Process and Perfection in Matisse’s Red Studio

Last week, I saw the Matisse’s Red Studio exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. The show features the painting after which it is named, but also focusses on the artist’s other works, especially those featured in the Red Studio painting. It is a really good exhibition and I enjoyed it immensely as an art lover. I also learned a lot about Matisse’s creative process, and as I often do when examining another creative’s method, found things I can incorporate into my own writing process.

The MOMA’s gallery cards are exceptional. Instead of just listing the name of the piece, the artist, and the medium like most museum’s do, the labels which accompany the art at the MOMA often include full paragraphs about the work which contextualize the piece and give some insight into both the importance of the work and, when known, the artist’s process or artistic vision.

One can learn a lot by reading the cards. For example, I learned that not only was Matisse a tinkerer, he often left vestiges of the original, or drafting, stages of his work in the final piece when he revised. Take, for example, this painting.

The position of the leg was obviously changed, which can be seen in the extraneous line near the lower half of the extended leg. There is also evidence that Matisse tinkered with the position of the figure’s arm (on the same side of the body), which he attempted to disguise in the shadows.

Here is the same painting with the relevant areas highlighted.

In many of the other paintings, the viewer can see pencil lines, presumably from the sketches he made on the canvass before he started to paint. They are not noticeable at the distance from which one usually photographs a painting, but up close, you can see them clearly. Here is an example:

What struck me most about these pieces was not that Matisse revised so much as part of his process. The world of the writer–and I assume the artist as well–is oversaturated with advice about revising one’s work. Revision is part of the process and it is par for the course. Rather, what stood out to me was that these vestiges remained in the final piece.

Many writers, many artists, many creative people in general, will work on their pieces in a futile pursuit of perfection. I have been guilty of doing so myself, working on a piece right up until the deadline, trying to make it as perfect as possible before submitting it for publication. I make sure to give myself deadlines, to seek out open call with hard deadlines, and rarely self-publish because I often get in my own head about revision.

There is an old saw in the creative world, “Finished, not perfect,” and like most oft-repeated advice it has become cliché and, in doing so, has lost much of its impact. It’s something people say, post about on social media, and hang up on posters in their classroom, and then ignore when it comes to their own practice. Seeing the Matisse pieces on the wall–and reading the gallery cards–is much, much more impactful.

Because, here’s the thing: No one notices the mistakes when looking at the paintings on the wall. Those who did not take the time to read the gallery cards, most likely, did not notice them at all. I certainly did not until I after the labels pointed them out to me. As someone who sees every mistake in everything I write, even–and especially–after its published, there’s a powerful lesson in that.


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On Goal Setting

This time of year, there’s a lot of talk about resolutions and goal setting. Here are some things to think about when setting your writing goals for 2022:

–It is important to set goals with outcomes you can control: For example, a goal of making X amount of submissions is better than a goal of being published by a specific publisher or having your work accepted for publication X amount of times. In the first case, you are in control of whether you achieve your goal. In the second, someone else controls the outcome.

There is nothing wrong with dreaming big, with wanting to be published by a specific publisher or publication–I have a few myself, just like any writer–but the best way to get there is to focus on what you can control rather than worry about what you can’t.

–Focus on the process, not just on the product: You need to hone your skills and develop the attributes of a successful comics creator. In addition to goals about completing projects, submitting, and publishing, commit to improving an area of weakness in the new year. Perhaps you need to work on writing more realistic dialogue, better metaphors, etc. Maybe you need to improve your business skills, such as marketing, social media management, crowdfunding, etc.?

Athletes develop their attributes by training to run faster, jump higher, or lift more weights because they know that these exercises will translate into better on course performance. Chess masters study specific, isolated “problems” in addition to playing full games. Professionals, like lawyers and teachers, are required to complete many hours of professional development classes to maintain their licenses. It behooves creators to develop their skills, as well. Practice intentionally, and your work will improve.

Here is a blog post I wrote a couple of years back in which I discuss goal setting and intentional practice in greater detail.

–Strike a balance between goals that are attainable and goals which challenge you: There has been a movement in goal setting recently which encourages people to set attainable goals. Setting attainable goals builds confidence, which is important, but it is also important to set goals which challenge you. If your goals are too easily achieved, you are not pushing yourself enough. While not reaching a challenging goal could be disappointing, upon reflection, you may find that you’ve advanced further by partially achieving a big goal than you would have set a lower goal. As always, it is important to strike a balance between the two extremes, and…

–Know yourself: Are you the type of person who needs the confidence boost of a series of smaller, achievable goals, or are you a person who does better when you challenge yourself? Are you being honest with yourself about your current skill level? Your strengths and weaknesses? Your assessment of your previous year? Only by knowing yourself can you set the goals you need to take your creative journey to the next level.

On the Useful and the Useless

I’ve often written in this space about the influence that Bruce Lee has had on me, both in my life, and on the way I approach writing. As I think about the reality of the world in which we have lived for the past year, a Bruce Lee quote is, once again, at the forefront of my mind:” Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.” I’ve written about this quote in the past, but recently I’ve been considering it in a new light.

Bruce Lee, famously, discarded much of the classical teaching he had learned about martial arts when he invented his system, Jeet Kune Do. He took concepts and techniques he found to be successful in other styles and synthesized them with his own martial knowledge to create a new system that he felt was superior to any of those from which he drew its various parts.

He also discarded many of the traditional practices associated with these older systems, which included set forms, or kata, and structured drills, which he felt restricted a martial artist’s growth and ability to express themselves fully. Pattens were prisons which shackled the mind to the styles of the old masters, and which hindered an artist’s growth. Students should do their own research, he thought, and critically evaluate the traditional approaches so that they could grow, reach their full potential, and express themselves fully.

I have long valued this critical approach, and, as I wrote in my earlier piece, I hope that my readers will follow my example and evaluate the plethora of writing advice out there—including my own—critically. Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and make something truly your own.

And yet…

As I evaluate my martial practice during this time of pandemic, I question the wisdom of the second part of that tripartite advice. During the pandemic, I have been unable to attend martial arts classes. Social distancing requirements have kept my school closed for much of the last year, and, even if it were to reopen for some form of modified, in person training, I would, most likely, hesitate longer than most before returning, as I have a number of health issues that put me at a higher risk for Covid 19. As such, I have needed to modify my training. My mook jong (wing chun wooden dummy) and vo-ball have become primary training tools for me to continue my practice, and I have begun taking online classes and participating in video lessons with a range of instructors from various styles.

One of the online classes I have been taking is in sword technique and choreography with Adrian Paul (of Highlander fame. Through his Sword Experience company, Mr. Paul has been teaching via video lesson, and has been offering personalized feedback where once-a-month, patrons can upload videos for him to critique. The instruction, thus far, has been excellent, and the critiques thorough.

One thing I did notice, however, is that Paul is teaching a kata. It is a kata he designed, but it is a kata nonetheless. My Jeet Kune Do-trained brain rebelled against the idea at first. This was an idea which I was supposed to discard. I hadn’t practice kata in many years (since I began studying JKD 10 years ago), and I struggled with learning this new one. Even when I took a martial art that focused more heavily on forms as a youth, patterns were never my strong suit. I was always much better in a “live” drill or sparring.

In the absence of a training partner, however, what other choice was there? Through sending videos of the kata, and receiving critiques about them, I improved my sword work in very real and noticeable ways. I began to feel more comfortable in the system, and, clearly, I was making progress in the art. Now, of course, to become truly proficient, I would need to do partner drills, work in a less structured way, and eventually actually spar or fence with an opponent, but that just isn’t an option right now. Given the circumstances, kata became not only useful, but necessary.

This experience has caused me to think back to the traditional forms against which Lee rebelled. Many of these forms come from styles that were outlawed throughout history, either by the Qing dynasty or by the modern Communist Chinese government. (Many of the Chinese systems use Ming symbolism in their salute/bow, and have historical connections to Ming patriots and rebels), and therefore, they had to be practiced in secret. Students may have had to practice alone for much of the time, apart from their masters, and the forms provided a catalogue of techniques in a way that was easy to remember and systematic to practice. Of course, the forms had to be supplemented by live training when possible, but I imagine that for many, it was not often possible to find a training partner.

Bruce Lee, in America, had the freedom and platform to test his system against martial artists from a variety of schools. During his life, there was no shortage of people who wished to train with him. Many of his students—and their students—have had similar luxuries. And yet, today, in the middle of the pandemic, we find ourselves isolated, training on our own, often without the guidance of a teacher or master. We need our kata. What was discarded has become useful again.

Thus, utility is not a fixed state. Our situation constantly changes as we go through life, and we must decide what is useful to us in each moment. We should be careful of what we outright discard lest we need it at some point in the future.

Rather than discard, we should store—put away for later. We never know when something we discarded might become useful again.

This advice applies not only to martial arts, but to writing as well. From time to time, we should revisit older exercises and techniques, even those we had previously discarded. When we perform our critical analysis, we should consider not only whether we feel an exercise is useful to us in our present situation, but why another teacher or author might have found it useful in the first place. What was their situation, and could we envision a time when we, too, may face a parallel situation. Don’t discard, store. You never know when life will throw you a curveball and you’ll need to dig deep into the files of your mind and dust off some nearly forgotten bit of knowledge.

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In Honor Of Bruce Lee’s 80th Birthday, My Jeet Kune Do Black Sash Essay: A Finger Pointing A Way To The Moon

Today would have been Bruce Lee’s 80th birthday. In honor if that occassion, I present the essay I wrote as part of my Black Sash test in Jeet Kune Do, the martial art Lee founded. It is tradional for the candidate who is testing for a black sash or black belt to write an essay in many martial arts. I wrote this one in 2012, and present it without edits.

A Finger Pointing Away to the Moon

Like most people, I saw Bruce Lee for the first time in the movie Enter The Dragon. My Taekwondo instructor recommended the movie to the class because he wanted to show Lee’s non-telegraphic movement in the famous fight scene between Lee’s character and O’Hara. As a 12-year-old, I was (predictably) blown away by the experience. Bruce Lee’s style was more intense and realistic than anything I had previously seen on film. He looked dangerous; he looked like a fighter. That movie inspired my love for kung fu movies in general, and for Bruce Lee in particular. I would often re-enact scenes from that movie with my friends and training brothers and incorporate lines from the movie, such as “boards don’t hit back”, “you have offended me, and you have offended a Shao Lin temple” and “you’re like something out of a comic book” into my games and banter. While there are many martial benefits one can gain from watching Enter the Dragon—not the least of which is the lesson about non-telegraphic movement that my instructor pointed out—there is one scene in the movie that has influenced my development as a martial artist more than any other:

            Bruce Lee’s character is teaching a young student. During the lesson, Mr. Lee tries to get his student to understand the concept of “real emotional content”. When the student finally does the technique properly, Lee describes the feeling that is supposed to be present in the true martial artist. “It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon,” he says. “Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

            This quote has stuck with me, and, today, it is the first thing that I think about when I remember Enter the Dragon. While it is one of Bruce Lee’s most famous and often quoted sayings, I feel that it is often misinterpreted by the general public.  As a teacher, I have used the quote as an introduction to a lesson on literary elements and devices. I start the lesson by writing the quote on the board and asking students to interpret it. Most students say that Lee does not want us to get bogged down in the details-represented by the finger—but rather, he wants us to see the bigger picture, which is represented by the phrase “heavenly glory”. Many adults have given similar explanations of the quote, essentially reducing Lee’s statement to the cliché “don’t lose the forest for the trees.” I feel that this is an unfair reduction of the quote, and that those who interpret it in this way miss the more important implications of the quote.

            I have also spoken to many martial artists about this quote. Most people with a cursory knowledge of Jeet Kune Do say that the line from Enter the Dragon speaks to Bruce Lee’s wish to dispense with form and set movements. It is not the technique that’s important, they say, but rather the ability to express oneself and one’s “emotional content”. According to these people, Lee says that one must be free of tradition and system, which are represented by the finger, in order to be able to freely express themselves and achieve “heavenly glory”. I believe that these people, too, are mistaken.

            I prefer to take the quote in the context of the scene. Lee’s character is a sifu training a young apprentice. While Lee wants the student to understand the greater truth that he is pointing toward, the student would be unable to grasp that truth without his sifu’s guidance. The “finger” in this case represents the guidance that martial training provides. Without the finger, the student would be lost. The finger is “pointing a way”. Yes, one should not concentrate on the finger exclusively, thereby getting bogged down in minutia, but the finger is necessary in order for the student to find his way. The finger points specifically “to the moon”, not at the ground, which would be mundane, or the sun, which while brilliant, would be blinding. There is a specific thing that the Lee wants the student to see, and only with proper guidance can enlightenment be achieved. The need for guidance is further emphasized by the fact that in the scene, the concept needs to be articulate by Lee—and not by his student—thus emphasizing structure inherent in the pedagogical process.

            Moreover, the quote emphasizes the steps necessary to become a self-fulfilled martial artist. There is a multi-level progression described in the quote: Finger—then moon—then heavenly glory. At first the student needs to understand the basics, represented by the finger, before he can shoot for the moon. The student, with the help of the teacher, can see the path from the earth to the moon, and through hard work and training—which are the essence of the Chinese words gung fu—travel the path and rise toward the moon. The moon itself is not the goal either, however, rather by traveling along the “way” to the moon, one realizes the moon’s position in the cosmos; it is part of the “heavenly glory” described in the last part of the quote. The moon, then becomes a sign post along the way, a representation of the possibilities of heavenly glory. Lee, as a modern man who based his art around both science and tradition, would have know about the infinite nature of space in the universe (where the moon resides). By continuing along the path, the “way” pointed out by that original finger of the sifu, the student can achieve the limitless possibilities of self-actualization that Lee believed was primary benefit of self-expression though the martial arts.

            Thus, the quote actually refers to the Tao, the “way” in Chinese philosophy, and the “do” in Jeet Kune Do. Lee states that the finger points “a way to the moon” indicating that martial arts training involves “a way”—a path or journey. The practitioner moves from the earth toward the moon, and ultimately into the heavenly glory. The movement described here reflects Lee’s Taoist philosophy. In The Tao of Gung Fu: A Study of Chinese Martial Art (Tuttle, 1997, John Little ed.), Bruce Lee has three distinct essays relating his martial arts philosophy to Taoism, and the ideas of these essays are reflected in the simile of the quote. A central philosophy of Taoism is that the practitioner, by following the Tao, ultimately becomes one with the universe. Though the Taoist begins, like every other human bound to the earth, by becoming one with the tao, and by embracing the harmonious balance of the universe symbolized by the yin-yang, the Taoist practitioner is able to achieve enlightenment by becoming one with the universe. The “finger”, like the Taoist sage, points the way for the student, who through the development of his martial arts, moves toward heavenly glory, which represents the “harmonious way of the universe.” Each individual student’s journey is different, and many need the help of the guiding “finger” in order to find the Tao or the “way.”

            Sifu Richard Garcia has provided the finger that that has pointed me toward the way of my own journey in the martial arts. His style of teaching truly embodies the yin-yang concept about which Mr. Lee writes. Sifu Garcia’s Jeet Kune Do is traditional, yet progressive, it is both hard and soft, internal and external. It is grounded in basics, yet allows for creativity. It relies on the hard work and training that is at the heart of the definition of gung-fu, yet it develops the kind of spontaneous thought and action described by the concepts of wu wei and wu shin. In Sifu’s own words, it has “old school values and new school innovations” (www.jkdgungfu.com/curriculum.htm).

            Under Sifu’s guidance, I have developed as a martial artist. I have learned to develop my yin energy (throughout my martial journey, I have had an over-abundance of yang energy). I have become more proficient in my technique, especially at trapping and grappling range, and through my training I have become a more well-rounded fighter. I have continued to develop my strategic and tactical proficiencies and have come to a deeper understanding of the philosophy and concepts behind the art. JKD has helped me stay in shape physically and mentally, and it has improved my overall health as well. It has allowed me stay competitive when sparring students half my age, and given me a more practical, useable skillset for personal self-defense. It is an art that I enjoy practicing now, and it is adaptable enough that it will continue to be an art that I can practice as I continue to grow older.

            As I approach my black-sash test, I find myself thinking about the quote from Enter the Dragon once again. I can relate the quote to my own journey in JKD. Phase one of my training, which involved learning and practicing the basics of JKD involved being guided by Sifu’s finger. Metaphorically this phase of training involves seeing where the finger is pointing and identifying the “Tao” or the “Way”. In my mind, being asked to test for black sash is an acknowledgement that while I certainly have not reached the goal to which “the finger” is “pointing”, I have at least comprehended the direction of the path. My eyes are fixed on not only on the “moon”, but also on the “heavenly glory” which lies beyond. I am ready to embrace the “way” and to paraphrase a man who actually walked on the moon, take both “small step[s]” and hopefully “giant leaps” toward that “heavenly glory.”

            I hope to continue to follow the “way” suggested by Sifu’s guidance to eventually “unlock [my] true potential and become the very best that [I] can be.” With my Sifu who will continue to be the “pointer toward the truth” I hope to enter the next phase of my training where I can “find a path to my own freedom” (www.jkdgungfu.com/philosophy.htm).


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In Search of the Muse

In ancient times, it was traditional for a poet to begin a work with an invocation of the muse: “Sing to me of the man, muse…” Homer writes in the first line of The Odyssey. The poet, according to this conceit, was merely a conduit for one the divine muses (there were nine ancient muses, each of whom personified a different art), a scribe recording her song on paper. “Start from where you will” (Fagles, trans) Homer continues, reinforcing his passive roll. Over time, the muse became symbolic of inspiration. Writers within the Western tradition continued to invoke the Muse long after the Ancient Greek religion which inspired it went out of fashion. Christian writers, such as Dante and Milton, continued to invoke the muse at the start of their epic poems, and even Shakespeare addresses her on a number of occasions.

Recently, however, the muse has gone out of fashion. Contemporary writers don’t speak much of the muse anymore, except, perhaps, in negative terms. The muse has been trampled beneath the feet of the capitalist gods Hard Work and Consistency. The key to writing, they say, is making a routing and sticking to it, and in their minds (for thoughts like this have no place in their hardened hearts), the muse is dead. She simply doesn’t exist.

The thing is, history proves this line of thinking incorrect. While hard work, dedication, and discipline are important traits for a writer, and while, one may be correct in arguing that a writer—even a talented writer—cannot be successful without it, that does not disprove the existence of inspiration, whether divine or otherwise.

Now, I’m not arguing for the existence of mythological goddesses, but consider the following:

Shirley Jackson wrote The Lottery, one of the most anthologized and taught short stories of the 20th Century, in “only two hours and submitted it to the New Yorker [where it was published] without major revision, according the College Board-approved textbook Literature: A Guide To Reading and Writing.

Ray Bradbury, famously, asserted that he wrote the first draft of his great masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 in nine days. The story has been corroborated in many places, including by Bradbury biographer Sam Weller. He still had to go through the revision and editing process, but the core of the story was created in that fit of inspiration.

William Faulkner took a bit longer than Bradbury to pen one of his most famous novels. It took him six weeks (between the hours of midnight and 4 in the morning. The literary critic Harold Bloom called the book “an authentic instance of the literary sublime.” (As quoted in The Creative Writer’s Notebook).

Thus, it seems that inspiration exists. These writers all wrote other books and stories, but in these particular cases, it seems like the muse was kind to them. Now, before we go any further, let me just reiterate that this in no way negates the needs to work hard, to stay consistent or to find a writing routine. The idea of the muse–of fits of inspiration–does not stand in opposition to hard work. The two are not mutually exclusively. Bradbury was extraordinarily dedicated to his craft. For the majority of his life, he wrote a short story a week, in addition to his novels and screenplays. He, like the rest of us, struggled at times. He had drawers full of incomplete stories in the file cabinets in his basement office. He still worked through his ideas to finish his story a week. Yet, for the time that he was writing his most famous work, whether you want to call it a muse, the stars aligning, or simply having a good week and a half, something was different; something magical was in there air.

The thing is that writers have no idea when the muse is going to grace us with her presence. In his introduction to The Voice From The Edge volume 1, the great science fiction short story writer Harlan Ellison talks about his love for his story “Grail.” He talks about how hard he worked on the story, how he meticulously researched the names of all the demons who appear therein, and how much he loved the final result. Few people, however, remember that story aside from himself, remember the story. On the other hand, “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” which is one of the most anthologized science fiction stories of all time, was written in a few hours, and though Ellison felt the story was perfectly competent (he talks about how a writer can achieve a certain level of competence where each story they write is publishable), he felt no particular love for it, but, whether he knew it or not, Ellison was inspired that night when he wrote “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream.”

So if the muse is fickle, if she is unpredictable, if she comes rarely—and only to those who are already grinding—if she if so ineffable that sometimes she comes in secret, sometimes unbeknownst to the writer, why spend 1000 words singing her praises? Perhaps because so much writing advice is focused on sticking with it through the tough times: ignoring the muse is like writing about running by focusing exclusively on the hard hours of roadwork while ignoring the incredible endorphin release known as the runner’s high; perhaps I feel we need some light to give us hope even in this dark time; or maybe this post is an offering to Calliope, an invocation, an invitation to whisper in my ear like she did for Homer, Jackson, Bradbury, Faulkner, Ellison, and all those other writers down through the ages.

Sing to me muse; start where you will…

Free Stories You Can Read While Socially Distancing

With everyone home on quarantine or practicing “social distancing,” now is a great time to get some reading done. As such, I decided to share some of my stories that are available for free at online. I’ve written a short description with the each link to help you pick which you’d like to read. Enjoy, and please stay safe out–or in–there:

Here is the story I shared in my last week’s blog. It is in the mode of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. If you haven’t read it yet, please check it out: Darkness My Old Friend.

I have a short flash piece in the current issue of Mythic Picnic Tweet Story. It features the unlikely combination of Lovecraftian monsters and humor: The Kale of Cthulhu.

You can read an older comedic fantasy style story of mine, featuring a sphinx complaining about dragons in Pif magazine: The Sphinx’s Lament.

If you are in the mood for something more traditionally literary, more touching and emotional, check out this piece I wrote for The Hopper Review: In Good Hands.

If poetry is more your speed, Local Gems Press has made eight Ebooks free to read during this period of quarantine. One of them, Rhyme and PUNishment, features my poem, “In Good Hands.” My poem is on page 50.

Last year, I had 6 micro-flash pieces in issue 4 of Drabblez magazine. “The Kale of Cthulhu” was first published there, but check out the other 5 pieces as well. My stories start on page 30.

If you are missing sports, here is a story I wrote about a playground basketball player in New York City. I originally wrote it in college for an assignment to write in the voice of a character who is very different from you (a great writing exercise, which I will cover in a future blog). The story was published in Scriveners Pen, which no longer exists, but I’ve posted it on my deviant art page. While your there, check out the comics samples I’ve posted there and some other short stories as well: Sweetness.

I hope you enjoy these stories. I hope you enjoy them. Depending on how long this situation lasts, I may post more in the coming weeks.

Stay safe.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

Keeping Up With Your New Year’s Resolutions, Part 2—On Discipline

As I detailed in last week’s blog, by now, about 80 percent of people have given up on their new year’s resolutions. One of the most common reasons people site for this is a lack of discipline. While it is true that one needs discipline to stay on track with one’s goals, the way that most people look at discipline—as an all or nothing proposition—makes it difficult for most people to achieve this virtue. I would like to present an alternate approach.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received was given to me by my chiropractor, Dr. Stephen Howard Cooper, when I was recovering from a martial arts injury. My orthopedist had suggested that I restrict my physical activity and exercise following the injury to an extent that I knew I couldn’t follow, and I asked the chiropractor, who is a martial artist himself, for advice about how I could modify my activity in a manner that would allow me to keep practicing kung fu.

  “If you can’t do the best thing, do the second-best thing, not the worst thing,” he said.

The specifics of what that statement meant relative to my injury and kung fu practice are a bit “inside baseball” for this forum, but the advice, which I’ve applied in a myriad of other situations is powerful, nonetheless. To illustrate its import, I would like to look at a common new year’s resolution that has nothing to do with writing.

Let’s say you’ve resolved to lose weight and to eat better in the new year. As part of your plan, you’ve decided to cut out snacking throughout the day. Three o’clock rolls around, and you’re really feeling sluggish. The afternoon malaise is setting in, and you know that you are going to have to eat something or risk falling asleep at your desk and not get your work done. Losing weight is an admirable long-term goal, but staying employed is higher on your immediate hierarchy of needs. There goes the resolution, right? Wrong!

Many people, when faced with this situation would completely abandon their goal, consider the resolution a failure, and opt for an unhealthy snack, like a doughnut or a candy bar. After experiencing this situation a few more times, they would give up on their resolution altogether.

Now, let’s say that instead of eating that doughnut, you opted for a healthier snack, say a banana or an apple. Is that ideal? Of course not. Your goal was to eliminate snacking, and you have not done that, obviously. But, is it better than eating a doughnut or a candy bar? It most definitely is. You’ve made a healthy choice, which is something of which you can be proud, and which is something that might help you achieve your larger goal of losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle.

You didn’t do the best thing, but that didn’t lead you to do the worst thing either. You have made progress, which, hopefully, will keep you focused on toward your ultimate goal.

It’s easy to see how this advice applies to writing goals. You come home from a tough day at work, cook dinner for the family, and struggle to put your kids to bed. You’ve resolved to write 500 words tonight, but you just don’t have the energy or focus. It’s late; you’re tired, and you just want to relax a bit before conking out yourself. Your daily word count goal is gone. Your resolution has failed—and it’s not even the end of January. Might as well give up, right? Wrong!

Maybe you could bring yourself to write 250 words, 100 words, or even a 50-word paragraph. Perhaps, if you feel you’re not in the frame of mind to add to your primary work in progress, you could do a writing exercise (there are many books and websites that offer these; I like this one) or a journal entry, which is a lower-pressure way to work on your writing because the stakes aren’t as high.

Maybe you’re too tired–or your creativity is too drained–to write at all. Maybe tonight’s the night to send submit a short story or two to a literary magazine. Maybe you could do some research. Instead of watching that dumb sitcom, maybe read a book (which is an essential, and often neglected part of the writing process). Have to watch that tv show? Fine. But keep some notes on the decisions the writers make regarding, characterization, dialogue, storytelling, plotting, etc.

There is a wide variety of activities that will make you feel like you’re making progress toward your writing goals instead of giving up because you missed out on one mile-marker.

Do the second (or third, or even fourth) best thing rather than the worst thing, and you will feel like you’re making progress. You will come back stronger the next day, ready to tackle your next challenge as you proceed to achieve your larger goals.

Discipline is not about being perfect. It’s about staying consistent with your principles to achieve your goals and not giving up. Sometimes that involves doing the second-best thing instead of the worst thing. Making good choice—even if they’re not the best choices—can help you achieve the kind of consistent progress you will need to move forward on your journey, both with writing and in life.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

Re-examining New Year’s Resolutions—Part 1—Reassessing Word Count Goals

Research shows that, by now, over 50 percent of people have given up on their new year’s resolutions. By the first week in February, that number will jump into the 80s. While those numbers refer to all resolutions (and you can click through to the articles for the whys and wherefores), I can only assume, based on anecdotal experience, that the numbers for writing resolutions are very similar. Over the next three weeks, I will present some ideas to help you stay—or get back—on your path to success for the rest of this—still young—year. This week, let’s take a look at writing consistently and hitting your daily word counts.

The most common writing resolution seems to be “I will write X amount of words (or time) every day.” This affirmation stems from the idea that to be a writer, one must write, and the related idea that one must practice if one wants to improve one’s craft. There are myriads of famous, successful writers who shout some version of these statements from the hilltops and present it as their first piece of writing advice for aspiring writers.

While writing consistently is a virtue, this advice is somewhat disingenuous. It is easy for a professional writer whose primary source of income is their writing, and who has an agent on retainer to search for and submit to venues for their writing, to say that you need to write a certain amount a day, but for the rest of us, life happens. Work exhausts us; family obligations arise; health situations must be considered. Moreover, this type of goal prioritizes quantity over quality (more on that in the coming weeks). How does research and reading fit in? To what extent should one prioritize actual writing—keeping your pen moving—over researching, querying, and submitting?

I would like to suggest an easier way to achieve your word count goal: Instead of setting a daily goal, set a weekly goal. Let’s say you set a modest goal, 250 words a day. Two hundred fifty words is approximately one double-spaced page. If you can write just one page a day, the thinking goes, you will have 365 pages by the end of the year, enough for a full-length novel. That’s all well and good until you start missing days. Given the very common issues delineated in the above paragraph, it is easy to find yourself falling behind and feeling disheartened.

Consider, instead, setting a weekly writing goal. Instead of setting a 250-word a day goal, set a weekly goal of 1750 words. If you hit the goal, you will have written the same amount of words, but if you happen to miss a day due to circumstances beyond your control, you can still achieve what you set out to do, as long as you make up those words by the end of the week.

A weekly goal will also allow you to schedule time around your own individual schedule. Perhaps you have a big family dinner every Sunday, or your wife works late on Thursday nights. You can work around those (and other similar issues) by scheduling writing time when it is more convenient both for yourself and for others in your life. Need to block off a day for editing, querying, submitting, an/or working on your author platform? A weekly goal allows you integrate these activities with your writing schedule and to stay consistent with these other areas of your writing practice as well.

Why a weekly goal instead of a monthly or longer-time-period goal? Well, writing consistently is still important. A weekly goal still sets a regular, measurable deadline. If you have to hustle to reach your goal on a Saturday night, good. That’s why you’re setting goals for yourself in the first place. I believe that weekly goals provide a good medium between consistency and achievability.

What is you still fall behind? What if your word count goals push you toward quantity over quality? Tune in next week for my proposed answer.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

Tao of Writing, Part II: A Finger Pointing A Way To The Moon

I ended my last blog entry talking about Bruce Lee and finding one’s way as a writer. I would like to expand on that theme in this one. In that entry, I wrote a lot about what writing advice is not. In this one, I would like to examine what it is.

Consider, if you will, the following scene from Lee’s most famous movie, Enter The Dragon.

At the end of the scene, Lee says, “It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

This quote, in my opinion, is the single greatest statement I’ve heard about teaching and learning. I’ve written about this quote on numerous occasions, including in papers for graduate school and for my second black belt essay, and used this quote in lessons I’ve given to students ranging from young martial artists to graduate students in English education. Every time I ask my students to interpret the quote, I receive similar responses. Most people talk about missing the forest for the trees. They focus on the phrase “don’t concentrate on the finger,” interpreting the “finger” as the minutia and the “heavenly glory” as the bigger picture. This, I believe is gross misreading of the quote, as a close reading of the line will reveal.

Let’s break down the sentence: “It,” Lee says, “is like a finger.” That simile is the core of the sentence. We will return to the “it” momentarily, but whatever “it” is, is like a finger. Later on, Lee says, “don’t concentrate on the finger,” which, I is section that trips people up.

Is the finger a ruse? Is it a trick to misdirect the student, to get him to look? Does its seeming significance in the sentence only set up a straw man, which the teacher will later undermine? I do not believe so. While it is true that Bruce Lee encouraged his students to break free from classical structures and seek their own truths, he still believed in the necessity of teaching and of the teacher. Why else would he work as a kung fu instructor? Why would he continue to teach even after he became a celebrity actor who was financially secure? Clearly, he saw some great value in the pedagogical process.

Moreover, the text itself undermines the notion that the finger is a misdirection. Let us return to the “it”, the pronoun that is subject of the sentence. What is the antecedent of “it”? While it is grammatically vague, the scene’s context necessitates that the “it” refers to the feeling the student felt at the moment Lee was satisfied with his technique. The student does achieve that plane without Lee’s guidance. He does not know that he had achieved it without Lee telling him what he’s achieved, and, perhaps most importantly, he does not understand the takeaway which Lee intends him to internalize until Lee, the teacher, explains it to him. In a broader sense, “it” is the lesson and/or the teacher—or even the pedagogical process of teaching and learning—which is the true antecedent of “it”.

The “it”, however, is not important in and of itself. The teacher merely points the finger. If the student had truly learned, if he is unable to apply the lesson in situations when he finds himself without his teacher there to guide him, he will not have gained anything. If he concentrates solely on the finger, he will, indeed, miss “all that heavenly glory.”

The finger, therefore, is both essential and not to be focused on. This seeming contradiction can be resolved by examining the most often overlooked phrase in the quote: “a way”. The finger does not merely point at the moon, rather it points “a way” to the moon, a path by which one can get there, a Tao, in the sense that my last post discussed. Through the lesson, the teacher shows the student how to follow “a way.” That is the function of the finger, the teacher, and the lesson. Without the finger, the student would not know where to look. Without the teacher, the student would be groping, blindly, on his own. The teacher cannot walk the path for the student, but the student is more likely to be successful with the guidance of the teacher.

This quote also encapsulates my theory about writing advice and writing models. When we concentrate on the “finger”, when we try to emulate exactly what a famous writer or writing teacher recommends, we set ourselves up for failure. I’ve seen many writers fail because they focus too much on the specific piece of advice rather than the path—or way—that it points toward. You are not Hemmingway, or Mamet, or Morrison, or Gaiman. Your path with differ from theirs. You must find your own Tao. Only then, will you be successful. You can make that search easier, however, by looking beyond the “finger”, looking beyond the narrow piece of advice—even if it’s stated as an absolute by your chosen teacher—and try to seek the larger idea to which it points. Only then, will you achieve your “heavenly glory.”

One of my favorite examples of looking where the finger is pointing is from the introduction to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. Rushdie writes of his debt to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens:

I have written and spoken elsewhere about my debt to the oral narrative traditions of India, and also to those great Indian novelists Jane Austen and Charles Dickens – Austen for her portraits of brilliant women caged by the social convention of their time, women whose Indian counterparts I knew well; Dickens for his great, rotting, Bombay-like city, and his ability to root his larger-than-life characters and surrealist imagery in a sharply observed, almost hyperrealistic background, out of which the comic and fantastic elements of his work seem to grow organically, becoming intensifications of, and not escapes from, the real world.
 – Salman Rushdie

[From the Introduction to Midnight’s Children
Rushdie, Salman. Introduction. Midnight’s Children. By Rushdie. New York: Random House, 2006. eBook.
]

Rushdie’s writing does not resemble these authors in style or structure, but he saw certain things in their writing—Dickens’ description of a city and ability to incorporate surrealist imagery in a realist setting, and Austen’s portrayal of women caged by society—which were instructive to him in his own writing. He used their writing—their lessons—as fingers, pointing a way at something significant. He used their examples to find his own path toward success. I hope that you and I am can free our minds from the literal, narrow view of following writing advice and find out own Tao’s of writing. And, if the way that I—or any other writer—point toward is not your way, that is ok. Remember that the finger points “a way”, not necessarily “the way” to the moon. There are many paths to glory.