Thursday, August 29, 2013

We Are All Impressionable Youth

Mother Goose was probably the first author who really moved me. Her themes of adventure, naughtiness, suffering, and redemption resonate through much of contemporary literature, and I believe her influence is all too unsung. Feels good to be able to give her a plug here.

My mother read me those. I also remember sitting on my father's knee listening to Kipling's 'The Elephant's Child' and my dad's own made-up stories of Sinbad the Sailor, which always seemed to involve a little girl who lost her dolly and cried in a bitter baby voice, then found her dolly in the end with the help of Sinbad. That doll showed up in the little girl's own back alley so often I can't tell you.

When I was in the first grade, my mother, age 40, decided to get a college degree and become a teacher. She enrolled in Eastern Michigan University and studied English literature and composition, and that was one of the signal events in my life. Suddenly, at the very time I was learning to read, new and amazing books rushed into the house. One was a gigantic anthology of children's literature that pinned my thighs to the couch like a sack of concrete as it took me to marvelous territories. I shuddered at the Norse myth of the brave Balder and the horrible Loki,

who fashioned his arrow from the Kryptonitic holly, the only plant that failed to take the oath of benignity at Balder's birth. My heart was stirred by the cheerful inventiveness of the Borrowers, and by the delicious vengefulness of Hansel and Gretel.

Man, I thought, if only I had the guts to shove Mrs. [neighbor's name redacted] into her own red-hot oven! I read of the selflessness of the kids who wanted the Wheel on the School so the lucky stork could nest there, and realized with an unpleasant feeling that if I were one of those kids, I probably wouldn't care all that much about the damn wheel, frankly.

The act of reading, much moreso than going to catechism or enduring a scolding, was the thing that first got me to consciously examine my own moral code. I looked within myself and what did I find? Quite a selfish little girl! In the hard years since, I've achieved spotty success at rationalizing and camouflaging—and at times even overcoming!—that self-interest. I keep reading in order to gain greater expertise.
My mother did in fact graduate from college, then taught high school English for ten years. Books flowed through our house. I remember the books I read way too early (Deliverance stands out), and the books I should have read at a youngish age but didn't bother to (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, one). From that, I guess I learned that a sensational story beats a sensitive one almost every time. Think back to Loki.

Life isn't fair, books teach us. But what a gift it is, they also teach us! Thanks, Mom and Dad, for having unprotected sex on New Year's Eve of 19-cough-cough!

Which stories inspired the little you? Which stories do you wish you had read at a younger age?

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[Image note: A rendering of Loki, harvested from Wikipedia Commons.]

Thursday, August 22, 2013

How to Remember Better

I try to tell this story before every talk I give, but if there's a time crunch I leave it out. I should probably never leave it out, since it's one of the most important lessons on remembering I ever learned:

Years ago I had the opportunity to attend classes for a day at Harvard Law School. A friend of mine was a student there, and she invited me for a visit. So we're at the morning lecture in this huge amphitheater, we're sitting at these long, curved wooden desks set in tiers, exactly like you've seen in the movies. Nobody had a laptop or a tablet because laptops hadn't been invented yet, let alone digital tablets.

The professor is talking rapidly, giving information, legal theory, opinions, all this data. And sometimes she's calling on students, and they're answering, and all this good perspective is happening on the data, and I realize that the students are just sitting there.

I opened my notebook and wrote, "Why isn't anybody taking notes?" and slid it over to my friend. She wrote back, "You listen." Underlined.

And it was like, donngg. Epiphany.

I remembered back to my first job as a newspaper reporter. Sometimes a source would talk so fast you couldn't write it all down, even in the rudimentary shorthand most of us used. Since exact quotes were important, especially if the person was a public official, I'd shift from writing mode to

listening mode. (The picture is supposed to suggest 'listening' because of the headphones. Best I can do right now.) I remember feeling my attention sharpening, as my brain focused on absorption. Then I'd race off as soon as the interview was over and write down whatever relevant words might have escaped my pen.

Sitting in that Harvard classroom, I realized that when you're taking notes, it's almost like you're too busy writing words to really absorb what's being said. Since then, I take far fewer notes in any listening / learning situation, and guess what? Right! I retain more. Usually I make notes afterward, and that reinforces my recall.

So, for the next class, workshop, or conference session you attend, try doing the same. Relax, listen, and write half a page of notes later—just the main highlights. Let me know how it works for you, OK?

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

It's Like a Poem, Dude

There's this guy who gets up every morning and goes outside, his favorite place. He feels a strong compulsion to make patterns out of natural things: twigs, stones, flower petals, busted-up ice. His name is Andy Goldsworthy, and he's a famous artist, and he's made art all over the world. Some of it is totally ephemeral—it'll be resorbed by nature in a day or a week—and some of it would be considered 'permanent': carefully built dry-stone walls, for instance.

But of course, the whole point is that nothing's permanent, everything changes, everything that comes will someday go.

So why make anything? Why do anything?

Because eternity is to be found in any honest activity, be it lining up fern stems in a spiral pattern that almost makes you cry to behold it, or running a dry-cleaners in a strip plaza.

A few years ago, Goldsworthy was quoted in Time: "Right in front of your face is the stuff you choose to ignore."

A contrast to Andy Goldsworthy, yet totally heroically similar, is Mark Borchardt, working-class auteur best known as the subject of the 1999 documentary "American Movie: The Making of Northwestern." He's a guy who wanted to make a movie, not just any movie, but his firm vision of a movie.

The thing is, Mark appears to have zero artistic pretensions. He didn't go to film school, he didn't go to Hollywood and work his way up, he just did what he had to do right where he was, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with whatever the hell sparse money and resources he could scrape up. Instead of finishing "Northwestern," he wound up making a horror short called "Coven" (which he pronounced "Coe-ven").

"American Movie," won a big prize at Sundance and called lots of attention to Mark, and since then he's been a minor celebrity, dipping in and out of public view, slowly working on another picture.

"Coven" essentially sucks, but that's beside the point. Deep at Mark's core lies a bluntly heroic artist.

Mark on inspiration:

"I don't care about making a movie, but I care about making a movie that's spiritually satisfying."

On artistic integrity:

"It's like a poem, dude: 'My girlfriend punched me in my right eye, broke the glass coffee table.' That can't be altered. No one co-writes that with you."

On achievement:

"I've always been my own worst enemy, and that's a hell of a fight."

Andy and Mark are guys I've learned a lot from.

[photo info: Andy Goldsworthy's Arch at Goodwood, image harvested from Wikipedia Commons]

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Thursday, August 8, 2013

You've Done More Than You Think

What's the difference between these two groups of statements:

Group 1:

"I ran a marathon."

"I traveled to 6 countries on my vacation."

"I got tenure."

"I earned more this year than last."

Group 2:

"I built an app."

"I photographed the family reunion."

"I served soup at the mission."

"I wrote a book."

The things in Group 1 are accomplishments. The things in Group 2 are contributions.

Most accomplishments enrich the self.

But most contributions enrich others first, the self second.

This distinction is, to be sure, a bit of a blunt instrument; certainly some accomplishments can prepare you to make contributions. If you learn to fish, you can teach someone to fish. If you climb a mountain, the confidence you gain can be an inspiration to others.

But I say to you: The next time you get down on yourself, feeling you haven't accomplished enough in life, stop and consider your contributions. Then see how you feel.

And let that guide you going forward, whether you're prioritizing today's to-do list or setting goals for the rest of your life.

[Photo info: I took this picture in New York City in April, 2013.]

I'd love to hear your thoughts on accomplishments vs. contributions. To post something, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Become a Better Writer in One Second

This is real.

The next time you're writing, whether longhand or on the keyboard, focus for one second on your jaw. Relax it. Keep writing. Let your jaw stay loose.

Your writing, and your stream of thought, will flow better. You'll feel more grounded.

I came upon this while researching athletic performance. Evidently it's a well-kept secret among athletes that if, instead of trying to combat tension in your whole body, you focus simply on loosening your jaw, you achieve the same result more easily. Because as soon as you release tension from your jaw muscles—which seem to be the first to get tight when we're anxious about what we're doing—the head, neck, and the rest of the body naturally follow.

Professional-level singers and actors employ this technique all the time. That stands to reason, but I never thought it could apply to anything else until I learned that tuned-in athletes do it too.

I tried it while writing and it works. It's astonishing how well it works, and it's dismaying to find tension creeping back after mere seconds or minutes. A radical lesson in control and receptivity, as well as an opportunity for improving one's body awareness.

Now you try it. How goes it?

[Photo info: I took this picture at Sara Bay Country Club in Sarasota, Florida.]

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