Thursday, March 31, 2011

Butterfly Blog Effect

Never far from my desk over the last year or so is a collection of about five pieces of printer paper, kept together by a single paper clip. On the front of some of them are sections of a long printed list of topics, in no particular order. Taking up more room than the printed words by now are the equally random collection of topics written in my own chicken-scratch hand writing. These are the pages on which I have kept ideas for posts to write here on Too XYZ.

Once I have written on a topic on the list, I put a line through it. Now here is the interesting part. Except for a cluster of some of the oldest topics on the typed list, most of the topics with a line through them are the ones that were chicken scratched onto random spaces on the pages. The final two pages in that paper clip are in fact nothing but the chicken scratch, and those pages have the most lines through them by far.

It's a visual for my whole view on this blog, and how it has changed and evolved in some ways. As well as my view on the nature of blogging itself.

The typed list was the one I came up with before I even launched Too XYZ. A list of topics I planned to address, regularly, each week, or every other day, regardless of what was going on. I had made the long list so I would have something to say as I got this blog underway. I envisioned checking my prepared list, seeing what was next, writing on it, putting my little line through it, and moving on to the next thing on the list when the time came.

About a month into my launch, the first chicken-scribblings on that list showed up. I had read something, or noted a tweet, or gotten a response on a previous post, or came across an article that needed to be read. I wanted to make sure I wrote about it here on the blog. Once I got through my typed list of course.

But as days wore on, and more chickens scratched up my papers, I was realizing more and more that it was the ideas that came to me on the fly, or in response to something that happened that day, that were getting more attention from me. I still referred to the typed list here and there for ideas, but the things I had written down in pen or pencil, or whatever I could find were the ideas that were itching to be written. The things of the moment. And you know what? Those things often got the most responses.

And looking back, some of the topics I put on the typed list seem tame, quaint, or not quite a fit with what Too XYZ is today. Keep in mind, those were the topics that were designed to be the very groundwork of this blog.

The moral, friends, is that a blog should be about what speaks directly to you. It should be a place to share the ideas you have now, and the things that have pissed you off. The things that have excited you and the things that scare you. Even if nobody reads them. Extend my experience into a metaphor for your own writing. Even if you don't get back to your chicken scratch list for a few days, you will find that most of the items on it will not cool as quickly in your heart as do those manufactured topics you typed up on your launch list.

Planning is good, and even necessary. But don't lock into it. Embrace the Butterfly Blog Effect, which is a variation on the old concept. Somebody somewhere says, comments, tweets or responds to something, and suddenly you are blogging about it. That blog leads to more blog ideas for not only you, but those who read it. Which in turn leads to more comments, blog ideas, book concepts, emails, and so on. Before you know it, you look back and see that while your blog or other writings have taken a turn far from what you originally intended (my old typed list) you are writing and blogging and communicating in the moment with a fresh urgency that lends potency to your posts. (My chicken-scratch list.)

Be disciplined. Have a plan. Keep track of things. Know what you want. Make your typed lists. They may be the foundation blocks of your building. But the decorations, and food, and friends and parties that take place within that building and make it home are the things you write down on the spur of the moment. Embrace those.

I realize many will say that a blog must have a specific plan, with a recurring theme, so as to establish a niche, and gain credibility in same. And that we need to reign in our desire to speak on many things and stick to a routine. Well the closest I get to routine around here is to mention, yet again, that I am Too XYZ for that.

Do you have a website or blog? How much of it's content is preplanned, vs. being inspired by events and knowledge you didn't expect along the way?

Monday, March 28, 2011

FiND iT FREDERiCK Launch Party...My Perspective

As I mentioned on Thursday, I was invited to attend a launch party for the brand new FiND iT FREDERiCK Magazine website this last Friday. I did indeed attend, and here is my overall view of the experience, as promised.

It's significant because I don't go to many of these sort of things. Not simply because I am not often invited, but also because, as you know, I am Too XYZ to work the room as many would. I don't mingle or schmooze. Small talk really eats it in my world. I prefer substantive conversation right away. I know in this, I am in the minority, but that is what makes all of this so interesting.

What also makes it interesting is that this was the first such affair I have attended since the dawn of my intentional foray into social media "relevance." (I laughed, so it's okay if you did too.) So I wanted to reflect here on how the last year and a half or so of direct exposure to online networking, tips, and "social media ninjas" may have played into my enjoyment of the party. The short answer is, I am no more likely to do what networking and social gurus suggest than I would have been 4 years ago. But I am more comfortable with my own style and approach to such things, (is that my personal brand crap??). And for the first time I didn't beat myself up for not being something else at a party.

I was also amused at how often my social media friends entered my mind in the lead up to and attendance of this event. More on that in a bit.

Awkward I am not. Nor do I suffer social anxiety. I am not particularly shy, and I don't lack self-esteem any more than the average person at any given moment. I like parties, music, food and revelry as much as the next fellow, (though I prefer to have more friends than strangers in a group) But whereas at one point in my life I would have tried to deduce what it was about me that prevented me from tearing the roof off the sucker at an event like Friday, I am now more willing to experience the semi-detached amusement that results in such activities, and the subtle bewilderment with what it all means, or what others say it should mean. In this, I confess to feeling a tad like my friend J. Maureen Henderson. She shares that social bemusement and CW skepticism. At least based on some of her Tweets and blogs about similar events she has authored.

Anyway, at long last, the night itself. I consider it a success for both the magazine overall as well as me on a personal level.

To begin with it was quite the affair. Actually, it was a "bash". I haven't often been to anything that could truly be called a "bash", but this was certainly an example. Food, drink, music, even a dance troop to entertain. 200 or so people including city council people, local entertainment movers, restaurateurs, writers, and other entrepreneurs of the area. I did in fact recognize several people from local news events and other such things.

I didn't talk to any of them.

Because this was still, after all a huge party full of mostly strangers. And I am still me, and I do not enjoy schmoozing. Even with important people. If all I have to say is how great the party is, or that I saw them in the newspaper recently, I have in fact nothing to say. And nothing bugs me more than being approached by someone who clearly has nothing to say. So I thought to myself, "yet another party I won't be long for leaving."  There is only so much standing around looking at the art on the walls while trying to look approachable that one can do.

I recognize that if I did have something to say, or didn't mind walking around spewing mindless extroverted jabber, I'd make more connections. In theory at least.When I first entered in fact, I thought of how much Jamie Nacht Farrell would love such a set up; she almost certainly would have scored some major business deals for herself by the end of the night. I can hear her lightly scolding me for not introducing myself to all of the VIPs that were in attendance. But as she, and most of you know, that is not me. So it didn't happen.

Thankfully it was less than ten minutes later when a friend of mine, whom I knew would attend, arrived. And though I was back and forth throughout the evening, at least giving the illusion that I was a mover, (without actually talking to anybody), I spent most of the party at a table with him and his girlfriend. And had a nice time.

This is how I operate. Contrary to how many would do it, I try to be a calm presence. Some would say a boring one. But one that can be approached should anyone desire to do so. As in I move about a lot, I face the crowd. I look about and smile at nothing. All so those that desire can feel safe in coming up to me.

Name tags are a wonderful thing, too.  And indeed it was because of my name tag that the editor of the magazine, with whom I have communicated for over a year but have never met, located me.

As did several fellow writers for the magazine. In each case I had read their work, and they mine, but we had not met until that moment. (Again, my props to brightly colored name tags.) And when those people did locate me, thanks to my highly recognizable name. We spoke of our writing goals, how we started and other such things. And this will make many of you smile, but I did come prepared with my business cards, which I did hand out to each of those people. (Okay, three people. But they were there!) I had hoped to have my new business cards ready by that night, but I had to settle for the still accurate but older ones. The new ones will have my virtual business card address on them. These did not. But I digress.

During these conversations with fellow writers, I had a lot more to say, and a lot more to ask than I would have had with random people. Why? Because they understood the introvert's paradise of starting a conversation with a specific topic in mind right after the introductions. We talked about how and why we wrote. The party and the setting and other such things did come into play later, but there was no small talk as most people define it. I was approached because of something I wrote, and spoke about writing. And it didn't bother me a bit. And now I know three more people.

(See, extroverts? It can work that way.)

At one point a seemingly impromptu, (but in fact planned) dance number broke out. Yes, you read that properly. A local dance troupe, known as the Equinox Dance Company was in attendance, and at one point began a dance in the middle of the ballroom.

Now let me risk tomatoes here by saying that I find most modern dance to be ever so slightly pretentious. I don't doubt the skill required to perform dance well, but much of the modern dance I have encountered just seems to have an aura of being more important than I could ever hope to be. But not this time. I still don't know anything about dance, but for a change I could enjoy what I was watching, because it didn't seem out of place with the event. I don't know if "accessible" is the word, but their routine didn't put me off, or put me out with an over the head blow with a wrench marked "Art!". It was just people dancing, and dancing well. At least that night they appeared to approach dance in the same minimalist, visceral way I approach theatre.

I almost complimented them in person. But I did not. Impressed as I was, I wasn't about to chase them down to say anything. Not that I never go out of my way to approach such people. Indeed some of the few times I go against the grain and introduce myself to strangers are when they have performed something I enjoyed. And had they been on stage, and come down to talk to people later, I might have done just that. May have even used our mutual connection to the arts to make a few new friends. Yet what can I say? That's not what happened.

Yet some people would have taken that social opportunity. The whole aftermath of the dance group reminded me of yet another friend of mine from online, Laryssa Wirstiuk. Not that she is in a dance troupe, and she may be amused by the mental connection. But the evening seemed very much like a Laryssa sort of event. And not in the same way it was a Jamie sort of event. Jamie would have seen it as a career advancement and reputation boosting networking dream come true. Laryssa on the other hand would have immersed herself in the social style of the event.

From what I have gathered Miss.Wirstiuk, she one of those that tends to thrive socially at such events. I can enjoy such events, but she can use them to enhance her own presence. I am thinking Laryssa would have nine times out of ten sought out the members of the dance group and with her brand of contagious enthusiasm mentioned how much she enjoyed the performance. And come away with five new friends. She probably would have tried to get me to do the same. But social butterfly, I am not.

Yet the essence of what impressed me about Equinox was the dance, anyway. And because the company is so well marketed, I was able to find them online, and send them an email expressing my appreciation for the dance itself. And you know what? I feel okay with that. I didn't have to let myself be moved by modern dance, but I did, and I mentioned it to those connected with it. Not bad.

Later, I saw a guy I interviewed for my most recent piece. I did go out of my way to talk to him for a moment. Unlike one or two other people in the room, I only talked to him a few weeks ago, and had it would have been rude to not speak. I am glad to report he is pleased with the piece, and that it captured exactly what he wanted about the subject of motocross. Being an introverted writer, that was one of the highlights of the evening for me, to be honest. (Though free beer was a close second.)

In the end, I am glad that I went. Despite the fact that I hate small talk, do not often introduce myself to strangers without a specific agenda, and usually prefer music that is not quite so loud, I would go to this event again. Ten years ago I would not have gone at all. Five years ago I would have gone, and not enjoyed it as much. And I think the key to that evolution is the same key to all of my sometimes glacial and hard to detect but nonetheless real progress in my career and presence; I did it the way I chose to do it.

I didn't follow the gurus of elbow rubbing and back scratching that infest the internet, and as a result I will not get as far and as fast as some. But I get somewhere. I don't have the kind of exuberant blast that many people do at such parties, but I do find modest enjoyment. I cruise where others my soar. But that's only because I am Too XYZ to try to soar like everyone else does. I am rally good at soaring in other circumstances. And that knowledge made the launch party a good time for me.

The excellent crab dip alone, however, would have been worth the trip.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Launch Party Fun: A Prologue

I wanted to mention that tomorrow evening I will be attending a launch party for the FiND iT FREDERiCK Magazine website. Food, drink, mingling, speeches.

I know what you are thinking. It's the least Ty-like thing you could possibly imagine. And while that may not be 100% accurate, I would not blame any of my regular readers for that perception. I am indeed a bit Too XYZ for such events, normally. And I don't expect to be the life of this one, by any means.

Still, several factors play in to my decision to go to this event, and I thought I'd share them with you here, as I think they reveal something about me.

To begin with, I have contributed several pieces to the magazine, (henceforth referred to as FiF) over the last year or so. They have been kind and gracious to me, and have allowed me to build my portfolio. I won't do anything and everything to repay a debt, but I do believe that expressing appreciation and thanks to someone from whom you have received support is important. Even if one has to step out of their comfort zone a bit to do it.

Secondly, this is not a networking event. This is in fact a party. And while I am not the most party oriented person, it is much easier for me to take part in an affair that is designed specifically to be a celebration, and not designed to be and, "everybody sell your stuff now" sort of deal. I know you business minded, extroverts out there will say this launch party is the perfect time to mention my writing services, and they may come up. I will take a few business cards. But nobody will expect me to, and that makes the event more palatable to me.

And the people there will at least know of me. I have not yet met in person most of the staff at FiF, but they will be familiar with who I am, since I contribute so frequently. Knowing ahead of time that I expected helps me a lot.

Also, I will know one or two other people there, and I admit, that will make the entire situation much easier for me. I would feel far less comfortable with going if I knew from the start I would know nobody at all at the event.

And though I don't throw my card around like a ninja star to everyone in a room, I am not unaware of the potential benefits of going, outside of the support I owe FiF. For since I have made the effort to increase my social media presence over the last year, (Too XYZ, Brazen Careerist, Twitter) I have managed to pick up a few serviceable nuggets of advice out of the huge maelstrom of bullshit that is the world of social media self-promotional posturing. Subtle but real changes have taken place within my mind as regards to human interaction and personal presence. I'm anxious to see if what I have picked up has been of true benefit to me in that regard. A simple, casual party filled with other writers and patrons of the arts, (held at an arts institution with whom I communicate frequently on Twitter) should be an excellent crucible for that.

So, my goal for the evening is to enjoy myself, meet a few new people, and not feel pressured to be "on". To simply be out and about in support of a magazine, and be totally at ease with not shilling anything, but also in the hopes of meeting some new people. Check back in on Monday for a report on how it went!

It helps also that the event is being held at the Delaplaine Center for the Arts, a local arts organization with strong ties to the community. I don't get in to their events very often, but I strongly support their presence. (And have often retweeted them, much to their appreciation, on Twitter.) So I will also be supporting them

Monday, March 21, 2011

Writer's Sex or Writer's Love?

Today over on her blog Comma N' Sentence, my friend and professional writer Laryssa Wirstiuk writes of the importance of being honest with oneself as a writer. Of the need for writers to be, as much as is possible, objective when it comes to reading their own works, and subsequently revising same. While she concedes that a 100% objective view of our own works is not possible, she stresses the need for some distance and perspective. And she recommends several things that I myself utilize when writing. (Especially the concept of finishing something and leaving it alone for a few months to make it fresher before I start the first revisions.)

As I mentioned in my comments on that post, distance is easier to gain when we have months to spare. That approach isn't feasible of course when we are on a rapidly approaching deadline. In those cases we must seek out the vital emotional distance and objectivity Laryssa mentioned in other ways.

Now to be sure sometimes it's easy to maintain an emotional distance from some things we have to write. As much as we'd all like to believe that the writer pours heart, soul and mind into every single piece they find themselves writing, it isn't so. Certain things we write are just not going to be artistic. The piece we get paid to right on the pig roast at the American Legion can be a well written, easy to read piece, but we are unlikley to have an emotional attachment to it. At such times a writer's focus is dedicated more to the craft and technique of writing, than it is to the art and emotion of same. Such aspects of writing are still very important, as they help us even when we want to be artistic in our writing. But they are not the focus of today's post.

So we set aside those pieces with which we have little to no emotional attachment as writers. It is the personal pieces, the ones that speak to some deep part of ourselves, the words we yearn to get out of our hearts for whatever reasons that are at issue. It is just this type of writing that can be sunk by emotional attachment.

"But how is it art if I am emotionally detached from what I write?? Where is the passion? Don't I need to feel something personally in order to for my important writing to connect with other people? What kind of soulless word mill are you anyway, Ty?"

If this is you, be calm. The answer is yes. You do need, and can use emotional attachment to your writing in order to make it better. But you must apply it at the correct time, in the proper way.

I have come to believe that writing things with which we feel a personal connection is like romance. The greatest chance of lasting fulfillment in both writing and romance lies in patience, timing, and proper perspective.

Most of you probably know what it is like when you first fall in love with someone. And if not, you know someone who has done it. A preoccupation with everything the beloved does, says, thinks, and wears. A desire to be with them as much as possible. A mental block which prevents the one in love from ever processing potential problems or flaws with the object of their affections.

Now let's be adults for a moment. What tends to happen when we make all of our decisions about commitment whilst in the midst of the swirling hormonal cocktail of what is now deemed "falling in love"? When we proceed to take that initial attraction we feel for someone and spend it like jet fuel on going on a few dates, having great sex, becoming exclusive, and talk of moving in with one another all within a few months? You know the answer; it tends to one way or another someday end in painful failure. And it does so because we have allowed an initial spark of interest and attraction to stand in for the energy and effort and time investment that is required to make a relationship grow, mature, and blossom into something more than glorified puppy love for adults.

Our relationships with the writings that mean the most to us are similar. That spark of inspiration, born out of a passion for an idea, a story, a piece of advice. The high we feel as we ponder the notion of people reading it. It can be a powerful feeling for the writer. If we are not careful it can drive us. But in reality, like the twitterpaitted new lover, it must be the other way around to work. The person must drive the feeling instead of the feeling driving the person.

Enjoy that spark of inspiration when it comes. Harness it. Write is down. Thank your muses for it, and allow some daydreams to enter your mind. But then you must slow everything down. Turn off the faucet of emotions. Step back, and make a plan. How will you write it? How long? Are there any deadlines, and if so, what are they? And most importantly, do not become attached to a first draft. Ever. Not once ever.

If you cannot find a way after the initial spark of inspiration to concentrate on basic technique, structure, and broad outlining without being in love with what you are writing (yet), you will never get anywhere. You will either fuss and nitpick your project into oblivion due to that deadly writer's disease of perfectionism (which is far worse than so called writer's block) or you will become so attached to every word you won't ever be able to edit it. Both mean you are not going to get anywhere with the piece. Shady vanity presses thrive on the latter group, and the world is littered with unedited, stream of consciousness pablum because of it.

You must shove each page (or paragraph) of a first draft out onto the screen like a mother bird shoves the baby birds out of the nest. The novel I am writing is currently at page 360, and I have not read page one since the day I wrote it about a year ago. The only thing I ever see of it is the first sentence for a millisecond when I call up the file to begin that day's writing session. And I won't be reading it with any sincerity until the revision phase begins in mid-summer. (After a three month break, thank you Laryssa.)

And it is the all powerful revision phase where the romance at last plays in. For once you have a draft and you begin to widdle away at the poor things, re-arrange chapters, delete scores of extra pages, all in an attempt to find what you need under all of the rubble, the emotional attachment to your work begins to return. You can think again about that spark and start to build everything around it. Again, don't be consumed by it because it is still early. But your first revision can afford the occasional return of that excitement. It is through your revisions that your soul will start speak, not through your draft. And the more revisions you go through, the more you can let your heart connect to your piece.

Remember our couple from earlier? What if instead of moving that fast, they allowed that initial spark of attraction to dazzle them for a while. But after a few days they exercise restraint. They email each other a few times over the week, and maybe a brief phone call on the weekend. They set up a single date, in public, and enjoy each others company, but opt not to delve headlong into the attraction that each of them is feeling. They communicate more. They ask questions. They experiment with doing different activities together. They get to actually know the person that lies behind the attraction. And as time goes on they discover that there was a reason for that spark, and they begin to fall in love.

Or not. They go on a few dates, don't go head long into passion, and realize once that spark has cooled a bit that aside from a few funny remarks at a party and an impressive body, the other person doesn't share much in common with them. That they would provide little hope of a lasting relationship. And the two part ways amicably. Just as you may do with something you have written during the revision process. You may find at that point that there isn't much to salvage. That the initial idea you had doesn't work, or no longer speaks to you. And you decide to file the draft away, and move on to other things.

Yes, that is a lot of work. Yes it takes practice and discernment. But to paraphrase A League of Their Own,  

"It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't everybody would do it."

I suppose in some places there is the writing equivalent to the one night stand or the hook-up. Maybe that is what comment sections are for on blogs or other websites. Maybe that is what message boards are. I can't say, as I try my best not to fire off anything in writing on any platform, no matter how tempting it may be. True, not all romances are going to be life-long partnerships, but that doesn't mean I have to be sleazy either. Even the shortest of relationships can include respect and class. That is what I try to put into all of my writings, no matter what the topic, length, or deadline. I hope you do the same.

Have you ever gotten too attached too early to something you were writing?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sculpting Relationships

I've been thinking lately about relationships. To be more specific, personal relationships. (As opposed to professional relationships in this case.) How easily we can sometimes allow them to become stale. Or how often we fool ourselves into thinking a good initial rapport with someone is the same as a strong relationship with them. How, when held up to the light some of our top "friendships" are actually rather superficial.

And there isn't anything wrong with superficial relationships, so long as we know what they are and accept them as such. But we also sometimes need and want strong, solid relationships with those we value. And when we do, I have often thought that it is like sculpting something out of clay. It takes attention, care, passion, and often meticulous effort. But for people we value, it ends up being worth it.

We can't of course have a strong relationship with everyone. Nobody loves everybody on a personal level. But that doesn't mean that we can't explore and evolve relationships with those whom we value, beyond what they are today. For some, we may find the relationship blossoms into deep friendship or love. (Or "love"). For others a new admiration, or merely a better understanding of a person will result. All of these evolutions are worth it most of the time.

And what are some good ways to develop sincerity and depth in relationships? When we have decided to pursue a relationship beyond the superficial, what might we do? After some thought, I have come up with some ideas. In no particular order, here are a few of the big ones.

-Ask people to tell you stories. Real stories. Stories of their best moments, their worst moments, or just what they did with their time yesterday. People conceive, fashion, and tell (and re-tell) their personal stories based on that which moved them most, in hopes of reliving, better understanding, healing from, or just plain sharing that which is most influential to them in any given context. By telling those stories we open ourselves up to those around us. By listening to the stories of others, we show them that we care about relating to them on a less superficial level. When we ask them to tell us one of their stories, we are saying "I value you now, and would like to understand you and get to know you even better. Will you give me that opportunity?"

-Once we know who we love, be more willing to tell them so. But do so without explanation or clarification. By clarifying we cheapen and dilute the experience both for ourselves and the person we love. And if we are eager to explain what kind of love,  and what the implications of that love are, what we are actually doing is acting more out of fear than we are out of love. Fear of rejection. Fear of intimacy for which we are unprepared from the other person. Fear of being misinterpreted. Love is multi-faceted and complicated to be sure, but if we pay closer attention to how we truly define it, and to when, how, and to whom we say it, we shouldn't need to explain it. If you still feel you have to, consider that it isn't love you are feeling at all for the person, but admiration. (Which is fine as well!)

As a last resort, make the mostly false distinction of being "in love" when that is what you are feeling, and let "love" represent all the other kinds of love you can feel. And leave it at that.

-Accept and ask for help as often as you offer it yourself. It may seem counter-intuitive in our "independence" based culture, but by asking for and accepting help when we need it, especially for the emotional things, we are showing other people that we trust them, respect their strengths, and that we are secure enough in ourselves to admit, at least to select people, that we cannot do everything.

Plus it makes those who care about you feel as though they are contributing to your well being, even if all they can do is be present when you would rather not be alone. So important is this, that we should be willing to ask our friends and loved ones for help, even if we truly believe that we can manage all by ourselves. Because even if we can, we shouldn't. And we may find we are not as able to go at it alone as we initially believe, anyway. Let help and support be like an unbounded life force that flies back and forth between you and those you value. Something you sometimes give and sometimes receive.

-Check in on people to see how they are doing, even if they don't appear to be in any pain. Because they might be. And even if they are not, the inquiry means a lot.

-Let people that matter to you know when they have hurt you.  Or angered you, or confused you. Always be open with how you are made to FEEL by someone, even if you cannot share what you THINK all of the time. (And note the difference.)

-ALWAYS apologize. ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS tell someone that you are sorry for hurting them. Even, and especially when you don't see how or why your actions would have hurt the other person. Apologize when you didn't meant to hurt them. Apologize even if you felt compelled to take the action that they found hurtful, even if you would, as a matter of conscience take that action again. Apologize even if you could not help but take the hurtful action.

To be aware that you have hurt someone, even if you think it is silly, and to not apologize is to dismiss their heart and declare it irrelevant to you. And if their heart is irrelevant to you, how can they matter as a human being in your life, no matter what you claim before or after such a dismissal? Apologies are not rejections of your own morality. Apologies are not a confession of being 100% at fault, nor are they a capitulation to somebody elses will. They are an acknowledgment that human beings can be both very deep, and very diverse, and that in order to truly value someone else, we must honor that which both pleases and pains them. Even if it means a certain subject can never be discussed, or our time with them must eventually be decreased, we should always regret, and SAY we regret causing pain to someone else.

We must not confuse apologizing for what we DID with apologizing for who we ARE. There is a difference, and not being able to tell the difference prevents us from apologizing when we hurt someone. And that can be twice as hurtful.

-Listen to at least SOME of their favorite music with which you are not already familiar. Borrow the album or download the songs that speak deepest to the person in question. And really listen to them. Even if you don't like the music enough to listen to it again, put the effort into absorbing the music at least once. Few things are more outwardly indicative of the wavelength of a person's soul than the music they listen to. Be willing to share some of your music with others as well, for the same reason, should they be open to do so. (And hopefully, they will be.)

-Have a meal at someone's private table. Not munching away on a paper plate at someone's party, or grabbing something on the go on your way to someplace else. There will be plenty of time for such adventures. But if you have the chance to sit at their table for a regular meal, or have them sit at yours for same, take that chance. If you and they can become comfortable with you in that setting, you are connecting to their home in a way that a simple visit or a party may not allow. (Believe me, this is hard as hell for me to do the first few times...)

-If it is not an obviously private or personal affair, invite the people you value to events or activities you are attending, even if you don't think they would enjoy them. Firstly, there is value in the invitation, even if it is declined. And secondly, they may surprise you and choose to show up, either to be with you, or to enjoy something new. (Or maybe you were wrong, and they enjoy such things after all!)

-Get back to all messages someone sends you, eventually.  And if life will not allow a prompt response, simply let people know you may not get back to them for a while. Most people can understand being busy, but it is hard to not take it personally when someone never, EVER manages to get back to you.

-Do not ask people for their opinions on vital personal matters unless you are prepared to hear the view you would find the least pleasing. And when/if they share said view, do not judge your friendship on the opinion they give, but on the honesty with which they gave the opinion, and the courage it required. On the other side, offer an unsolicited opinion to someone on a sensitive subject only if after much consideration  you believe in your heart of hearts that the person you value is making a destructive choice, or is otherwise not approaching something from a mentally healthy frame of mind, and if you believe you are the only person that can point this out to them.

-Give sincere, restrained compliments to people when you can. This shows you value their traits, and their personality, but are not moved to gushing about same. It's better at first to compliment things over which they have control or choice, like styles, decisions, or creations, as opposed to things over which they have little control. (Such as looks.) If you can, include in the compliment how the trait makes you feel. ("You're persistence in matters of morality inspires me in my own.")

-Even more importantly perhaps, ACCEPT compliments from other people. Even if they are sloppy, or awkward, or not well worded, or just plain no big deal to you. Don't deflect them with false modesty. People appreciate different things in us. Some people appreciate things we do not even see in ourselves. To reject compliments is not so much modest, as it is a reflection that we do not believe the other person is sincere. (Or that we do not believe we are good enough to be worthy of anyone's compliment.) There are times when history has taught us someone is not being sincere, but until that is well established, accept with grace the compliments people have offered you.

-Laugh with each other a lot. Cry with each other sometimes.

So those are some of the big ones I have been thinking about lately. It is of course not an exhaustive list, but it covers a lot of the big things to me. Exceptions always exist, of course. But I humbly submit that if we all did more of these sort of things with more of our friends, our relationships would be far more sincere and thus more rewarding.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Existential Savings Time

This weekend Daylight Savings time takes effect for the season. Such a strange concept. Probably outdated by now for its original purpose, (helping farmers, or something) but very much a profound symbol of perception and our power to change same on a massive scale.

Think about it. You tell a whole nation, (with a few exceptions in the Midwest) to literally move their clocks ahead by one hour early Sunday morning, and bingo. It is actually no longer the same time of day. One day stores just open, alarms go off, shifts end, all at a different moment in the day than previously, as measured by the position of the earth relative to the previous day. But because we all decide, "okay, that moment will as of now, be called 6:00AM as opposed to 5:00AM for a while" we have effectively changed time itself, as far as our perceptions are concerned.

Clocks do not cause time of course. They are mere machines that are designed to move in a certain pattern by which we can assign a numerical value to a specific moment, or collection of moments in our day, thus organizing our activities. Clocks are a 100% human construct. Yet by use of clocks we break down into bite sized pieces the very natural, inevitable advance of our lives, and the lives of our cities, our nations, and the world and universe even. Time keeping as we understand it is a means by which we turn a transcendent or even Divine concept into daily knowledge.

Just like that.Twice a year. Once forward, and once backward. And we go on with our day with ease afterward.

It works because clocks, whether digital, analog, or even a sundial, are perception. A universal agreement to observe something as inexplicable as time  in a very human, understandable way. A way that, twice a year we alter entirely simply by pressing a button, or turning the lever on the simplest of machines by 360 degrees.

As a society, we actually declare that it is no longer 5:00AM, by an act of "freewill". (Though of course if you opt out of it, you will be late for everything the rest of your life. But you get my point.)

So imagine what that says about the power of perceiving. The abilities we have as people to change our reality and come at things from a totally different angle. The paradigm shifts we can cause, for good or for bad, on both the individual and global levels, just by deciding we are going to define something in a different way. See it in a new light. Determine that our thoughts can in many ways give birth to a reality limited only by what we decide to think and see.

Yes, I will lose an hour of sleep on Sunday. But pondering the other truth behind this strange ritual more than makes up for that I think.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Million of Your Own Words

There is an old observation in the writing world, based on no science at all. It is often said that you don't start to become a truly good writer until you have written at least one million words. And they don't mean just any words either, but words into which you have put specific, concerted effort on behalf of a future audience. Articles and stories, not to-do lists. One million words.

It's a lot of words. Not as many as you might think, but a lot. And it takes a while for most people to get there, even if they are writing various different things at one time. Which of course is the real point behind the theory. What it is really saying is that you need to put in consistent effort over the course of time in order to develop your overall skill, as well as your particular voice as a writer. There is a moment in the early stages of one's writing wherein you just sense that you have evolved from someone who likes to write, to someone that is a writer. And it comes with time and practice. Whether that moment is actually after a million words, a billion words, or 500,000 thousand words really isn't that vital. "A million words" is a term, not a formula.

But yet I would amend the famous "million word" advise. I would add that you start to be a writer once you have reached a million words your own way.

I am not a huge fan of rules, especially for writing. I think some of the best writing out there is the best because it broke, or at least ignored the rules. I ignore plenty of them myself. Still, there are in fact some rules for being a good writer. You have to read all the time. While perfect grammar isn't crucial, coherence is. Any given piece should probably not alternate between two languages at random. And a few other pretty strong, and sometimes obvious foundational rules of the craft do in fact exist even to a rebel like myself.

But truly, many writers of all stripes get too tied down with too many rules. So for your first million words forget rules. Just write. Write everything. Write on blogs. Write fiction, even if you are not a fiction writer, and write non-fiction even if you consider yourself a fiction author. Write everything, whether anybody reads it or not. Just make sure they are a million of your own words. Not a million words as your professor would have your write them. Don't worry about the rules for a while. Just write a million words, however long it takes you, and pay attention to nothing at all but what speaks to you. (Don't even pay attention to whether or not you have reached a million words. It's a metaphor people!)

So yes, screw the rules. If really long "run on" sentences speak to you, write in those. If you like short, choppy repetitive prose, write a million words of that. Use adverbs all the time. Include cliches and lists. Switch between view points within a single page. Put down a million words in whatever way you want no matter how many English professors are sent to the asylum as a result.

Because the first thing a writer needs to learn is to trust that he/she can in fact write. Not write according to someone elses ideal, but write according to what speaks to you. Anybody can learn to write a million words according to every rule in the writer's guide book. And in the end all you will have is a firm grasp of the boring rules followed by other people. But if you set out on your writing journey with the intent to ignore the rules and write all the time, you will experience something far more important than mastery of a format; you will experience an understanding of what you want to say, and how it is you want to say it.

And then an amazing thing will happen. You won't know why it starts to happen when it happens, and you may not notice it at first. Yet if you keep at it, and worry less about rules of writing as you get to your million words you will suddenly find that somewhere along the way you slipped right into the ranks of good writers that follow the so called rules, without even realizing you have done it. You will take a good long look at your most recent piece, and compare it to one of your earlier ones, and find a world of difference you didn't even know was there.

Almost by magic, you will have adopted not only the few core foundational rules of writing, but also perhaps some of the stylistic rules as well. Yet you might not even be able to define what those rules are. You will just come to a natural rhythm in your writing which syncs it with all of the advise people have tried to give you over the years. But you will have maintained your own unique voice in the process. You may even find yourself ahead of those who spent so much time memorizing, learning, and putting every rule into practice over the same time period.

And the source of this magic? Confidence. All of the other "rules" of writing are bogus if you do not become confident in your words. By writing, and writing, and writing and writing, and getting to a million words on your own terms two things happen. First, as I already said, you come to an organic understanding of some of the universals of writing. They are not universal because someone said so, but universal because passionate, confident writing tends to reflect them naturally. (It's a mystery. Enjoy it.)

But perhaps more importantly you will have practiced the art of trusting your own voice. Of relying on your instincts and speaking from within the deepest part of you. That concept I assure you is ten times more difficult to master than any skill specific to writing itself. But once you have mastered it, you need fear no more rules. You can even embrace them all if you like. Because by then, you will have become a conduit for your own voice through words.

Or, to put it another way, you will have truly become a writer.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pulling Back on Pushing the Envelope

I have written some posts here and other places that have gotten a lot of readers and comments. Pushed a lot of buttons and pissed people off. (At least based on said comments.)

And I have written a lot of posts that hardly get read at all. Posts that illicit zero comments. I won't pretend it doesn't bother me sometimes to be a part of the conversation for a while, and then suddenly to no longer be a part of it, as seems to have happened during the course of Too XYZ. But I have a feeling I know why it may happen like that.

Because it seems to me there are two types of blogs (or websites or podcasts, or Tweets) that get the most consistent attention. The Envelope Pushers and the Pollyannas. I am neither.

Pollyannas you know. Those who always write about how wonderful it is to be alive, and that all we need to succeed is a positive attitude, a willingness to learn and a dream. And those that have not succeeded just don't know how to dream. If you read this blog, you know my general response to that sort of cotton candy already. So I'll move on to the problem with envelope pushing.

I don't believe in it. To some it is the very foundation on which they build their whole presence. They follow people who push envelopes and lament any given blog, movie, TV show, or song that doesn't push an envelope. (As though pushing an envelope is synonymous with quality.) As a result, you have entire personalities based solely on the idea of pushing the envelope. It doesn't matter to where the envelope is pushed, as long as it is making somebody uncomfortable or at least confused. Lady Gaga comes to mind. (Arriving in an egg. That's so edgy.) So does that Ricky Gervais character at the Golden Globes.

Both are examples of people that h ave been made into heroes because they push envelopes and test the limits of propriety. But it seems to me they do it only for the purpose of doing so. Actions of people like that practically scream, "This will be seen as unacceptable to a whole bunch of people!" And in the end, that is a pyramid scheme waiting to collapse all around you.

When you push an envelope just because it is there to be pushed, you actually become just as predictable as those who do not push the envelope. That's right, you become just as common as those whom you think you are skewering. Because passed a certain point being unpredictable IS predictable.

Gervais and Lady Gaga are popular game changers in a way for the moment, because a large portion of the population believes that the very act of pushing an envelop in and of itself is a noble practice. That no matter how many people are offended, and no matter how low quality the result is, pushing the envelope is an end unto itself that you can only reject if you are unhip, old, or afraid.

But being an envelope pusher doesn't keep you at the top forever. And there is the problem with it. When you whole goal is merely to push, that becomes your focus. Not how good, clever, well written, well presented or valuable your product is in its own right. You become instead the producers of the cultural equivalent of the disposable razor. Gets the job done once, and maybe twice. But fundamentally it is a poorly made temporary piece of garbage dump filling, environment strangling trash.

That's not saying people won't buy disposable razors. Look at South Park. The cartoon on Comedy Central. It's still on, and is still one of the biggest money makers for that network. You can't deny it's popularity within a certain demographic. But when is the last time anybody had anything at all significant to say about it's impact? Does anybody really care what Parker and Stone are thinking these days? Are they "game changers" now? No.

That is because they painted themselves, quite voluntarily into a corner of "envelope pushing". They became known as those who would push the envelope and challenge what we call "decent". And after about 3 years, instead of creating a good product they believed in and found clever while ignoring certain boundaries, they made their stated goal to push that envelope. So they dedicate entire episodes to menstruating statues. Funny for a lot of people, but how ground breaking is it? It's just trash to which most people have become numb by now. Same could be said for people like Howard Stern. Still popular, but his whole shtick is to piss people off and push whatever envelope is left to be pushed. And millions of fans, (the same people who have always followed him) doesn't change his overall staleness.

I don't do this when I blog, or Tweet. What I do is say what I feel needs to be said. I talk about the things in which I am interested. I share that about which I am passionate at any given time. Put more simply, I write as me all the time. And like many people, some of the things I believe are not going to go over well with the establishment. Other things I believe are not going to spark a lot of interest either way. Some things I believe are so mundane I guess people don't feel they need to comment. Different responses for different posts.

Which is why many marketing geniuses would say I don't get the traffic I could get here. Or on Twitter. Because I don't work double time to piss people off like some of my more popular posts have. I don't seek out the chink in the armor of everyone everywhere and jab my sword into it. I may at first attract attention with a controversial post, but lose readers very quickly once it becomes clear I'm no longer writing the stuff that eviscerates.

But I don't keep this blog in order to eviscerate. Or to anger. Or to push that envelope. Yes, those things often happen in the course of me expressing what is within me that needs expressed. But I write this blog in order to present my interpretations and perceptions on common (and some not so common) situations in which we find ourselves as people. My life has informed said perceptions, and I want my voice heard.

But there is a difference between making my voice heard and making my noise heard. If I have to go out of my way to find something controversial to say in order to keep people reading, than I am just making my noise heard, and am not much of a writer. My writings serve the authentic me, and that is why my writings are my voice as opposed to my noise. Authenticity.

Now, I am still Too XYZ for this world. I will piss people off again. It is bound to happen. That is because while I will not go out of my way to piss people off, I am not going to go out of my way to avoid it either. I express through writing that which I am moved to express. And my readers will respond accordingly. Sometimes they won't respond at all. But if I keep using my voice to serve the authentic me, someone will notice, as they have noticed before.

To hell with the envelope.