Truth, Silence, Peace

Truth

I’m always impressed when people younger than I am catch on to a truth that took me many more years to figure out.

My sister-in-law stayed over on Sunday night and I dropped her off at college Monday morning on my way to work. She’s a very talented artist, and a lover of snapchat. Usually when she comes over, we watch a movie and adhere to the dual-screen-phenomenon — because our attention spans are so short now in America that we need to be watching a movie while surfing the web like mindless-vegetables. But this time, something was different.

I noticed my sister-in-law was not buried in her phone, but instead she was actively conversing, paying close attention to us, and helping us while we cooked dinner, carried plates onto the porch. And then something else happened. She started doing dishes.

Traditionally in my house, dishes are my job. My wife handles much of the other cleaning, but she severely hates dishes and bathrooms, so I’m charged with these less-likable tasks in exchange for a cleaner house. When I asked my SIL why she was doing dishes, she simply responded “It’s keeping me distracted.” It wasn’t until after dinner, when she carried things inside that I realized she hadn’t really been on her phone at all tonight.

It struck me as odd. Not because my sister in law is normally unkind (quite the opposite actually) but because I had never known her to pay much attention to her phone usage.

In the morning, I woke up to a clean sink and I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to ask, “So what’s with the phone? Did it break or something?”

And she said something truly beautiful, a truth that I didn’t understand at 18, and one that I still struggle with now.

“I just realized I rely on it too much. I’m trying to rely on it less. I get caught up in the noise.”

And she was right. It’s noise. And I don’t mean just audible noise, but visual noise and attention grabbing noise. Now if you frequent this blog, you’ve heard me rant about cell phones before. But what I took away from this was something different.

She summed up what I hadn’t been able to put my finger on before.

It was too noisy.

 

Silence

I was reading a scientific study a few years ago that talked about a guy who recorded silence.

He’d go out to some location, a grassy hill or a forest, and he’d hit record. Then he’d splice together every moment he could capture with an absense of sound. No crickets. No birds. No wind. And he’d splice that all together to record an hour of silence.

The first time he did it was in a major city in the 1970’s. It took him twelve hours to record his one hour of silence.

And then in 2010 he tried it again. It took 386 hours to record 1 hour of silence. That’s 16 days straight. Half a month. To record an hour of silence.

It’s mind-blowing, really. And that’s only the audio noise. We’re not taking into account the rest of the noise, the visual lights and flashing signs and everything else in the whole world reaching for our attention.

American’s don’t know the first thing about peace. We just don’t. We couldn’t identify peace in a lineup. We don’t have his cell phone number. And if he doesn’t have a number, he must not exist right?

When my sister-in-law made an active choice to cut out just a little bit of the noise in her life, she found herself in a position to help people. It was as if she was aware of things she wouldn’t have noticed before, like dishes in the sink. Or how hard my wife was working on dinner. And the funny thing was, when she invited that sliver of peace and quiet into her life, it benefitted mine. Directly.

She gave me the gift of peace.

 

Peace

Now I know a few of you are thinking this is some far out stuff. And I don’t want to mislead you. I’m a deeply religious person, but right now — this is just some straightforward logic.

I don’t mean “she gave me the gift of peace” like some kind of spiritual present, like she had some power to bestow upon me a mantle of enlightenment. I mean quite literally, she gave me an opportunity to sit down and relax.

When we meet people where they are, and we lighten their burdens by ignoring the noise, we’re not just helping them out in a bind. We’re freeing them, in a literal sense, from something that bound them before that moment.

I was free to smoke a cigar on the porch without the weight of the dishes hanging over my head. I was free to catch up on some reading. I was free to sit in silence and think or pray for a while. And then it hit me.

I want to be more like that. I want to be someone who makes the burden lighter for others. I want to be the kind of guy who does someone elses dishes — who drives out of the way to help someone — who changes his schedule and complicates his life to do something good for someone else.

I want to give people peace. Not in some metaphysical or supernatural way. I want to literally do nice things for people so that other people can take a breath. So that they can sit down and sigh. So that they can catch a moment of silence.

That’s who I want to be.

Lean In – Dealing with Bad Critique Partners

Lean In

When I was growing up, I played hockey.

Being a true-bred Minnesotan, I played hockey when I was happy, when I was sick, when I was throwing up, when I was angry, when it was too cold, when it was too warm, when I couldn’t feel my toes, and when I was bleeding after getting a stick to the helmet.

Because that’s how hockey is played.

When the going gets tough, the tough gets going. That’s what my dad used to say. He was full of old addages like this one. Quippy puns that told simple and straightforward truths.

You gotta lean in.

Unfortunately, in hockey, sometimes you have to really lean in.

There was a guy a year older than me who was always on my hockey team every other year. The kid had it out for me. He picked on me constantly. Coaches would say something to him while I tried not to let it bother me. I didn’t talk to my parents about it or to my coaches about it, because you lean in when you play hockey, right? If I had, it just would have made me more of a target. Well eventually, the natural order of male-ness within me took over, and I lost my mind as he took slap shots at the back of my legs. Hockey players don’t have padding in the back of the leg.

So nearly ten years of bullying, being pushed around, and picked on finally culminated in a single striking blow to my left calf, and I lost it. I turned on him, skating and screaming while everyone else just stood there staring at me, a kid who never loses his temper. I broke my stick over his face mask and threw him up against the boards, my eyes locked on his, and I told him to never do that again. And then I skated off the ice, took of my pads and went home, ten minutes into a three hour practice.

My coach never said a word to me about it. And that kid never picked on me again.

 

A Bad Critique Partner

The lifespan of a critique partner is often times pretty similar to my hockey overload in high school.

You begin your life as a crit partner, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, with high hopes and expectations.

The average author gets enough rejection letters to create their own encyclopedia set before landing on the right agent. But in the beginning, some small part of you dreams about how quickly you’ll be collecting your first royalty check, or whether James Franco will be free to star in your movie adaptation. You’re not dilusional, just excited about the possibilities.

So you send your manuscript out for review and get some great and honest feedback. And then it’s time to return the favor.

At first it’s easy. You read your crit partners manuscript and find good issues to bring up. You’re honest but not cruel. But over time, as the months pass and you get more rejection letters and send out a second book and get more rejection letters, something begins to change. All of the sudden, the little things start to bug you. Perhaps ending a sentence in a preposition. Or non-active sentences. Or maybe opening lines that just aren’t very strong or compelling.

And the more you critique, the more queries you send out and rejections you recieve, the more your hope can sometimes turn into anger.

Until you find yourself snapping anytime you see anything that breaks “the rules” of writing.

Because the rules are important. Because you learned the rules, and the rules will save you. They are what stands between you and getting published. And you’ll be darned if you’ll let someone else break them.

And you’re part right. The rules, they are important. But they’re not constant. Not absolute.

But the next thing you know, you’re telling someone that they shouldn’t have a prologue because editors and agents hate it — only your friend happens to actually need one. Or you’re telling someone to show instead of tell, when somehow they’re managing to tell with beauty and a unique voice. But the rules are the rules, and so you snap and start turning vicious, and you become the very thing you hated.

You become a writing robot.

You become “that guy/gal.” The bitter critique partner.

The guy who’s worked in the same job for far too long. Bad attitude Barry.

A terrible fate.

Now, if you haven’t yet become that guy or gal, that’s good. But if you’re not that guy/gal, then certainly you know who I’m talking about.

And man have they lost it.

 

The Best of a Bad Situation

But the truth — the truth is that guy or gal was created by being bullied and rejected and frustrated over a long period of time. They didn’t just appear in their vicious state.

They were made.

I’ve got a ‘that guy’ in my critique group. He almost drove me out.

For a month and a half I’ve teetered on the edge of leaving, despite the other fantastic people who are participating in my group. I reached out to some of these fantastic people and talked to them about it, and their responses were enlightening.

They said that our terrible critique partner friend wasn’t always such a wolf. He didn’t used to tear people to shreds for using a ‘was’ instead of the active counterpart. He didn’t used to hate all prologues. He used to give good advice.

And that’s why his transformation had become so unsettling to them. Even they were frustrated by his recent tyraids.

Maybe this critique partner isn’t the problem.

Maybe I am.

Maybe I shouldn’t be taking him so seriously, or perhaps just vaporizing his emails after informing him that he shouldn’t trouble himself with reviewing further chapters of my novel.

In the internet age, it’s too easy to vaporize the enemy.

But I think it’s equally important to not villanize that guy/gal. They are probably a little more than frustrated with their situation. They probably forgot that they too were once wide-eyed and bushy tailed, and didn’t know the difference between showing and telling or when to use each. Maybe they’re trying to prove something to someone else or to themselves and they’re just not doing it in the best way.

Because in the end, I still feel bad for losing my cool on that ice rink. Sure, it may have been justified. But I’d bet money that I hit a kid in the face with a stick who was just as hurt and frustrated as I was. He just didn’t know how to show it. And my reaction probably didn’t help him. It probably reinforced the same idea he learned throughout his whole life.

So maybe I don’t know how to deal with a bad critique partner.

Maybe I’m still figuring it out as I go.

But I do know that people aren’t born in a vacuum. And I do know that the right way isn’t always the way that leads to shaming someone else — even when they deserve it.

 

Failing Well – Overcoming That Constant Feeling of Not-Good-Enough

The Monstrous Self-Imposed Bar of Success

Failure is inevitable.

It happens to everyone.

It’s as sure to occur as rain and breathing, and stopping it is sort of like stopping clouds from moving or crushing coal into diamonds with your bare hands.

For the last few mornings I’ve felt its weight. You see, I made a habit — a good habit. I wake up every day at 5am, head to a local coffee shop and write or edit for two hours before work. Things were going swimmingly, and I got a lot done for the first two months, but a little over a week ago I finished the project that was consuming me for the last two years. And now for two weeks, ten sessions and fourty cups of coffee, I’ve written maybe twelve words.

I can’t decide how to move forward, and I can’t help but feeling like a failure every single time I go through the motions of waking up, heading to the coffee shop, and staring at a screen for two hours. It’s not like its my job. Writing is something I do because I like it, one of my outlets for artistic creativity. And yet I’m falling short of my meaningless self-imposed bar of excellence.

Like Dr. Frankenstien, I’ve created a monster, and that monster is me.

 

 

 

 

Hi, My Name Is Brian – And I Am A ______

Fill in the blank. I know you’ve got one too.

Ball Dropper. Over-Promiser. Self-Criticizer. Poor Executer.

My personal favorite is the last one. I do it all the time. Establish a cool idea, something big and exciting, and then get the machine running. I hype up my audience, get my team put together, maybe even have an initial meeting… and then – BANG. I look up at the enormous mountain of work ahead, and I recalculate the data.

“Fourteen miles at a seventy degree incline… and I didn’t even bring shoes… This is NOT a mountain I want to climb. Anyone up for carrying me?”

This is a classic poor-executer. And I wish I could tell you I did it all the time. It’d be easier that way, to always and consistently run from mountains. But no. Instead I succeed at executing a plan MOST of the time. In fact, I almost always reach the peak, which makes all those times when I don’t execute the plan that much more soul-crushing.

No matter what I do to better position myself – trying to only take on what I can handle – to only create plans for things that are humanly possible – it still happens. I still fail once in a while.

We all have our cross to bear.

But any good Catholic (or Christian in general for that matter) can tell you a thing or two about what happens next. There’s a confessional, an opportunity to be forgiven and to accept the forgiveness yourself, and then you end up rinsing and repeating. Over and over.

Fail. Confess. Forgive. Try Better. Fail. Confess. Forgive.

But the point of this process is not failure and redemption. As I mentioned above, failure is inevitable. The point of this process is learning how to fail well.

That’s right.

Because there is a difference between failing and failing well.

 

 

How to Fail Well

 

I love playing games with my nephews.

I’ve got a boatload of them, being the youngest of four with three older sisters, with a 10 year gap. Apparently after none of us killed one another growing up, we all decided big families were cool.

I remember what it felt like to be the youngest.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t good at it. I hated being left out and would generally get angry and go do my own thing instead. But one of my nephews, the youngest one, he was cut from a different cloth.

He’s three years old, four inches tall and maybe ten pounds soaking wet. I’ve caught fish bigger than my three year old nephew.

So it should come as no surprise that when I brought the 5 year old, the 7 year old and the 8 year old into the basement to play some “tackle” football, I was hesitant to let my 3 year old nephew participate. Nonetheless, when he insisted, I put him on my team.

He got creamed at first. I tossed him the ball, he stood there wide eyed as the posse of older cousins came running, and he took about two steps before being dragged to the floor. He bumped his head, shed a tear, and to my surprise got back up to try again.

He played along for a while longer, timidly, not wanting me to pass the ball to him. I tied up the game by passing to myself and walking to the endzone, fully expecting to allow my nephews to win. They scored again as expected, and I was about to call the game when my 3 year old nephew told me he wanted to run it again. He wasn’t afraid anymore. He wasn’t done trying yet. I told everyone we were going to play one more down.

I tossed my 3 year old nephew the ball , and with a gutteral roar he ran as hard and fast as he could towards the other end of the basement. His cousins were unsure how to react to this little lion screaming and swinging his free arm while he sprinted full-boar down the hallway. They snapped out of it when he got closer, and all jumped on him but he just wouldn’t stop, barbarically forcing his way forward with an incredible force until he fell to the floor, a half inch from the touchdown line. He didn’t win the game, but he stood up and smiled like it didn’t matter.

My 3 year old nephew knows how to fail well.

Failure is inevitable.

But how we react when we fail is up to us.

We can let it crush us. We can let it stop us or control us. We can grow tired or timid or afraid and make excuses for ourselves. Or we can adjust the bar. Because maybe winning the game all of the time isn’t what matters most. Maybe getting close counts for something. Maybe waking up at 5am to go to a coffee shop and write 4 words in two hours is still worthy of a pat on the back.

It’s a starting point. It’s a position — ahead of where I was before, but behind where I want to be.

It’s a step in the right direction.

Because failing well doesn’t mean avoiding failure – it means reacting better to it. It means stepping, redefining where we are and being honest with how much further we have to go. It’s a process that doesn’t stop, never stops, can’t stop and won’t stop.

Failure is like the rain. It happens. But we can still choose to fail well.

And that’s what I aim to do.