life lessons

Life Lessons from a Writer


My Storyboard

In all the excitement of Brutal First Impressions, I forgot to mention that I finished the first draft of my novelIn the Pride! 216 pages and over 60,000 words, and that’s not even including the hundreds of pages from the three earlier versions I struggled with.

I started this book last November when I bought my first and only lottery ticket. The story was originally about a woman who wins the lottery but loses her life. Somehow that story became one about a big cat sanctuary (because that’s where I would go if I won the lottery). Now the story is about the connection between animal conservation and global politics — there’s still a sanctuary, but no lottery ticket in sight.

I hope some of the things I’ve learned from writing can be useful in everyday life :

  1. Show up I recently came across the perfect quote by David Campbell: “Discipline is remembering what you want.” There were many days I didn’t feel like writing, but I forced myself to sit at my computer (with the internet turned off), recognizing that if creativity didn’t get me started, boredom would. Remember what you want most in life, and start doing it even if you’re not ready.
  2. Take it easy on yourself. When I write I have a constant voice in my head yelling, “crap!” It’s amazing I get anything done with that distraction. That’s when I say, “yes, this is crap, but even roses grow in sh*t.” Expecting everything that comes out of you to be perfect is extremely inhibiting. Let yourself be average or even terrible, and have confidence that you’ll know how to fix it eventually.
  3. Let things go. After writing 100 pages of my first draft, I signed up for a writing class. My classmates all agreed that the writing was great but the premise wasn’t believable. I kept thinking that if I could just tweak a word here or there, I could make it work. I realized that I could work on that version for years before realizing that it didn’t make sense, or I could start over with a better premise. As soon as I let that version go the next draft was effortless. If the foundation isn’t right you need to let it go. I’ve seen the same thing apply in relationships. People don’t want to break up because they’ve invested so much time into a relationship, but if it’s not working, don’t waste even more time on it.
  4. The beginning is at the end I got this advice from a publisher and it could not be more true. While I was slaving away on the first 50 pages of my manuscript, I was neglecting the greater picture of my story. The publisher told me that I had to finish the entire story in order to know what’s really important. Now that I’ve finished it, I realize that the sections I was perfecting don’t really need to be in the story. When you get closer to the end of your life you begin to see what was really important and what was a waste of time. The only thing I can suggest is don’t waste time making things perfect. Stay curious until the very end.
  5. cover design

    A mock up of my future novel (with the old working title).

    Have fun and reward yourself Throughout the writing process I’ve pinpointed important milestones that I wanted to celebrate. My reward for finishing the first draft is to visit Idaho, where my story is set, so I’ll be writing about that soon. I’ve also come up with different fun ideas to keep the vision of my book alive. A big goal will take over your life. It’s not enough to celebrate at the end, you need to have fun in the process as well.


Blood and Nutshells

When reading about character development in See Jane Write, I got a great piece of writing advice that also poses an interesting question for everyone. “Think of a childhood story that would summarize each of your characters. What is their nutshell?” You don’t need to include the story in your book, you just need to know it to understand the character.

My nutshell story is from when I was eight years old and  I was waiting around the playground after school. I was watching other kids jumping off the swing set and I really wanted to try it. A fifth grader stood in front of my swing and told me I shouldn’t do it because I might get hurt. That made me want to do it more. Next thing I knew, I was pumping my legs as hard as I could. I swung so high I thought I would go around the pole in circles. I let go, knowing that I was going to jump higher and further than any other kid. And I did. Except I landed on a fence face first.

I stood up and looked around, but no one was watching. There was shooting pain coming from the right side of my face and when I closed my left eye everything was blurry and gray. I put my sleeve against my face and saw that it was covered in blood. Since no one was looking at me, I figured I would just stand there until the blood stopped and I didn’t feel so dizzy, and then I would go to my after-school art class. I was afraid that if I told someone, I would get into trouble and miss my the class.

When the blood soaked all the way down to my elbow, a playground attendant noticed and took me to the nurses office. My mom, who happened to be in the school for a parent teacher conference, gave me the present that was intended for my brother’s teacher (a mug that said World’s Best Teacher that was filled with hard candy). I ate every one of those candies as we drove to the hospital and the doctor examined me. I got 10 stitches on my cheek and the doctor told me I was damn lucky I didn’t lose my eye. If it was one millimeter higher, the cheekbone fragment would have pierced my eyeball.

This was me in a nutshell for a very long time (although I must admit I don’t feel like this sums me up anymore because I had a life-changing experience with The Living Course in my early 20s, but that’s a different blog post). If I were a character in a story, here’s what this story says about me:

  1. I was a loner
  2. I was defiant
  3. I wanted to fit in
  4. I was uncoordinated
  5. I was afraid of getting in to trouble
  6. I was willing to accept some pain to avoid punishment
  7. I was lucky

What is your nutshell story, and what do you think it says about you?

I’ll leave you with some comic relief: this is still one of my favorite cheesy jokes of all time.

Show up

Woody Allen

Woody Allen (Photo credit: ThomasThomas)

“80% of success is showing up.”

I always thought that was an Einstein quote, but apparently it was Woody Allen. One of the things that I love about Woody Allen is that he’ll try anything. Some of his jokes are really stupid, but there are others that make me cry from laughing, and he seems to deliver both varieties with earnestness. It’s like he throws as many darts as possible hoping at least one of them will hit the target. I really respect that level of effort and candor.

I’ve been a big fan of this quote because I see it’s truth all the time.

The other day was a perfect example. While volunteering with Defy, there was competition to see which team of two could do the best presentation. Every team was going to have two minutes to make this presentation and since there were 50 people in the room, there would be five rounds. We had ten minutes to prepare our speeches.

When they asked for five teams to volunteer to go first I raised my hand immediately. This is not my usual mode of operation, but since I’m a mentor I thought it would be good to exemplify leadership behavior.

When the five teams went to the front of the room the moderator announced that competition was over and that the first group automatically won. The people who hadn’t volunteered were upset, but it was such a valuable lesson.

Sometimes you don’t know what you’re actually being judged on. One of my friends described an interview at Google where they asked a ridiculously hard question and it turns out they were judging how he reacts to pressure and not his actual answer. It turns out the competition was not about who can give the best presentation but about who was willing to take risks and step up to the plate.

How many times do we sit back and wait to be called on? How much time do we waste perfecting our arguments and never saying them out loud. This little social experiment was the epitome of Woody Allen’s quote. It doesn’t really matter if your the best, smartest, funniest, whatever. It matters that you’re eager, and ready to get in the game. The more time I spend with successful business people the more impressed I am not with their amazing intelligence or insight, but with their willingness to dive right in.

While we’re on the topic of Woody Allen, here are some other quotes of his that I love:

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

“If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

“My one regret in life is that I’m not someone else.”

10 lessons from 100 posts.

Here are some things I’ve learned while writing the last 99 posts.

  1. Write things down. We have so many thoughts running through our head how will we ever know which ones are significant? Of course writing a thought down does not make it significant, but if you catch yourself writing the same thought over and over it’s time to take a deeper look. It’s nearly impossible to get that clarity if you keep everything jumbled up in your head.
  2. Create a supportive community. One of the reasons why I was afraid to blog was that I’ve read so many mean-spirited comments on the internet. Blogs seemed like the place where people let out their worst thoughts, and I didn’t want to invite that into my life. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how nice and supportive strangers have been. This goes for the real world too. I’ve actively drawn more positive people into my life, while avoiding negative people.
  3. Make your goals public.It holds you accountable, and it makes you realize that other people are rooting for your success and happiness.

    Termites build these impressive structures one grain of sand at a time.

  4. Things add up. Whenever you start something it’s easy to discount it. After my first few posts I thought what’s the point. I’m just wasting time. But after steady accumulation the whole it greater than the parts. Sure there are some posts that are silly and unnecessary, and sure there were some heartfelt posts that felt really good to share, but in the end I’m able to look through it all and say, wow this is something I’m proud of.
  5. Take some time to study yourself. We spend years studying math, Science, history, etc, but when do we sit down and really examine ourselves? And why not? We have to spend the rest of our lives with ourselves so shouldn’t we be the greatest expert on our own ideas, memories, and dreams?
  6. Just say yes. If you’re not sure you will like something try it out. Take every thing one day at a time. One of the hardest things about finding a new job after I quit was not know what I liked to do. But how will you know what you want to do if you don’t try out a bunch of different things? It’s just as easy to say no after you try something out. But to say no first will prevent you from knowing for sure if something is your cup of tea.
  7. It doesn’t matter if it’s been said before. It’s so easy not to write something because you think it’s a given, or a cliche. But chances are it’s new for someone. And even if everyone in the world has read it before sometimes we need to read it again. Sometimes I just need to hear something at the exact right moment for it to sink in.
  8. Talk to someone different. It’s our tendency to surround ourselves with like minded people. I often realize what a bubble I live in (especially when I see the kind of politicians people are actually voting for…Santorum? Really?). One of my favorite parts of teaching English as a second language is meeting people who come from different worlds. It makes life seem so much more complex and beautiful when you know that it can be done so differently.
  9. Wake up an hour earlier. I used to think that getting an extra few minutes of sleep was more important and beneficial than eating breakfast, or having a chance to take a deep breath before heading out to work. Ever since I started doing the morning pages I’ve been waking up at 6:30 and I love it. Of course I’m tired, but I’m going to be tired no matter what time I wake up. Now my mornings feel peaceful. There’s something special about the early morning sunlight.
  10. Notice synchronicity. I don’t really care if it happens by chance, or if it’s God’s way of saying, “hey I’m listening,”there’s something so fun and exciting about noticing coincidences. In my morning pages I wrote, “I hope my boss gives me another class,” and that day he gave me another class. Last week I thought, “I really don’t want to do the laundry,” and a minute later Mike walked by with the laundry bag and said he was going to do it. Noticing these funny coincidences makes you feel like an all powerful superhero. It makes you think that you can get anything you put your mind to. It encourages you to dream bigger, because if you can will one person to do your laundry maybe you can will someone else to publish your book.