What You Think of Yourself

I asked a friend from work whether she thought of herself as an artist, and her response surprised me.  She said no.  Maybe she would call herself efficient, smart, or interesting, but not creative.  I have to confess, that answer caught me off guard.

I like to think of myself as open-minded; I want to be open to new ideas and perspectives; I want to understand a different point of view—empathy.  But somehow I convinced myself that everyone is an artist in his own way—that everyone thinks of himself as an artist.

Part of being “open-minded,” I told myself, is accepting that everyone is a type of artist.  That seems like a complex thought, but it’s really a simple thought disguised as a complex one.  “Everyone” is an artist?  That assertion sounds too much like an absolute.  And if I’ve learned anything about absolutes, it’s that they usually don’t exist.

But wait—if I define “art” by my own terms, I can claim that everyone is an artist in some strange or wonderful way.  I can make my assertion true if I make up the rules.  The real question is do other people see themselves as artists?  I’ve been acting—unintentionally—as though other people are playing by my definition of art.

The friend I mentioned used her own definition and told she was not an artist.  Someone may have deep character or colorful experiences, she said, and still not be an artist.  She pushed it even further: someone may even have an artistic experience and not be an artist.

In her mind, to be an artist you have to create.  So if that one element is missing then you don’t qualify as an artist.  I have a different definition and I think everyone is capable of creation. We disagree, and that’s ok.

The point is, she defined “artist” and then decided that she didn’t fit the category.  That makes me think that she knows herself—maybe better than I know myself.  Don’t mistake, I still call myself an artist but I also called myself open-minded—something I can get better at.

I’ve thinking of myself as an artist for a long time—maybe I started to impose my view on others.  I’ve been surrounded by artists for years—maybe I started expecting people to respond in a certain way.  And I’ve heard plenty of immature folks call themselves creative.  It’s pretty mature to admit that you aren’t creative.

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Dear November,

I seem to be coming very close to filling up all your days—before you even begin.  Am I trying to do too much?  Let me know, if you can.

This year, I spent most of October selling off most of November.  I have to, really.  I have to plan ahead for theatre shows and major American holidays and friends visiting town.  These things can’t be planned at the last minute.  Otherwise my day job fills the hours like sand, and I find that all my opportunities have been buried.

Don’t get me wrong; I love making plans for the upcoming months.  It gives me something to anticipate and feel excited about.  Planning is great fun so long as I can change the plans at any time.  I like plans that are optional so I can stay in control.

But now the whole of November, and really December and January too, is full of plans that aren’t optional.  If I’m going to agree to do a theatre show I can’t back out later.  And if long lost friends are coming to town, I can’t tell them to come another time when it suits me better.

But now the plans are laid and I’ve got to follow through, whether I like it or not.  People are going to depend on me to follow through.  And that’s what scares me about the next month.  I made plans because I had to—otherwise I’ll miss out on what I really want.  But now the plans are locked in and I can’t back out.

So much can happen in a month, a week, a day.  So much can change.  And who knows whether I’ll want the same things when the time finally comes.  Someone wrote “the best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.”  Isn’t it true though?  These plans might not even work out in the end.

Basically, it starts to scare me when future plans get out of control.  Or rather, when I realize that things are out of control, because the future is always out of my hands.  So now, at least, there’s no more illusion that I can control anything that happens next month.

Obviously I still want to grab the opportunities now so I don’t miss out later.  But that’s all I can do.  And in the mean time I can live right now.

Sutures

Getting stitches in my fingertip was no fun.  In fact, it’s one of the more un-fun things that have happened to me recently.  Sure, losing a finger doesn’t compare to losing a leg or your mind.  And I haven’t even really “lost” the finger since this cut is only temporary.  But, in the mean time, I have a whole list of things that I can’t do normally.

If you think one finger is not terribly important then talk to typists and pianists.  In fact, the doctor asked me—jokingly—whether I had a piano concert that I would have to miss.  “No such luck,” I said.  Which is to say, if I DID have had a piano concert I might have valued my fingers more highly and been more careful.

But I wasn’t being cautious and now my fingerprint is divided in two.  I’m actually having some difficultly writing this blog post. My fingers are all mismatched on the keys; so I keep hitting the “d” instead of the “s” or the “r” instead of the “t.”  Do wirhour correcring my lerrerd rhey look like rhid.

That sentence looks like someone talking around a mouthful of marshmallows—gross.

I have to keep correcting my letters so they make sense.  And since I do most of my writing on a keyboard—blog or otherwise—I’m going to have fun trying to write in the next week.

Basically, I’ve been forced to remember how important something so small can be.  There are so many tasks that demand two hands—washing dishes, tying shoelaces, opening a bag of chips.

These are all small things; but it took me just a small second to make all those tasks so much harder.  I still remember the instant when I realized that I was going to slice my finger and there was no way to stop it.  I still remember the feel of steel under the skin.  I have a sharp picture-memory for that moment of time.

There are no do overs for an accident like this.  So honestly, I’m thankful that this was a little accident and not a big one.  When I consider how many ways I could get hurt in one day it should make me terrified, but it doesn’t.

Because I never had control over whether I was safe or unsafe—God did.  And I’m totally convinced that God doesn’t need reminding about how important something so small can be.

Can’t Not

The world wants to tell me that I can’t afford to write for a living.  When, in fact, I can’t afford not to write.  Which is why I’m posting this in the morning before I head to work.  (My job situation did develop, but I’ll talk about that some other time).  I’m working on a story too, which I’ll have to do between jobs this weekend because I can’t afford not to write.

Of course my writing doesn’t pay the bills now—so literally I can afford not to write.  But I need to write like humans need relationships—which we do.  Maybe you could cut yourself off from human interaction and be quite happy at first.  I do treasure my quiet, alone time.

But after many days of living that way I think you’d find that you’re missing something.  Obviously you wouldn’t die—I wouldn’t die—but I believe that anyone who tries total seclusion will lose part of himself.  You can’t fully understand yourself apart from other people.

In that way!  In that way I have a need to write “stuff.”

Did you know that humans can survive about three weeks without food?  BUT, that’s really extreme so don’t try it at home unless you are Gandhi.  On the other hand, you or I could survive several months of not eating enough food.  It wouldn’t kill you, but eventually you’ll figure out that something is wrong when your body doesn’t function properly.

When I stop writing because I’m busy or distracted, I know something is not quite right—like a slow-burning appetite that never gets sated.  And hunger always wins in the end—one way or the other.

Alternately, the record for intentionally going without sleep is about two hundred and sixty-four hours.  Though, college students and young parents can go for years without getting enough sleep.  And neither they nor you would die, hallucinate, or implode—mostly.  But years without enough sleep can still drain the energy out of you like a slow dripping faucet.

Eating, sleeping—if you’re not getting enough you’ll feel it after a while.  And you don’t usually have to sit down and consider your symptoms to figure out what you need.  Exhaustion knows what it wants.  And hunger knows what it wants.  And a writer who’s not writing (an artist who’s not arting?) knows what she wants.

That is my best evidence that I’m supposed to be a writer—and my greatest reassurance to keep on writing.  Because I can’t stop writing for long before I want it like a glass of cold water on a hot night.

The Problem of Work

I had a conversation with my roommate the other day: he offered to give me some of his workload since he’s always so busy.  And I can’t find enough to do right now.  Of course, he was joking; he’s an accountant and I’m, well, not.  But I can understand why that would cross his mind—there is such a thing as TOO much to do.

And me—I’m stuck with too little to do.  I have plenty of things to say about searching for a job—and how boring that can be.

Boring—maybe that’s not the right word.  Searching for a job is repetitive—and so are many jobs.  But, unlike a real job, I can apply for work all day long and still have no return on my efforts.  It’s not all bad; I get to work some fun temp jobs.  But mostly I need more to do.

My roommate knows this.  I think he understands because his previous job gave him a peevishly small and simple workload.
And at about that point in the conversation, I realized that both of us have a problem, but the solution to that problem is not to change places.  If you’ve ever read or watched Freaky Friday, you know that trading problems does not solve anything.

I remember what it was like to be busy—then the only thing I wanted was free time.  Now I have too much free time, and all I want is to be busy.  I should make myself a little note that says “You asked for it,” and sign my name, and read it when I get busy.

That conversation got me thinking.  Do we have to be stuck with one problem or the other?  Obviously we can look for a “work/life balance,” but that’s a struggle even for the self-employed.  The “balance” just so easily tips one way or the other.

Instead, take the best of both worlds.  Do something for money that you would do for leisure, anyway.  I know I’m not coming up with something new here—this is an old argument.  The question is not can you reach this ideal but should you?  Should you try and mix work and pleasure and risk losing the joy in what you do?

I don’t know the answer.  And I don’t think the answer is the same for everyone.  I do know that I don’t want to be busy just because I’m bored now—that just serves me a new problem.  The right thing is not usually the opposite of the wrong thing, but something different all together.

Unattached

Sometimes, I have to write about something that no one wants to talk about.  And I won’t say that I take any pleasure in it, but some things need to be said.  There’s a real problem under the surface, and you may be the next one to deal with it.

Maybe you relate to the following scenario.  You see a new email in your inbox—from a friend or loved one perhaps—someone you trust.  You open it up, not realizing what you’re getting into.  The message in the email doesn’t matter; that will change from case to case.  What matters is that the email will make promises—promises of an attachment.

The email might claim to have an attached resume, or project, or heartfelt letter.  But when you scroll down to the bottom, that attachment just isn’t there.

Yes, I’m talking about the epidemic of unattached email attachments.  If you’ve been the victim of the unattached attachment, you know the ghastly feeling of emptiness when you get to the end of the email.  Remember, there are others out there just like you—myself included.

I’ve had people send me short emails with only one sentence like, “here’s that schedule you asked for,” or “would you look over this paper for me?”  And the promised attachments are just not there.  I’m always tempted to let it go, to pretend the attachment is there so I don’t risk my friendship.  But I can’t bring myself to ignore what’s (not) right there in front of me—especially from people I care about.

Now, if you have never been the victim of an unattached attachment, don’t stop listening.  Here are some things we should all do in light of the current situation:

1. Remember, not every email is unattached.  If you start to assume this, you’ll miss some different problems, like attachments that take a long time to load or a URL instead of an attachment.

2. You can’t check every email for missed attachments.  Stick to the emails that are meant for you and you’ll be far more effective.

3. If you do receive one of these emails, remember that not all email attachments are of the same importance.  Figure out what is missing before trying to fix it.

4. And finally, you can’t always fix an unattached attachment.  Sometimes you need to email many times to get the attachment you wanted.  Sometimes you will never get that attachment.  That doesn’t mean you should stop emailing—it just means that you might email for a while without any visible results.

Maybe you are the one sending these disappointing emails.  Whether you’ve sent one or a hundred of these emails, there’s still help for you.  Your emails are not what define you.  There’s still enough time left to send a second email—probably.

The problem isn’t going to go away; and in fact people are forgetting to send the attachments now more than ever.  And I think the problem has always been there, it’s just that people are more willing to talk about it since email was invented.  But even so, each of us can win a personal battle against unattached attachments.  And if even one person can make it, then there’s hope.

Snapshot (Of a Summer)

I’m looking at some photos from last summer and remembering what a strange time it was between May and September.  And, until I looked back at my pictures, I’d forgotten most of what happened—or forgotten to remember.  But—unlike memories—each picture is still crisp and specific.

My mom used to say that if we had a house fire she would save us kids first and then the photos—yes, we had genuine printed photos.  I always used to ask why she wouldn’t take the money or jewelry.  Money—you can always make more money but not more time.  And time is what pictures really represent.

Last summer is such a mixed bag of photos and memories.  I can try to divide it up into chapters—like separating the family reunion from the solar eclipse.  But even then, there are so many chapters I can hardly believe it.  Maybe I dreamed the whole thing up—except that the pictures tell the real story.

And the pictures tell a more interesting story than I could remember, because memories fade or change.  But a picture of stacked lumber in a concrete room with sawdust patterns on the floor—that is just the same as the first time I saw it.  I know why that image was important.  I know why I took that picture; so it tells a story from one sharp image.

There’s a picture of a bent cardboard target and of a blueberry smoothie and both of those tell a story.  Do they tell the story I want to tell?  Do they tell the real story?  That doesn’t really matter at this point because they are what they are: a reminder of what has happened.

A picture is not really “time.”  It only represents time.  So sometimes the pictures that survive to tell the story can only represent what really happened and spark your memory again.  And now this summer—I don’t know if I can describe one image to represent this whole summer.  Or any chapter of life.

You can try to cherry-pick one picture for a chapter of life, but is it the same one you would choose in a year?  In ten years? People try to cherry-pick; it’s called Instagram.  But the pictures you decide to keep now may not be the ones you want later because memories change while pictures stay the same.  Always.

In that way, memory is often kinder than pictures, but not as honest. People tend to remember things better than they were—and I don’t mean happier than they were.  Sometimes you want to remember yourself as the suffering servant, like when I worked as a camp counselor last year.  I would like to remember the whole experience as excruciatingly hard because that makes me the victim.

But when I see the pictures I remember my campers—huddling together on game night or running in the rain—and I remember it was worthwhile.  I have to concede that the pictures do not lie.

To Be Specific

I finished another Netflix show last week—I’m just so productive in my free time!  If I finished the show, I must have gone through the beginning and middle to get to the end.
This show ended badly, though.  I don’t mean that the story-makers made a mistake or that the show somehow flopped.  In fact, this show got my attention—enough that I had to stop texting and concentrate.  The excitement built up to a ripping climax; and yet it ended badly.  Or to be more specific, it ended at all.  I had to wonder why such a great story suddenly stopped.

I didn’t have to wonder for very long; I Googled the series.  The show was supposed to get a second season; but it was canceled.  Doesn’t that just get you insane?
I’ll never know if one guy rediscovers his shady past.  Or if the antagonist will die from his injuries.  Or whether the ex-lovers will ever quit messing around and deal with their issues. It’s all gone.  And I can either write fanfic or move on.

So I asked myself, what would each of the characters do next?  After thinking it over and imagining different scenarios, I realized that I didn’t know the answer.

I couldn’t figure out what they would do next; and that surprised me because in my mind the characters were faced with a clear problem and would tackle it head on.  But that’s really not enough.

See, each character spends the story trying to do something specific—find a loved one or steal a car to leave town.  But at the end, all of those individual actions are finished.

Now, the only thing they have to do is escape from their town.  That’s a daunting task—but it’s just so general.  No matter how vital it is for them to escape, that’s not specific enough for me to picture it.

Action that isn’t specific doesn’t make for a good sequel, or even a good story.  Just consider The Lord of the Rings.  If Tolkien had his characters “oppose Sauron” in a general sense—the story would die.  Even if Tolkien could write a book like that, it would be full of dull and repetitive actions that lead nowhere.

Instead, the action is specific: take the ring to Morder and destroy it in Mount Doom.  How?  By giving the ring to a hobbit and sending him with a small band of volunteers.  The characters have something to do that they can either fail or succeed at.  That’s a specific action—something every good story has.

Now to change a general action into a specific one, just ask “how?” (eg. how will Artemis Fowl get enough money to find his father?).  The answer to “how” will give you a specific action (eg. Artemis will extort gold from fairies).  How will Luke conquer the dark side?  By turning Darth Vader back to the light side.

Most importantly, when an action is specific it can have a cap—something that lets you know when the action is complete.  You know Sauron is finished when the ring dissolves.  You know Luke has won when Vader saves his life.  Jim and Pam get married—and you know that their specific action is complete.

Characters have to find something specific to do—otherwise the story turns into a broken record or an existential treatise, and who needs that?  It’s just that people can’t sustain a general action like “kill the batman” or “be an adult.”  It’ll make you crazy; or you’ll find something specific to do by default.

Opposites Attract

They say “opposites attract” as a way to explain why people with completely different personalities would ever date or marry.  I suppose that’s partially true.  The analogy is based on magnets, which attract the opposite pole.  But magnets only attract because they’re made out of the same stuff to begin with.

Apparently, materials that can be magnetized are called ferromagnetic—in case you wanted to know.  Such materials—like iron or lodestone—can only attract other ferromagnetic materials.  So what I mean is, magnets only attract magnets.
Whether it’s magnets, friends, or lovers—if you’re going to say opposites attract you have to compare apples to apples.

Opposite people are just not as opposed as they seem.  People have to be made of the same stuff to begin with—consciously or subconsciously.  But then, their differences can get all the attention because they stand out.

Even though the similarities are far in the majority, the differences usually get the most attention.  Perhaps it is right that a minority of difference matters more to people than a majority of similarity.  Because differences usually make the most . . . difference.  People tend to overlook the uniform or mundane—like routine or family traits.

That’s one of the reasons we have different art forms—music and drawing, writing and theatre.  Each form contributes something that other art forms can’t.  Of course, they overlap quite a bit; but that’s because they’re all made of “art” to begin with.  But it’s the differences that matter; each form compliments the others instead of just giving us more of the same.

For that matter, why do we have different genres or even different colors?  I couldn’t recognize “red” unless I had an idea about “yellow” and “blue” and all the rest.  They’re all colors, but different colors.

So yes, opposites do attract—but only if two things have enough in common already.  When comparing things like colors or people, the similarities make that possible but the differences make it beautiful.

Double-Booking

Double-booking is a big problem.  You and I can’t be in two places at once—the tragic truth of life.  So, people make mistakes.  But no one wants to have canceled plans because their friend double-booked.

When I double book and then realize that I’ve done it, I have a couple of reactions.  I could just cancel one booking and do the other.  And there are good ways to decide which person to cancel on.  Maybe one person is easier to reschedule with.  Maybe one will get sick and solve your problem.

Of course, I never spend time thinking about which booking I would rather do.  The decision is purely based on practicality and not on my own preferences.  But really, I don’t double-book people on purpose—only by accident.

Most people don’t double-book on purpose.  If anyone does, they have a problem.  But it’s like selling the same airline ticket twice: even if it was an accident you feel bad asking people to share.

Don’t try to hastily combine activities so that no one gets left out.  That just looks tacky—if it’s even possible.  The activities may be incompatible after all.  Or the people may be incompatible—like two friends who recently sued one another.  You really need to pick one or the other.

You can’t be in two places at once—though wouldn’t it be nice to do two things you love at the same time.  But time has always been scarcer than money.  After all, you can make more money.

That’s the problem with having more than one thing you love to do—sometimes you have to choose.  Maybe that’s why some fine pianists go into law.  Or why some excellent lawyers decide to teach.

I love writing fiction, but here I am writing blog posts instead of fiction.  I love to get involved with theatre, so is it a bad thing to slow down my writing while I work on a show?  I don’t see anything wrong with that.

If I divide my time between things I love, I won’t have much time left over.  That’s not a bad thing.  And I will have less time if I decide to spit myself between two passions.  That’s the same problem we have with double-booking: time can only be spent once.

So whether I’m putting my time into writing or theatre or whatever else, my prize is that I get to be busier all the time for double-booking my life.  I don’t get to look forward to doing nothing at all.  And that’s ok because time needs to be spent—but only once.