The Skull Speaks

I’ve played with this chattering skull for forty years.

Yesterday I started a new story, called (for now) “Put Another Nickel In” and got about a thousand words on the page. The main character finally gave me his a name, Hunch, and I hit my word count goal. It’s a solid day’s work, considering the new habit I aim to build of writing a thousand words per day, every day, following the example of this Ray Bradbury quote:

“I’m accustomed, you see, to getting up every morning, running to the typewriter, and in an hour I’ve created a world. I don’t have to wait for anyone. I don’t have to criticize anyone. It’s done. All I need is an hour, and I’m ahead of everyone. The rest of the day I can goof off. I’ve already done a thousand words this morning; so if I want to have a two or three-hour lunch, I can have it, because I’ve already beat everyone.”

Consistency over quantity. The other way hasn’t seemed to work for me.

At some point in the night, though, I realized that Hunch wasn’t alone. I don’t mean all the monsters he’s tasked with keeping in their enchanted sleep, but as far as a true companion. There was someone else in that chamber of horrors, if I would only listen. Like Hunch and his monsters, though, I went to sleep.

When I got back to the keyboard this morning, I started by cycling back through those first thousand words and trying harder to hear what the story was telling me. Just a few paragraphs in, I found that missing party: Jaw, a talking skull in the corner of the room.

I kept writing, going back through yesterday’s words and continuing on to new story, all while listening more closely, and hearing his voice. He had plenty to say.

In the end, I hit my thousand-word count for a second day, found a new character, and learned more about the world I’m exploring.

I think that’s a fine definition of a successful day.

Bradbury quote taken from his essay “Shooting Haiku in a Barrel”, collected in Zen in the Art of Writing

Identity Leads to Action

Self portraits (?) by a two-year-old Justin.

I’ve spent the last ten years or so wanting to be a writer.

For a small chunk of that, I’ve even written.

It feels like so much wasted time. Why didn’t I write more?

I’m realizing now that a big part of the problem was that, even though I wanted to be a writer, and even sometimes told people that’s what I was, I didn’t actually believe I was one. I simply saw myself as a stay-at-home dad. One that wrote sometimes, sure, but that was a secondary thing, no different than how I dabble in guitar or paint now and then.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home parent. It was a huge blessing for our family to have a parent home. But, it wasn’t my identity. It was something I did for the benefit of my family, not something I felt called to do for myself.

Being a dad is an amazing and life-long role, of course, but the days of driving them to school and events, days of helping with homework and volunteering for field trips, that all has an expiration date. And who am I after that?

For me, I want to be a writer.

In fact, something I’ve recently noticed is this: no matter what other ideas or interests pop up, they all lead back to writing.

I play guitar because I like writing lyrics.

I paint because I like to illustrate my stories.

It all leads back to writing. Every time.

When I left my last corporate job to stay home with our new baby, I thought I’d take that chance to pursue my oldest childhood dream of becoming a writer. It was our second child, so I wasn’t naive about the free time I’d have or anything like that, but I was naive about being able to flip a mental switch and start a writing habit.

And so, for years and years, my writing habit was anything but. I’d write in bursts of motivation and inspiration, hit a roadblock, and stop for months. I told myself it was because the kids kept me busy, or the housework, or whatever excuse I could think of. Of course, none of those excuses stopped me from wasting hours surfing the web or watching television.

The problem wasn’t my family role. The problem was the way I saw myself. Instead of seeing me, the writer, I saw me, the guy that didn’t have the time for writing.

Lately, finally, I feel I’ve gotten past that roadblock.

For whatever other roles I have in life, when it comes to vocation, I’m a writer. Plain and simple.

That means I write.

Having that identity firmly in mind is the “ultimate form of intrinsic motivation”. Habit expert James Clear says:

“The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say ‘I’m the type of person who wants this.’ It’s something very different to say ‘I’m the type of person who is this.’”

Identity is key. In fact, In his book The Practice, Seth Godin talks a bit about child prodigies, adding this:

“It’s not important that the kids developed their musical skills when they were eleven. It’s important that they developed the habit of identity. When they looked in the mirror, they saw themselves as musicians, as artists, as people who had committed to a journey.”

It’s the old “fake it ‘til you make it” idea.

If you want to be a writer, be a writer.

If you want to be an artist, be an artist.

You have to see yourself as the you you want to be far before the rest of the world sees it. If you know who you are, you’ll soon find yourself doing the things to make that identity real to the rest of the world as well.

As for me, I am a writer.

James Clear quote from his book Atomic Habits

Seth Godin quote from his book The Practice

Confidence and Creativity

A confident crew.

Creativity requires some level of confidence.

In its highest form, creativity requires reaching deep within and sharing your findings with the world. That kind of sharing, honest and vulnerable, takes a certain measure of confidence to pull off.

When I first began writing, I wrote with a carefree confidence. It wasn’t that I had any notion I was a good writer, but because I had no reason to believe I wasn’t. It was like the confidence of a child, that innocence you have before someone tells you ducks just can’t be blue. I wish we could all hold that confidence for life.

The world would be better for it.

It wasn’t long into my writing journey that I sought feedback on my work. I joined a writer’s group to improve my craft, quickly learning I wasn’t actually a good writer yet. I needed to read this book on craft, and that one, and maybe I should consider a class or two.

My confidence vanished.

Through it all grew an odd paradox. While my first few works had garnered positive feedback from editors, and even an honorable mention in an international competition, my next several stories fell far short.

Worse, I wasn’t enjoying the stories myself. They felt flat and lifeless, and they got the flat and lifeless rejections they deserved. But worst of all, in losing my confidence, I also lost everything that had made those early stories feel like me.

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely needed to improve my craft. Without craft I wouldn’t have the skills needed to take my good stories and make them great.

But without confidence, I was no longer starting from a good story at all. I was starting from uninspired work, and craft alone can’t fix that. Craft isn’t inspiration, it’s the tools to make that inspiration shine. You have to have something to work with first.

I wish I had something more insightful to share here, some moment or epiphany that helped me get that confidence back. I don’t.

But somewhere along the line I realized I didn’t really like my own stories anymore, so it made sense nobody else would. I realized that at least when I was writing those early works I enjoyed them, even if they weren’t quite good enough for publication. And I wasn’t getting published now anyway. I wasn’t even getting more than form rejections anymore.

I needed to get that confidence back.

So I started writing for me again. I stopped thinking about writing a good story, and just wrote a story I liked. I tried to dig deeper within, tried being as much myself as I could be, and while it wasn’t a magic shortcut to publication, it did get me back into a stream of personal and promising feedback from major markets.

Best of all, writing was fun again, and I enjoyed the process and my stories.

This stream of memories came rushing back recently while I was watching Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary Get Back. There’s a part where George Harrison seems to really be struggling with his playing, or rather, struggling in comparing himself to Eric Clapton. It hit me as a shocking lack of confidence from a guitarist I’d grown up knowing as one of the all-time greats.

Clapton is an amazing guitarist, sure, but this is George Harrison we’re talking about. How in the world was this guy lacking confidence?

Still, somewhere inside, beneath that insecurity, George still had the confidence that his best route forward was being himself. He could only be himself.

“I can only do me, that one way, however I do it.”

George Harrison

And it was in being himself that he was able to create some of his best work.

Creating your best work takes digging deep inside and being vulnerable in revealing what you find there. And that takes confidence.

Confidence doesn’t come without fear, though. It’s a counter to fear. Like courage. It’s leaping before you look, believing in yourself to stick the landing. It’s jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.

True confidence isn’t knowing that others will love your work, it’s knowing that you love your work, and that’s all that matters.

Of course, if you truly love your work, others will, too. The right others.

Those are the readers you can make a real connection with. A deep and true connection.

Right from your vulnerability to theirs.

Harrison quote from The Beatles: Get Back

Trust the Subconscious

I recently finished a story in a whirlwind of subconscious-driven words. It was a blast to write that way, something my logical side loves to suppress.

But suppress isn’t a strong enough word. My logical side crushes the voice of the subconscious, stomps on it until the story falls out flat and lifeless.

This time, however, I managed to just go with it. Fix it when it’s finished, I told myself.

But I didn’t fix anything.

When I started rewriting, I nearly cut a few of the more inspired chunks because they didn’t fit my market-influenced (and misguided) idea of good writing. But, I managed to stop myself. I left those portions. They somehow felt right, like they belonged there. Instead of cutting them, I sent the story off to my editor. I knew full well she’d tell me to make the cuts.

I should have put more trust that my subconscious knew what it was doing.

Not only did she not tell me to make the cuts, she told me to push even further with them. Those subconscious bits that logic tried to force out, those were some of her favorite parts.

For me as a writer, when I try to logic my way through a story, it inevitably falls flat. Hayao Miyazaki has said he removes logic from his approach to storytelling:

“Logic is using the front part of the brain, that’s all. But you can’t make a film with logic. Or if you look at it differently, everybody can make a film with logic. But my way is to not use logic.”

After this experience, I think it’s time to do the same. Logic has its place (though I’m starting to doubt even that), but the drafting stage isn’t it.

After feeling so many of my stories had come out flat recently, I think it’s time for a different approach.

Trust your subconscious. I’ll be trusting mine from now on.

Miyazaki quote taken from his Midnight Eye interview