Don’t Be Afraid to Smash the Glass

I wrote a piece for Cultured Vultures last week about my battles with perfectionism (or awesomeism) during the rewriting process. Here’s how it starts:

It always happens. As I transition into the rewriting that will not-so-magically transform a first draft of a novel into a second draft (or a second into a third; or a fifth into a sixth), I get timid. I get contemplative. I get, well… I get scared. It’s like I’m tiptoeing around a museum of precious artifacts, examining everything, but touching nothing.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

Hope you’re all having a lovely Holiday Week Monday! I know some people are at work today, but you’re not actually accomplishing anything, are you? (If so, I applaud you heartily.) 

Block Out The Noise and Make the Thing

Six months ago yesterday Denton was released into the world.

Six months ago today I had my first book launch ever, at Books of Wonder.

As always, I’m incredibly grateful for all the support and enthusiasm I’ve received over the past months from friends, readers, booksellers, librarians, fellow authors, bloggers, and festival people. (Has Festival People been the title of a horror movie yet?) (That was not a reflection on my specificfestival people, who were lovely and not horrific.) The book community is filled with kind, funny, passionate human beings, and it’s been perpetually disarming. Thank you.   

But on this particular day, I want to talk about what’s been going on behind the curtain. Because, on the internet, it’s easy for everyone’s lives to look shiny and happy and great, and I think it’s important to remember we’re all just people, hitting ups and downs, feeling anxious and inadequate, trying our best. 

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The release of my book, and the small tour that followed, was without a doubt a magical time. It was all so new. After years as a struggling actor, never coming close to doing anything even slightly resembling a promotional tour, it was surreal to be traveling around the country telling people about this thing I’d made, this tangible object I could hold in my hand.

When I found myself one May morning in a Kentucky high school library (whaddup, Oldham County!), watching students work on a writing exercise that I had assigned to them, I felt slightly out of body. By sitting in coffeeshops making up words on my computer, I’d somehow written myself to Kentucky, where random teenagers I’d never met were writing something down because I’d asked them to. (They rocked that exercise, btw. Those kids are awesome.)

The whole tour had that surreal quality, mainly in a positive way. But I was also anxious. I don’t even think I realized at the time just how anxious I was. Book events were completely uncharted territory. I wanted everything to go well. I wanted my book to do well. I wanted to seem like someone who knew what he was talking about. And I was missing my wife and then-14-month-old son. (My absence sent my wife Katie down an anxiety spiral of her own, which you should feel free to read about here.) 

My anxiety was camouflaged from me, though, thanks to both my book excitement and the necessity of staying on top of my life, focusing only on what was happening the next day, and not on the big picture of how I was feeling.  

When I got home from my last book tour event, I segued into final rewrites for the second Denton book, and once those were finished in late May…I suddenly had time to actually feel how I was feeling.

Which was: pretty lost. And very unnerved by that.

I got back to work on my third book. I struggled a lot.

I couldn’t focus on anything.

Every time writing got uncomfortable—which was approximately every 42.3 seconds—I went on the internet, hoping to find something, anything, that would make me feel like a capable person. Maybe someone new had tweeted about my book! Maybe someone new had blogged about my book! Maybe my book’s Amazon sales ranking had gone up!

(Quick note on that: brilliant feature, Amazon. This ranking—constantly changing throughout the day–was very obviously designed to exploit the weaknesses of neurotic, insecure authors. Nailed it!) 

Inevitably, I would not find that someone new had tweeted about my book but instead would learn of something amazing that had happened to some other author I follow. And yes, there is joy in others’ success, but not quite as much when you’re mid-anxiety-spiral.

In this June interview with the great Kurt Dinan, I compared the comedown after a book release to the comedown after one’s wedding. Or, really, any big event you look forward to for more than a year. I’d been thinking about the release of my debut novel since I’d sold it to Knopf almost eighteen months earlier. So once it happened, I realized I hadn’t thought much about what would happen afterward.

I mean, of course what I thought would happen is Denton would come out and instantly hit theNY Times Bestseller list. I guess rationally I knew that wouldn’t happen. But I still hoped it would.

Spoiler alert: my book has definitely not hit the NY Times bestseller list.

In fact, my book isn’t selling as well as my publishing house hoped it would. (I know this because I had a phone call with my editor and agent last week, where I learned that my book isn’t selling as well as they hoped it would.)

As a result, the second Denton book—which had a cool cover all set to go—is now getting a totally redesigned cover and possibly a title change.

Meanwhile, Denton Little’s Deathdate will get a new cover for the paperback release, and the overall marketing/publicity approach for both books will be reassessed. 

Meaning: the second Denton book will NOT be coming out in April 2016, as planned. There’s no new release date set but it’s looking like it’ll be Spring 2017.

Meaning: I am bummed. Even though I get why it’s happening and I’m glad Knopf cares about the books enough to reboot their design, I am still bummed. 

Meaning also: I will have lots of time to write really cool bonus Denton material to help the wait feel less long. Huzzah!

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This is all very standard stuff that happens when a book doesn’t reach selling expectations (as most don’t) but that doesn’t mean it feels fantastic. I can’t help but hear a voice in my head, always whispering:

You haven’t done enough.

I perpetually feel like that, like there’s more creative marketing I can be doing, more writing, more tweeting, more reaching out to other authors, more everything. Unfortunately, when I feel like that, I freeze. Seriously. I am someone with A LOT of creative resistance. When my wife gets anxious, it drives her to do things, do things, do things. I am the exact opposite of that. That’s why I didn’t write any legitimate posts on here for months after the book came out. Yes, I was busy with events, with writing my second and third books, but not that busy. I was mostly frozen.

Which I guess means I need to “Let it Go.”

(I’m sorry. You and I both know I couldn’t not say that.)

Would my blog posts and tweets have made the difference between the book selling well and not selling well? No, probably not. There’s a billion factors at play here, most of them out of my control.

But some of them are in my control. And so I’m doing my damndest to unfreeze myself. My anxiety has dissipated considerably, and here’s what’s helped the most:

Blocking out the noise and making the thing.

In July, I finally got back into a writing groove with my third book. It wasn’t easy and it was often messy, but I’ve created a huge chunk of the thing.

And my most productive days always start and end with blocking out the noise. Look, I know everyone has their own unique relationship to social media, but for me, Twitter and Facebook and Instagram can be wonderful in a couple of ways–like allowing you to connect with other humans when in reality you’re alone in a coffeeshop—but they do very little for my creative flow. Often they just remind me of all the book festivals I’m not at, of all the awards I’m not winning, of all the NYTimes bestseller lists I’m not on.

Which is why the biggest lesson I’ve taken from the past six months, which I am trying desperately to internalize more and more is:

Block out the noise and make the thing.

I’ve already decided that the next book tour I go on—which will, let’s face it, probably be in 2017–I am not going to drop my writing practice. I am going to enjoy the events, enjoy the people I meet, but I am also going to find time whenever I can to block out that noise and make the thing.

Because, at the end of the day, the creative act is THE THING that’s going to make you feel like you’re doing the work and earning the right to call yourself an artist. 

Weirdly enough, having that phone conversation last week with my editor and agent is helping me to thaw my freeze even more. It’s motivating me to write this thing you’re reading now. It’s motivating me to feel scrappy, to feel empowered, to feel all the ways I felt when I wrote my first book. Not coincidentally, that first book was written from a place of darkness; I’d just been dropped by my acting agent and manager and was feeling totally lost in the woods. I want to believe I won’t always have to rely on the fuel of failure to really get me going, but if I do, so be it.

If there’s any other wisdom I can impart from my first six months as a published author–other than telling anyone dealing with anxiety to read this, which was and continues to be very helpful–it’s that any career as an artist is not going to be a straightforward ride. One day you’re up, another you’re down, but if you keep your mind on the creating, maybe you won’t get jostled by the bumps as much.  

Really, I’m just grateful to be on the ride at all.

And with that said, please excuse me. It’s time to block out the noise and make another thing.

The Internet Will Always Be Dessert This Year.

             I had one of those days yesterday where I think all the answers to my life are on the internet.  

            Not coincidentally, the Please-Internet-Make-Me-Feel-Better-About-Myself Days often happen when I’m working on something scary or overwhelming or incredibly meaningful, i.e. the days when my Resistance Machine is working at full tilt. As I talked about a little while ago–as inspired by Steven Pressfield’s must-read TheWar of Art–Resistance is an insidious force that pops up in all of us in a multitude of ways and always has one goal: to keep you from making and doing the things you are meant to do.

            And the internet is Resistance’s best fucking friend in the world.

            Case in point: yesterday, when I was getting ready to start chopping apart the most recent draft of my second book, to officially start rewriting in the hopes that I will, within approximately fifty or so days, end up with a Much Better Version of said book, I couldn’t truly buckle down. I worked, but in drips and drabs, always somehow finding my way back to my email or my Twitter feed or a Variety article about who might be directing some Marvel movie coming out in 2033.

            We’re all aware, of course, that the internet is antithetical to getting work done. This is not news. Most writers will tell you that if you want a prayer at any sort of productivity, you should turn your wi-fi off.

            And yet.

            It is a lesson I am forced to learn again and again.

            Because Resistance is so powerfully uncomfortable, it is constantly triggering my Go to the internet button. Yesterday, Resistance was a voice in my head telling me that I have a huge task ahead of me and not a whole lot of time to do it and my next draft better be awesome because I like how the first book turned out and right now the second book is simply Not As Good.

            Yes, here again, a classic case of Awesomeism happening. It’s a daily problem.

            That Resistant voice in my head makes me feel small and powerless and so I run to the internet where I have some control. I can get something else done that will get me my power back! So I come onto this Tumblr and slightly edit one of the sentences in the About section, or I look up the address of a restaurant I might be going to next month. And then, since I’m already internetting, I figure I might as well check my Twitter feed. And then I read some random article about the Knicks, which is beyond dumb because the Knicks are literally the worst team in the NBA this year, so what the hell is there to read about? And then, if I’m going to be really honest here, I end up Googling the title of my book, just to see if new stuff has popped up about it that will make me feel like I have worth in this world.

            When I get to that last step, I know the shit has hit the fan: I’m in a full-blown Resistance spiral. Searching sadly and desperately for some piece of affirmation that will right the ship and make me feel like less of a time-wasting failure.

            “But it’s too late,” I tell myself. I’ve already gorged myself on too much internet before getting actual work done. The ratio is messed up, and it leaves me with the same empty feeling I get ten minutes after I eat a Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich.

             But on those days when I get right to work as soon as I sit down, and I’m able to push through the struggles, through the discomfort, for at least half an hour, I don’t feel like that. Even if I don’t have a ton to show for it, I feel good, like I’ve done my part, like I’ve earned a quick dip into the internet pool.

            Ideally, the ratio would look something like this: fifty minutes of continuous work earns me a fifteen minute break, which would include as much dick-around/email/Twitter time as I want.

            Then back to work.

            Just so you know, I’m rarely able to maintain this kind of discipline. But I want to.

            So here’s one of my intentions for 2015:  

            Time on the internet will be deliberate and mindful, a reward for a period of work productivity. Once I sit down to work, I can never lead with an internet binge. Never.

            Put another way:

            The Internet will always be dessert this year, never the main course.

             As always, I’m writing things like this mainly as a way of imprinting these ideas into my head and holding myself accountable. So if you find the above words irrelevant to your life, I applaud you. You have an amazing work ethic and you should never change. 

            But if this resonates with you, then thanks for making this piece part of your internet dessert. Now go get some work done.

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Be an Asshole in 2015

            Well hello there, my friends. Happy 2015 to you. I hope your year is off to a shimmery, hopeful start. And I hope you’ve been having as much fun hoverboarding as I have.  

            In the past five years, Katie and I have moved away from making new year’s resolutions, opting instead to write down our intentions for the year. We’ve both found it to be way more motivating and satisfying and focusing. These intentions should be things you’re hoping to accomplish for the year, and you should say them as if you are predicting the future, as if these things are already foretold. Because future-predicting is way more powerful, not to mention way more fun, than goal-setting.

            For example, here was my first intention on last year’s list:

I will write a solid first draft of my second book by May 1, 2014.

            I actually didn’t finish until the beginning of August. I often misfire on the timing of my intentions. But it doesn’t matter! Because the important part is getting the shit done! (Unless you have deadlines to meet that are set by people who are not you. In which case you should do as I did above, giving yourself a deadline that is way before the deadline that is set by the person who is not you.)  

            Here is another one of my intentions from last year:

Ray and I will continue with our podcast, and we will make a much more focused effort to promote and get it out there, potentially joining the Stitcher network. We will be featured on Pop Candy, Vulture, and various other high-trafficked blogs.

            This one only partially came true; Ray and I did continue with our podcast (The Lance and Ray Show check it out), having a genuinely good time and learning more about what the show could/should be in the process, but we totally dropped the ball on the promotion part. Life gets busy; new things pop up that you never could have predicted at the beginning of the year, and you don’t have time for everything. And also, Pop Candy doesn’t even exist anymore.

            So that intention is going to carry over in some form to my list this year. (Katie and I are going to write our lists TONIGHT. I know; we’ve already started 2015 off with procrastination. But in our defense, we spent the past two nights building a big-ass Ikea dresser. And that felt good.) On my 2014 list, I’d say about 60% of my intentions for the year actually played out the way I had foretold. But that’s pretty damn good. I made predictions on my future and got three-fifths of them right!

            I should mention that it’s helpful if some of your intentions are things you’re pretty certain will come true. Things like, “I will run three times a week, and it will feel great.” “I will focus more attention on my friendships with Bob and Tito, aiming to hang out with them at least a couple times a month.”

            Hopefully, you’re noticing that all these intentions, especially the one about the podcast, are pretty specific.

            This is important.

I will make a lot of good art this year is an example of an unhelpful intention. What kind of art? How many projects do you mean by a lot? When will you finish each of them by?

            Specificity in goal-making is something I’ve always struggled with. Because it takes bravery. And confidence. And brazen ambition. The more specific you are, the more it feels like you’re A. full of yourself and B. destined to fail.

            But you need to make big, epic, specific goals for yourself. Because if you can’t dream big for yourself, no one else will be able to either.

            When I was pursuing an acting career, I prided myself in my realistic stance on the whole thing. I would go to an audition, and afterward I wanted the world to know that I knew that my odds of getting the part were unlikely.

            “You never know with these things,” I would say.  

            “I’m sure they saw at least fifty other dudes for this part.”

            “Yeah, I mean, I felt good about it, but it’s such a crapshoot, so we’ll see.”

            This is a horrible way to go after your dreams. All of those things I said on a loop were true, but it was completely unhelpful for me to pay attention to them.

            The mind is a powerful thing; the thoughts you have can dictate reality. I truly believe this. So if your thoughts are that you’re in an impossible business and you’ll never succeed, that will likely become your reality.

            (I could—and probably will—write five to ten more blog entries about my complicated psychological relationship with the acting business and with auditioning and how I was always my own worst enemy, so look forward to THAT.)

            The people who succeed in any given field are the people who believe deep-down that they belong there, that they can do it. They don’t listen to the noise all around them saying that it’s unlikely to happen; they listen to the voice in their head that says it will happen.

            I’m not suggesting you push to the opposite end of the spectrum and become an arrogant jerk. I’m just saying there is a fine line between being modest and undercutting your own dreams.

            I already know that the list I write tonight is going to shoot the moon, with future predictions for the year that include lucrative movie options for my books and an appearance on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. I feel kind of uncomfortable even telling you that because usually no one knows what’s on my lists except me and my wife; intentions are a really vulnerable thing, especially when you’re aiming high. But they’re also a vital thing because I need to start believing these things for myself first.

            And then, when they actually happen, people can say, “I can’t believe that!” But I won’t be surprised. Because I’ve already been believing it.  

            Do you think I sound like an asshole?

            Me five years ago definitely would. But I encourage you to sit down and be an asshole with me. Write some grand, highly specific intentions for your year. Let your brain know that big things are going to happen in 2015.

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The Things You Have The Most Resistance About Doing Are The Things You Need to be Doing

         I’m having a tough time with the blog this week. There are a number of entries I know I want to write—first and foremost being the story of how I detoured from my acting career to write a novel—but I want them all to be good and that overwhelms me, so my inner awesomeist is like, “Save that one for later.” “Nah, not yet.”

            I am such a cliché.

            I wrote a whole entry about pushing forward in spite of these feelings, and I still can’t apply it to my own life on a regular basis.

            Cue self-loathing spiral.

            Cue looking at email/Twitter to escape spiral.

            Cue wondering what the hell I’m doing and forcing myself to get back to work.

            Repeat. 

            In that few-weeks ago entry, I mentioned Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Now I will also mention Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. It was recommended to me years ago by the great David Ross, and it’s been absolutely indispensable. I recommend it to every creative person I meet; it’s lit a fire under my stagnant, self-pitying ass too many times to count at this point.  

            The crux of the book is that Resistance pops up whenever we try to create a piece of art. This Resistance comes in many forms (“I don’t have time!” “I’m feeling too tired today.” “I’ll do this in the summer, when my mind is clearer.”) but 99% of those forms are bullshit excuses. The bottom line is you need to sit down and do the work every day, and not worry about whether it’s good or not.

            (Incidentally, all those parenthetical excuses are things I say all the time.)

            The problem is, the more important the piece of work you’re creating is to you, the more Resistance you’re going to encounter. Messed-up but true. The creative projects that mean the most to us are, paradoxically, the things we are least likely to finish.

             I’m a month and a half into my goal of blogging weekly, and I’m already starting to get precious with it. I can’t help it. Because now I’ve established a general vibe for the first entries, a standard to hold myself to, and I’m putting a completely irrational (not to mention unproductive) pressure on myself. Look, you know it’s bad when I’m again relying on the crutch of telling you how much I’m struggling.

            But there it is.

            I bet you, reading this right now, have a project you’ve been sitting on a long time.

            That screenplay idea you’ve been telling people about but haven’t actually written a page of?

            That song idea that right now is just half a hook and an image in your head you don’t even really understand?

            That app idea that you’d love to do something with but you don’t know the first thing about app technology or how that works?  

            Yeah, well, stop making excuses and get to work.

            Like, TODAY.

            Like, right now.

            Write an outline for your screenplay, experiment with a chorus for your song, find out who in your life would know things about developing an app and shoot them an email.

            This can apply to other things, too, like a long-ignored desire to go bungee-jumping, or to start your own business, or to take a baking class.

             Life is short, friends! Do it now! I mean, come on, there has to be some lemonade made from this lemon of a blog entry!

            If nothing else, you should know that making things and doing things is not easy. We all face Resistance. Truly, everybody. I face it at least a dozen times every day that I write. Do I get in the flow of writing sometimes? Absolutely. But even once I do, I feel so proud of myself that I take a 20-minute break, after which I’m like, “Oh man. I guess I should start writing again. Lemme just check my email one more time. As a reward.”

             Resistance is always there, battling you every step of the way. But it can be beaten. Just set aside some time every day, even if it’s just ten minutes, and do the work. It’s not always going to feel good. Do it anyway.

            And, on those inevitable days when Resistance wins, be kind to yourself. (Like me. Today. I am trying to be kind to myself.)

            If you do take a step on some project today, let me know! I will happily bug you about it in the future and make you feel guilty if you’re not working on it.

            And you can do the same for me! Hooray!

Cue self-loathing spiral.

A Couple of Self-Helpy Books that Changed the Way I Look at the World

           I seem to always start these blog entries by mentioning some day of importance because, apparently, Tuesday is a much bigger deal than I realized.

            And today is no exception: Happy Giving Tuesday!

            In case you’re not feeling flush enough to do any of that kind of giving, you should know that there are plenty of non-monetary ways to give today. You can:

  1. Hold a door for somebody.
  2. Smile at a stranger (has to be non-creepy or it doesn’t count).
  3. Pick up a piece of litter.
  4. Choose two conversations during your day and really listen to what the other person is saying instead of just waiting for your turn to speak.
  5. Write an email to someone you know telling them how cool they are and how happy you are that they are in your life. (I’m amazed more people don’t do this more often. I’m amazed I don’t do this more often. Think how meaningful it would be to receive an email like this, how much it would lift up your day. You could give that gift to someone, and it would only take, like, seven minutes! Maybe even less if you’re a fast typist who organizes your thoughts quickly!)

           I know the list I just made is fairly cheesy, but I am a sucker for shit like this, for reminders to focus energy outward onto other people.

            And yet it’s easy to forget to do that. Now more than ever, in the social media age, when we spend so much time measuring ourselves up against others’ posts, others’ photos, others’ accomplishments, and so much time thinking about the wittiest thing to write, the best way to present ourselves online, it’s so easy to sink into a gross Me spiral. My Me spiral days are always my worst days, and there’s usually at least a few a month.

            But I find that when I stop thinking about myself and start thinking about how I can help other people, it’s, ironically, one of the most selfish things I can do. Because it makes me feel so damn good!

            That’s why I’m a huge fan of books about spirituality, about being present, about slowing down my mind. I do my best to always be reading one alongside whatever other fiction/non-fiction is in my backpack. (Yeah, I wear a backpack. And I feel great about it.)

            So today, my gift to you is a list of my most favorite spiritual, self-helpy type books. It’s actually just the beginning of a list, since this entry got too long when I included all of them. But for starters, these are two books that changed the way I look at the world and the way I operate within it.

Ruling Your World, by Sakyong Mipham.

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            This is an awesome book about a lot of things, mostly letting go of the need to think about yourself all the time. Sakyong Mipham is the current leader of Shambhala, an offshoot of Tibetan Buddhism established in the U.S. in the 1970’s that involves a form of mindfulness meditation which can be embraced in a religious or secular way.

            I know about it well because my dad has been a practitioner and teacher of Shambhala my whole life. Growing up, this was confusing for me. Technically my mom and dad are both Jewish, and everyone thought I was Jewish, but we weren’t practicing Jews, and my dad had a shrine room in the house that he meditated in every day. (If you’re interested in hearing me talk more about that confusion, feel free to watch this.)

            By the time I hit my twenties, though, I was embracing Shambhala more, doing a few of the weekend workshops, reading a lot of related books, and going through phases where I would meditate at least ten minutes a day. (And then there are also phases where I don’t do that at all. Like right now.)

            The book touches on some basic meditation instruction, which mainly boils down to sitting and focusing on your breathing. Every time your mind spins off to some other thought, you recognize that and come back to your breathing. It’s challenging and uncomfortable, but in the past, even just a week of consistent meditation has helped bring my mind to a much calmer place.

            But back to Ruling Your World: every time I read it, it makes me want to be a more compassionate person and more focused on helping others. And, if you get so into it that you want more Shambhala in your life, there are meditation centers all over the country. Huzzah!

 Sample passage that might blow your mind:

When we’re on the “me” plan, what others say about us has great power. A friend tells us we look good – our mind soars. A colleague tells us we’re not pulling our weight at work – our mind sinks. We are like children, one minute laughing and the next minute crying. In reality, praise and criticism are like echoes – they have no substance, no duration. But when we chase projections like a dog going after a stick, even words have the power to destabilize our mind. We think about what somebody said, over and over. We let it ruin our day.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and it’s all small stuff, by Richard Carlson, Ph.D.

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    This book has become something of a cliché, but I swear it’s profound in a wonderfully accessible way. I’m in the middle of reading it for the second time right now, a chapter or two a day, and it never fails to put me in a good headspace. My list of five things above was very much in the spirit of what Richard Carlson has to say in here.

            Reading it is also kind of insane because it’s all about appreciating your life while you still have it, about not stressing so much because you could die at any moment, and this dude who wrote it died suddenly in 2006 from a pulmonary embolism that moved from his leg to his lung while he was on an airplane. He was 45, had a wife and two daughters, and he just died with no warning. It’s so heartbreaking and makes every chapter reverberate in this eerie, powerful way. One of the more profound chapters of the book is literally called “Imagine Yourself At Your Own Funeral.” I know. Richard’s wife Kristine wrote this beautiful and worthwhile piece about dealing with Richard’s death that will make you appreciate your life. Make sure you have some tissues.

            And, not to make this about me, but I’m realizing right now that, in the book I wrote, the protagonist Denton Little literally attends his own funeral. So, yeah, I think it’s fair to say this book had an impact on me.

Sample passage that might blow your mind:

One of the major reasons so many of us remain hurried, frightened, and competitive, and continue to live life as if it were one giant emergency, is our fear that if we were to become more peaceful and loving, we would suddenly stop achieving our goals. We would become lazy and apathetic. You can put this fear to rest by realizing that the opposite is actually true. Fearful, frantic thinking takes an enormous amount of energy and drains the creativity and motivation from our lives. When you are fearful or frantic, you literally immobilize yourself from your greatest potential, not to mention enjoyment. Any success that you do have is despite your fear, not because of it.

            Hope these two books can be as helpful for you as they’ve been for me. I’ll be writing about some others I love in a future post. And if you have any spiritual books that have meant a lot to you, I’d love to hear about them. 

          Thanks for reading, guys. Now get outa here and go smile non-creepily at some strangers.

The Road to Awesome is Paved with Shit

             Hey! Happy Veterans’ Day! (Apparently I only post blog entries on days of national importance.) I hope you’ve found a veteran and taken him/her out for ice cream. Also, consider donating some money here.

            Last week–while the Republicans were taking control of the Senate thereby guaranteeing it near-impossible for progress to be made in the next couple years, which is unfortunate, seeing as the climate change we’ve wrought is causing the world to unravel–I wrote about Meredith Vieira and dental conventions in 2004. This week I’m switching it up and writing about my creative process; specifically, about being a perfectionist, which is one of the biggest daily obstacles in my work.

            Being a perfectionist sounds like a good thing, right? Like, that’s the answer you’re supposed to give at a job interview when they ask you to name one of your weaknesses. (Certainly better, anyway, than “I can’t help but sexually harass the people I work with.”) But trust me when I say that, when it comes to creating art, the need to make things perfect is a straight-up hindrance.

            This term perfectionism needs some clarification, though; it’s sort of a misnomer. Because, when I’m sitting down to work on something, it’s not that I’m thinking to myself, “This needs to be perfect.” I’m aware, after all, that there’s something beautiful about imperfect art. No, for me, it’s that I want to sit down and output something that is immediately awesome

            This desire for immediate awesomeness trips me up again and again. So, for our purposes, let’s call this state of being awesomeism. It’s a tricky term, maybe, because it sounds like something helpful. But fuck it, that’s just my inner awesomeist trying to poke holes in this blog post, and he needs to shut his mouth.

            He’s actually been talking the whole time I’ve been trying to write this entry. This, what you’re reading now, is my third attempt in three days at trying to write it. Two days in a row I’ve tinkered a bit, ultimately coming to the realization that, “This is too hard, I should save this entry for some later week. I don’t even know exactly what I’m going to say, and who the hell am I to write about my thoughts on being a perfectionist? The brilliant Anne Lamott has already covered this topic exceptionally well in the “Perfectionism” chapter of Bird by Bird, her indispensable book of writing advice.” (If you’re a writer/artist of any kind, you need to read this at your earliest convenience. Lamott is smart, funny, self-deprecating as hell, and so inspiring.)

            But I can’t listen to that voice, especially not when I’m in the first draft stage.

            Because if I do, I won’t make anything.

            I can name right now at least ten projects I’ve worked on over the past years, some with others, some alone, that are now decaying in the creative graveyard because there was some element of awesomeism that got in the way.

            Now’s as good a time as any to recognize that two huge intertwined components of awesomeism are Ego and Fear. These two guys team up and produce the little voice in my brain that says, “I should only work on this right now if I already know it’s going to be awesome. Otherwise, I’m just wasting time on something stupid that people will think is stupid, thereby making them think I am stupid.”       

            But two things: 1. Some people actually will think you and your work are stupid regardless of what you do. That’s their business, not yours. 2. You cannot know what the hell it is you’re making until you have a first draft.

            This second thing bears repeating, mainly so I can ram it into my own dense skull: You cannot know what the hell you’re making until you have a first draft.

            The frightened awesomeist in me wants to believe that a creative idea is only worth pursuing if you know in advance that it’s guaranteed to be awesome, and that is incredibly foolish.

            Writing a book, or a musical, or a screenplay is not, it turns out, the way I imagined it to be as a kid: that you pretty much know in your head the way the whole story is going to go and then you write it down.

            This is a ridiculous thought, but I think some part of me still wants to believe that it’s true. Because it’d be so much easier that way! I could skip the part where I’m floundering, staring at a blank screen, feeling like a failure, taking a break to search for validation on the internet, not finding any, feeling horrible and guilty and useless for being on the internet instead of working, writing some more words that feel stupid and meaningless and unconnected to the story I think I’m writing, generally feeling a TOTAL LACK OF CONTROL.

            Awesomeists want to be in control. The opposite–not being in control–is powerfully uncomfortable. And it doesn’t matter what stage of your career you’re at. When I was writing Denton Little’s Deathdate completely on spec, this feeling manifested as, “Why the fuck am I spending my time writing something no one’s even asked me to write? This isn’t even good!” And once I sold Denton, along with another book, this feeling turned into: “People are paying me to write these books, and I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing! This isn’t even good!”

            But I’m learning that the TOTAL LACK OF CONTROL is necessary. If you commit to floundering every day, to–as Anne Lamott says–writing “a shitty first draft,” you will make bizarre and exciting discoveries. It may take days of working, maybe even weeks, but you will dig up gems from within the piles of shit. The story you’re writing will surprise you, and it will be a thousand times more rewarding than knowing the route in advance.    

            So let us not be awesomeists in the early stages of a new piece of art. As we take the leap of faith that this work inevitably requires, let us be shittyists. It’ll be scary and powerfully uncomfortable and maybe even smelly sometimes, but we can lean into the fear and know that just by doing the work, we earn the right to call ourselves artists. The road to Awesome is paved with Shit. Let’s all pave together, one shit-stone at a time.

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