Wednesday, October 30, 2013

My Path to Nanowrimo: Part 1 – Why I Stopped Writing Fiction

People have been asking me, “So what will you do with your extra time now that you have finished your 5th degree.”[1]  The correct answer is “my kids are getting older, I want to have more time available for them.”  And this is where most of the time will go.  My kids are amazing and I am thrilled to have more time for them.

But there is another answer “I want to take a real sustained shot at fiction."[2]  But there is a story here.  And since the blog will go uncharacteristically[3] quiet while I try to move a novel forward in November, I thought I’d tell the story.

First, three events made me stop writing 20 years ago. 
1.     In Junior High I wanted to be an author.[4]  A teacher took an interest in me and started working with me on my stories after school.  In 8th grade I entered a large national writing contest and got second place.[5]  This should have encouraged me.  It didn’t   When I read the winning story, it was just so much better and more adult and more original than mine.  I thought about how this young man would be competing with me in 10 years[6], and I thought about how I would lose (and have no ‘practical’ skills to fall back on).

2.     I wrote one more story.  For an English class.  I got a 98, and he asked another student to read her story out loud.  This compounded my insecurity.  “If I’m not even the best author in my class, I’m going to get worked.”

3.     About that time I was reading a book about writing.  More precisely, I read the introduction.  In the opening pages the author said “You want to be a writer.  Sit down at your typewriter,[7] don’t move, and in 10 years you will be a writer.  I never thought of ‘becoming’ as a process.  I figured great writers were born, not made.   And I didn’t want to put in 10 years only to find out I wasn’t good enough.   That was the moment I was done.  I didn't write another story for 20 years.
So I took the math, science and engineering track in college, which I do not regret.   I love my vocation.  Science is art.  But rehashing that story is, frankly, embarrassing.  It reveals unformed ideas about the world, the workplace, and the arts that set my trajectory.  And it took a couple decades but I grew up.  Unlike the standard story, I didn't grow out of my dreams, I grew into them.  And about 8 years ago, I started again.  Which I’ll take up next time.

Next: Why I started writing again.

This post was written while listening to the Daughter station on Pandora

[1] Which I contend is my last, which means the answer isn’t “well obviously, my next degree,” but no one seems to believe me.  For the record, if I was to do another degree it would either be in economics, neurology, or literature.  And for the record...I am not getting another degree. 
[2] I’m not sure that an English sentence has been spoken that is more pretentious than “Now that I have finished my 4th graduate degree I want to dust off my novels.”
[3] That there was irony
[4] Fantasy.  I was in to Peirs Anthony and Terry Brooks.  So yes…before it was cool.  I'm killing the irony today.
[5] Actually, I got third place, but the first place story (which, embarrassingly, was published) was dq’d for plauguism.  But, I am kind of glad I didn’t win, because my plot was a little too close to the film War Games to stand up under the real scrutiny of publication.  I won a television, which was kind of a big deal.  I remember staying up late and watching the world series on it.
[6] My parents had impressed upon me how impractical my vocational goals were.  I do not remotely hold this against them.  Helping teens, pre-teens, and recent post-teens understand the stochastic nature and probability structure of the market place they are preparing for is part of a parent’s job.  But some  of the stuff I’ve been reading about education in privileged environments – where the fear of failure is the driving motivation stifling risk that generates innovation – hit pretty close to home.  If you think great writers are born not made, you will take every event as a test of the 'am I a writer' hypothesis and a little adversity will return the null hypothesis (as it did with me).  But if you think that writers (or scientists in my parallel life) are made, failure is an opportunity to learn and get better.  To "Fail better."
[7] Yup, it was a long time ago.

Monday, October 21, 2013

That one time I got last place...and won.

In high school I ran track…badly. 

We had state champion sprinters…so I made the team as a freshman because they needed warm bodies to throw at the distance events.  Now I was a relatively competent[2] soccer player in the Fall…but my winter sport was chess[3]…and neither of those really prepared me for the 2 mile.  So I was bad at track…but as bad as I was at track…I was worse at field…in particular my event…the triple jump.  Here’s how bad I was at the triple jump.   I didn’t triple jump quite as far as the best long jumper on my team.  For those of you unfamiliar with track…that is exactly as pathetic as it sounds.   I could not jump quite as far in 3 jumps as Kuan Gladney could in 1.  In my entire 4 year varsity track career I never scored a point in triple jump. 

So for the first competition of my senior season we went to a ‘relay meet’, which is kind of a fun exhibitional event where all the races are relays…but since it is kind of awkward to do high jump relay and flat out dangerous to do it with shot put…the way they ran the field events was that you put up a 3 person team and the added the scores, and winners were determined by the best aggregate score.  Now we had two very good sophomore athletes John and Devon who were triple jumping for the first time that year…But this was their first triple jump competition…. and I was the only other triple jumper.  They were good sports about it, but you could tell that once they realized my score was going to be added to their they knew that they were just out for a few practice jumps to get used to their new event and so I think they kind of decided they’d basically just compete against each other. 

Anyway, I went out and did my awkward, underwhelming jumps…and then headed out to run a relay.  In last 100 m the relay I caught a guy and moved us up from 6th place to 5th place…which, in my underwhelming track career, counted as a pretty big deal.  I was pretty psyched about it.  And right after I finished I looked up and saw my track coach coming over to me with a huge grin on his face.  He shook my hand proudly and congratulated me.

 At first I was like…”Oh yeah, I’m the man…5th place…out of 8”…but it didn’t take long for me to realize, he was actually a little too excited.  I mean, I’d passed one kid and managed not to get passed.  I was proud of it, but it was hardly a big deal.  In fact, it was a little troubling that he was so excited about it.  I honestly thought he had bigger hopes for my senior season.  Then my coach reached out his hand and was holding something I had literally never seen before…it was a blue ribbon. 

Congratulations, he said with a huge smile, you won the triple jump.

It turns out the other two jumpers had gotten into some sort of almost super natural zone.  It was like none of the other jumpers mattered.  They were in their own universe…back and forth, pushing each other…each jump better than the next… they had jumped out of their minds…putting up the two top distances out of like 40 total jumpers…that when added to my silly little jump…which might have actually been the worst jump in the field…to the two top distances…we won by a quarter inch…

…the only time I ever scored in the triple jump…I won…even though I did not remotely deserve it.

That is how one of the biblical images of the work of Christ ‘works.’[4]  The dark powers that are marauding this world (both spiritual and institutional) are more than a match for us.  On our own, we lose…but Jesus offers to add our underwhelming score to his, which is sufficient to overcome…he offers the opportunity to do life as a relay meet.

This post was written while listening to Imagine Dragons.

[1] This picture pretty much tells the story.  I’m gasping for breath totally out of touch with the pack…weighed down by the weight of my giant mullet.
[2] We’ll use this word loosely.
[3] My oldest daughter (6) has recently  gotten interested in chess. The other night kept asking me to tell her more stories from my high school the chess club?!? Seriously, the demand exceeded the supply. I 'm pretty sure "Daddy, tell me another story about when you used to play chess." is a sentence that has never been uttered in the history of our species
[4] This is an illustration that got cut from a talk I am giving Tuesday night on the four images of atonement in 1 Peter.  I liked it too much to relegate it to the oblivion of the ‘flotsam’ section of my draft.  So I put it up here.  The talk will show up over on the mp3/manuscript page shortly:

You can always tell when a peice starts its life as part of a talk becuase of the absurd prevalane of elipses (...).  This is how I think about my verbal phrases, rather than sentences.  It looks weird on the page, but it is easier to articulate.