary, but because of those chances and the choices of all involved, my feet eventually healed and grew normal and whole. Even so, my mother says that was the hardest thing she has ever done. She took a leave of absence from work to stay with me in the hospital and only left my side at night when my father took the vigil with me. After catching what sleep she could in the Ronald McDonald House next door, she would return to let my dad shower and go to work. That experience and kindness is why the Ronald McDonald House is one of my favorite charities.

I’ve often read stories where writers use dreams to have characters cope with traumatic events that occured in the buried past, but never believed that it happened in real life. After all, if the person wasn’t old enough to remember, how could the trauma reappear in dreams? How could it be so specific and real? I would have sworn that it wasn’t possible. Apparently, I was wrong.

Choices of Love and Fear

Though I have respected Jim Carrey as a comedian and performer for many years, I would never have thought him to be a fount of cosmic wisdom. That is why, along with so many others, I was blown away by his commencement address at the MUM graduation. In his address, Carrey spoke of his father, on the importance of following one’s dreams, effecting others positively and choosing love over fear. For the full address, click here. If you don’t have the 26 minutes to spare right now, please click on the embedded video below (but do come back to the full speech later). It’s just a single minute of your time, so please do yourself the favor.

When you seek to be a professional author, the odds are against you to an absurd degree. When I was in high school, trying to figure out who I was going to become for the next phase of my life, I had a choice. Either, I could pursue a career in science and technology, or I could develop my passion for writing and storytelling that had begun to grow on the fertile ground of my passion for reading. In the end and at the encouragement of those who loved me, I went to one of the top technical schools in the country and spent four and a half years earning a degree that has enriched my life. Upon graduating, I began working for an engineering company that is a respected leader and fierce competitor in their field. I had done it. People I knew, people who I cared about, told me how proud of me they were and how obviously successful I was.

And yet, I was unhappy. I was unfulfilled. There was a part of me, part of my talent that was being unexpressed and underutilized. It took me nearly 18 months to realize where the sense of discontent was coming from.

You see, though I was pursing highly technical studies in college, I also fed my creative urges regularly through live performance improvised comedy and table top role-playing. My life was grounded in reality through my studies, but I was still able to live in the fantastic. When I joined the working world, I had left that fantastic behind for many good and practical reasons. But, I still needed it.

It was when I started writing again, started reaching out to the community of writers and blogging regularly, that I began to find my contentment and happiness. This month has been all about goals, finding your own balance and managing your life when the deck seems stacked to overwhelm you.

Please take it from someone who has learned it the hard way. Fulfillment will never come from someone else. Instead, you must explore what you find to be fulfilling, what you love beyond all reason and pursue it. That said, the day job and the dream job do not have to be mutually exclusive.

I am an engineer. I am a writer. I am not one or the other, but rather both, simultaneously and always. Each part of my personality influences and informs the other, making it stronger and richer.

The problem I had, the source of my unhappiness and cognitive dissonance was the false assumption that I had to choose one or the other to be supreme. I was failing to achieve a work-life balance. Was that the fault of my company? After all they gave me a great deal of work to do that was time consuming and challenging. Of course not. I am, after all, employed by them. I was selling my time, knowledge and experience to them in exchange for a salary and benefits. Was the work exhausting and effecting my home life? Yes. But, what I chose to do with that home life was still entirely in my power.

This is the most important thing I’ve learned in my short career as an engineer. Saying you are “too busy” to do this or that is an expression of value, not of time constraints. Busyness is a choice. Time is a commodity, and like any other scarce resource, where we choose to spend our time indicates what we value. What you are actually saying when you are “too busy” to do some task is what you are doing now is more valuable than the proposed activity. Claiming to be too busy to write because of my job was in reality saying that I chose things like working, sleep, watching TV, going out with friends, exercise and other leisure was more valuable than the time I could spend writing.

So, what did I do? I began to choose how I spent my time more wisely and learned to say “no.” Not only to others but to myself. I canceled my television package, Netflix and Hulu+ accounts. I put away my gaming consoles and worked on stream lining the things I felt that I had to do to be more efficient.

And I wrote. A few hours of new words here and there, a half hour of editing and a minutes of plotting and milieu development wherever I could find the time. I put my fingers on the keyboard because that is what I valued.

Life is complex and dynamic, so finding your balance isn’t a matter of setting up all the elements in stasis. Instead, you must constantly be shifting, reevaluating what you want and reallocating your immediate future to line up with your goals. Will you risk “wasting” your time on things that make you unhappy but are safe and easy, or will you instead pursue the less certain path? It takes honesty and self-awareness, but spending time wisely is a choice and a statement of value.

 

“You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance at doing what you love.” ~Jim Carrey, 2014 Commencement Address, MUM Graduation.

There’s No Place Like Home

Creative people-for example, musicians, actors, artists, and yes, writers-are often considered a bit odd or ‘funny’ by the rest of humanity. That’s okay, because the truth is we are different. The drive to create a work that perhaps has no permanent utility yet still stands outside the creator can sometimes cause the creator to do things that are perhaps a bit daft, as our British friends might put it.

This can even be seen in the things we do to put ourselves in a space where we can create. For example, I once read of a well-known cartoonist who literally could not work if he did not have one foot in a pan of hot water and the other foot in a pan of cold water. (Unfortunately, the book in which I read that account seems to have not survived my most recent relocation, so I can’t give you a cite.)

At a slightly more mundane level, I can tell you of at least two or three pretty well-known science fiction authors who write best with metal-death music pouring from their stereo speakers at high decibel levels. I know of at least two very successful authors whose work regimen is to write from about 10 p.m. to about 6 a.m, sleep in the early part of the day, then spend the afternoon and early evening with the spouse and kids before sitting down at the keyboard again at 10 p.m. And there are always stories about someone’s writing for the day getting totally derailed because his/her coffee/tea/drink of choice was just not available and it blew his/her routine off the tracks.

So writers are often considered to be a species of odd ducks, and sometimes for valid reasons.

I never considered myself to be an odd duck, but the one thing I secretly took pride in was I could pretty much write anywhere. Airport, coffee bar, hotels, airplanes; if I could get my laptop there and open, I could put words down regardless of the distractions around me. The day job had me doing the road warrior gig several times over the years, so I had plenty of experience in working in places that were not home. In fact, my personal best getting-lots-of-words-down-in-a-short-time record happened in a hotel room in Grimsby, England-6000 + words in five hours. Truth. Cross my heart.

So for a long time, I kind of felt like I was invulnerable as a writer.

Then came March of 2009. Remember? The housing bubble had burst, all the mortgage rocks had been flipped over and we were gagging at the putrefaction we found underneath, and the economy was on a greased slide to nowhere and it was getting there fast.

Skipping a lot of the details, the bottom line is that the day job laid off about 400 people, and one of them was me. I found out in March 2009 I was going to be laid off, and at that moment my fiction writing dried up. Withered. Croaked. I wasn’t actually laid off until December 31, 2009, but I knew it was coming. And yeah, at first I was in shock, and angry, and all the typical emotions, but this wasn’t the first time I’d been out on the street, so my head straightened out pretty quickly-except for the creative voice. I could write text for work without any problems at all. I was serving as a Bible study teacher, and I could write study materials without a glitch. Words just flowed. But try to write fiction? Wasn’t happening.

Fast forward. I spent January through October 2010 in school picking up some education credits to help the job search. Writing for the classes, no problem. Fiction? Uh-uh. Oh, maybe a paragraph here and there, but nothing good, and no comfort at it. I put that down to just the uncertainty of my situation

In November 2010 I got a new job with a great company. Only problem with it was I had to move about 160 miles to take it. And selling a house in 2010 wasn’t much easier than selling a house in 2009 would have been. So it was back to the road warrior gig: leave town on Sunday afternoon with a car full of clean clothes and food, come home on Friday night with a car full of dirty laundry, spend the week in a small hole-in-the-wall apartment. (Not unlike being in college.)

I figured that with the new job, the uncertainty would be gone. I had lots of experience at living in road warrior mode, and lots of experience at really producing words while doing it. I thought, “Great! Five nights a week in the apartment with nothing else to do. I’ll get tons of writing done.”

Yeah, that’s how it should have been. But the next ten months proved to be one of the most frustrating times of my life as a writer. I was used to writing up to 2500-3000 words in an evening. A night in which I only put down 1000 words was substandard for me. Yet during those ten months, I would sit down night after night, spend two to three hours at the keyboard, and if I was very lucky I’d have 150 words. A lot of nights I only had 50. More nights than I care to think about I had 20, or 10, or none. Truth. And if I did get some words down, the next night I’d probably delete most of them as dreck. But I kept trying.

It drove me batty. I knew I could do better than that; a lot better. But no matter what I tried, nothing primed the pump; nothing got the words flowing again. You could have used me for a picture of frustration in the dictionary. I was dying of thirst in a writing desert. Still, I kept trying.

Fast forward again to August, 2011. We sold our old house in the city we moved from and bought our new house in the city we moved to. We moved in September.

After the move, I kept trying to write. And to my surprise (and joy), slowly, bit by bit, it became easier to write. The words starting to flow again-a trickle at first, but soon in a stream. The volume of words produced each day started to grow. At the beginning of December, 2011, I was consistently producing an average of 1000 words every time I sat down, which, while it’s not where I was pre-2009, was so much better than what I’d done in the last 2 ½ years I was ecstatic. And then around December 15, it was like the muse opened the flood gate. I wrote 40,000 words in a little over two weeks. Joy, relief, happiness; oh, yeah, did I feel that.

So what made the difference? What opened the door to my creative voice again? I think it’s having a home. When I was laid off, I knew that I would most likely have to move to get a good job. I think that something about not having a home even in prospect just really shriveled my creativity, and it wasn’t until I got the new home and actually settled into it that it started to revive. Makes sense to me. So perhaps I am an odd duck after all.

What’s your bedrock? What’s the one thing in your life that if it was removed, you wouldn’t be able to write?

I hope none of you ever land in that writing desert. But if you do, the best advice I can give you is keep writing. Persevere, even if you only get 30 or 50 words done in a day. From my experience, when you get out of the desert you’ll still have the patterns and habits of writing, which means you’ll get back in the flow that much quicker.

Meanwhile, enjoy paddling around with the rest of us odd ducks. Quack, quack.