Thursday, October 08, 2015

Two Things We Should All Do

The fall had come, and my wife was huddled in a warm green sweater, me in my winter jacket as we sat on our porch. Her long day had just ended and mine was about to begin. This had become our ritual since I'd started writing full-time four months earlier. A chance to catch up and spend some quality time together. By the time she got home at night, I'd usually finished my chores around the house and whatever shopping and cooking needed to be done. When she went to bed, I went to work, writing in the silence of the quiet hours late at night.

Our conversations ranged from work, both hers and mine, and other topics around the news and in our own life.

It was my favourite time of the day.

Tonight, we'd been talking about the personality test, a free test that copied the famous Myers-Brigg test that I'd taken in Seminary in my leadership course. Though we shared the same worldview (basically, we're both hippies) our personalities were very different.

"You know what I don't understand," she said, taking a sip of wine. "I don't understand how you can be so closed and private when it comes people coming over or visitors or anything in the physical world, and yet so open and vulnerable in your writing."

Bethany had been raised in Ethiopia, the daughter of missionaries, a country known for its hospitality. Her easy going nature had no issues with sudden visitors. But to write a blog this one? That would never happen.

"It's because I have to be." I said. "Writers need to be open and vulnerable to be interesting. The only experience that I can truly mine is my own, and I have to be willing to dig into it to write things that matter. In other words, if I'm not willing to look into the mirror and be honest about what I see, I can't be an artist."

I believe this is true for everyone who has goals and dreams, not just artists. Whatever it is you're trying to achieve, an inability to look in the mirror and be honest will cause you to fail.

There are, I think, two things we all need to do.

Get the Windex out, spray down the glass, wipe it, and take a good look. Do you want a new house? A better job? A book deal? What's it going to take to get there? How much money will you need? How many hours do you need to spend to get good enough to achieve it? Do you have the discipline to do it? If you hedge on any of these questions, you won't get there without simply getting lucky.

When I first started writing, it still held a kind of mystique for me. I wrote a little, dreamed about it, talked about it. But I was afraid to look in the mirror. My first characters were nothing more than cardboard cutouts, characters that I thought people would like because they were so generic. The more I read, the more I realized that I needed to go further. I needed to stop worrying about what my parents would think or my church would think or what my friends would think.

I needed to lay it bare.

I can tell you, as someone who has battled depression their whole life, this wasn't easy. I wanted to lock away the ugly parts of me. Not look at them. I wanted to lock away my beliefs that didn't make sense and not examine them. I wanted to see myself as the person I imagined that I was, instead of the person that I'd become.

It wasn't until I rid myself of these hangups and recognized that I was human, and that there were other people out there struggling like I was, that I found my voice. After that, the discipline became easier. Words flowed from my fingers. I wasn't writing to make people happy any more, to please certain segments of society, I was, as one writer put up, cutting my vein open and letting it bleed onto the page."

Nothing has been the same since.


We dreamers are often fed a lot of cliche stuff about how important the process is and that the journey matters more than the destination. That's hard to accept when you have two little kids, a job you hate, and you're frantically scribbling lines or practicing your latest song or taking a night course. Who the hell cares about the journey? It's all about the destination, because otherwise, what have you gained.

The temptation, then, is to take shortcuts. For a writer, that might mean self-publishing before your work is ready. (I'm not against self-publishing. Not at all. But you need more than your friend saying "it's good" before you publish your first novel.) For others, it could mean taking financial risks to get you the house sooner than you could afford it.

Whatever it is, understand this: there are no steroids for dreamers. You have to run the race. You have to cramp up and fall. You have to walk when your sides feel like someone is jamming a knife into them. You have to move when your legs are numb. This is the process. This is the discipline. This is what turns adequate writers into good ones. This is what turns so-so musicians into successful bands. This is what turns your professional life from mediocrity to success.

Running cleanly means accepting the pain that comes with it.

If there was a shortcut to achieving our dreams and goals, one that worked, i would advocate for it. Instead, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers, "talent" costs about ten thousand hours.

Look, to be a dreamer is a hard thing. We have to ignore what other say. We have to discipline ourselves to do things that many people are not doing. We have to keep our eyes focused on a distant horizon with no guarantee of what's to come.

That's what makes you so special. You can do it.

Now go get it.