On growing up and becoming jaded

When you’re creative and in college (and possibly even earlier than that), you’re filled with enthusiasm, optimism and ideas. Ideas that you believe to be the most important things in the world. At a certain point, the optimism fades, the enthusiasm fades, and what’s left is bitterness. We’re told that this is called “growing up” and that this is what you just need to accept.

Get used to failure

When I was in high school, I was active in theatre. I was in all the school plays from my Freshman year on and I was good. My Drama teacher was impressed and encouraged me to continue. She even got me a book of Shakespeare quotes as a graduation present because of the several Shakespeare competitions I participated in. She also left me with a gift of another sort. As a form of parting advice in pursuing theatre in the future she told me to “get used to failure”.

I know this was a matter of just preparing me for the inevitable. But when I went on to the City College of San Francisco right after high school, and I auditioned for a musical, I was intimidated by all the other performers bringing a piece of music with them as compared with my really nervous rendition of “Happy Birthday”. That’s it, then, I decided. It didn’t matter how good I was in high school, this was another level that I just couldn’t compete on. And it wasn’t until a friend wrote an adaptation of William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell my senior year at college and invited me to act in it that I set foot on a stage again.

Similarly, in high school, I wanted to be a writer. And I was pretty good at that, too. Enough so that something I wrote so disturbed my AP English teacher that he had a talk with me afterward about what was in it to make sure I wasn’t, you know, crazy or anything. “This is really good,” he told me, “I just wanted to make sure it’s all fiction.”

My dad had had dreams once, too. He wrote, and he wanted to be on the radio. His plan was to study broadcasting in southern California. Then I came along and he went to night school, worked graveyard shifts at the grocery store, and is now in Human Resources — not exactly the original plan. Like my Drama teacher, he was skeptical of “making it” as a writer, and encouraged me to think and plan realistically about my future, telling me that almost no one ever actually makes it as a writer.

And so it goes. It’s similar to the “scale it down a bit” joke Eddie Izzard does in Dress to Kill.

And, you know, unfortunately for me, all the things I wanted to do didn’t involve sitting in an office in front of a computer or working in a store or becoming a doctor or a lawyer, and I wanted to do all of them — writer, musician, actor, designer. When I was in high school, “entrepreneur” was not a job title — certainly not a realistic one.

Faking it

Several times this last year, I’ve come across variations on this advice: “Fake it until you make it”. Except it’s not really “fake it until you make it”, it’s (in the words of Amy Cuddy) “fake it until you become it”. This is illustrated in Amy’s TED talk and the story of Biz Stone (co-founder of Twitter) which was published in the 20th anniversary issue of Wired.

In both cases, they “faked it” until they started to believe their own hype and it became a part of them, and through that, became successful.

But why is faking it necessary? We’re so screwed up that we squash our dreams before we have an opportunity to pursue them. And it’s the people who continue to dream that we put on a pedestal and call visionaries. Because no one told them “get used to failure”.

Growing up shouldn’t mean forgetting to dream

I’m tired of being jaded.

I’m never going to fit into a cubicle. If I can’t believe in what I’m doing, certainly no one else will. I call for radical optimism. I call for a return to the enthusiasm that was so ingrained before we had to deal with “the real world”.

More than anything else, though, I call for an immediate halt on telling our kids ridiculous things like “get used to failure”. Maybe that wouldn’t have made a difference for me, but maybe it would have. I’ll never know. But that it wasn’t one person who said it, and instead was the overall, prevailing theme of what it means to “grow up” and go out into the “real world” that makes it so harmful. Instead, I say fuck failure.

Do it anyway.

Slow progress

A while ago I wrote about slowing down.  What could be slower than a few days camping in the desert?  No internet, the phones died our second night there, nothing to actively distract or divert.  In my last post, I wrote that I hoped the process of slowing down my internet (and media) consumption would spark some creative juices.  Well, this post is to say that it worked.

While we were there, I started developing an idea for a story unlike any other story I’ve ever tried to write.  I’ve always written contemporary, urban fiction or else sci-fi tinged stories — this would be a fantasy story/novel/whatever.  I have a lot of ideas going into it that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in most fiction, let alone fantasy stories.  And it features a character I know I can write about because it’s based on someone about as near and dear to me as anyone can be without being me — my wife.  It’s still pretty rough, and I’m just getting started, but I’m pretty excited and I’ve been making it a point to write at least a little each day.

On a related note, here’s another article about the Slow Web movement, courtesy of @photomatt’s blog.  The Slow Web, Jack Cheng.

Programmatic poetry

I was working on a WordPress plugin today that will allow users/developers to stop a javascript from running on a particular page.  That doesn’t sound very exciting, but it got me thinking about the WordPress adage “code is poetry”.  (Blame this on my recent initiative for going slow — I had this idea when I was taking the dog outside…)  I was thinking about the thought process behind that, about how good, semantic code should have a flow and be easy to read and understand.  The tabs and spaces certainly hint at poetry, but what if you took that a step further?

This led me to an interesting idea (hark!): what if you actually wrote poetry like code?  What if you wrote a story/novel like code?  Here’s my line of thinking…

There is a flow to writing code.  Often times it’s written in a quasi-stream-of-consciousness style as you add new functions as you think of them and are testing your program.  You’ll write a function that will tie into another function and call another function.  There are variables that come in and out of different functions and perform different actions.  When the code is complete, you have a finished product that can be executed and enjoyed.  There are parallels in storytelling.  Functions are storytelling elements — plot arcs, story lines, relationships — that tie into other functions (plot arcs, story lines, etc) and involve many different variables.  A variable in programming is a placeholder for a specific object (unit, text string, array of values) that holds a value that can be referred to later.  Variables can be static or they can be changed as new variables or values are added to them (or removed from them).  Variables, therefore, can be characters (or, possibly, a family of characters).

Here’s an example:

function story() {

    // introduce three main characters as global variables
    $tom = 'main character';
    $bill = 'friend of tom';
    $sally = 'love interest';

    function tom_flashback() {

        globals $tom, $bill, $sally;

        $sam = 'father of tom';
        $room = array($tom, $bill, $sally);

        function childhood($sam) {

            bad_stuff_happens($sam, $tom);

        }

        if ( in_array($room, $sally) ) {
            argument();
        }

        while ( $sam != 'deceased' ) {
            $memory = childhood($sam);
        }

    }

}

…and so on.  What it becomes is a dynamic story outline that can continually be added to — new characters introduced, new plot lines added — in a non-linear way.  PHP (which I’m basing this from, but you could conceivably translate this into any programming language) is read from the top down, but in execution, it can jump around.  For example, tom_flashback would happen whenever that function was actually called.  The memory of bad_stuff_happens in $tom‘s childhood only persists as long as $sam is alive.  The argument() only happens when $sam and $bill are both in the same $room with $sally, in which case it’s always the same old thing (presumably there’d be a love_triangle() plot point in there somewhere).  So you’d build out this non-linear narrative, and maybe just write out the argument() portion.  Then later you could flesh out the $memory of $tom‘s childhood().

As a user, you’re typically unaware of the programming language under the hood, so none of this pseudocode would ever manifest in any way into the actual story.  When you go to finalize your story, you would piece together these different functions based on how they actually execute (e.g. the function is called), but when you’re writing it, you might write from the top down.

I’m interested in this idea because it’s absurdly nerdy and also because it is an actually feasible and functional method for outlining a story that could be as epic or as minor as you want it to be (but it seems like it would lend itself better to the epic side of things).  It also would allow you to focus on scenes rather than trying to conceptualize the entire story, so you could really just worry about certain parts and then piece them together later (when all the “functions” were written).  The only prerequisite, of course, is that you’re familiar enough with coding that you could write pseudocode all day long like the above.  Syntax errors don’t really matter, of course, and no one (other than yourself) is going to know if you never finished that bad_stuff_happens function, but the beauty is that you could continue to add to the “code” and just call that particular function much later in the story().

Anyway, that’s my brilliant new idea for a writing method.  I’d be interested in anyone’s reactions or suggestions.  I may or may not start using this for my own writing.

Post a Week 2011: Blogging year in review

This year, I participated in WordPress.com’s Post a Week Challenge.  Well, how’d I do?

I was using Joost de Valk‘s Blog Metrics plugin, but that only tells you how you’re doing overall and how you’ve done in the last 30 days and, while I could have logged how many posts there were on January 1 and compared it against how many there were on December 31, I, uh, didn’t.  So, instead, I forked his plugin and modified it to use a ‘year’ query instead of a ‘month’ query.  It seems to have done the trick, although the results are a bit inconsistent…

According to Blog Metrics, I’ve published 200 posts this year.  This is across all blogs/sites (not including the super-secret blog I started over the summer) and also includes 3 posts by my wife on our kidsblog.  When I went through the posts and manually added them up, I got 196, so, we’ll say that I published 193 posts over the last year and assume that maybe the Blog Metrics plugin is including posts in the trash or something like that.

77 of those posts came from this blog (which covers the 52 I would have needed to create to “pass” the Post a Week challenge), and 62 came from my Tumblr blog (which aren’t really posts, so we could, feasibly subtract those from the total, but, according to the rules of the Post a Week challenge, photo blogs/posts still count, so we’ll include that stuff).

This is still quite a bit higher than I expected.  Let’s look at what I wrote about in the last year. I:

…and that’s not including stuff that I was writing about on my WordPress theme development site, web design studio site, or netlabel site.  So, I guess that does count for quite a bit.

Next year, I plan on not being subscribed to the Post a Day updates, and doing much of the same sorts of stuff I did this year.  For anyone who stuck with this blog this year, despite it’s complete lack of focus in any one particular area, thanks for hanging around, see you next year.