Posts Tagged 'writing'

Questions: The Regrets Edition (Part II)

Great answers to Part I of the regrets column. Here are my other 5 top regrets.

6) I regret being afraid of dying. In some ways, I feel my whole life’s purpose is to finally accept (at least on a Zen-like level) the inevitability of my death. Instead, the concept so terrifies me that it has clearly kept me from being as adventurous and/or productive as I could have been. A little caution can be a good thing, perhaps, but to live without fear of death sounds so freeing. (To be completely accurate, it’s more the pain of dying than the actual being dead part that scares me).

7) I regret being shy around girls. Ok, so it’s all good as I ended up finding this great awesome girl, but oh man, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have caught the eye of a beautiful girl and wish I had gone up to her and introduced myself, make small chat, throw her a compliment, ask her on a date, etc. but instead only watched her walk away and out of my life forever. If I had chosen not to do any of those things because I thought it would be too forward and ungentlemanly or even creepy, that would be one thing. But me … I was mostly just scared, especially of rejection, and that’s just silly. Only the rejected can give rejection its power (Oh yeah, that’s like Tony Robbins good!)

8) I regret not being more serious about my writing. Even as a young kid, I fancied myself a writer. I remember creating a whole series of short stories, including a choose your own adventure (damn I loved those), about a porcupine named Kong. I had people who liked and encouraged my work, including a teacher I had in elementary school who took a bunch of my stories and compiled them in a pretty cool bound package and helped get one my tales published in a young children’s magazine (still one of my all-time great thrills).

I continued writing short stories and small pieces throughout college, but as time passed, I grew more discouraged. I would read stories by the masters, by authors I totally loved, and bemoan the fact I could never be as good as them. I experimented with longer forms of writing, including novels, but could never finish my projects. My imagination was lacking. My vocabulary was inadequate. My characters were cliched.

But if my writing was inadequate before, it’s only gotten worse. Writing is a skill that must be honed like any other and I unfortunately have written very little over the past five years – aside from these blog posts, of course. I think I convinced myself that writing was not as enjoyable as it used to be, but I wonder if maybe there’s something more going on here.

Because sometimes I think of how envious I am of the people who seem like they know what they’ve wanted to do since the day they were born, who have passion about something and pursue it with joy AND single-minded determination, a lethal combination for success. And then I think back to how I would spend hours as a young kid holed up in my room, composing stories, getting lost in the process, reveling in my own creations, and wonder if for me writing should have been that thing, and – note the emerging theme – I just was too afraid to pursue it. That my imagination was lacking, indeed.

9) I regret not doing more for my fellow man. This one is simple. I give to charity a decent amount, but not nearly enough. But more importantly, I should be more generous with my time. On this site, I’ve often complained about the lack of compassion certain members of society seem to have for their fellow humans, and yet I cannot honestly say I’ve done much to make a difference in this world. I talk a much better game than I do, and worry I just may be more selfish than I’d like to believe. Even when I try to do something charitable, I often do it begrudgingly and with the minimum effort, like the time several years back when I along with my brother mentored an inner-city student and helped sponsor his private Catholic school education. I did so little to really help that kid succeed, and embarrassingly, have since lost touch with him and his family.

10) I regret not going to California to watch the Northwestern Wildcats play in the Rose Bowl. OK, this is a small one, but when I was a senior in college, the Northwestern football team came out of nowhere – after decades of being the doormat of the Big Ten – to shock the world with a miraculous year for the ages. In one season, they beat Notre Dame, Michigan (in the Big House) and Penn State to win the Big Ten and earn their first appearance in the Rose Bowl in fifty years.

I saw every home game that year, and even a couple of away games, and that season easily stands as one of the top three sports fan experiences in my life. Many of my college friends went out to Pasadena during the Winter Break to cheer the team on, but I was a rather broke student and decided it would cost too much money. So I went home to St. Louis and watched the game on TV with some friends and family.

What a joke. You don’t get opportunities like that often, and when you do, money should hardly ever be the deciding factor. I know the advice to save and prepare for retirement or a rainy day has its merits – and especially sounds sage in tough economic times like the current ones – but money is merely a means to an end, nothing more. Be prudent, but have fun and take advantage of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities when they arise. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

Questions: The Regrets Edition (Part I)

In a post long ago, I talked about regrets and how I view them as a natural part of the examined life, something to be embraced, not feared. A person who claims he has no regrets is either a magnificent liar or an unreflective fool.

You can learn a lot from your regrets, and the only goal should be to minimize their occurrence as you grow older.

I didn’t go into much detail discussing the specifics of my actual regrets, but I’ve now decided to list the top 10 regrets of my life to date, thinking that it could actually be a useful exercise for me and an enjoyable, potentially educational, but very long read for others (so long in fact that I’ve decided to divide the column into two).

Over at dagblog.com, each regret will be accompanied by a related question in the comment section for you to answer.

Some of these regrets are small, some are huge. Some are in the past, where nothing can be done about them, and some persist today. All contribute to who I am, and as the new Senator from Minnesota was known to say in a previous life, “And that’s … OK.”

1) I regret not lifting weights when I was going through puberty. Let’s start off small. I think a bit of strength training – not a crazy amount, mind you, just a little weightlifting – is much more impactful when your body is developing and maturing. I’m not very body obsessed, but I think being stronger would have helped in a bunch of different ways. At the very least, it would have made me a better baseball player, which would have been nice as not making the high school baseball team is another regret of mine (although not worth a top 10 since I did try out 3 times, getting cut each year, and I give myself props for that).

2) I regret not making the top 10 of my high school graduating class. This is actually a bit of an anomaly because if anything, I think I cared too much about grades and schoolwork. But there’s a reason why this stands out as a regret. I remember going to my brother’s graduation as a junior high schooler and seeing the ten students with the top 10 GPAs get recognized for their efforts – they were asked to stand and the crowd gave each of them a significant round of appreciative applause.

For some reason, I decided there and then that that was something I wanted to accomplish. It became a goal – a ridiculous and nerdy one to be sure, but a goal nonetheless. And it was in my grasp til the very end, as I got all A’s until my final semester of high school. But I didn’t do the extra effort to sneak into the top 10, refusing to do the term papers that would have gotten me the ‘H’ honors (and 5.0) grades in history that would have put me over the hump. This sounds like a small, almost stupid thing but in many ways its indicative of a lack of single-minded determination, which I think the most successful in society seem to have and I clearly don’t (an issue that comes up later in this post). I had a goal, I should have worked just a bit harder to achieve it, plain and simple.

3) I regret not living an extended period of time in a foreign country. This is pretty self-explanatory and clearly, the easiest, best time to do this would have been in college, studying abroad for a semester or year. To me, it’s a sign of me living scared and nervous about trying new things.

As a side regret, though it isn’t necessarily my fault, I regret not learning a foreign language (or two) earlier in life. Like developing muscles, languages are so much easier to learn when you’re young, and I automatically give people an extra ten points of respect and IQ when I hear they’re fluent in multiple languages. Unfortunately, the arrogant American public education system didn’t include foreign languages as part of its early education curriculum back when I was a kid (I think it might now, but in any case at least American kids today have the bilingual Dora). In the end, I took 6 years of French in high school and college and still could barely communicate with the Frenchies when I was in Paris for a trip about ten years back.

4) I regret not being nicer to my mother through my teenage and young adult life. My mom is awesome. She’s funny and social and loving and sensitive and generous, and full of so many endearing quirks. Everyone loves her. I do, too, of course, but there was a time when she embarrassed me. OK, she still does, but there was a time when I was way too annoyed by my embarrassment and wasn’t always so nice to her.

Nothing major, just small cutting comments or a general lack of affection. I know where I was coming from and what I was doing – just trying to rebel a bit. Like all good Jewish mothers, my mom is a bit smothering and neurotic and for much of my pre-teen life I was a big mama’s boy, and I probably overcompensated in my attempt to shed that image. I can now fully embrace that I am and will always be a mama’s boy. But I know there were times I hurt her when she did nothing wrong, and for that I am sorry.

5) I regret giving up acting in college. In high school, I was in many of the plays, and had decent-sized parts in a lot of them, except for the musicals because I can’t sing or dance (We did Fiddler on the Roof, and I – one of the few Jews in the production – had to play a Russian because of my limited skills). I really enjoyed acting, and thought I was pretty good at it (I knew I had some talent when during a final exam in a freshman acting class I was able to cry during a scene in which I played a father who found out his wife had left him. The tears even surprised me.)

I wasn’t perfect,  by any means – watching old tapes, I cringe at some of the tics I brought to the stage,  but I would have liked to continue to pursue acting. Didn’t think that would be an issue seeing as I was, after all, going to Northwestern University, which was known for its theater department. Unfortunately, freshman year I got paired up with a roommate who was majoring in theater and it discouraged me when I saw his commitment to the profession. I thought about performing as a lark, not necessarily a career, and my roommate and his theater friends were approaching it on a much different level. So I chickened out and never pursued it further. I’ve taken a couple of acting and improv classes to try and rekindle the magic, but I’m afraid that dream may be dead.

The Secret of Success …

OK, I’m about to reveal – at no charge to you – the secret of success, in all aspects of life.

Pay close attention … No, that’s not the secret, I’m just letting you know you should pay attention because I’m about to reveal the secret.

You ready??? You sure?? Are you sitting down?? Notebook in hand???

Ok, ok, alright already, here it is (commence drum roll)….

————->>>>>> REJECT REJECTION <<<<<<————-

Oh, I know. It’s not that impressive. It’s trite. And it’s fairly obvious, so calling it a secret is a bit of a stretch. Probably that exact phrase has already even been used in some 7-step, self-help book (I purposefully didn’t Google it, cuz I didn’t want to be dissuaded from writing this piece). If I were to be completely forthright, there are probably other, just as important keys to finding success in life – Do What You Love, Practice Often, Floss, Take Vitamins, Don’t Waste Hours and Hours of Your Time on Facebook Games, etc. etc.

But I’m interested in making this as simple as possible, so we’re shrinking the playbook, focusing on the core. And as simple as Reject Rejection may sound, trust me, it’s a bitch of a mantra to truly absorb. (At first I was thinking of writing it as Don’t Fear Rejection, or Embrace Rejection, but there’s just something catchy and catch-22y about Reject Rejection)

The reason rejecting rejection is such a surprisingly tricky thing to accomplish is simple: We all inherently care about what people think of us, and of our work.

We seek affirmation, and feel lonely and dejected when we don’t get it. Those are very tough emotions to let go of or ignore. I know I haven’t yet learned how to do it, and it is very likely I won’t be following my own advice anytime soon. But if you want to be successful, you should do what I say, and not what I do.

I first began obsessing over this philosophy last fall when I was finishing up a Gotham writing class, and the teacher was giving out his final pearls of wisdom before sending us on our way. The one thing he kept harping on was how often we were going to be rejected if we planned on pursuing writing for a career.

He in fact highly encouraged us not to send in samples of our work to literary magazines, editors or agents unless we were damn sure we were ready for the torrent of form rejection letters that would be hurled at us like so many poisoned darts. He kept going on and on … You will be rejected. A LOT. Be prepared … I had really liked our teacher up to that point, but he was beginning to piss me off.

Look, it’s highly probable there weren’t any undiscovered Hemingways in that class (well, maybe some Mariels, but no Ernests!). We had all shared our writing with each other and none of us were that good. Some of the folks were barely literate. But who the fuck cares? We are told so often in our lives to be careful, and to be prudent, reminded about the long odds, and the need for fallback plans. What if we just went for it, and never stopped until we came to the end? If we didn’t care about being rejected, if we rejected the concept of rejection, then failure literally wouldn’t be an option, and wouldn’t that be a thrilling way to live …

Later that same week, I read Neurotick’s humorous post about his problems meeting women, and it made me realize that a fear of rejection can have rather crippling effects on our personal lives as well as our professional ones. I can’t begin to think about all the times I’ve seen a pretty girl in the street, or at a bar, maybe even noticed some flirty eye contact or smile flashed in my direction, and yet lacked the nerve to make a move, letting the opportunity pass … all because I was afraid of being rejected. Again, why the fuck did I care? So what if I got rejected???? I wasn’t likely ever going to see this person again – the only thing I had to be afraid of was my foolish, illogical pride.

And fear of rejection doesn’t just get in the way of pursuing a career or finding a woman. It affects almost every decision we make.

On some level, of course, this makes sense as we are often only rewarded, monetarily or otherwise, when people approve of us or something we’ve done. But as I see it, rejecting – rather than fearing – rejection is ultimately a much more fruitful strategy for two main reasons.

1) Confidence sells.

Whether we’re talking about flirting or job interviewing, there is no question that people respond well to confidence, even if it’s misplaced. I may think a guy who goes over to a random woman and puts the make on her is annoying and overly cocky, but I’ve seen that approach work time and time again. One of my friends told me he had this college roommate who would hit on anybody. He’d be rejected A LOT, but he didn’t take it personally and he also usually had a date.  When you reject rejection and look like you truly don’t care whether someone accepts what you’re selling or not – like you’re doing them a favor by offering it in the first place – you will get more favorable responses. Bank on it.

2) There’s no accounting for taste.

Look, the crappy Independence Day did over $800 million in sales worldwide, while the brilliant Arrested Development got canceled after 53 episodes.

Genghis doesn’t like Curb Your Enthusiasm, but has no problem dressing up in an outfit that looks like a Tropicana factory exploded on a Liberace-designed robot.

Some women like men with hard bodies, a full head of hair, and classically handsome facial features; thankfully, some like scrawny men, with scraggly beards and thinning scalps, and large Semitic noses.

The point is, you will never EVER please everyone, so why get upset if one person, or dozens of people, decide they don’t like you or what you’ve done. Examples abound of incredible artists who died penniless and mostly anonymous because their work wasn’t appropriately recognized in their lifetimes. What if Walt Whitman had stopped writing poetry when critics panned his Leaves of Grass anthology? Or if Van Gogh had stopped painting when his first efforts disappointed family and critics alike?

And who cares if all those people rejecting you are right anyway? That you suck, and you’re ugly, and will never amount to anything? As far as can be determined, we only get one shot at this living thing, and I can assure you that more people will respect you for following your heart and shooting for the stars than for hiding in a corner and watching the parade pass you by. Not that other people’s opinions matter anyway. Remember, if you reject rejection, then the only ones who can fail are the ones who don’t accept you.

So there it is. My secret to success in all aspects of life: Reject rejection.

Use it to your own advantage, or don’t. I couldn’t care less. (Ahhhh, if only that were so …)

Writing Exercise #2 …

So the other exercise in my writing class last Thursday was to start a scene in which two characters each have a different part of an object, which can’t work without the other part (e.g. shoe and a lace), and neither one wants to give up their part. Here was my work, ‘as is’ …

——————————————————————————————————–

“HUH?” Don bellowed, the sound booming through the closed bathroom door into the bedroom.

“I’m not coming in there,” his wife responded, without taking her eyes off the television screen. God, how she would miss Jay Leno. Right then and there, she vowed once again to stop watching the show when that tall frightening Irish guy took over as host, conveniently forgetting how she had made a very similar promise in Carson’s final days.

“HUH?”

“I’m not coming in there,” she repeated in a quiet speaking voice, knowing full well that even in the best of circumstances he’d never hear her from that far away. With the TV on at a pretty loud level, and his hearing aid missing the battery snugly encased in her left fist, the low volume of her voice was nothing more than a way to torture poor Don. A prop in an Abbott/Costello routine.

He can wait, she thought. Why in God’s name did he need to hear anything while he was doing what he was doing. It was bad enough she could hear the grunts – and even worse, a faint whiff – emanating from his epic bathroom struggle. He should be thankful for any sensory deprivation he could get.

“Please, hon, I asked for the new hearing aid battery. I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

Oh, whatever, she groaned, and relented – as both of them knew she would (this was not the first time they had played this game). She struggled up on the bed, waiting for Leno’s monologue to end. “OK, I’m coming,” she said, and only now did she begin to raise her voice. “But for the love of God, please spray in there.”

Writing Exercise #1 …

As mentioned in my last post, I’m posting my writing exercises from my first night in the fiction writing course I’m taking. I dont think they’re bad given we only had ten minutes to complete them. I did sneak in a little bit of revising during some slow moments in class, but otherwise I am posting them ‘as is.’

For the first assignment, the teacher gave us three random sentences he co-opted from NPR’s Web site and asked us to write a short scene using one of the sentences. I’ve bolded the sentence I chose. I’ll post the second exercise in my next post.

——————————————————————————

I had a forkful of fettucine alfredo in my mouth, and I wasn’t quite sure I heard her right at first. I was immersed in the process of eating, in that phase of dinner where I was operating on sheer instinct, where breaths were merely an option, with my head focused on the plate in front of me and my movements picking up steam with each bite. I slurped up one of the remaining noodles hanging from my mouth, wiped with the back of my hand a bit of cream that had gathered on my lips, and looked up at her.

Man, just how old was that picture, I wondered, the one she had had the nerve to upload as an accurate representation of her present self, the self that was now bubbling and spilling over the wooden chair across from me. If the answer couldn’t be measured in years, it certainly could be in pounds.

“Excuse me, what you’d say?”

“I just asked you what you thought of my dress. I just bought it the other day and I’m not sure how well it fits,” she said, flashing a shaky smile that revealed her lack of confidence in the answer.

“It’s beautiful.” I swallowed a bit of noodle. “I noticed it the second I saw you. Where’d you get it?”
Her smile became a bit larger, the edges of her teeth appearing. Then she lowered her head, her cheeks reddening, obviously embarrassed by my compliment, but also wholly believing it as well. And I noted to myself, I may just get lucky tonight. You see, one of the things that lying does is, it may not have a lot of ethical virtues, but it has a lot of functional virtues. Especially when you’re a serial dater.

The Producing Class …

So as I see it, in this world, you are either a producer or a consumer.

Obviously, everyone does both to a certain extent, just as everyone is probably a little gay, but in the end, you lean mostly one way or the other. You’re either adding to society or taking from it (and having children doesn’t count cuz you’re just as likely to raise a bunch of consuming monsters as you are the next Leonardo da Vinci).

Me, I’ve been a consumer my whole life.  Nothing wrong with that, per se. It’s not as noble as producing something of value, but just like the famous need the fawning, the world needs consumers, too. And I’m damn good at it. Books, movies, TV shows, cars, food, music, computers, skyscrapers, video games – I gulp and chow them down like no one’s business.

But before I go, I wouldn’t mind evening out the scales a little bit, adding a little producing yin to go with my consuming yang. Leave my mark on the world, so to speak.

Alas, writing may be the only skill (such as it is) I possess that will allow me to do that, so starting this blog to get back into the habit of writing was step one in what I hoped would be a committed attempt to do some honest-to-god producing.

And it was with a similar intention that I enrolled last month in a fiction writing course. I was a bit skeptical that it would be a) good or b) helpful, but my first class was Thursday night, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

When I first realized who the teacher was, I feared for the worst. He looked like a kid (am I that old that I’m now using this phrase in a negative manner??). He may have rambled a bit at times, but overall he was poised, funny, intelligent, knowledgeable, and his thoughts were organized, his initial lessons insightful.

That’s not to say I’ve discarded all reservations. It’s clear a lot of the value from the class will come through sharing work with other students and hearing their critiques, and I’m not quite sure how well that’s going to go.

The students are certainly a motley bunch, just the kind of people you’d expect to encounter in a relatively inexpensive adult writing class. You have the one-time teacher pets who love hearing the sound of their own voice and can’t stop interrupting (or wait, was that me?). You have those wannabe professional critics who love expressing their displeasure at a piece of literature even when that’s not the point of the exercise. And you have those people who just seem a bit off, in a way you can’t exactly place, but that you worry may involve an extensive criminal record highlighted by repeated stalking convictions. But now I’m being glib and obnoxious. I actually liked most everyone, and I’m excited to see how the class goes.

My favorite part of the class were the two writing exercises. Both times after the teacher gave us our assignment, I totally panicked, worried that I wouldn’t think of anything to write in the allotted 10 minutes. But eventually the words started flowing, and I ended up fairly proud of the results, especially given the time constraints. It was the first time in a long time that I could see myself taking this journey somewhere interesting.

This little rush of confidence will surely fade, but all I know is that for a while, I was doing some honest-to-god producing … and it felt pretty good.

P.S. I was too shy to share the work in class, so I figure I’ll give myself a blog-writing break and post the exercises this weekend on the site. Here’s exercise #1 and here’s exercise #2.


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