Your Story Submission is Just an Audition

Journey III was listening to an interview of actor David Tennant (Dr. Who, Jessica Jones) the other day and he said something I think we’d all benefit in hearing.

Tennant was recapping his successful acting career and mentioned that he’d had to audition for a part recently, which was something he hadn’t done in a long time. Successful actors often get to skip the audition given their status as a known commodity, so an audition is rarely required. Tennant is a very funny man, and his story harbored no malice or jealousy, but he did mention in passing how an audition is very competitive, and that on this day he was bested by someone else who showed up and did a better job.

This made me think about the process of getting published.

As writers most of us are unknown. We send our little envoy along, our speaking part if you will, in hopes of impressing an editor enough to put our story in their publication. When the story comes back rejected, we feel a wash of negative emotion, from despair to disgust to anger, and believe simultaneously that the editor is a fool and we are delusional to think we’d ever succeed at writing in the first place.

But what if we had to audition? What if we had to physically carry our story in hand, down the littered sidewalk and into narrow alleys, up steep stairs into a crowded room with chairs lining the walls, nowhere to sit, the competition staring into our faces with polite contempt while we wait for our name to be called. During the wait, our resolve diminishes. Fatigue sets in as we study the pages in our hands – our best work. How embarrassing. The room is warm, stuffy, the air disgusting as we breathe in the fear and self-loathing of everyone else, just as they breathe in ours. And finally our name is called, and we step behind the door with the frosted glass window, the loose glass rattling once as the door shuts too loudly behind us. Seated at a table in what amounts to a tiny classroom are three strangers, experts, who are about to listen to us read our story, judge us to our faces, letting us know as we finish that they will be in touch.

At home we are sure others must have done better. In excitable moments we rise in the feeling that maybe, this time, we did it right. We remember how we stumbled in our reading, how we misspoke the line when Clara revealed to her mother that she was contemplating a divorce. How could we have botched such an important moment?

When the call comes, sorry, we’ve chosen a different option. Please contact us again for future opportunities. Spurned, we are outwardly grateful for the opportunity. Will try again soon. Have a lovely day. And then for an hour, we completely give up.

Thank God it isn’t quite like that. Writers are spared the physical confrontation with our judges. Our envoy makes the trip for us, and stands in for our audition beside hundreds of others. Once in a while, we get the part.

Every successful actor is no different from every successful writer. Whether by person or pen they showed up, did their best, walked away for a time to return once more and try again. This is you. Many times you will be bested. But show up for each opportunity, again and again. Get better. One day you will get the part. Each chance is only one audition. Whether you failed or succeeded the time before, remember that it’s the next time that matters most.

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Lucky Versus Good and the Simple Secret to Success

shadow fixLefty Gomez is credited with saying “I’d rather be lucky than good.” When it comes to success as an artist that sentiment may be even more true than it is in baseball. The secret to success as an artist lies within this idea, a secret that isn’t as mysterious and elusive as it first seems.

Every new project an artist undertakes is approached with the same general drive, inspiration and intent as the one before. When the idea comes to us we go for it with the goal of making the best product we know how. When the work is finished and we are happy enough with it, we send it out into the world and there it is judged, loved, hated, and then eventually becomes replaced by the next thing in a cycle that goes on and on forever. Except that sometimes a thing we do sticks, and the resultant stick makes us stand out, perhaps for the rest of our lives.

Naturally we would like everything we do to have this lasting effect, but it doesn’t and we can’t force it to happen no matter how hard we try. What we must do instead is create the best content we can while also creating as much of it as we can. The secret to success is more often quantity combined with quality. With quantity comes a sort of luck. The odds are that with enough effort something will stand out and get you noticed. Often it takes example after example of a certain style before people “get it,” but once that happens years of toil can come to fruition almost over night.

Not that we rely solely on luck. While it may be better to be lucky than good, the artist must still be good at what they do. A whole library of garbage will always be garbage. But a substantial collection of quality work, and a little luck that some of it gets noticed and celebrated, is the most likely scenario for success for today’s creative person.

So often it seems that a young prodigy comes out of nowhere with a single piece of fiction that suddenly takes off and makes them the new hot thing. To believe that some people wake up one day and pen a single story, as though having an innate store of perfect stories in their minds, one to write following another, is a great illusion in the world. No creative person that I am aware of ever created quality work without practice. For every first fiction there are dozens of stories that never made the cut, usually never made the light of day.

The secret is to work fast and work often. Let the stories inside you come together and slip out of you like tears and gasps and great big laughs. There is nothing gained by trying to create one perfect piece. The goal of perfection is deceptive – to assume that perfection can be achieved and should be the goal is to restrict the pathway to success with the briars of a lie. Simply create, prolifically, and let the results of your work lead the way to whatever success may come. None of us are only as good as one thing we do – we are the sum of all of our parts.

Keep working.

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When the Engine Stalls, Row!

no parking2A long time ago I had friend who owned an old white Subaru hatchback, a four-cylinder hunk of engineering marvel with bald tires and an engine as gutless as Punxsutawney Phil upon seeing his shadow six weeks too soon for an early spring. In the (mostly) flat lands of the Bay Area it was a splendid junker for getting to places not so far away. For longer road trips, such as the one I often made to see my parents in the California Sierras, it was less ideally suited.

A few days before we made the trip, my friend alleged that there was a misfire in the number three cylinder. When it began to act up, he said, all he had to do was unplug the cylinder wire from the offending cylinder and continue on. I thought little of it.

The day we left for the hills it was beautifully sunny. A perfect road trip day. We flew out of the Bay (on all four cylinders) and began the gradual ascent up I-80 toward the distant ridges of northeastern California. The trip was going well. We forgot about any cylinder issues and allowed the road to open before us with the promise of the journey to come.

For those unfamiliar with the I-80 corridor, it’s a long black ribbon of generally hot, flat roadway through a good deal of agricultural valley before lifting into the dry, grassy foothills around places like Auburn, Colfax, and Grass Valley. But once you begin the climb, it is an unrelenting elevation gain that does not peak until cresting at seven thousand feet at Donner Pass (known for the infamous Donner Party) somewhere near the border town of Truckee. We were barely on the pouty lower lip of the Auburn climb when my travel companion decided to stop and check the Subaru’s mighty little engine. Naturally it seemed to him that the number three was acting up. He pulled the wire and off we went.

The special thing about this time of living, two boys, barely twenty, is that we knew nothing about life, about the struggle to survive, or to accomplish things that only become important later. In our naiveté everything was an adventure, a challenge we had already succumbed to but did so without expectation that we would have ever been able to succeed. We were not defeated by spite, we were defeated by blissful ignorance. Life is the greatest pastime when we are young. Things are mostly funny.

When the dogged and belabored engine showed no gusto for climbing the gradual hills outside of Auburn the moment became temporarily embarrassing. Every other car on the road was flying past us. I doubt we were going over thirty mph. Imagine what a wiser adult might think in such a position. Am I going to make it? Am I going to cause an accident? Am I going to get stuck on the pass like the Donners of yore? But with the pedal floored and the car gasping to make the climb we did the only thing we could do. We rolled down our windows and pretended to row.

Other drivers laughed as the passed by. We rowed with all of our might and laughed and waved, making friends with dozens of others for brief moments as they hurtled past, probably grateful they were not in our predicament, but perhaps appreciating that we weren’t worried, that in fact we were going to be all right in the end because we had spirit, and we had enthusiasm, and we were creative . . .

This is what the writing life can be like. Often in the beginning we are running on fewer cylinders, with an engine that seems somehow too tired or is otherwise deficient. More often than not we worry about making the climb, about reaching the destination. We worry about dying on the hill.

But if we roll down the windows and row, if we laugh and wave, come to terms with the process and enjoy that we are living through this journey, we will arrive no worse for wear. At the end of the journey we will have a story to tell.

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Three Things You Need to Stay Motivated to Do Anything

According to recent research, there are three key factors to achieving success in nearly anything we do: autonomy, value, and competence.  In an article written by Daisy Yuhas of the magazine Scientific American Mind (“So You Want To Be A Genius”), research has determined that these factors improve a person’s determination to succeed.  They essentially breakdown in this way:

Autonomy – this is the sense we have of control of, and the decision to engage in, an activity in the first place.  By willingly investing effort into the activity we are much more likely to complete it because it is something we want to do rather than something we have to do.  When we want to do something we tend to have much more energy and devotion to doing it, and thus are more likely to complete it.

Value – this is a factor we assign to things that we find important and/or meaningful.  In the creative life, we want to believe in the value of our creation, and in maintaining this value we naturally want to complete the work and share it with others.  Without a sense of value in doing something there is no reason to do it, and thus the work becomes tedious by virtue of it’s pointlessness, and lacking a motivating factor, including the faith that we will find meaning in the end, the project is most likely to fail.

Competence – this is the sense that we, the individual artist, have the skills and ability to do the thing at hand.  Without this sense of competence there is an eventual frustration when we are faced with difficult hurdles in the process.  The adage “whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right” fits here.  If the creative mind does not believe in, or at least have a sense of, its own competence, then the project is likely to fail for a lack of confidence regardless of the potential of the idea, the artist, or both.

For the beginner the challenge of competence is perhaps the most acute.  Competence feeds both autonomy and value because without a sense of competence there can be no faith in the value of the work, and without a sense of value there is little to no sense of autonomy.  We humans cannot control and manage the things we are incompetent in, and because of that we must focus first of all on building our competence, and our confidence, before we can hope to infuse meaning (value) and authority (autonomy) into our work.

And how does one gain competence in a skill?  For the writer there are only two avenues: reading and writing.  When I began composing my current novel I had to return to the old books I knew, the old motivators that led to the creation of the ideas that were in my head. But my current work is science fiction while my genre background was previously fantasy and horror. Even more distant, I have spent the last decade-and-a-half engaged in literary ventures. I had to turn to science fiction as a newbie just to begin to get an idea of what I was trying to write, and how it should be written. My sense of competence was low. Because of an established sense of autonomy, however – a sense garnered through other writing and teaching successes, not to mention the wisdom that comes with age – I had the confidence in my ability that many others lack as they set out to try something new. From there I built competence through reading, and continue to do so through revision of what I hope will be a most excellent piece of adventure fiction that is also meaningful to the reader. If you are struggling with any or perhaps all of the above, I urge you to work first on competence. The rest will follow quite naturally.

So where do you sit in the realm of autonomy, value, and competence? Do you struggle with one or more of these aspect(s)? Sound off here with your thoughts and questions.

Your Resolutions Should Be Daily

There’s a popular tradition this time of year to make resolutions as if the date of January 1 somehow holds significance above any other first day of the rest of your life.  I suppose, in fairness, that for some people the new year provides the opportunity to commit, finally, to getting on with something and hopefully sticking to it.  If this is you, then by all means get on with it already.  Once you cross that threshold, however, you must ask yourself: what is the plan to keep it going from here?

I heard a quote recently which stated that “success is entirely dependent upon consistency of purpose.”  I believe the key word here is “consistency.”  Nothing is more consistent than daily practice, but before our mind slips off into some other distracted thought about how boring daily effort can be, note very quickly that the intent of this effort is success. Diligence, in other words, breeds success.  And whatever your definition of success, it is primarily through a diligent effort that your success will come.  Think about how diligent you may have already been up to this point being utterly inconsistent.  I imagine you’ve been wildly successful at being unsuccessful, am I right? 

The thing about the creative life – that is, living with creative purpose, as an artist of one or many sorts – is that the creative urge is already constantly present.  Even when we do nothing about it there are thoughts, ideas, images, and inspirations coursing through us with their own energy.  Our goal as creatives is to cast our net and collect a few of these things as they pass by, to do this every day, even if only in play, or by making small notes. Part of the creative life is being the conduit for expression of the whims of the subconscious and, depending on your cosmic views, the messages of god, or the visions of the Universe. We give ourselves too much credit to think we are the sole originator of creation, and in realizing that we are more so the stewards of creative eloquence, stewards of the gift of artistic expression which we allow to pass through us, we realize, too, that we have an obligation to continue our work without ceasing.  So god speaks, so we listen and do that bidding.

Our resolutions are not something to make once per year with a weak hope that somehow they will stick to us without effort on our part.  No, we must resolve to commit daily to the creative process, commit to allowing the vespers of creative vision to flow over and through us, in obedience to a higher calling to the life of beauty, of art, and of expression.  This is how we must think of these things.  The artist is blessed by a certain magic, a mystical spirit that is invisible to some, frightening to others.  The greatest grievance the creative person makes is to neglect this spirit and do nothing, to grow bored and dismiss the calling as whimsy.  Of course it is whimsy!  Creation is play, it is discovery and enlightenment.  But creation is also serious, deserving of proper treatment and all of our effort.

Our resolutions should be made daily, with no mind of the years that go by, nor of the hours we spend fulfilling our duty to the creative life.  Rest, play, live – but always, always return to the creative work.  Dabble, pick, start and stop, then go forward.  Persevere and be bold.  Wake committed, in the smallest, most guarded part of your mind, to do something creative this day and the next, and the next beyond that.  Be resolved, as you said you would.  Do not count the cost.

Creativity Beyond the One Thing (or, lifestyle versus hobby)

I was raised by creative parents. I don’t know if they realize this fact, nor how much it influenced my creative life. Even to this day my parents are creative. My mother is a quilter-extraordinaire. My father has done everything from stained glass and wrought iron, to photography, to knife-making. Award-winning, quality work. I’m very proud of their creative skills and grateful for the influence. I have often wished for both of them that they would have had the confidence in their craft to make it less of a hobby, and more of a lifestyle.

Living creatively means more than giving art a shot. Trying new things is important, and dabbling in creative pursuits is fulfilling in itself because the experience of learning new skills and then making something with our own hands is satisfying, even if the product isn’t exactly the quality thing we wish to make. When we dabble and fail, because as novices that’s what happens, we tend to give up and say the effort was an experiment. If we do it a few times, every now and then, we call it a hobby. Often we abandon the endeavor and move on to something else. Meanwhile, though we may harbor a little piece of creative notion about ourselves, we largely live our lives as though the arts are meant for someone else. We don’t think of ourselves as artists, we don’t act like artists, and we don’t create like artists.

Creative people have an attitude. I’ve probably said this before. And that attitude is one of defiance, and license, and of pride. For those who cannot abate this attitude the creative sensibility becomes a lifestyle. Creatives often look, talk and behave differently from “normal” people. Some of this dandyism comes from pride and ego and some of it comes from a lack of confidence that they are trying to overcome by being different. When a creative person moves from dabbling curiosity to daily living in the creative zone, their entire lifestyle becomes a resource for the creative effort. Through this evolution the true artist is manifested. In Campbell’s terms the mythology of the artist results in the real-world outcome of an artistic life. Artists create art, and there’s no stopping it once the persona is established.

A creative lifestyle is composed of many things that other lifestyles shy away from. Travel, idea and discussion, debate, creation, destruction, rebirth, change. These things take effort. They require an engaged mind and a level of energy. The will must be fully present and applied. All of creative effort is a matter of will. The work can be tedious and frustrating. Hopes can be dashed. Failure, once again, is ever-present. Few, if any, creative people who have gone on to have great success have never experienced failure. But they did not quit, because their will would not let them, nor would the calling.

Sean Penn has been credited with saying that he has written many things, and most of them haven’t gone anywhere. But by doing a lot of work he finds things that do take hold, and are successful. None of us is any different in that regard. But in order to have the energy to do all of that work, and to have a shot at that kind of result, the creative process has to be part of an entire lifestyle.

My offering today is encouragement to embrace the inner dandy. All of a person’s individual success ultimately comes down to their own effort and the will to make it happen. Theodor Herzl said “If you will it, it is no dream” (Old, New Land, 1902). The will thrives in an environment that promotes it.

So what will it be? Lifestyle or hobby? The urge to create a single story requires the will to make it happen. If one has the will to do even that much, then there is the will to create the lifestyle to support it.

Stubborn To a Fault – How to know it’s time to let go

I have this idea that every new thing I write is going to be better than the last. It makes sense. Practice makes perfect and if you do something long enough you’re going to get better at it. I also have the idea that anything can be made interesting if one is a good enough writer. If you are like me in these beliefs it’s time for both of us to do ourselves a favor.

Realize that not every idea is worth the effort of trying to save it.

Consider the plight of our friend and mentor Natalie Goldberg. On page 83 of Wild Mind Goldberg shares a story about seeing an accident involving a cow and a semi lying in the road, both on their sides, facing each other as though they had run head on and knocked each other over. The image was a moment of inspiration for her. After a few weeks of working over the image she hadn’t gotten anywhere. The inspiration was gone and she couldn’t make it work. She wisely gave it up.

Sometimes we find ourselves really trying to communicate something, stopping all progress in the effort of getting it right, and still it never manifests the way we want it. The importance of understanding this concept applies especially to revision. We all know that when we write something for the first time we are free to let it fly onto the page. We understand that we are not to worry (as much) about grammar, diction and syntax, not the way we will worry about it later in revision. So when we are cruising along and our hand writes out something like, “The night that Jason found his grandmother’s diary would have been a watershed moment in his life if he had had the courage to take the key from his mother’s hand and unlock the book to reveal the secrets inside about how he had the inherited the curse of the wolf” we know we have to fix that bit later (and how).

So later comes, and it’s time to revise that hideously long sentence for the sake of informing the reader that Jason had a chance to learn the secret of his past early on if he had only had the courage. We begin by moving words around like so:

“The night Jason found his grandmother’s diary was important . . .” No.

“If only Jason had taken the key to his grandmother’s diary he would have learned the dark secret . . .” Not what we want.

Meanwhile, all of the narrative leading up to this stupid sentence, and a good chunk of what follows, is spot on! In fact, it might be so good that we don’t need the long complex sentence in the middle at all. There is a very simple trick to figuring out that it’s time to cut an idea and move on – read the passage as if the sentence was gone already and see if the story lives on.

This tip applies to any part of the writing process and is key to revision. Simply put, if something isn’t working it isn’t worth the time to make it fit. I couldn’t tell you how much time I have wasted playing with snippets of a story that were more “snip” and less “pet.” Very much like pruning a plant, however, once we identify the dead branches of our writing and cut them out, the story and we ourselves feel suddenly healthier and more vibrant for it.

There is a companion notion to this idea of knowing when it’s time to let something go and it all has to do with that key writer organ covered recently in another discussion: the gut. You will recall that the gut is where our truth and intuition reside. We must recognize as well that the gut also informs us when the writing is bad, and by learning to listen to our gut we can find many more dead branches during our pruning process. The way it works is that during the re-reading of our work-in-progress we will come across passages that don’t “feel” right. The reasons are many, and the goal of revision is to find these passages and make them better. But sometimes they never feel better and this is when it comes time to realize they never will. We cut the passage (or sentence, or clause, etc.) and instead our gut, and the story, feels better.

All hail the gut! The writer’s organ!

Stubbornness can be a writer’s great ally. By being strong we ignore the negativity of others who tell us we cannot succeed, or should not tell our story, or must go here, be that, give up this, etc. When it comes to making good stories, however, we must be prepared to exchange stubbornness for success. We must know when it’s time to let go.