Archive for writing

Late Night Musings, Edited For Clarity In The Light Of Day

Posted in life, writing with tags , , , on August 25, 2014 by cueball

This may be the most personal thing I will write for this space (and yet it is still rather obtuse).  I have been thinking about this blog.  I have been thinking about my life and everything else.  Mostly, I’ve been thinking about writing and its role in my life. 

After going a few months without really doing any writing and then coming back to it, I’ve discovered that I am the best version of myself when I write. 

What does that even mean?  The best version of myself.  That is some first world verbalization of a concept that had no meaning until the last 20 years.  For me it means the act of writing stills my mind.  It isn’t something I need to be paid to do.  It is something I need to do to keep me sane and to keep the better angels of my nature front and center.  It allows me to see myself and the world around me clearer. 

It lets me like myself.

The act, this very thing I’m doing right now, forces a discipline on me that compels me to make choices on a daily basis that are good for me.  In doing this thing, I am totally present for at least a couple of hours a day. 

Maybe that is what I mean by the best version of me.  Writing makes me stay present.  If not I have a tendency to lose myself in the past and the future of my imagination. 

Everyone needs that thing that is theirs.  That thing they do that makes the world seem correct, logical, and safe.  That thing that takes them to a place where they feel comfortable.  The place where you do not care what anyone thinks.  It is about you and for you and nothing else.  You don’t do it to make others happy or to make others comfortable.  You do it because it means more to you than anything else and it makes you happy. 

I read a lot of writing advice books and essays.  Sometimes the person writing the piece will say you need to think of your ideal reader or your audience when you are writing.  I agree you need to write in a way that is clear so that you do not confuse your audience.  You should write in a consistent voice that follows the internal logic of the work so that your reader will stay with you.  However, if you are writing for anyone but yourself (once you strip everything away), you will not be happy.  You have to write because you have something to say, something you need to express.  Yes, you want others to like it to read it to tell you it is good, but that comes later.  In the beginning, it is just you and the page.  The first priority is for you to say what you want in the way that you want.

There is a certain amount of selfishness and perhaps self-delusion to be a good writer and to live a good life in general.  Selfish enough to tell people no and to walk your own path without regard to others.  Delusional enough to think that you can do whatever you put your mind to. 

Walking away from the life you have for the life you want is not an easy thing.  It is fraught with minefields from internal and external forces.  When you make the decision you have to be know what you are getting into.   That is one of the things I’ve learned in my life.  In any decision you make, you must know and understand the consequences of your decisions and actions.  If you can accept the good or ill consequences of the decision you make, you have made if not a correct decision at least one you can live with for the rest of your life.  

When Robert Johnson was at the crossroads and he made his deal with the devil, he knew what he was getting into.  I love the idea of the crossroad.  It’s that place where you have a choice.   Neither choice is necessarily wrong, but they both have consequences.  You just have to decide what you can live with, what you can accept. 

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Staying Even Keeled By Trying To Stay Present

Posted in life with tags , , , , , , on August 20, 2014 by cueball

What keeps me even keeled?  What keeps me from going over the deep end and either killing myself or just leaving one day and never coming back, disappearing into the ether.  That is a question I have asked myself many times over the years.

At one point, I was unconsciously using alcohol to do it.  With proper dosage and almost constant application, alcohol can keep you even keeled.  Terribly numb to anything going on in the world, but even keeled.  It is a false since of contentment.  Alcohol, and I suspect any drug, only mask the things that are wrong.  They don’t solve them, which is why you have to keep going back to them for more and more as it becomes harder for them to cover up your issues until they drown you.  Luckily for me, at some point I figured out what was going on and got out of the situation I was in and walked away unscathed. 

I also have used exercise and diet to keep myself even keeled.  However, much like the alcohol, it slowly took over and replaced conscious thinking and feeling.  I jumped so deep into working out and eating healthy that I was counting every calorie eaten and burned on a daily basis, weighing myself every morning and tracking every ounce lost or gained.  Instead of the numbness of alcohol I was using the hyper-vigilance of obsessive behavior to mask what was going on in my head. 

I have learned alcohol and eating right and exercise can all be a part of a healthy lifestyle.  As long as they are used in moderation. 

I have an obsessive personality.  That manifests in two ways, one I grow obsessed with things in bursts.  This is great when it comes to learning about a subject and writing about it. That is why I’m going to start channeling this aspect of my obsessiveness in researching and writing about one subject a month on this blog or elsewhere (hopefully for money).  The other aspect of this obsessiveness is that I worry about the future a lot.  I start thinking about what will happen if I do this, then what will happen next, then this other thing will happen, then this person will do this, and then I’m in trouble.  The first thing that I need to do hasn’t even happened yet and I’ve already gamed out how this will end with me in pain.

How do I stay even keeled?  I started reading more, writing this blog, and also keeping a journal.  When I say journal I mean an old school Moleskin journal in which I write in by hand every day.  I’ve also started Zen Buddhist philosophy and I’m attempting to start a meditation practice to keep myself present.  One of the things about Zen is how it focuses on the present and keeping yourself from allowing things that you can’t control (like the past and the future) from controlling your life.  The past is over and the future is not guaranteed so you should not let them control your life because you can do nothing about either of them. 

The other thing I love about Zen is its concentration on process because process is something you can control.  You can’t control outcomes.  All you can control is your work towards those outcomes, and if you do the work correctly you will achieve a desirable outcome.  Though it may not be one you thought you would get.

The sand mandalas are the best example of this.  Buddhist monks spend days or weeks using sand to create beautiful mandala paintings on the floor.  The meticulously place each grain to create these intricate designs, and when they are done, they are ceremonially destroyed.  It was never about creating the design, it was about doing the process correctly and concentrating on your task to create this representation of the universe.  They are destroyed to show the transient nature of the material world.  The beauty of the painting is incidental to the process.  It is the only logical by product of the process.  

The idea of a long term process is at odds with so much of how we function in today’s world where instant gratification and short term success are prized over the slow act of building something that will last longer than 15 minutes.  You see this often in sports where the people in charge not only seem incapable of understanding how to build something long lasting, they seem almost hostile to the idea of attempting long term success. 

One of the ways this is manifested in sports is the idea that you need to get a player with a big name to sell tickets.  The idea is you need to get someone fans will want to see no matter how bad the team is.  That will work for a week or maybe a half a season, but if your team is crap no one is going to keep shelling out money for a bad product.  Building a consistent winner is the best way to get fans to pay money to see your team in the long term and for a long period of time.  That is harder than signing some aging free agent with a big name and no game left who won’t actually improve your product on the field, but whom fans know and will want to see.  If you pay attention to a lot of the GMs and coaches who work for your favorite sports network, you understand why they not only got fire, but should never be hired to run a team again.  They have no conception of any type of long term process geared towards a future outcome and only concerned themselves with winning today. They are all so concerned with keeping their job, they don’t actually do their job.

That is the great thing about Zen.  While it asks you not to worry about the past or the future because you cannot control either, it helps you focus in the present on the correct tasks and the correct processes for completing those tasks that helps you find the best possible outcome. 

So, how do I stay even keeled?  I try to always be present and trust in the process. 

Digging A Hole: The Return of 500 Words

Posted in life, writing with tags , on August 5, 2014 by cueball

Dig a hole and fill it up.

I have been thinking about process a lot recently.  (That is the kind of thing you do, when you don’t have the occupational success you expected.  You retrench and start thinking a lot.  This is why you learn more from failure then success.)  Your process has a greater bearing on your “success” then your goals.  Success is an overly abstract concept that differs for each individual so, let’s use outcomes instead.

If you have ever gone on a retreat for an organization or been charged with coming up with a new direction, campaign, or program for an organization or just been involved in any kind of brainstorming session, you have had the talk about goal-setting.  In fund raising/development and grant writing, your days are consumed with it because of the way foundations now award money and collect data. This particular type of goal-setting is broken down like this:  Mission statement, end goals, outputs, and expected outcomes.

The mission statement and goals are expressions of the problem you would like to solve.  The outputs are the things you will do to solve those problems, and the outcomes are the measures of change you expect to come about from your outputs.

Here is the thing about outcomes: In large bureaucracies, as many foundations and nonprofits have become, the pressure to hit your outcomes and benchmarks becomes so great that people start “juking the stats.”

If you watched The Wire you have heard the term before.  It comes from the way many officers in the fictional version of the Baltimore Police treated their crime statistics.  In order to make it look like they were making progress commanders would change rapes to breaking and entering and murders to aggravated assaults.  Because of funding and individual ambitions they had become slaves to the outcomes.

An individual cannot juke the stats to his life.  (A large organization can’t really do it for too very long. Eventually, it catches up even with the largest and most important agencies.) An individual cannot look at their bank account, see a balance of $100, and pretend they are rich no matter how you try to move things around.  (If your outcome is based on money.)

So, it comes back to your process or your outputs.  How do you live your life?  What do you do every day?

A digression.  Every sports coach worth a damn knows that the score and the final outcome of any individual game is out of their control and their team’s control.  They understand that the only thing they can control is their execution.  Doing the right thing the right way every time.  These are their outputs.  The process.

500 words.  That does not seem to be a lot of writing.  It actually isn’t on any individual day.  The words come easy, but the ideas are hard.  It is in that struggle and difficulty of coming up with one idea a day and hammering at it for 500 words that makes it fun and worthwhile. It is digging a hole and filling it up.  Then digging a hole and filling it up.  Then digging a hole and filling it up.  This is one of my outputs, part of my process.  The idea is to remember to keep writing every day.  That is the output that points towards the life I would like. The outcome is to get to do the work you want to do every day.

I’ll be back tomorrow.

Ideas On How To Review Stuff, Part 2

Posted in art, beer, books with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2014 by cueball

Here is Part 1.  I didn’t know it was going to be a part 1 until I started writing this morning.  Sometimes I think I really should come up with a plan for what I write.

“Whose there?”

This is a great way to start a story about a young man finding himself.  (It’s from this little play by this guy here.)

That has always been the hardest part of writing fiction for me.  How do you start?  What are the first evocative words to pique the interest of the reader and get them to read on to the next sentence?

You are staring at a blank page with all these ideas running around in your mind and now you have to put something down and get it started.

When I’m reading a short story or a novel, I am fascinated first by the opening then everything else the author tries to do.  When I’m reading something, especially something new, I read it on two levels.  The first is just to enjoy it.  I’m reading and letting myself become part of the world the author created.

On the second level, I’m analyzing and deconstructing the different parts of the story as I encounter them.  I’ll encounter a new character or parse the details introduced because these details are there for a reason and I am trying to understand the reason and figure out what the author is trying to make me feel or see.

I can still enjoy what I’m reading on the first level, but I am completely engaged by the second level.  My enjoyment on that first level has no bearing on my intellectual assessment on that second level.

I actual enjoy almost everything I read, as long as it conforms to the internal logic it has set up and written truthfully.  I have the ability to allow myself to believe completely in the world that I am reading about.   Then, I try to step back and outside that world and look at whether the work does what it thinks it is doing.  I’ve found I do this with every creative art I enjoy.

In any creative endeavor, the creator has an idea of what he/she is attempting.  They have a plan and an idea and they try to make it really.  That is a truly brave thing, taking a part of who and what you are and placing it out in the world for everyone to judge.  I think it is incumbent on those who presume to review those creative endeavors to take it as seriously as the people who create.

Craft beer is a creative endeavor for the brewer.  I have been reading a lot of beer reviews recently, and I find much of what are labeled reviews are severely lacking in treating beer seriously.  That does not mean you can’t have fun and be interesting, but you have to believe that craft beer is an endeavor worthy of your time and intellect.  Someone took the time to come up with this recipe, brew this beer, ferment this beer, package this beer, and sell it.  The least someone can do is come up with a little more than, “This beer sucks” as a review.  A simplistic review does not help you as a drinker of beer nor does it help the brewer to figure out what they did right or wrong.  At the end of the day, do you like is all that really matters, but you should really try to think about why or why you do not like it.

I am discovering that reviewing is an important part of the creative process when done right.  Good criticism helps everyone raise their level.  When that happens we all benefit by getting better product.  For this to happen, the reviewer has to give considered criticism and the creator has to be willing to take criticism.

I promise there are beer reviews coming.

Finding Happiness By Going Goalless

Posted in life, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on January 2, 2014 by cueball

This is the time of the year when health clubs expand their membership, all the vegetables at the grocery store fly off the shelf, and people buy actual books.  It is resolution time.  People make resolutions to exercise more, eat better, and read.  Only 8 percent of the people who make resolutions manage to keep them, but people continue to try because they know they should and they at some level do want a better life.

So why isn’t that the resolution?  Why don’t people just say, “This year I will live the life I want to and/or should live.”  We all want to improve ourselves, but are we going about it the right way?  Are we going about it in a way that actually improves our lives and makes us happy?

Besides the hobby of improvement we also like lists and goals.  We like goals with achievable and measurable outcomes.  I did the same thing.  I would create a goal, set my objectives, define the outputs to use to achieve the objectives, give myself a time period to achieve these objectives, and create measurable outcomes to show my success.

If that sounds overly methodical, it is.  I was a grant writer for many years and in crafting grant proposals one of the main things the grantor wants to know is what are you going to use the money and how will you measure if you are successful.  That is where SMART comes to play.  Your objectives must be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound.

The problem was they became things I simply wanted to achieve or do.  They were points on a checklist and as such they lost meaning to me.  They were always things I really wanted and if achieved should have given me some sense of happiness, but by making them tasks I became fixated on getting the things done and not enjoying doing them.

Essentially, the tasks became too myriad and too big to easily achieve and it became so much about completing them that I would abandon them.  So this year I will simplify it.  These are things that align more with the life I want to live and believe will make my life happier.  I’m trying not to set goals.  I am trying to change the fundamental nature of how I live.

In no particular order, here are the four things I will do this year:

I want my life to be about beer and literature.  Will I do things over the course of the year that could be seen as tasks to facilitate these four things?  Yes, I will probably seek to be published.  I did write a book last year and I may edit or rewrite it or I may write a whole other book.  I may try to find another job that will give me time and access to the things that will make achieving those four things possible and easier.  Giving up the idea of goals is not about giving up the idea of achieving the things you want on in life.  It is about achieving them while keeping yourself happy.

If I do the four things I listed, I believe I’ll be happier in general.  So, if I were to say there is a goal for this year, it would be mindful of everything I do, be present in each moment, and try to do the thing that is right for me and those around me at all times.  Be Mindful, Be Present, Be Happy.

Ideas On How To Review Stuff

Posted in beer, writing with tags , , on December 22, 2013 by cueball

One of the things I want to do on this blog is post beer reviews.  As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to review beer and make it interesting to the reader and to me the writer.  I began to think, “What is the point of a review?”  Basically, it is whether or not to recommend something to another person.  This goes for any discipline:  television, movies, books, music, theatre, visual arts, food, beer.

There are three things a review must do:  1)What is the thing being reviewed trying to be; 2)Is the thing being reviewed successful at what it is trying to be; 3)Do you as a reviewer like it, why or why not and do you recommend it.

What is the thing being reviewed trying to be?

What genre or style is this work trying to be?  Is it trying to adhere to only one genre or style or trying to be a hybrid?  Genres and styles the reviewer to orient his/herself.  It makes it easier to discern what parameters the person who created this object is obeying or trying to cross.  Is it an India Pale Ale or is it a Belgian-style Golden Ale or is it trying to be some combination?

Is the thing being reviewed successful at what it is trying to be?

One of Roger Ebert’s rules of reviewing was, only review the movie you were seeing.  Don’t allow your preconceived notions to affect the movie you are actually seeing.  If the movie is only trying to be a big silly comedy, review its success at being a big silly comedy not as an existential family drama.  The great thing about beer is that the brewers will usually tell you what they are trying to do either on the bottle or on their website.  If a West Coast brewer is trying to make a malt forward English-style pale ale with West Coast hops, he will let you know.  Then the reviewer must decide was a he successful at creating a English pale ale or in blending two styles, not whether this is as good as his last hop forward West Coast pale ale.

Do you like it, why or why not?  Would you recommend it?

This is the core of what the reviewer is trying to do, explain whether this was a waste of his/her time and should you try it.  This is where beer and art objects are a little different.  If a movie tries to be a big silly comedy and is successful at it, it is usually worth watching.  If a beer tries to be a big barley wine and is successful at being a big barley wine, the reviewer could still not like it but still recommend it.  There are many beers I’ve had that I think were successful at what they are trying to be that didn’t fit my pallet, but I would still recommend it because they might fit someone else’s pallet.  In this part of the review the reviewer is also trying to capture whatever feeling experienced in the first moments with the object being reviewed.  It is the attempt to make the reader feel and understand the joy, disappointment, or outrage of the first blush.

The first reviews should go up over the next two days.

Tribes

Posted in writing with tags , , , , , , on December 17, 2013 by cueball

We all belong to a tribe or actually more than one.  We are all born into a family.  Then as we grow, we develop interests outside the scope of the family.  We fall in love with sports either playing or watching; we develop a love for music; we become enraptured by some characters in some book; etc.  Personally, here are the tribes I can name off the top of my head that I belong to in no particular order:  family, soccer fan (of the American variety), reader, writer, music lover, UNC Chapel Hill graduate, Tar Heel sports fan, sports analytics nerd, science fiction geek, beer geek, and television lover.  That’s just today.

These tribes represent one two headed thing for us.  We use these tribes to define who we are to ourselves and as signifiers to others in order to organize our immediate world.

In our modern world the great philosophical problem is probably that of our atomization and the if not the dissolution of the old organizing principals (family, church, nationality, and to an extent race), we search for ways to define ourselves so that we know who we are and others can easily learn who we are.  We began living in nomadic tribes, moved to city-states, then to nation states, and now we live in a global world.

First, as travel became easier and now as communication is has been simplified we live in an increasingly global world with tenuous boundaries.  It is easy to define yourself and standout when the only people you see on a daily/weekly basis are the ones you see when you go to work, church, or the grocery store.  How does one define himself in a global sea?

Once you have defined yourself and joined your tribes you can now organize your life around those tribes.  Who do you follow on Twitter?  What favorites do you have saved in your web browser?  They probably follow along with your self-defined tribes.  With so much to choose from and so much information available, it is almost a necessity to figure out the things that matter the most to you and construct your social life around them.  We would drown in a sea of information.

A great deal of human history has been wrapped up in people trying to define themselves and make sense of the world around them.  Twitter allows you follow only those you want to.  There is a reason you can create lists in most Twitter apps.  You can look up anything you want on the internet, but your web browser lets you create favorites lists with folders to separate all of your links.  DirecTV lets you create channel lists so you only see the channels you want to at any given time.  Those things create ease of use, but they also help us define ourselves by our choices.

I guess as a writer, I’m thinking how much does a character choose his path and affect the narrative and how much do I push him into that path with my narrative choices.  How much control of the story does a writer cede to his characters?  In giving them too much leeway do you risk making your work as messy as real life?  Is that a desirable outcome?