Lessons From Books: Meditations By Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius is regarded as one of the three most prominent Stoic philosophers. After his death, his personal journal was made public, in which he recounted the many life lessons and self-affirmations that he learned. One of the unique aspects of the book is its repetitiveness. Throughout the book, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself of the different tenants of Stoic philosophy and this act of reminding becomes a lesson: As human beings, we need constant reminders in order to stay on the right path.

This post covers the second book out of the twelve books, which comprise Meditations.

Lessons

Control Your Pleasures

You are old; don’t then let the directing mind of yours be enslaved any longer — no more jerking to the strings of selfish impulse, no more disquiet at your present or suspicion of your future fate

Don’t allow yourself to be moved by pleasure. Instead, give authority to your directing mind, which is reason. Your actions and choices should be reason-based. It is not reasonable to lament your past or fear your future. We should instead focus the directing mind on present actions. 

On Procrastination

Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned to you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.

One solution to procrastination is to remind yourself of two things: first, the previous broken promises, and second, the limitation of time. A reminder of previous promises creates a feeling of guilt and also shows you that you’ve been down this path before and different action is required. While the reminder of time creates a sense of urgency. Time does not stop. Opportunities do not wait. The more you wait, the less likely it is that you will accomplish that task.

Importance of a Focused Aim

Every hour of the day give vigorous attention, as a Roman and as a man, to the performance of the task in hand with precise analysis, with unaffected dignity, with human sympathy, with dispassionate justice — and to vacating your mind from all its other thoughts. And you will achieve this vacation if you perform each action as if it were the last of your life; freed, that is, from all lack of aim, from all passion-led deviation from the ordinance of reason, from pretense, from love of self, from dissatisfaction with what fate has dealt you.

This is a solution to the wandering mind. Perform each task as if it were your last. Choices and decisions and to-do lists overwhelm you, and this leads to inaction. But when you push all that noise out of your head and focus on the task at hand as if it’s the only task that matters. This way, you also exercise an important muscle: the ability to focus and work deeply. 

Step by step, one focused session at a time, one task at a time, that’s the secret to progress.

You Are Your Worst Enemy

Self-harm, my soul, you are doing self-harm: and you will have no more opportunity for self-respect.

A painful truth can be the realization that you are responsible for all the things that have gone wrong in your life. Your thoughts, inaction, behaviours, choices, attitudes reflect the current state you are in. When you commit bad actions which you have deemed to be wrong, then you lose a level of respect for yourself. It is by understanding that you can be your own worse enemy and that your impulses and actions need to be steered by reason, that you come to hone in and control yourself. 

Self Reflect

Failure to read what is happening in another’s soul is not easily seen as a cause of unhappiness: but those who fail to attend to the motions of their own soul are necessarily unhappy. 

Know thyself is etched in the temple’s stone of Delphi. The ancient Greeks understood the importance of self-knowledge. You are the source of your well-being and happiness. Take ownership and responsibility for this. If there is a disconnect between you and your soul, then you will never find the solution to make yourself content in life. You will always search and look for the next thing to make you happy. 

Everything Perishes

How all things quickly vanish, our bodies themselves lost in the physical world, the memories of them lost in time; the nature of all objects of the sense — especially those which allure us with pleasure, frighten us with pain, or enjoy the applause of vanity — how cheap they are, how contemptible, shoddy, perishable, and dead: these are matters for your intellectual faculty to consider.

The end of all things is the same, to diminish. Then, don’t waste your time chasing things just for the sake of pleasure and vanity. If you make that an aim, then you will constantly be on the chase, going from one pleasure to the next, aiming for more pleasure as you get used to a baseline, craving more attention and applause as you get used to the old ones. These are cheap aims that do not last and chasing them is a waste of your life.

To put it shortly: all things of the body stream away like a river, all things of the mind are dreams and delusion; life is warfare, and a visit in a strange land; the only lasting fame is oblivion. 

Five Ways Dangers To Our Soul

The soul of man violates itself, especially so when it becomes, as far it is able, an abscess and like a growth on the universe. For feeling dislike for anything which happens is an apostasy from Nature, in a part of which the natures of each of the remaining parts are involved. And secondly, whenever the soul turns away from some man, or even does things contrary to him, on the grounds of harming him, such as are the souls of those who are enraged. Thirdly when one is bested by either pleasure or toil. Fourthly, whenever it plays a part, and is false or dissembling in either doing or saying something. Fifth, when it casts its own act or desire at no goal, but vainly and inconsequently spends energy on anything whatsoever, although it is necessary for the smallest things to occur with an eye to the end in view. And the end of logical animals is in following the reason and law of the city and government which is oldest.

So, in order to preserve your soul and have it excel, be one with nature’s will. Don’t separate from your fellow man. Don’t give in to pleasure and pain. Follow the truth. Have an aim in life. 

What It Means to Live a Stoic life

This consists in keeping the divinity within us inviolate and free from harm, master of pleasure and pain, doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity, and independent of others’ action or failure to act. Further, accepting all that happens and is allotted to it as coming from that other source which is its own origin: and at all times awaiting death with the glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed.

Mindfulness & The Practice Of Non-Judgement

In his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zim defines mindfulness as the “art of conscious living”. The book dives further into the practical application of mindfulness, how to cultivate it, and the different practices and exercises.

Fundamentally, mindfulness is a simple concept. Its power lies in its practice and its applications. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation.

Instead of allowing the unconscious, automatic behaviours and habits to direct your energy or your fears and insecurities to move you, mindfulness can help you control your actions and make decisions based on reason and logic. This is achieved through attention.

When we commit ourselves to paying attention in an open way, without falling prey to our own likes and dislikes, opinions and prejudices, projections and expectations, new possibilities open up and we have a chance to free ourselves from the straitjacket of unconsciousness.

When you aren’t bound by past thought processes and narratives, you can then act upon present needs. 

The spirit of mindfulness is to practice for its own sake, and just to take each moment as it comes—pleasant or unpleasant, good, bad, or ugly—and then work with that because it is what is present now.

Judgement is one aspect of our consciousness that derails the present experience and disrupts our ability to be still.

When you dwell in stillness, the judging mind can come through like a foghorn. I don’t like the pain in my knee…. This is boring…. I like this feeling of stillness; I had a good meditation yesterday, but today I’m having a bad meditation…. It’s not working for me. I’m no good at this. I’m no good, period. This type of thinking dominates the mind and weighs it down. It’s like carrying around a suitcase full of rocks on your head. It feels good to put it down. Imagine how it might feel to suspend all your judging and instead to let each moment be just as it is, without attempting to evaluate it as “good” or “bad.” This would be a true stillness, a true liberation.

Each moment doesn’t have to be good or comfortable or exciting. If you are constantly chasing those “higher” moments, then you are not living in the present because much of the present is mundane. So, the goal is to appreciate the unexciting events of your life as much as the exciting ones.

When you label every experience, the negative can outshine the positive because it is in our nature to dwell on something that didn’t meet our expectations. In doing so, you set yourself up to be emotionally distraught. Instead, when the judgemental thoughts arise, steer clear of them and focus on the task at hand. Nothing more, nothing less.

The good or the bad don’t matter. What matter is alertness and stillness in the present.“Knowing that our judgments are unavoidable and necessarily limiting thoughts about experience. What we are interested in in meditation is direct contact with the experience itself—whether it is of an inbreath, an outbreath, a sensation or feeling, a sound, an impulse, a thought, a perception, or a judgment. And we remain attentive to the possibility of getting caught up in judging the judging itself, or in labeling some judgments good and others bad.

So the simple exercise of focusing on your breath can be grounding. When you feel yourself becoming judgemental, take a break and focus on the inhale and exhale. That will bring you back to the present moment, the moment where you are fully engaged. And then go back to your work with that stillness. With practice, the ability to be non-judgemental and to be still becomes easier.

We get caught up in thinking we know what we are seeing and feeling, and in projecting our judgments out onto everything we see off a hairline trigger. Just being familiar with this deeply entrenched pattern and watching it as it happens can lead to greater non-judgmental receptivity and acceptance.

This detachment exercise is another way to separate yourself from your judgemental thoughts. Once you are aware of this concept, then when the judgemental thoughts bud, you can pick them off before they really grow and dominate your present situation.

It simply means that we can act with much greater clarity in our own lives, and be more balanced, more effective, and more ethical in our activities, if we know that we are immersed in a stream of unconscious liking and disliking which screens us from the world and from the basic purity of our own being. The mind states of liking and disliking can take up permanent residency in us, unconsciously feeding addictive behaviors in all domains of life. When we are able to recognize and name the seeds of greediness or craving, however subtle, in the mind’s constant wanting and pursuing of the things or results that we like, and the seeds of aversion or hatred in our rejecting or maneuvering to avoid the things we don’t like, that stops us for a moment and reminds us that such forces really are at work in our own minds to one extent or another almost all the time. It’s no exaggeration to say that they have a chronic, viral-like toxicity that prevents us from seeing things as they actually are and mobilizing our true potential.

Lessons From Books: The Brutal Realism of Rabbit, Run

In Rabbit, Run, we follow Harry Angstrom, otherwise known as Rabbit. He is 26 years old former high school basketball star who now sells gadgets to make a living. His wife, Janice, is pregnant with their second child, and a 2-year-old son, Nelson. The Angstroms seem like a stereotypical family at first, but it is clear right away that Harry is disappointed with his life. It has not turned out as he wished and feels the need to escape, to find something worthwhile, to find new meaning. The pursuit to fill this hole in his life, he hits the road, abandoning his wife and kid in the process as he searches for purpose.

It is easy to say that Harry Angstrom is a despicable man. He is not a role model, however, he can be seen as a model of reality. How unforgiving life can be and the lack of care it has for your wants and needs. Harry had his own vision of life in which he had never imagined himself running away from his family and yet, he does because life rarely turns out the way we imagine. John Updike paints a brutally realistic image of what happens when a man is without meaning and the hurt that can cause to everyone around him.

Lessons:

Your Accomplishments Mean Nothing

Rabbit is a high school basketball star. Even has a clipping of the newspaper article that was printed after he set the country record for points. At that time of his life, when he was a high schooler, the world must have seemed like a pretty little thing on which he’ll leave his mark. However, the story starts off with these young kids who have no clue who he is. It has only been a handful of years since his high school days and his accomplishments are already forgotten. 

They’ve not forgotten him: worse, they never heard of him. Yet in his time Rabbit was famous through the county; in basketball in his junior year he set a B-league scoring record that in his senior year he broke with a record that was not broken until four years later, that is, four years ago.

At the moment, we may think what we accomplish is meaningful, but the meaning erodes with time. That accomplishment only mattered for that specific moment. It makes you think then: What do accomplishments really mean?

What makes us feel good, makes us feel special will become meaningless with time and you’ll be left to chase the memories of that thing or else, try to recreate it in the present, knowing well enough that it will be temporary.

What Should Have Happened, Won’t Happen

Somehow Rabbit can’t tear his attention from where the ball should have gone, the little ideal napkin of clipped green pinked with a pretty flag. His eyes can’t keep with where it did go.

This sums up Rabbit’s mindset. He is always focused on what should have happened, where he should have gone, how life should have turned out, and can’t see clearly what happened and, in turn, isn’t able to improve it.

Rabbit had dreamt of a better future for himself while he was in high school, but that future didn’t come true. Instead, it took a turn when he got his high school sweetheart pregnant. How much control do you really have over your life? Can you really will your life towards a specific future or are you just being pulled along with the tide of life, having to submit, submerge yourself, and fully accept whatever life brings you? Otherwise, you could live a life full of shame and regret. The two feelings permeate through Rabbit’s pores as he wishes for more. 

Two feelings that live in the heart of many people.

Your Life Is Not Yours

Sticking with the tide analogy, you have to be careful of who you give your obligation to. For who you take on responsibility. To who you commit yourself and your time to, otherwise, you might drown with the tides of life. 

I don’t know, it seemed like I was glued in with a lot of busted toys and empty glasses and television going and meals late and no way of getting out.

Rabbit lived his life passively. He went along with what happened and in doing so, found himself committed and obliged to things that he did not want. One of them being his wife. But he is tethered to her. Tethered in place through his son and his soon-to-be-born daughter. He tries several times to run away from that life, to start afresh, but he cannot do it. He comes crawling back each time.

He wants to go south, down, down the map into orange groves and smoking rivers and barefoot women. It seems simple enough, drive all night through the dawn through the morning through the noon park on a beach take off your shoes and fall asleep by the Gulf of Mexico. Wake up with stars above perfectly spaced in perfect health.

Your obligations can give you a sense of meaning in your life. If you are obligated to the things you don’t care about, then your meaning for life will be something you don’t care about, and that’s what happened to Harry. His passivity has led him to live a life which he doesn’t care about and so he cannot find peace.

External Change Doesn’t Bring Meaning 

The land refuses to change. The more he drives the more the region resembles the country around Mt. Judge. The scruff on the embankments, the same weathered billboards for the same products you wondered anybody would ever want to buy. At the upper edge of his headlight beams the make tree-twigs make the same net. Indeed the net seems thicker now.

Much of the novel is Rabbit’s search for meaning. He doesn’t find meaning in his job. Nor does he find meaning through the family. The only thing that really gave him self-worth is his basketball dreams and with those gone, he has nothing concrete he can hang his hat on and say to himself that he did something good. 

This blind search, mainly external, leads him to Ruth, with whom he starts a relationship. 

He was happy just hanging around her place at night, her reading mysteries and him running down to the delicatessen for dinner ale and some nights going to a movie but nothing like this.

At first, the relationship gives him pleasure. Makes him feel good, but the more he stays, the more guilt he feels. The external change did not help him because internally he was still the same man. A man who gets jealous, who is petty, who is dissatisfied.

His real happiness is a ladder from whose top rung he keeps trying to jump still higher, because he knows he should.

How Little Control You Have In Life

Lovely life eclipsed by lovey death.

The theme of control is evident throughout the novel, but there is a singular moment that encapsulates it at the end. The death of his infant daughter. There are things he could have done to prevent it from happening, but you have to wonder how far in his life he would have to go in order to change the cause-and-effect link that led to his daughter’s death. 

How much control do you really have over what happens around you? You may be able to control yourself, your habits, your emotions, and your feelings, but what can you do about the drunk driver that swerves and crashes into you? There is a level of absurdity to life because so much of it just happens. It’s random. Out of control. Chaotic. You can do your best to bring order, but you cannot control life.

She lifts the living thing into air and hugs it against her sopping chest. Water pours off them onto the bathroom tiles. The little weightless body flops against her neck and a quick look of relief at the baby’s face gives a fantastic clotted impression […] Her sense of the third person with them widens enormously, and she knows, knows, while knock sound at the door, that the worst thing that has ever happened to any woman in the world has happened to her.

Epiphanies Aren’t Real

After all that happens: leaving his wife, meeting Ruth, leaving her to go back to his wife, the understanding gained from the Pastor, the birth of his daughter, the death of his daughter, after these things, the book ends the same way it starts, with Rabbit running away from responsibility. 

He sees that among the heads even his own mother is horrified, a blank with shock, a wall against him; she asks him what have they done to him and then she does it too. A suffocating sense of injustice blinds him. He turns and runs.

Uphill exultantly. He doges among gravestones. Dandelions grow bright as butter among the graves. Behind him his name is called in Eccles’ voice: ‘Harry! Harry!’

Running away from his life. This strikes at the heart of human beings. It is difficult to change who we are. We can change our habits and routines, but it is difficult to change our nature. And Rabbit’s nature doesn’t change. He has not found peace.

His hand lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah; runs. Runs.

Need To Have A Why

The whole novel Rabbit is searching for a reason. 

‘Well I don’t know all this about theology, but I’ll tell you, I do feel, I guess, that somewhere behind all of this’—he gestures outward at the scenery; they are passing the housing development this side of the golf course, half-wood half-brick one-and-a-half-stories in little flat bulldozed yards holding tricycles and spindly three-year-old tress, the un-grandest landscape in the world—‘there’s something that wants me to find it.’

A reason to live. A reason to accept life. A reason that makes sense of the world. A reason to justify his feelings and beliefs. 

Without meaning, your actions and beliefs seem bland, like a grey sky imprisoning the sunlight. There is no light in Harry’s life. He walks around in the dark, hoping for something to turn up that will improve his life. He doesn’t know what he wants, why he does the things he does, what will make him actually happy and so, we are left with a character who is ultimately dissatisfied with life which is slowly breaking him down and there is nothing he can do about it. 

That’s what you have, Harry: life. It’s a strange gift and I don’t know how we’re supposed to use it but I know it’s the only gift we get and it’s a good one.

Finding the ‘Why’ for your life then becomes the meaning for life.

Lessons From Stories: Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Ernest Hemingway captured an essential understanding of human nature in just 1,465 words. The understanding is: We need order when we’re lost in life.

Chaos and order are the bases of many stories, so it is not unique per se that Hemingway explores this issue, but the way he does it is unique. In A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, the cafe represents order because cleanliness and light are often associated with orderliness. The cafe is an attractive place that shelters those in need, like the old man who is lost in life. The old man regularly gets drunk at the cafe and later on, we are told that his wife recently passed away and he tried to commit suicide. The old man has lost his sense of purpose, his meaning for life and so he clings to the cafe because he doesn’t want to be alone.

Solitude represents chaos in this story. The old man doesn’t want to be alone at home. The older waiter, whose perspective we see the story from, can’t sleep until the sun rises. This is because when your mental state is not correct, one of the worst places you can be is in your own head, alone with your thoughts. That is a dangerous place. A chaotic place. 

The opening scene of the story has two waiters. The older one and the younger one. The two are different in one main way; the younger waiter has a sense of purpose and meaning, hence, he has order in his life.

“You have youth, confidence, and a job,” the older waiter said.

“You have everything.”

“And what do you lack?”

“Everything but work.”

“You have everything I have.”

“No. I have never had confidence and I am not young.”

This is why the younger waiter has a tough time emphasizing with the old man. He can’t see the old man is lost. He passes judgment on the old man and even says the old man has nothing to be sad about because he’s rich.

“Last week he tried to commit suicide,” (young) waiter said.

“Why?”

“He was in despair.”

“What about?”

“Nothing.”

“How do you know it was nothing?”

“He has plenty of money.”

This raises an interesting question. Can someone who has order or meaning in their life relate to someone who doesn’t? Someone who is in a chaotic state? Often when we have meaning in our life, we are focused on it and that can cause us to put blinders on and not see others who are trying to find their own way. Trying to find order. 

The older waiter suffers from chaos. He can’t be alone with his thoughts. He has trouble finding meaning in anything. This is shown in perhaps the most famous passage of this story.

It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.

Nothing matters to the waiter.

But because the waiter has no meaning in his life, he can relate to the old man, and feel empathy towards him. The older waiter is even willing to keep the light on in the cafe for a while longer to give the old man more time to drink.

“We are of two different kinds,” the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. “It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe.”

“Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”

“You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”

Hemingway was famous for capturing a moment in time, a slice of life. The story ends without an answer. The old waiter blames his state of mind on insomnia, which could be seen as a scapegoat instead of confronting the reality of the meaninglessness of life.

But what could be a solution to this chaos?

Lost souls need order as evidenced by the old man’s desire to stay in the cafe. Order is then an essential need for those who are without meaning. Perhaps this suggests that when we are lost and lack meaning, we need to find things that bring order into our lives. Routines, habits, people, places, etc. Whatever helps us positively deal with our mental state.

In the story, it is implied that the old man lost his meaning after his wife passed. While the old waiter is seen trying to find meaning through religion but fails to do so. Even the young waiter finds his meaning through his work and his wife, both are liable to change.

What then?

Perhaps the meaning of our life has to be intrinsic. Something that can survive the ups and down of life. Perhaps that is the meaning. How well can you navigate what life throws at you? To constantly find the meaning behind your suffering. To search for the light in the darkness.

Maybe that is how meaning is created, and our mind becomes a place of solitude. 

Lessons From Books: Bird By Bird

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott is exactly as the title suggests, a book that has valuable pieces of information about both writing and about life. The writing tips are practical, but in reality, they are common and not wholly unique. The book will not transform you into a New York Times bestseller. Lamott isn’t trying to sell you some get-rich-quick scheme. Instead, she talks about patience, creating writing routines, working hard, doing tons and tons of revisions, subverting expectations, and enjoying the process. Like I said, not unique, but practical.

However, the real gem of this book was the connection Lamott makes with writing and life. How the interpersonal relationship of the two nurtures each other. The lessons she draws upon from writing help you understand life better and, through the awareness of life and yourself, your writing becomes genuine and vulnerable. This is where I fell in love with this book. The following are a few of the main points that stuck with me from Bird by Bird.

Why Pursue Writing?

A commitment to writing goes beyond telling stories. It is an exploration of life. You are committing to observing the life around you. You pay attention to everything from the macro like politics, societal trends, cultural changes, to the micro such as the encroaching yellowish tint on leaves as fall approaches or the faint smell of peppermint as you pass by a cafe or the thin, practiced smiles of strangers you see during the day. Keeping tabs on both the small and large details of life becomes part of the job.

You are also committing to observing yourself. Your own internal state. You come to dissect memories, unpack different thoughts, question your own opinions because that’s where your scenes lie and your characters dwell. You become aware of your feelings and emotions and what triggers them and how deeply you feel or perhaps the lack of feelings which can be equally important. As you understand yourself, you come to understand others because of the commonalities we all share as human beings. You develop empathy, patience, respect because these are the things you need to understand yourself and the extension of these qualities benefits the people around you. This then helps you create stories that connect with others.

In the same vein, the commitment to writing also improves your habits and character. The aim may be to write a story or to finish a novel or to publish a collection of poems, but in order to do that, you need to practice your skill set. You have to find a way to measure progress which, in writing terms, maybe keeping tabs on daily word count or pages written or, as Neil Gaiman suggests, the number of hours you spent at your writing station. You need to develop a routine that helps you balance your life and also maximize your writing. You need to develop discipline and focus so the time spent writing is productive. The rejection letters help you create a thick skin towards criticism and feedback, but also you need a sense of detachment from your work so you can apply the necessary feedback. All these qualities not only help you towards your writing goal but mold you into a capable individual.

A Perspective Towards Restarting

One of the hardest decisions you can make in writing is to start over after you have committed many hours of your time and written dozens and maybe hundreds of pages. But sometimes finding out what you don’t want to write is as important as knowing what you do. Often, what you have in your head doesn’t translate well on paper. But you can only know that by putting it on paper. This is still a type of progress. Slow, painful progress, but progress nonetheless.

The idea of restarting is present in life as well and it is equally as difficult, but also important. You can only know if a relationship will work out by actually being in one, similar to how you have to put words on paper to know if they work. And it may be painstaking to end the relationship and restart again, but it must be done so you can step closer to a relationship that you actually need. Or you might come to dislike your dream job, towards which you have committed years of your life. But if you’re able to restart again, go back into the job market, learn a new skill, change career paths, the years to follow could potentially have greater rewards than you could have imagined. In this process of elimination, you get closer to what you actually want in life and, in writing terms, what you actually want to write about.

Short Assignments

Short assignments is the idea that you need to focus on the task at hand and do that as well as you can before you move on to the next short assignment. The title of the book, Bird by Bird, comes from this idea. Lamott shares an anecdote of when she was a kid and her brother was stressed out about a school assignment relating to birds and her father’s advice was simple, take it bird by bird. Write about one bird and then move to the next one. One small thing at a time. One short assignment at a time.

When you think too much about the bigger picture, it causes you to lose focus and get lost in the grand scheme of things. But when you can focus on what’s right in front of you and work on that, you make progress. Narrow your focus from the macro to the micro. Focus on the next step and that’s it. The next dialogue or description or narration or action piece. That’s how you complete a story.

Similarly, life itself can be daunting if you constantly focus on the end goals. A four-year degree can seem like a lifetime away, but the assignment or exam in a week’s time is right in front of you. Knock that out of the park and you step closer to the degree. When you only look at the end, you might not recognize the small progress you have made and this can leave you disheartened and even result in negative thoughts and feelings. But if you turn your focus to the short assignments and work on doing that the best you can, then you come to recognize progress and movement. And this is revitalizing. The end goal may still be a long way away, but you have achieved something towards that goal. In the same way, writing one good descriptive passage is an achievement towards writing a 300-page novel, get an A+ on an assignment is an achievement towards your degree. 

Child’s Draft Or The Shitty 1st Draft

This means that when you write your first draft, just write whatever comes to your mind. Whatever images, phrases, dialogue that come without censor. You can even write bullet point notes. It doesn’t matter. No one is going to read the 1st draft except you and all you need to do is get the story out of your head and on the paper so you can edit and make it better. This is the process. Trust it. Write a shitty 1st draft and then edit it relentlessly until it is good. This may require you to overcome your perfectionist/self-critical inner voice, which can’t stand the shitty 1st draft.

This is a lesson for life. Often your first action is wrong or not as good as you hoped. But that first action is required so that your 2nd, 3rd, 4th actions can move you towards where you want to go. But you can be stuck in the perfectionist mindset, which delays your 1st action so you never fail or stumble and never get to correct that mistake either so your proceeding actions can be better. In reality, perfectionism is an excuse for inaction.  A resistive force to stop yourself from doing the hard, uncomfortable work which, in writing terms, is revision, and with life, is self-reflection and ownership. 

Two more writing-related lessons:

Understand your characters

Find out as much as possible about the interior life of your characters. Let it come naturally through writing. Not all of it has to go into the story, but you should know as much as possible. A way to familiarize yourself with the characters is by asking practical everyday questions which peel back the layers of your characters and humanizes them. Some examples Lammot provides are: What kind of impression do they leave behind? What do they carry in their purse? How do they move? Who did they vote for? What would they do if they had six months to live? Questions that reveal the character’s traits, faults, emotional baggage, positives, and negatives.

Another way to familiarize your character is by partially basing them on someone you know. This way, you have a base structure to work with. Or, by sharing your own flaws through the character, which also makes them more vulnerable and genuine. 

Also, understanding who your character isn’t is a good way to understand who your character is. Similarly, how a form of self-discovery is knowing what you don’t want, need, or like, understanding what your character doesn’t want, need, or like will bring you closer to knowing what the character wants, needs, or likes.

Short Story Formula

ABDCE: Action (start), Background (Who/what/why), Development (the characters build drama/action/tension), Climax and Ending (What happened, What did it mean, and What our sense of the characters is now).