How the worst experiences can turn out to be the best ones. It’s all about timing

On Thursday afternoon I took a train and went to the sea, hoping to spend two and a half days writing in peace and quiet, alone in our summerhouse. I have an important appointment with my thesis supervisor next Tuesday, and my new teaching job on Monday. I’ve decided to come here just a few days prior, thinking that it would be a good idea to get away from the city and write calmly for two days straight, catching up on all the chapters I still had to finish.

Well, this weekend has been an utter and complete abomination. I didn’t get any job done. I spent most of my time indoors, only walking twice to the sea shore, although looking at the sea might be the thing I enjoy most in life. I stuffed my face with all kinds of food and I didn’t even get enough sleep.

Last night, as various bad dreams kept me half awake, I even started to believe this whole experience had been just that: a bad dream. And that I would wake up and it’ll be Friday morning again and I would get to start over.

Well, obviously, that didn’t happen. Because unfortunately, no matter how bad things are going, we can’t turn back time. We can learn from our mistakes though. And as I am forcefully trying to regain an ounce of optimism, I believe this weekend might have just been what I needed.

It was an awful experience, but it also was a precious one.

Here are a few things I’ve learned:

  • Sometimes all you need is to get away from things, be alone and shut the whole world out. If you have a stressful job, or if your job implies you interacting with a whole bunch of people on a daily basis, it is plain normal. When this happens, it is good to take a break. But the best break is the one where instead of losing yourself in something else (TV, magazines, even books and conversations), you take the time to be with yourself. Quietly. Turning off the Internet. Taking a bath. Meditating. Going for a walk. Sleeping.
  • Sleeping is the most important thing. I was so stressed the whole time, unable to work (although, of course, the best way to relieve the stress would have been to actually work), that I couldn’t bring myself to go to bed early enough. As a result, not only did I not use those night hours to work, but I didn’t even get enough sleep.
  • Plan ahead. It’s great when motivation strikes and you feel like you can do anything, just given the chance. Most of he time though, you have to give yourself the chance. Knowing when you need to take a break and when you can afford to take a break is the key to success. So again: turn off the internet, go outside, or just go lie down, and you’ll feel energized enough to make the right decision. The latter not always being staying up late drinking coffee and blinking at your screen in desperation.
  • Stop procratinating. Ha! Easier said than done. But procrastination is the reason I’m so stressed out right now, the reason I feel stupid and full of terrible feelings of regret. There is no point in regretting stuff. But there is no point either to put oneself into the same situation over and over again. That’s the definition of insanity, not just an endearing personality trait.
  • That’s what this weekend taught me as well: time is precious. Think of time as of yourself. The ways you choose to spend your time are the ways you choose to use parts of yourself. And even if you feel down and unworthy, there is no need to bury yourself even deeper. Give your time (yourself) only to things that matter. To things that make you truly happy. If watching an episode of your favorite tv-show makes you happy, go for it. But if you spend all your free time in front of the TV, you lose hold of yourself, of your thoughts and actions. As well as you are in control of your body (or strive to be), you are also in control of your time.

Nothing is ever a waste. It feels better, of course, not to experience failure. But you haven’t actually failed yet if you keep trying. You fail if you stop trying. And trying doesn’t mean starting over, because, as we’ve established, there’s no such things as clean breaks. All our actions have consequences. Learning how to live with them, not always choosing the road of least resistance, but also challenging yourself from time to time, is the best way to learn from our errors. It’s all part of life. Embrace it.

How writing can help you overcome feelings of regret. The “fanfic approach”

Regret settles in when things don’t go as planned and you don’t act the way you were “supposed to” in a given situation. When instead of doing something you had to do, you procrastinated and gave into unproductive activities. Regret comes when you realize you have not much time left before your deadline and you’re faced with harsh choices: either working your ass off until you get the job done or not do anything and be disgusted with yourself. But no matter how much you regret acting the way you did, you can’t go back in time. And maybe it is for the best. Because although regret is a nagging and highly unpleasant feeling, it is also a reminder for the future and, most importantly, a feeling that can be addressed and even serve you well.

How to get rid of regret:

  • Go back mentally to the day everything began to fall apart and you made the “wrong” choice. Now imagine yourself making the “right” choice and living on as you used to. You might have been more productive. You might even have achieved something great. You might have not missed rare opportunities. But you wouldn’t be there today thinking about it. You would have been a whole other person. Now, I’m not saying you don’t wish to be that other person, you probably do, but now you know more that this other version of yourself ever did. You know how it feels when you do things “right” and you know how it feels when you do things “wrong”.

It’s all about learning from our errors.

  • Use this feeling in a creative way. Write down what would have happened if things didn’t go wrong, if you kept your promises, if things went as planned, if you didn’t have to regret anything. Sometimes, all it takes to feel better about yourself is to go by the “fanfiction approach”. What do I mean, you ask? When I hate how a show I like treats its characters and storylines, I go to fanfiction and write my own version of the story, being truthful to the characters and the main plot. Sometimes all a bad episode needs is a twist. Sometimes relationships can be salvaged by one short sentence. In life things tend to get more complicated, but they aren’t really.

Sometimes all it takes to turn a bad situation around is just to get up and move in another direction. Sometimes all it takes to end a fight is to say “I’m sorry”. Little twists now and then that prove that not only you are the writer of your own story, but also that most of the time, the things that happen to you are the best things that could ever happen.

Writing is a cathartic exercise, it always helps to put things into perspective, either in order to make new plans or stop obsessing about past choices.

It’s easier to live by the “everything happens for a reason” philosophy if the things that happen to you are more than just love quarrels or unfinished college papers. If it is sickness, or death, or a hurtful relationship. But whatever it is that makes you regret your past choices, you can always pick up a pen and paper and write a story about how things would have been instead.

Asking yourself the question “what if ?” and trying to apply it to your own life is one of the ways to overcome feelings of guilt and regret by giving into them in a creative way.

Let me know what you think!

How to built a friendly relationship with your writing project (and stop sleeping with the enemy)

When it’s been quite a long time since you’ve stopped doing things the way you used to, that is when your routine has been disrupted, feelings of regret might get overwhelming. When things don’t go as planned, either because life happens, or because you’re too lazy to stick to your schedule, regret comes roaring in and, again, prevents you from moving.

One of the ways to get out of this vicious circle of guilt and self-pitying is to ask oneself the question: when did my writing project become my worst enemy?

  • When I stopped writing consistently and allowed myself not to write, even for an hour, every day.

Writers write, it’s just how it is. There is no shortcut and no way around it. Calling yourself a writer and not writing every chance you get is the same as, for instance, calling yourself a wife or a husband but cheating on your other half five days a week, only to be loving and present on the weekends. Relationships don’t work that way, and writing (whether it is a novel or a dissertation) is a relationship. And when you cheat, well, that’s not a good one, and chances are, it’s not a real one.

  • When I lost track of the big picture. 

I’ve written earlier that one of the ways to push yourself might be not to dwell on the big picture (and even forget it while you’re writing), but the only way to go back to writing is to never let go of the bigger picture. When you go through your day, when you make the choice of staying up late and watch movies, you have to keep the big picture in mind. Because if you don’t, all the choices you make are just another exit strategy, and days go by, and you’re nowhere near the finish line, and life still happens. So, to pick up the relationship metaphor again, all the choices you make every day have to be consistent with the big choice you’ve made once: exactly like the times you make the choice of putting an end to a fight, even though you believe you’re right, and the other person is wrong, just because you know that winning a fight is not as important as being with the person you love, you have to make the choice of going back to your writing even if it frustrates you and makes you miserable for some time, because you know it is worth it.

There is nothing easier than shifting our expectations to fit our lazy habits. Up until the point when our back is up against the wall, there is a million ways to justify a lazy behavior. When something big is at stake, lazy habits are not as powerful. If your project comes with its own gratification, great. When it doesn’t, you have to think again about what finishing the writing project means to you. 

What do you think? What are the things that motivate you to write ? What are your strategies when your routines get disrupted and you have a hard time going back to your old (and effective) one?

I’ll be happy to know what you think!

About gratifications. How to invent one for yourself and why it is important.

Sometimes, we lose track of what matters and find ourselves procrastinating only because the project we’re working on doesn’t seem like being worth it. When this happens, it is useful to remind ourselves not only of the final goal, but of what is at stake. Because every time we commit to something, there is a reason behind it, and this reason is the gratification we hope to get by the end of the task. It can be a pay raise, it can be a vacation, or something really small, like a piece of cake or a bubble bath. Some gratifications are built into the projects we decide to tackle. Some others are more difficult to spot, because the gratification isn’t material. When this is the case, we actually have not only to remember what the ultimate gratification is, but to built one ourselves. This way, going through with a project will become a much nicer process.

For me, my biggest project right now is to finish my dissertation. And every day I battle with procrastination, and procrastination wins almost every time. This is why I have decided to spend some time thinking about the reason why I got into this project in the first place and what my ultimate gratification is.

  • First of all, there is the obvious gratification of finally finishing something you’ve been working on for years and showing yourself and the world that you can do it. It’s the easiest and the hardest reason at the same time. The easiest, because there is nothing worse than waking up one day realizing all the effort you put into a project was for nothing, because you didn’t finish it. All the time you’ve spent was for nothing, even though you’ve learned something in the process. Making mistakes only leads to failure if you don’t learn from them, but isn’t it better to learn from your mistakes while you’re still in the process? If you don’t finish your project, the mistakes you’ve made might become helpful once you start a new one, but isn’t it better to pick yourself up while you still have the chance and put your knowledge to use right now? Accomplishing something you’ve put your mind to is the best gratification there is, but it’s not easy to do the adult thing all the time.
  • The ultimate gratification is completing the job itself. That means living up to your own expectations. Not in the sense of becoming something other people wait for you to become, although the fear of failure and shame works wonders for some of us. But in the sense of being able to tell yourself that you are the person you’ve dreamt of becoming. If you think of yourself as a writer but never write anything, well then, you’re not a writer. If you think of yourself as a successful businessman (or woman) but don’t put in the necessary effort to start up your own business, well then, you’re not a businessman (or woman). If you think of yourself as a scholar but never publish papers and let alone drag your PhD dissertation for years on end, well then, you’re not a scholar. It’s not about how people see you. People in the sense of your family and friends will love you no matter what, and people in the sense of people simply don’t care enough. But you care. You can hide for so long, procrastinate and find excuses and think that tomorrow will be the day you’ll suck it up and get the job done, but while you’re hiding, you’re not a writer, you’re not a businessman (or woman), you’re not a scholar, you’re just someone who hides and finds endless excuses. We are what we do and what we do defines us. And all of our actions are choices we make. So it’s not even about living the life you want to live, it’s about being true to yourself and constantly asking yourself the question: what kind of person does that make me if I make this choice instead of another one?
  • When the (writing) project you’re working on is not your bread and butter, it becomes very easy to put it aside and concentrate on lucrative activities. But it’s not as simple. In my case, even if I don’t want a job at the University, having a PhD will be very useful, no matter what career path I choose. One way of looking at the bigger picture is to imagine what life would be like if you don’t get the job done. Of course, there are many ways to reach a goal (a better job, a bigger house, etc.), but isn’t it easier to follow the path you’ve chosen once and see where it gets you? This path might be a difficult one, but it’s nothing compared to what other paths may look like. So stick with it. And one day you might think back and realize that the project you though was your hobby (isn’t it wickedly fun to think of a dissertation as your hobby?) was, in fact, the most lucrative project you’ve even worked on.
  • When you need a mood lifter while you’re struggling with your project, envision yourself having finished it already. It might be just a short fix, but it is a good way to get you motivated. Close your eyes and take a deep breath, and try to imagine yourself the day you put the final touch on your project. What do you feel? Imagine yourself sitting at your desk and pushing the “print” button, then waiting for all the pages you have written materialize in front of you. Do you feel content? Do you feel satisfied? Do you feel proud? Imagine now holding your manuscript, feel its weight on your hands, imagine, if you like, what you are wearing, how you look, feel the smile on your face. Imagine yourself after you’ve submitted your manuscript and got a green light. Feel the butterflies in your stomach as you imagine yourself in front of your jury (or your publisher) while the people in front of you congratulate you for your work. Imagine the earth-shattering mind-blowing hell of a party you will throw afterwards to bash in your own success. Imagine all your friends gathered around you, smiling at you, and gratifying you with their love. This kind of happiness is rare, it is overwhelming, it is the ultimate feeling we all live for. And the best part is, to reach this state of happiness, the only thing you have to do is to keep doing what you are already doing, just write.

On routines and passion, or how to make the “all or nothing” state of mind work for you instead of against you.

I’ve always been a kind of all or nothing person.

A kind of person that stars reading a (good) book only to finish it in one sitting, even if it means not getting much sleep.

A kind of person that would watch 5 or more seasons of a tv-show in a week, only to finish it, even if it means getting isolated, eating crap and sleeping so very little.

A kind of person that would easily decide to cut off all entertainment when work needs to be done and spend three or four weeks doing nothing else but working.

A kind of person that would decide on something once and for all and never look back. On being in a relationship. On following a diet. On working on a project. On seeing through anything ever started, even if it is not worth it.

A kind of person that would implement a new life routine and stick to it fully only to disrupt it a little while later and put as much effort into ruining it as it has into building it. All or nothing.

You can see where I am going with this. When we live our lives by someone else’s standards, our passion is usually misplaced. We commit fully to something where there is a deadline at stake. Passionate people can have a tendency of seeing the world in black and white colors, drawing a hard line between what needs to be done and what they want to do and loosing themselves in the process. There is no grey area. No middle ground in which desires and obligations can meet so that a passionate behavior can become a productive one. When this happens, the inner struggle can be so violent things can go either way: either our willpower is strong enough to pull us through, but we will feel miserable in the process, or our willpower is not strong enough and we redirect our energy elsewhere, more often than not towards self destruction.

So how to make sure our passion is not misplaced? How to put the passion and the all or nothing behavior to good use? Is it even possible to reach harmony when the only way you seem to function is by either doing all of it or not doing anything? Is there even a point in doing so when every time you try to do everything by the book to be productive life suddenly seems dull without the adrenaline rush procrastination can give you?

Well, for once, you have to come to terms with your own personality and identity. There is nothing wrong with being passionate. On the contrary. Every great thing ever built, written or invented comes from a place of passion. There is no point in taking pride in your passionate personality though, if the only place it brings you is guilt and self destruction. And this is the only place it will bring you to if you try to live your life like you should, that is like someone else lives it, even if by someone else I mean a successful person. Because when we decide to change our lives following someone else’s rules, even good ones, even if the way we try to live brings us joy and happiness, and health, and makes us productive, the minute we slip, we go back to where we started. Because life happens, and there is only so much bending of the universe we can do.

Only changing our behavior isn’t enough. If the change doesn’t stem from our very core, the results will be temporary. Again, even if the new routine we implement is a good one (getting to bed early and rising early, exercising regularly, working efficiently, eating healthy), the moment we think of it as a routine, life becomes dull, and we get bored, and I, for one, become scared of living my whole life the same way. Outside changes can be efficient, of course, in the same way smiling when we’re sad sends signals to our brain and our mood lifts up. But this is only temporary.

Passionate people can’t live by routines. When we are living by a routine that is just another set of rules, we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. But if we are willing to make a change, because self destructing behavior is, well, unpleasant in the end, no matter how much rush it can give us in the process, we have to be prepared.

There will always be obligations. There will always be situations when we have to do things we rather not do. There will always be times we would rather do what we want instead of what needs to be done. Again, we can’t really trick our minds in the long run, that is persuading ourselves that what we do is what we want to do, if we don’t really believe it deep inside.

There are a few things that can be done though:

  • The all or nothing behavior can yield productive results, but the all or nothing perspective on life itself is destructive. I often find myself procrastinating because I fear that if I spend a day in a productive way, it means I will have to “buckle down” for as long as I live, or at least until the project I am working on is done. I try my best to avoid starting something because I fear that committing fully to my project will mean not having any time left for other stuff. And the worse part is, the more I procrastinate, the more urgent getting the job done becomes, and the more scared I am to start. The only way around it, I found, is not to think about what the changes and choices I make today will mean tomorrow. One of the ways to escape the all or nothing mentality is to live in the present. It might seem counter productive, but staying in the moment and not thinking about the future is good way to stop stressing and actually start doing.
  • Instead of thinking about what you have to do, or even about what you want to do, just do. If your boss gives you a task, complete the task. If your rear end hurts because you’ve spent all morning sitting on it, go for a walk or do a few lunges. If you are hungry, eat. Don’t think about what doing all those things means. Don’t think that because this morning you woke up at 5 am and spent all morning working on your project it means you’ll have to do this every day. Tomorrow will be another day and you’ll make the choice that is right for you. One of the best ways to actually get in touch with your inner you and stop obsessing is to meditate. Meditation is a great way to channel your passion.
  • Shift your perspective. Routines are dull and boring. But making choices is taking risks, and taking risks is what get your blood pumping with adrenaline. Again, don’t think about tomorrow, don’t think about what your choice means in the long haul. Today, you fuel your passion with the risks you take: by getting up early or staying up late to work. By going to the gym or outside to work out instead of couch surfing. Because somewhere down the line, the all or nothing behavior has become a routine as of itself. So shake things up.
  • Find your priorities and the things that get your blood pumping for real. Take the risk of making a drastic choice, just for today. Getting your adrenaline rush from not doing things in time is actually an illusion. Because it means your passion depends on something you cannot control. On a deadline, for example. And when this is over, you actually just wait for the next one to get your adrenaline fix. So take control, and find a challenge you can fuel your passion with. For yourself.

It is far from being easy. But acknowledging your passionate behavior also means not lying to yourself about what really matters. Taking control means being the one in charge, being the adult, and be accountable to yourself. That means believing in yourself.

Do you agree? Tell me what you think!

Living on the edge

Something I have written two years ago but that sounds true to me now as well.

moleskine

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What if this day is the last day of my life?

Yesterday, I drifted off to sleep with this thought in my head. As much as any person checking his or her e-mails, Facebook or twitter account every day, I am constantly surrounded by more than needed voices of advice, of so-called wisdom and truth about life, virtual voices that not only thrive by telling those who hear them what to do but also pushing people – and myself amongst them – to the edge. “Seize the day”, “The best time to do anything is NOW”, “Experience life like there is no tomorrow”, “Today is the day” are affirmations we hear here and there, more often here than there: these are all true, and the advice that comes along – to live life to the fullest – is also a good advice. The problem is, when we realize the time we…

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Dreaming who we are

When we are young, we dream about our future in termes of absolutes. We want to be princesses or space cowboys, imagining our life in certain colors, focusing only on things (or thing) we are excited about. No child I know of dreams about “his or her life in ten to twenty years in terms of job, salary, relationships, possessions, schedules, hobbies, etc. Children dream of being someone they identify with – a book or cartoon hero, a famous ancestor, a mysterious family member. They never dream of two things at once – the life dream is a whole, as well as they never dream of means for getting where they want to be.

Those who seriously never give up dreaming become so passionate about it they do whatever it takes to accomplish their dreams. Most importantly, they never stop to question neither their method nor their own abilities. They are not given any chance to do so, in fact: professional sportsmen and ballerinas rarely interrupt their training to think about where they are going. They go, and fast. And boy, do they fly high!

Deng Linlin in 2012
Deng Linlin in 2012

Those who dream as children but who are told as young adults they’d better keep their dreams as hobbies on the side whilst learning a specialty both fulfilling and financially promising often end up without any sense of purpose in life. Those people try out things they like, but never go over the edge, always believing that being passionate about one thing only is restrictive. And without further questioning whether choosing something you are passionate about is really that restrictive, without doubting that you are bound for life to the choice you make at some point (after high-school, or after college), you end up without any dream at all, just because you were too scared to give into your hobby and make a life out of it.

I for one did not pursue my childhood dreams: I dreamt of becoming a doctor, then an actress. My medical dream didn’t last long, but the other thing stuck, without me being able to become passionate about it. It has since become a “dead dream”, which is the worst of all kinds. I didn’t choose my specialization for lack of a better option: I love what I do, especially the teaching part. But at the end of high school I didn’t as much made a choice as followed an advised path. And it’s not like I have any regrets about this. Still, I wonder how to be sure the path I’m following will lead to my full potential. I know that not pursuing one childhood dream opened me to a world of possibilities. But you cannot fulfill your purpose without choosing one path and rejecting another.

So the question is: does growing to our full potential means choosing the right path or living to the fullest the path we have chosen, whatever it is? Does our happiness lie in the “right choice” or in the way we make decisions about choices we’ve already made?

Of the necessity of closure and good characterization. Thoughts on screenwriting.

Have you ever found yourself binge watching a tv-show? Or better yet, re-watching?  Have you ever wondered why you do this? Why it gives you pleasure and a feeling of satisfaction? But if it does, why do you keep going back? Is it because re-watching a tv-show feels like re-reading a good book, one that asks so many questions you feel compelled to ponder them again and again, drawing different answers each time as you grow older? This is something that happens a lot, especially with books we read for the first time at school, and then reopen once we’re adults and are able to reflect on our own life experiences through our favorite author’s eyes.

But a book is a book, meaning once you’ve read it, it is over, and unless the author is still alive and planning on writing a sequel, this particular book is an emotional experience you might want to relive only at the risk of questioning your mind and soul, and your identity.

A tv-show, however, is something entirely different. A show (especially a comedy one) exists for your entertainment, and it’s main goal is not to have you think. Still, it is sometimes a quite enjoyable experience. One would think though, that if it is only there to cheer you up, you can use it like a chewing-gum, smack your lips a few times, throw it out and go on with your life.

But then you start obsessing. You wait until the next episode. Then for the next one. Then one season is over, and you can’t wait until September again for the following one. Then, when it’s finally over, you have a hard time to move on. Not all of us are obsessive freaks like me, I’ll admit. Not everyone who enjoys an episode once in a while, or even watches a show religiously becomes a die-hard fan. Fandom is something entirely different. But in the last few weeks, I have found something about myself while (re)-watching a show I used to love, and that used to bring me peace and joy, and that this time around has made me totally obsessed with the fate of its characters. I’m talking about That 70’s Show, the one that ran on Fox for eight seasons beginning in 1998.

Something that started as a “guilty pleasure” became a full-on obsession within a few days. I couldn’t think of anything else than the storyline of the last seasons, couldn’t bring myself to let it go, that is my frustration with the way the series ended (disrupting all storylines built from the beginning of the show, ruining six or seven years of characterization, breaking up my favorite couple Jackie and Hyde). And even though I felt quite ashamed (because, let’s face it, obsessing over That 70’s Show is not very PhD student-like), I kept digging and digging, trying to find answers, before finally admitting it: the writers of the last season (and maybe even those of season 7) weren’t that good.

What’s a good recipe for on-screen storytelling? Well, it basically boils down to this: you have to keep your audience on their toes but from time to time strategically throwing it a piece of bone. It’s all a matter of teasing. But as too much of a good tease can be too much in real life and lose it’s appeal, too much of a tease can weaken the whole story. Screen writers play with the audience’s emotions, perpetually releasing and pulling, pulling and releasing. Of course there is no fun in watching over and over a happily ever after. But when one thing falls apart, another thing has to “fall” together: if your story is about two couples and you intend on splitting up one of them, you don’t go and do the same with the other simultaneously. Why? Because the secret to good storytelling, and it’s not news, is that a good story is a story that challenges the widest range of emotions. Joy, sadness, pity, anger, compassion, and the more the better. If things get out of balance, that is to say if one emotion is more often triggered than the other four (or more), then things fall apart, because a disbalance has been created. And without balance, the audience cannot experience any catharsis. A show, and, on a smaller scale, a season, and even a single episode, has to be cathartic: it has to leave the viewer emotionally drained, even if it’s claimed purpose is to make you laugh. No laughing experience will be satisfying if other emotions weren’t involved.

The obvious thing is, that most show runners don’t really want the audience to get closure too soon, well, because, if they do, they won’t be coming back for more. There is also a subtle balance to be reached between giving just enough to make someone want to keep watching a show and making an episode satisfying on its own. The shows that achieve best results in this department are those who combine single episode intrigues with bigger story arcs that last for five or more episodes.

But in the end, when a show is almost over, it has to give the viewers closure. It means it has to wrap up all loose ends. It has to answer it’s own questions following simultaneously logical and emotional guidelines. And it certainly can’t ignore the full range of emotions, especially if it once lived up to its own standards.

What makes a show go bad?

  • Unfinished character development. Worse, a character that returns to an undeveloped stage and thus displays OOC (out-of-character) behavior.
  • Switching genres and styles. A show is defined by its atmosphere. Although change can be good sometimes, some things have always remain the same throughout episodes and seasons, mostly protagonists characterizations. As always when it comes to entertainment (books, theatre, tv, radio), the unspoken goal is to make things believable, real. If the style, characters and genres aren’t consistent, it throws off the audience.
  • Choosing to play on one or two emotions instead of exploring a full-range: joy cannot be derived only from punchlines, sadness cannot be experienced if the audience is forced into it only by tear jerking scenes and storylines, compassion doesn’t run deep enough if the only thing set to trigger it is a never evolving pitiful character. The more emotions are at stake, the better.
  • Not knowing when to stop. Back to That 70’s Show again. Not knowing (or not willing) to wrap up when all the circumstances are gathered for it is the biggest mistake a show (or a novel, by the way) can make. As with everything fictional or otherwise written, the ending is where loose ends finally wrap up, that is when all the questions that have risen from the story are answered. Not when an external cue (like the lack of audience, or the ball drop on December 31st, 1979) says it’s over. External cues end stories in real life. People who lived in Pompei saw their life end when the Vesuvius erupted. But that doesn’t make for a story. That is history. The reason this tragedy has drawn so much attention from writers and painters throughout the 19th century is precisely because in real life, closure is not part of the deal. Writers and artists of all kinds are the only ones who can achieve closure not only by inventing stories, but by wrapping them up. So when planning on writing, thinking of the ending is by far more important than thinking of a place to start.

When a story is not only well-written, when it invites the reader (or the spectator) to experience a full range of emotions, when it finds the ideal balance between “pulling” and “releasing” the tension of the intrigue, when finally it draws it to its own logical conclusion (this doesn’t mean the ending has to be predictable), then the show (or the book) makes you feel satisfied, whole, complete, and entertained at the same time.

What do you think?

Have you ever tried to write a script?

Do you allow yourself to think of the ending before the start when you prepare yourself to write a story? Or do you prefer to “go with the flow” and see where your characters bring you?

How to be yourself when writing non-fiction? Thoughts on identity and academic writing.

Another post (hope it will be a short one) in response to something I’ve just read.

Seeing new people coming to the blog (thank you much by the way!), I checked some other blogs and stumbled upon a great post about identity (here), which made me realize a few things about myself and some of the problems those of us who write other things than fiction, that is primarily academic papers.

How can you stay true to yourself while not being able to say “I” while you write? Is this possible to show who you are when you have to be objective and serious? Is this even a problem, considering that when you choose to write a paper or a dissertation, you immediately choose to follow a set of rules that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the rules of writing fiction?

Well, I think that no matter what you write, you always put yourself into perspective and thus, question your identity. The process of writing itself is as much liberating as it is coordinative and constructive. The way you choose to align your words in a sentence says a lot about who you are.

Of course, if you write a dissertation in physics or biology, there might be less room for self exploring than when you embark upon the journey of a dissertation in literary studies. Then again, there is nothing worse than an academic paper that confuses genres and presents an author the way a writer approaches his characters. I am all for the most sober style possible when it comes to an academic piece.

But then again, whilst a novelist gets to “hide behind its characters” (larvatus prodeo), the academic speaks for himself, without the possibility to put on any masks nor play with any riddles. Even more so, the academic has to be as plain as possible so that he is well understood by anyone who reads him. (Of course, some papers and dissertations are not suited for the untrained reader, but the best ones out there are those who convey complicated ideas in an uncomplicated matter. It’s all about pedagogy). So he is made completely bare in front of its readers, with no place to hide, his ideas exposed in the harsh light of University and library bulbs.

And yet, he has to stay completely neutral and never let the passion speak before his rational thoughts.

Academic writing asks the question of what it is that defines who we are (as writers, to start):

  • Are we a sum of our emotions and passions? Any good literary analysis or even theoretical essay stems from a deep belief in something: an idea, a methodology, a point of view. Without morals being involved, the question of right or wrong is always at the center of any academical debate. And a debate about whether someone is right or wrong in his or her treatment of a character, of an author or of a scientific discovery can be quite passionate.
  • This leads me to my next question: don’t we discover ourselves mostly through dialogue? The kind of dialogue Socrates and Plato practiced a long time ago, but also the kind that flourished in literary circles and various societies through the Renaissance and the Modern times? Confronting ourselves to something or someone is one of the best ways to understand who we are and what we believe in. Even more so when we have to dig a little deeper than the obvious emotions of pleasure or rejection. And every time we enter a debate, we take a stand for or against something. That means that every time we enter a debate, we discover or add a trait to our personality, building it brick by brick, idea by idea.
  • The debate is also the place where our ideas get challenged, where we, our identity as a whole gets challenged. Yet another occasion to work on ourselves.

Of course, there are a lot of academics out there who don’t really bother to get challenged by new ideas or new ways of thinking. But there are also those who embrace the changes and adapt to them in a way nature adapts to its own evolution.

The writing process, however heated a spoken argument can be, is still a solitary process. And very much so. And the most difficult part is that once you are set to writing alone at your desk, you kind of have to let the voices of the opposition speak, even if it means making them speak in your own mind. The battle against a fellow academic becomes a struggle within yourself, and it is wrenching. Still, one of the best ways to find and affirm your own voice and challenge, yet again, your own identity.

Tell me what you think!

On (academic) writer’s block

Well, here I am. Almost ready to start working again, after several days of numbness. The file with my unfinished chapter is open on my laptop. I have a pot of coffee by my side and I am quite comfortably seated. The temperature outside is just perfect. The air smells nice. I’m getting sidetracked.

But that’s not the only thing that happens. When I go to my chapter’s file, I realize I have to pick up where I started to draw all my ideas to their logical conclusions. That means not only do I have to start working (in the sense of getting to work), but I have to finish the chapter.

Why is it so difficult?

Just today, I have read a great post about the fear of starting on Lidiya K’s blog. Here. It resonated very accurately with what I am feeling right now (not to mention illustrating by writing this post instead of the damn chapter of my dissertation):

  • I get lost and scared in the big picture. I think of why I am doing this and the first answer that comes to mind is that I want/have to finish the dissertation. But I can’t do it in one day. So no matter how much I write today, it won’t be done by tomorrow (I still have a long way to go). Thus I am preparing myself for failure before I even start. The everyday goal shouldn’t be to “write my dissertation”, but to write, period.
  • I get overwhelmed by the prospect of “just writing” because I don’t feel ready. Well, who would be? Writing anything, be it a novel or a dissertation, both genres that have their own set of rules, actually means inventing your own rules as you go. As paradoxical as it may sound, you have to reinvent the rules of writing so they suit your own project, because you are creating something new, and this is an overwhelming responsibility.
  • Writing is extremely challenging, and this is why the goal of “just writing” isn’t quite as good as it might sound. Because chances are, if you spend your day “just writing”, you’ll come back the next and tear everything apart to start from scratch. If have done it a few times already to my current chapter, mutilating it then reassembling together parts that I’m not sure fit any longer. It passes the time, though, but it is pretty much everything it does.
  • Getting scared of the big picture can be resolved by breaking up your goal into smaller ones. This is true, but not as easy as it seems to accomplish. Because tackling a tiny problem bears some resemblance to tackling a huge one: in both cases there is a moment when you have to finish.

My fear of starting comes from the fear of finishing, both because I am afraid that what I write is not good enough to be printed out and put aside, and because I am afraid of what I will have to do next, once it’s over.

  • Because when I finish it I will have no more excuse to linger on it, thus no more excuse to procrastinate. Twisted, I know.
  • Because if I finish it I will show it to my supervisor and I fear she won’t like it. Here the best thing is to play the game of ” What’s the worst that could happen?” In the worst case scenario, I finish the chapter, then I finish the dissertation, I hand it to my supervisor and she makes me do it all over again because it is not good enough. Then, I will feel like a real failure, will have to do it all over again, and never be able to get my PhD. This is a horrible scenario and this is a risk I have to take. It is hard, no doubt about that. But an ever worse scenario would be not doing anything, not handing the manuscript in time and never even taking the chance to get my PhD. Because it is all about taking chances.
  • So the only thing I am left with is my chapter I want to finish. All the other fears melt into the big one: it will not be good enough. Not well-written enough, not insightful enough, not bright enough. Here it is, the biggest fear: what I might write won’t be perceived as being good enough. People will think I am not capable of doing this. People will think I am a failure. People will judge me by standards I have no power on.

The fact of the matter is, and this is the part that won’t sound as depressing as the rest, I am the one setting the rules. What I write about, even if others have written about it before, is something new. The way I approach the problem, my methodology, the texts I choose to analyze, all of this is new. If only because the way I am writing about this subject is my own way. So yes, it means putting my heart into something that belongs to me and having it judged by someone else. But if every writer of PhD student out there thought of his or her work only as of something that had to be judged, no new books would ever be written, no old subjects would ever be approached in a new way and, hell, the only book that would ever find it’s place in a western library would be the Bible.

So to start the writing process, the best thing there is is to break down the big picture into a lot of tiny ones, that is to break the big question into a lot of little ones.

To finish something you’ve already started, the only thing to do is to find your center: ask yourself what you want to say and say it. When you’re done answering the question, you’ll be done writing your paragraph, chapter, or book. Don’t think about how it looks. Don’t think about how someone else might have answered to the same question. Find your own answer. This works for every writing project that comes to mind, be it a dissertation or a novel. Every great writer out there has answered differently to the same few questions: “what is love?” and “why are we here?”

Easier said than done, I know.

What do you think? How do you deal with writer’s block? How do you get yourself to write every day? How do you convince yourself you’re done writing (a chapter or a book)?

I would be thrilled to read your answers below!