Stoic Save Points

While on vacation with my family, I had a rare moment of solitude at the beach. My wife and kids were at the house getting snacks. It was warm, and I was laying back in a lounge chair in the shade.

I closed my eyes and focused on the sensations around me. I could hear the ocean, with its loud and steady rhythm. And I could hear snippets of conversations around me. I could hear different streams of music from radios. Families. Groups of friends.

A breeze blew warm, humid air past me. I could feel sand everywhere. On my feet. My legs. My face. My eyes were closed, but the brightness seeped in, giving me a dim, reddish-orange awareness of the world around me.

I tried to let go of all schedules and stresses and ambitions and expectations. Just focus on this moment. Be aware of everything around me. It felt like a time I should remember. I was content. We were healthy and safe. We had what we needed. I could let go.

I thought about ambition. Focusing on the future. It’s easy to let your mind live in the future, on your hopes. Always focus on how much better things will be around the next corner.

Of course you need to consider the future. Plan your day to get to meetings on time. Weigh your options when you make a decision. But once you make a plan or a decision, it can be easy to let your mind fall into a loop of worry and stress and re-evaluation.

It’s also easy to focus on long-term hopes and desires. Convince yourself things will be so much better in a few years when you finally get that thing, or finally achieve that goal. But if you let your head live there, you won’t live in the world around you. You’ll wake up one day and find your kids have grown up around you. Where did the time go?

The truth is that time is cruel. Or maybe not cruel, but wild and untamed and ultimately indifferent. Like the ocean. It will take things away. It will break everything down. We cannot hope to wrestle it down or master it.

We don’t know when our time will end. Healthy people get unexpected illnesses. Random accidents take people away from us before their time.

I thought about the shape of my life if my time was due. Would my story be about someone who didn’t achieve their goal? What is my goal anyway? What is the narrative arc of my life? Was this person always on the verge? How would the people I love get by? Would they still be safe? Would they be ok?

I’m not done teaching lessons to my kids. Will they learn the value of hard work? Will they learn that excellence takes discipline? That becoming good at any endeavor must necessarily start as being bad at something and practicing anyway, even when it’s hard? Will they take their health seriously? Learn the value of a clear head after a good sweat? Will they gain patience and the value of non-distraction?

I would hope so. In truth, it took me a long time to learn a lot of these lessons. I suppose I want to give them a shortcut. I’m sure my parents wanted to give this to me too. But I was pretty thick-headed. Maybe it’s the nature of kids to reject some lessons until they learn on their own. It’s a lot easier to learn something by doing it wrong over and over again than by listening to someone and taking them at their word.

Sure there would be a lot of things undone. But would I leave behind any tragedy? Any wrongs that I didn’t set aright? Any forgiveness that I had failed to seek? I don’t think so. I’ve tried to act in good faith and treat people fairly. I don’t think anyone has good reason to harbor resentment towards me. And if they do it may be something they need to deal with themselves.

But if I could think of something. If I felt something was missing, or that I was leaving behind some wrong that needed to be righted, this would be something for me to deal with now. Work to fix it until no longer occupied a darkness in my mind.

As I sat there, I realized that the world would go on without me. Even if things were hard, if bad things happened, the people I loved would continue on and do their best. And I could accept that. Because I did my best. Sure I made lots of mistakes, but I cared and I had an earnest heart. I could respect that life.

That realization felt like a save point. In a video game you’ll play different chapters and different parts, but then often you will get to a save point. If you fail after that, you can always go back to your save point.

As you go on in life, take time to consider your life. Are you living in such a way that an unexpected end to your life would leave a hole with sharp edges and broken promises? Or can you feel content that you’ve made the world a little better and followed consistent principles?

Take stock of your life right now. If you can accept what you would leave behind — if something happened to you today — that’s like another save point further down the road. It’s a waypoint in your journey. If there is something important left undone, then take the time to handle it. But otherwise be content that you are following your path. You’re playing the game the right way and living your story.

I felt like I had stumbled on a useful exercise. A way of grounding yourself. And I will try to do this now and again. I’m sure it’s not a new idea. I’m sure this type of exercise is well-worn territory for the ancient stoics. Maybe the analogy to video game save points is novel. And maybe it only makes sense in my head. That’s ok.

In any case, give it a try. It felt useful and helpful to me. Maybe it’ll be helpful to you.

Stuff I Like: April 2021

In the spirit of random positivity, here are some things I like that you might want to try. No affiliate links or anything, just some random things I found worth my money or time.

  • Mod Pizza. So good. I usually get a salad because I try to eat low-carb, but it’s a good damn salad.
  • Sony WH-1000XM4 Headphones. I have custom headphones personalized with a WordPress logo. It’s a 7-year-anniversary gift from my company Automattic. These are excellent. Bluetooth, long-lasting, and comfortable.
  • Frank Watkinson. I found his version of Radiohead’s “No Alarms” on Reddit. This guy is amazing. I’ll post my own version at some point when I get a chance.
  • Thrawn. This is a book by Timothy Zahn, set in the Star Wars universe. I’m a nerd, I don’t care. I really appreciate his ability to write plot and action. The audiobook is really good. I listen to it whenever I’m exercising or walking the dogs.
  • It Takes Two. This is really an excellent game. I’m playing through it with my son Max, and we’re having a lot of fun.
  • Masterclass. It aint cheap. I tried it out using a friend’s login and decided it was worth paying for. I’m mostly taking classes on writing, but there’s a lot of really good content. I’ve learned a lot.
  • Keto Ice Cream Bars. Most keto ice cream is pretty awful. Chalky texture. Somehow these taste legit, and the chocolate shell has a really good dark chocolate taste.
  • Freedom Grooming Shaver. There are several competing brands here. This one was plastered all over Facebook. It really is a better way to shave your head (if you’re into that kinda thing).
  • Method All Purpose Cleaner. It really makes a difference when cleaners smell good. This stuff smells good.

The Better Piece of Pizza

There were two pieces of cheese pizza left. I wanted one. One of them was clearly better than the other. A bit larger. Better looking cheese. Better.

I asked Violet do you want any more pizza? She said yes but I can have some. I told her to pick her piece. So she came to the counter and her hand hovered over the good piece. Then she grabbed the smaller piece.

I said no. Put that back. You take that better piece. And don’t ever take the worse thing just for some boy.

She said ok. Dadding accomplished.

Writing Advice to Myself

man writing at desk

I’m working on a bit of fiction and as such find myself experiencing soul-crushing doubt. I understand this means I am doing it correctly. It turns out there’s a whole world of aspiring writers doing this terrible thing to themselves. What pathos.

Part of what makes this hard is that I’m not other people. I never have been. There is some fraternity of other people that all seem to know what is happening. They know the steps to the dance. And I’m just faking it — looking around trying to copy the moves. Sometimes I trip. That’s my life.

This leads me to a lot of questions of “Is what I’m doing OK? Do other people do this?”

This scene reads well, but it’s only 300 words. Does that mean I’m very, very stupid?

Is it ok to write out of order? Just picking out scenes that I like? Or is that the number one mistake of people who do everything wrong?

I have a secret weapon, however, which is that I’m getting older. I’m not a young writer except perhaps that my writing is young in its writingness.

And with age comes a certain level of DGIAF which directly opposes my innate desire to understand and be part of the group. Please accept me, but if not you can go to Hell.

I’ve managed to do quite a few interesting and good things. And almost without exception, despite a complete lack of knowing how to do it. In fact that may be my defining characteristic — that I won’t let “I don’t know anything about this” dissuade me from doing it anyway.

I’ve also learned a neat trick. I’m pretty good at coaching and giving advice. I’m actually better at that than deciding what to do for myself. I could wrestle with a problem all day long, but if someone else came to me with that same problem, I could easily help them sort it out. I’m also much more gentle and forgiving with other people than I am with myself.

So this is my cheat code. I’ll write advice to myself as if it’s coming from a place of great knowledge and wisdom. Publishing this makes it more real. Then maybe I can read it and listen to myself.

Just Write

The most important thing in writing is to write. Do so regularly. Every day. Set a goal. Try really hard. Put down something. Anything. Even if you hate it. Poop it out. The more you get your ideas out, the more they will build on each other. The more it will clarify things.

Maybe you’ll delete it, but you’ll have a better basis to know what you like and what you do not. Maybe you’ll go in the wrong direction or at the wrong time. Maybe you’ll have to move scenes around. You can fix it later. Just write.

Spend More Time Writing than Fretting Over the “Writing Process”

There are a lot of excellent resources for fiction writers; Stephen King’s On Writing, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, Writing Down the Bones, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Writing Fiction Step By Step. These are all great books.

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to podcasts like Writing Excuses and Story Grid. I signed up for MasterClass and am going through lessons with Neil Gaiman. I’m excited about the classes with Margaret Atwood and Dan Brown.

And of course there are a bajillion articles about writing. They’re all fighting over the google-search results page to redirect your self-doubt into paying for their services.

These things can be helpful, but they can also be a never-ending tool for procrastination. It’s so easy to fall into them and spend your time learning about writing and thinking about writing instead of writing. Try to avoid this. Spend more time writing than thinking about writing.

For what it’s worth, of all these resources, I think On Writing and Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass have been the most helpful to me. Everything else is just practicing scales to get really good at jazz. Maybe it’s helpful, but to become great your best bet is to play a lot of jazz.

It doesn’t escape me that I am ironically writing about writing instead of writing the thing I want to write. Don’t be so judgmental, reader-me.

Some Days Are Good, Some Days Are Bad

I have learned this about my life in general. Maybe I have one of those uppy-downy things going on in my head. I dunno. Never been diagnosed. Maybe everyone has that and it’s all just a spectrum.

But some days it’s just bad and I hate it. Everything is stupid. I can’t make myself do a thing. Nothing feels right. I can’t pick up where I left off. I can’t fix a scene. It’s a bore. It’s a chore.

When this happens, it’s helpful to recognize that I don’t always feel this way. I also have times where things are falling into place perfectly. So maybe take it easy on myself just a bit. Pick something easier to do. Write out notes on character arcs. Document some of your world-building. Start a new scene.

Write Scenes

I’m definitely a “pantser” rather than a “plotter.” That means that rather than having a very clear outline of what will happen, I am writing by the seat of my pants. I have a general idea of the story, the conflict, etc. But it’s evolving and changing.

I started writing chapters that fell clearly into three main acts. Something about this is just chafing me though. And when mixing different characters and different scenes, it’s not always clear which scenes belong in which chapter. Something inside me just resists putting it down in an outline.

So I’ve let that go. And instead I’m focusing on writing scenes. What might happen for this character? What would be fun? Don’t worry too much about how we got there or where we go after. Just write the scene. It will add to the world, make it more clear, give your characters flesh, personality, bad breath.

And just let them live somewhere. I have a folder called “snippets” and that’s where these scenes start when I’m not sure where they go. I can order them later.

Let Striking Visuals Lead You

I like to think of interesting visuals as inspirations for where the story can go. What is a fun and beautiful backdrop where I can place a scene? From my own life, what stands out as a nostalgic memory?

When I was a kid growing up in Wisconsin we put up a snow fence in our front yard. The drifts were enormous. I created worlds burrowing in those drifts. The snow captured the noise around me. The ice on the power lines created the noise of lasers. When it got dark, I was a spy racing around, trying to avoid the searchlights. I can feel myself there.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was a pretty terrible movie. You’re free to disagree. But the battle scene that took place on the salt flats… boy oh boy, that was beautiful. Vehicles racing on the dry white flats trailing plumes of red. Use that inspiration.

What is a fun geography? A striking visual that I can hold in my head? Where have I been? Swimming in a cenote in Mexico. Walking along a barren pathway in the hills of California. The scrub of Texas desert.

What places have I read about that sound interesting or foreboding? The Broomway in England. The River Wharfe, which looks like a small bubbling stream but is one of the deadliest rivers in the world. England is pretty good at drowning you.

Can I take one of those and turn it on its head? Can I picture it in my mind? Do I want to put my characters there? Is it fun to think about?

Don’t Write Everything

We don’t need to see the characters every second of their day. Don’t know how they got to the next scene? Maybe it doesn’t matter. If someone shows up at a store, I can imagine they probably drove there. I can trust that something reasonable happened. It’s a living breathing world. Focus on the interesting bits.

Write a List of Problems in Your Story

I find it helpful to make a list of things I need to fix or address. We should revisit this character. This character hasn’t explained herself yet. This character doesn’t have a very clear point of view. What does this person want? Why do we care? How did they get out of this situation?

I put these in a bulleted list. Then just brainstorm some possible solutions to the problem as indented bullets.

Then just pick one and write it. Don’t spend too much time debating over it. Just pick one and write it. Maybe you’ll throw it away. But maybe it’ll help you understand something better. Maybe it will lead you to a different idea. Write the scene and see what happens.

Don’t Worry About Throwing Stuff Away

It’s ok to write things you may not use. It’s ok to write things that are directly opposed or won’t make sense together. You’ll have plenty of time to pick and choose. Let them both sit there and keep going. Maybe you can make them fit together. Or maybe with more content and more time you’ll figure out which way you want to go. No worries. Having to throw away parts of your story is a better problem to have than not having enough written.

Characters: Wants, Whys, and Needs

Compelling and interesting characters really need to want something. Try to give your characters very clear and strong wants as early as you can. Conflict will come from the characters having opposing wants. Put them in a situation together and see what happens.

Mystery and suspense come from showing a clear want but withholding the why. This character obviously wants this thing, but why? Why is it important to them? That’s interesting. There must be something there. I’ll keep reading to find out.

And of course character arc comes from the character working towards their want but eventually getting what they need. Something I’ve realized is that the need may actually be what the story needs, or what the reader needs. Justice or punishment of a villain could actually be the need that resolves the arc for the reader. That’s what the character’s story was driving towards.

If It Flows, It Goes

If I read it and I like it, then it’s good enough. Don’t get hung up on the meta. If a scene is only 300 words, but it reads well to me, then it’s awesome. Move on. Don’t worry about what other people do. If it works well then it works.

Writing isn’t the time to worry about this kind of thing anyway. That’s editing. Don’t edit when you write. You’ll take forever. When you have everything together you can review for flow through the entire novel. Then if you have too many short scenes, you’ll see it in the flow of the whole story. Then you can add more.

Get Back to Writing

That’s enough for now. Publish this and get back to writing.

Giant or Pigmy

G.K. Chesterton’s essay Tremendous Trifles was a treat with a strong opinion. It tells of two boys who are granted wishes.

One is granted the wish to be a giant, so he could visit far off lands. But upon becoming a giant and visiting these lands, he found everything to seem very small and lose its magic.

The other boy wishes to become a tiny pigmy. He was shrunk down to size and found tremendous fascination in the tiny details of the world around him.

He likens these two boys to different approaches to fiction and story-telling. The giant is like Rudyard Kipling, who travels the world to see great heights and witness great things. To have mastery over the world and to write about the conquest.

Chesterton sees himself as the pigmy. Seeking to live a small life and instead explore the universes inside the small world around him. Sit idle. Look in the small corners.

Today we would almost certainly present these as two different, but equally-valid approaches. But Chesterton paints this as a moral dilemma. That one who seeks to enlarge themselves is in part doing so for the joy of making others small.

I have no shortage of ambition. I seek to do great things. Am I doing this to make others small? I don’t think so.

But what if I had a choice of two worlds? In one world I was a great person known for my outsized accomplishments. I surpassed all others. In another, I did exactly the same great things, but all my achievements paled in comparison to everyone else. The world around is full of human excellence. And all of my same achievements are surpassed by the brilliance around me. I am the dullard by comparison.

The second world would be filled with incredible wonder. With so much incredible capability, clearly the second world would be far, far better off.

But I don’t think I would honestly choose that second world. I think I would be miserable in my inadequacy. I would feel worthless by comparison.

Does that mean I want to see others as small? Does that mean I enjoy the belittlement of others?

I don’t know. I didn’t think so, but the thought exercise has me unsure of myself. Maybe at the heart of ambition is simply the wish to be better than. And isn’t that a wish to see others as small?

I suppose achievement is always relative. Greatness is not an objective thing, but can only be understood in relative terms. Climbing Mount Everest is a great endeavor. But if we lived in a world where toddlers could do it, then no one would care and no one would bother.

There is another way of looking at this that I think is related somehow. Another spectrum. Maybe it’s not what Chesterton was talking about, but a second cousin.

We can struggle to have mastery of the world around us. Struggle to achieve. Define ourselves by the mark we leave on the world.

But we can also struggle to have mastery over ourselves. Control how the world affects us.

When I was younger I cared more about tearing a me-shaped hole in the world. I would burn the candle at both ends. I would rage at the world. It had no right to stand in my way.

Now I care a little more about the shape of me than about the hole I make in the world. Try to react with kindness. Patience. Even for myself. I don’t always succeed. But at least now I try.

That’s probably a natural part of growing older. Some sense of wisdom, I can hope. Or at least a better sense of self.

But I’m not done being ambitious. Not by a long shot. My best work is ahead of me. And I will pursue it with principles and integrity and a strong sense of myself.

If that means there is some fingerprint of evil on all greatness, then I say so be it. If this is what propels us, then quite simply — this is what propels us. Isn’t it a greater evil to waste the talents and capabilities given to us?