Grow Toward Your Light

On a recent trip to Lancaster county, I saw a curious sight while visiting the Amish Farm with my family. An old mulberry tree grew across a river like a bridge. When I say across the river, I don’t mean that it’s branches grew over the river, but that its trunk grew horizontally rather than vertically, out into the middle of the river, about halfway across before the branches started growing upwards, perpendicular to the rest of the tree, toward the sky. It almost looked like the tree had been chopped down, except the roots grew—in a massive tangle—from the ground, and were still connected to the tree.

The mulberry tree described above

The sight of this tree brought me back to my childhood when I used to go camping with my father every June after school let out for the summer. Many of my fondest childhood memories occurred on those camping trips, and when I think about my father, who passed away in 2003, I often recall the things he taught me on those trips to the woods, and the wisdom and life lessons he imparted on those trips shaped the way I see and think about the world as much as anything else in my childhood.

The particular memory of this tree triggered was from one of our earliest trips. As a child who grew up in a largely urban environment, I was amazed by the trees in their natural setting in the state park in upstate New York where we went camping. What I noticed first was actually the roots (I was a city kid, and we’re taught from a young age that only tourists look up). The trees that I knew grew neatly on the edge of the sidewalk or in public parks. They were kept and pruned. Sometimes their roots would lift up sections of the sidewalk, which could trip you if you tried to ride your bike over them, but which for the most part, remained hidden, growing, properly, into the earth.

The roots I noticed were exposed. They grew in intricate tangles, gripping glacial rocks like the fingers of a giant, clawed hand. You could see roots as wide as branches growing down the rocky slope into the pond by which we ate breakfast each morning.

My father explained that the trees roots would grow to “find” water. If they could not penetrate the rock, they would grow around—or over it—stretching and striving to get to the water they needed to grow.

He then directed my gaze upward, pointing out the way they did a similar thing as they grew to get to the light, the other main thing they needed in order to survive. Young trees could not grow straight up, he said, because the older trees blocked out the light they needed to grow. If the tree was to survive, it would need to find the light, in any direction it could. Trees near the water would often grow in this fashion, as the airspace above the water was clear of the canopy of older trees, but you could see the trees twist and turn in interesting and unexpected shapes anywhere in the forest.

Looking up, I was awed by these wild trees. I found a beauty there which would inspire in me a Tolkien-esque love of trees. Others could have their beaches (which I always found boring) and their mountains. For me, the beauty of nature was best expressed in trees, especially in those twisted, mangled deciduous trees, seeking for sunlight, striving to survive.

The mulberry tree I saw a couple of weeks ago on vacation brought me back to this memory for obvious reasons. Though the tree on the farm grew in isolation, it is likely that at some point in its early life, it had to yield its airspace to other, older trees which have since been cut down. In this tree, I saw an extreme example of the phenomenon my dad pointed out all those years ago. The trunk grew parallel to the ground, low and over the river. It must have grown that way for years before its branches were able to reach upward toward the sky.

During this season of resolutions, let us look toward these trees. We live in a society which values progress and often assesses it by the extent to which it is linear. But life does not work that way. Everyone has their own, individual path, just as each tree must find its own way down toward the water and up toward the sun. Moreover, growth is not always linear. Sometimes, your trunk will have to go parallel with the ground—like the mulberry tree—or even go, temporarily, backward in its long and twisted pursuit of its goal. In a society which encourages us to chart growth and evaluates it by the shape of the plots’ steady slope up a graph, choose, instead, to emulate nature and embrace the unique patterns of the enchanted wood.

Grow toward your light, whatever direction that takes you.

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 Resolutions and Goals, Part 3: Goal Setting And Practicing With Intention

Shaquille O’Neal was one of the greatest basketball players of all time, but he had one glaring weakness: he was a poor free-throw shooter. While he was a dominant force in most other aspects of the game—one of the most dominant of all time—his inability to shoot free throws was so glaring that many teams adopted the strategy of fouling him on purpose, sending him to the line for a chance a free points because they would rather take the chances that he would miss than let him try to score against their defense.

Now, Shaq knew he had this weakness. He worked to correct it by shooting many, many practice free throws and by working with a plethora of shooting coaches. One offseason, it was reported that he was shooting thousands of free-throws a day. His coach, however, was not impressed.

“If he’s shooting them with incorrect form,” his coach, Phil Jackson, said (I’m paraphrasing here), “he’s not going to get better. He’s only reinforcing bad habits.”

This story, I believe relates not just to basketball, but to most skills, writing included. The quality—and intentionality—of your practice is just as—if not more—important as your volume. As I wrap up my series on new year’s resolutions and writing goals (part 1 here; part 2 here), I want to look at the types of goals we set as writers, and whether these goals are the best approach to improving at our craft.

Most writers, as I detailed in the previous posts in this series, set word count or writing time goals. Write a certain amount of words or a certain amount of time per day, and your writing will improve. If you want to be a writer, you have to write, the common platitude goes. And so we write. We add to our work in progress, slog through our first draft of our novel, but do we really improve as writers? Are we improving at our craft? Are we better today than were yesterday? Or, are we, like Shaq, reinforcing bad habits?

If we answer the question honestly, I think we will find that most of us are not growing as much as we could. We have random spikes when hit on something great, and, occasionally, we might actually learn something, but that growth is often random and passive rather than intentional. Imagine how much better we’d be if we were purposeful in our practice and worked to address our weaknesses.

That is the fallacy in the 10-thousand-hour rule. Instead of shooting 10000 free throws, shoot 1000 shots sitting in a chair, shooting with your wrist and working on your follow through. Master that, then work on aligning your elbow. Figure out which part of your form is off and isolate your practice to focus on that aspect.

There are two types of practice: practice that mimics performance, and practice that builds the necessary skills and attributes which are necessary to perform successfully. In writing—and this is true not just for aspiring writers, but for the way writing is taught from elementary school through the university level—we tend to focus on the performance aspect, the final piece intended for publication, at the expense of the skill and attribute-building aspects. This sets writing up in opposition to many other fields where skill and attribute training reign supreme. No one questions the utility of the speed bag for building hand speed and coordination for boxers, yet no boxer goes into the ring and tries to hit his or her opponent with the same technique that they use to hit the bag. Serious chess players do not just practice by playing games, either against each other or against a computer, they work at problems and exercises designed to isolate the strategy needed in certain situations. So why don’t writers, by and large, spend their writing time practicing their similes, working on their sentence structure, and their meter, their dialogue? Perhaps we should.

Recently, I spent an evening completing a writing exercise where I had to list and define as many portmanteaus as I could within a certain amount of time. This list, which was based off of an exercise James Joyce would do, was not designed to produce a publishable piece of writing, but it allowed me to improve at a device which was not one I commonly use in my writing. I expanded my toolbox, and actually wrote a passage in one of my works-in-progress recently that had two portmanteaus in it.

One exercise that I often suggest to young writers is mimicking a writer whom they admire. Try to write a paragraph in the style of that author, about any subject. Focus on the model’s sentence structure, literary devices, etc. This exercise is unlikely to produce a publishable piece of writing (unless you, unintentionally, create a brilliant satire), but it will make you more aware of any author’s style and allow you to begin to critically evaluate your own. There is a great passage in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in which she mimics the style of famous male and female authors of the 19th Century. Internalizing author authors’ style will expand your own and make you a better writer.

Similarly, W. H. Auden would give his students poetry exercises where they would have to use certain combinations of metrical feet in each line and to use different types of rhymes at proscribed points in the poem (see picture below). This exercise was not designed to produce great poetry—and if you look at Auden’s poetry, he does not often combine that many different meters in a single poem—but it is designed to teach students the various possibly combinations of rhyme and meter. It is similar to the athletic exercises delineated above.

Choosing which exercises to do—which skills to focus on—requires you to analyze your own writing. Internalize the feedback you get from others and read yourself critically. Maybe you are prone to simile and want to practice metaphor or allusion; perhaps you want to work on writing realistic dialogue; maybe your writing is too structured and you want to loosen it up and make it more natural; maybe you write stream of conscious and want to gain more control over your style. Whatever your goal, whatever your weakness as a writer, there are exercises that you can do to improve each of these skills—and any other area you on which you desire to work.

There are exercises you can do to improve your attributes as well. Engage in speed writing to see how many words you can put on a page in a given amount of time; read the dictionary to improve your vocabulary (Both John Gardner and Chris Bohjalian as a warm up exercise before you actually start your writing session for your work in progress). Diagram a complex sentence (say one of Faulkner’s famously long ones) to gain a better understanding of grammar.

By engaging in these types of skill-and-attribute-building exercises, you will improve as a writer. You must choose your exercises intentionally; you must analyze your strengths and weaknesses honestly—which is hard—but you will improve faster than if you just write for the sake of hitting a word count goal.

Now, engaging in this type of practice may seem like it might slow your progress. You will likely end up with fewer finished pieces, and your word count totals on the pieces you intend to publish might suffer in comparison to what you’re doing now, but the ones you do finish, will be better and you will notice improvement from one piece to the next as you build your writing toolbox.

Notice, that these exercises take time. You will still be working those 10 thousand hours, but 10000 hours will help you grow as a writer rather than just turning your wheels like Shaq with his free throws.

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

A Birthday Tribute To Isaac Asimov (And Not Exclusively To His Science Fiction)

Today is Isaac Asimov’s 100th Birthday, and while it is also World Science Fiction Day because he was born on this day, I would like to draw your attention to some of the grand master’s other, non-science-fiction writing.

Like many of you, I was introduced to the science fiction genre through Asimov’s writing. Caves of Steel was the first hard science fiction book I read, and everything I’ve read and written in the genre since can be traced back to the day when my father gave me that book as a present when he returned from his latest business trip. I could easily write a blog explaining how that book—and the themes contained therein—influenced me personally, and science fiction in general, but I imagine, that if you have any interest in Asimov at all, you’ve read your share of those kind of articles today.

Instead, I’d like to focus on a different aspect of Asimov’s prodigious canon. Asimov wrote widely and prolifically, about many subjects, not just science fiction, and not even just fiction. Some of you may have encountered Asimov’s books about science fact before. Certain elementary and middle school teachers use these texts to try to get students interested in learning about science. “You enjoy reading his work about fake robots and space ships,” the say, “you might enjoy his writing about real robots and outer space.”  

Fewer of you, I’d venture a guess, are familiar with Asimov’s literary analysis. Books like Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare and Asimov’s Paradise Lost Annotated are excellent study guides that provide insight, excellent, and analyses, As a student, I used Asimov’s Paradise Lost to help me understand Milton’s, and as a teacher I’ve often steered struggling students away from spark and cliff notes and toward Asimov’s texts, which, in my opinion, are vastly superior as study guides (and not unimportantly, are best used in conjunction with, rather than instead of reading the original texts). I have even used quotes from the book as part of my planned lessons.

This is not a blog about teaching, however, at least not about teaching Shakespeare to high school students. It is a blog a about writing, and I believe that we–as writers–can learn a lot about writing from Asimov’s “Guide To” series. The master knew his stuff. He knew enough about science to write a guide to science, and that is part of the reason his science fiction rings so true; he knew enough about literature not only to dissect some of the greatest texts in the history of literature, but also to explain these difficult books to a lay audience clearly and concisely. One can see echoes of the books about which he wrote guide, Shakespeare, Milton, and The Bible, in his science fiction writing, both in terms of plot and in terms of characterization (but that is a subject for another blog post).

In short, Asimov knew about both his craft and his subject matter in a way that few other writers have before or since. While many writers call on their peers to read widely and to “write what you know”, few read as widely or knew as much as Isaac Asimov did.

As writers, it is incumbent upon us to educate ourselves in a similar fashion. While will probably never read as much—or know as much—as the grand master of Science Fiction, we can  likely all do more to improve these areas of our practice than we currently do. In this season of resolutions, let us all resolve, on his birthday, to try to be more like Isaac Asimov.

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