Hiatus over.

I’ve had constraints on the mind lately. Time constraints, mostly, as I’ve been striving to take advantage of every opportunity that’s come along in recent months, plus train for a belt test, and contend with a bout of walking pneumonia in there somewhere. (Hint: The walking part is total b.s.) Which goes most of the way toward explaining the lull here.

But this inevitably makes me think of creative constraints, as well. Not as the enemy, but as an unlikely ally. Just as we narrow our focus to our highest priorities when time gets as pinched as the middle of an hourglass, and maybe even squeeze out better work under pressure, a limited pallet of creative options can actually be a helpful thing.

Paralysis By Paradox

If you’ve ever backed away from a decision because you couldn’t quite hack through the thicket of options to conclusively choose, then you’ve succumbed to a behavioral glitch dubbed the Paradox Of Choice. Or Paralysis By Choice, which I like better, because — spoiler alert — it tells you the end result.

It gelled as a theoretical given in 2000, after a famous jam study in which people could see their way clear to buying a jar of jam when they had 6 types to choose from, but 24 turned everyone into flustered, indecisive hand-wringers. Because jam, I’m sure we can all agree, is a serious commitment.

The theory has deservedly lost some luster since then, at least as a blanket model for how people tick. When was the last time you ran screaming from the cereal aisle, or went fetal at Starbucks? The reality is more nuanced: Some circumstances trigger the twitches, and some don’t.

But I’d be willing to bet that all of us have experienced this in a creative context. A project in which the open-ended blankness of our chosen medium has too many potential starting points (or paths down which to continue) that it leaves us stalled.

Portrait Of A Mad Waffler

You see this a lot in music. Especially with synthesizers. Technological aeons ago, early synths had to be programmed one sound at a time, with no memory recall. Now both hardware and software synths routinely come with hundreds, even thousands, of presets right there for instant access. And nobody can live with just one synth. You do the math.

With entire worlds of sounds at your fingertips, where do you begin? You can spend all your music-making time dialing through presets, weighing options, instead of actually making music. As a hobbyist who loves soundscaping — painting with sound, essentially — I’ve been there.

And that’s before I get to tweaking sounds to customize them, or programming from scratch.

The best way out of this quagmire I’ve found? Set rules. Whip up a group of sonic colors and stick with them. Establish the parameters early: one from this synth, one from that one, another from that library, etc. Decide quickly — say, 5 minutes tops to pick each one. Then make the most of them, as if they’re the only sounds in the world.

Eliminating the burden of choice as soon as possible really can move you past that place of paralysis.

As for more traditional songwriters, there’s a reason so many choose to rough out a song’s framework on acoustic guitar or piano. If the chords and melodies work well with such bare-bones instrumentation, then the musician knows she’s not hiding a weak song behind production tricks.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt … And Beyond

In some private photography lessons that my luv took a few years ago, the tutor had her begin by confining her shooting within our home. Not just a restricted space, but the environment with which she was most familiar.

Week after week of this.

She chafed at it, but there was a valuable purpose behind this: It forced her to take subjects whose everyday familiarity made them seem mundane, and stick with them long enough to start seeing them anew. To approach them from different angles and perspectives, imposing new juxtapositions.

Get used to doing that in the confines of home, and you’re much more likely to capture images that are uniquely your own once you carry this tendency back out into the world.

Strategic Myopia

All well and good for sound and vision, but how can these principles apply to the page? That’s up to you. You’re the one who gets to pick out your own set of handcuffs.

But here are a few ideas to get you thinking in that direction, whether as a spark for a single story, as a means to break through a block on a chapter, or just for a new challenge.

• Ever hear of a locked-room mystery? It’s typically a subgenre of detective fiction in which the crime, the unknowns, and the solution are all confined within a tight space from which nothing seemingly gets in or out. Give it a whirl, or adapt the format to a different kind of story.

• A lot can change in a single car ride. Find a way to wring the entirety of the human condition out of what happens inside that car.

• Rob a character of one or more key senses at the worst possible time. How do they process the world and what’s going on with the senses that are left?

• “Character is destiny,” said Flannery O’Conner. So forget about the contrivances of plot needs, and retrofitting characters to match what you think a story demands. Just start with interesting characters. Three, four, whatever. Know them well — speed-date them if you have to — then stick with what you know. No cheating, no changing. Maybe they’re so radically different from one another they’d never end up in the same place at the same time. Throw them together anyway and see what their shared destiny is.

• Work differently — more simply. Is your conduit of choice a computer? Trying the stripped-down approach of a pen and pad may alter your approach to anything from words to structure. It has mine, when I’ve done it, whether that’s been by choice or forced by circumstances. Entire novels have been written on cell phones. OK, that’s more of a Japanese thing, but still…

• Ditch your research. Or at least set it aside for a while. Research can be an invaluable part of storytelling’s nut-and-bolts, as you dig up details that will give your material the kiss of life. But it has a dark side. Research can also overwhelm you with options of what to use and where to use it. Before beginning my current novel-in-progress, I’d done so much research that I was left with no idea where to begin. It was like running around the outside of a stadium, unable to choose which entrance gate to use. It was only when I let all that go and focused instead on the characters that I could begin.

Doing The Most With What Little You Have

My all-time favorite lesson on the power of constraints comes from the legendary comedy troupe Monty Python. In speaking of the BBC TV show that gave them their foundation, this brief insight from John Cleese explains much: “If we’d had a budget, we would’ve only been mediocre.”

I love that.

Without production values to hide behind, the Pythons knew they were going to be standing there naked, which forced them to work harder on coming up with some of the funniest, most original, whacked-out stuff anybody had ever seen. It holds up amazingly well, too. Of this early body of work from the late 1960s and early ‘70s, very little seems dated. It’s timelessly goofy, with an infinite shelf life.

Proving that less really can lead to more.

[Photo by Konstantin Stepanov]

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You’d never treat your life’s work this way, right? Your lips say no no no, but your habits may say yes yes yes.

File this under Things You Would Never Do: dump your entire life’s creative work in a pile, spray gasoline on it until everything’s soaked, and flip a lit match at it.

We all have Days Of Suck when we feel like doing this. Following through, though? You just wouldn’t. That’s for drama queens in cheesy movies.

But unless you’re adequately backing up your computer-based work — crucial word there, adequately — playing with fire is exactly what you’re doing. Every day. It’s no different. You’re just hoping the match snuffs out before it hits.

Computer pros have this scary saying: There are two kinds of people — those who’ve lost data, and those who are going to. It’s just a waiting game. All hard drives will fail eventually.

Yet backing up remains one of those things everybody knows they should do, but only a minority actually practice. Which is why data recovery services thrive. And why do they charge so much? Because they can.

If your work is worth laboring over in the first place, isn’t it worth investing an hour or so to disaster-proof it all?

Here’s how. I promise to make this, as Einstein suggested, as simple as possible, but not simpler.

And if you still need convincing, imagine ending up like this guy:

When You Can’t Be A Good Example…

I saw it happen again recently: a Facebook friend reeling over the scorched earth left by some really rotten luck.

There had been a break-in at his home. During which the thief or thieves made off with his laptop and its auxiliary external hard drive. Evidently, not once in 15 years had he backed anything up.

Result: 15 years’ worth of writing, notes, photos, and the like … poof. All gone.

The response was predictable, a flood of “poor baby” messages. Well, OK — you don’t want to be cruel, and add insult to injury.

Still, I didn’t join in the litany of commiseration. To be blunt, this would have been hypocritical. I wasn’t feeling it. Here’s what was really going through my head:

You sad, sad fool, you. Instead of fishing for public sympathy, you should be hanging your head in shame.

Because you let this happen. No, worse — you invited it. Worse yet, you were complicit with the thief. Of course I feel bad for you for the computer and hard drive and everything else that was taken. You’re right, though, stuff can be replaced. As for the real loss, the true casualties, it didn’t have to be this way.

But no. You thought you knew better. You trusted in the wrong things and you couldn’t be bothered. And now you’ve thrown away 15 years of work and memories because you didn’t value it enough to invest a little time, and maybe a little cash, in protecting it.

So now you’ve become the worst kind of object lesson. Because you failed to be a good example, you’ll have to serve as a horrible warning.

Harsh? Good. It should be. Losing everything is a harsh outcome.

Backup Theory 101

Backing up is like a workout regimen: The best plan for you is the one you can stick with. And the easiest plan to stick with is the one that, after it’s up and running, you hardly have to think about unless you need it.

Fortunately, you can easily set this up for both kinds of backup that Information Technology professionals routinely rely on to protect vital business data.

I’ve had occasion to talk with and interview numerous IT professionals, and some of their habits and approaches have rubbed off, as I detailed here. Including how I go about protecting my life’s work.

Here’s the key: Data isn’t safely backed up unless it’s backed up at least twice, both on-site and remotely.

Why two copies? An on-site backup can become a casualty too, because there are worse things than hard drive failure. Theft, fire, flood, tornado — if the situation is dire enough to wipe out your computer, it may also claim your close-at-hand backup. Redundancy can save your butt.

But What If This Geeky Stuff Just Isn’t Your Forte?

In wired households, there’s often one person who plays the role of the IT person. Under our roof, that’s me. Hardware set-up, networking, wi-fi, printer sharing, routine maintenance, troubleshooting … it all falls to me.

But if, in your home, that’s not you, ask the person who does handle these tasks to get you set up. Ask, beg, play the guilt card … whatever it takes. And if you don’t have a live-in IT proxy, then you surely know somebody who groks this stuff.

Whoever it is, put them on the job and make it worth their time. A plate of cookies, a gift card from Starbucks or Amazon or Best Buy … you’ll think of something.

It’s not as big an imposition as you might think. True geeks find this stuff fun. And if we like you, we’ll probably work cheap.

Three Shades Of Backing Up

This is the backup system I use, with on-site and remote copies, plus a third copy I call an off-site backup. It’s hardly your only option, or the last word on the topic, but I do think it’s the most comprehensive, most flexible, and fastest-access-if-you-really-need-it configuration.

(1) On-Site Backup

What you need: External hard drive; backup software

Your primary backup is your first line of defense. This is the one that should cover anything and everything that, if you lost it forever, would have you eyeing the rafters for the best place to dangle a noose.

Mac. This is my platform of choice, and I’m highly satisfied with Time Machine, the backup program built into the last several iterations of Mac OS X. Set-up, found in System Preferences, is dead simple. It runs hourly and does versioning, meaning you can retrieve an earlier version of a file. More than once I’ve used it to fetch an earlier draft of a document, and rescue something that got deleted.

Windows. Select versions of Windows have also provided a built-in backup program since at least XP, although it’s buried deeper. In recent versions, follow this path, or something similar: Start —> Control Panel —> System and Security —> Backup and Restore. At which point, you’re off to see the wizard.

Both platforms’ homegrown programs have their critics, mostly on the grounds of being too simplistic and not providing a lot of user options. If you’re just getting started, this probably isn’t going to be an issue.

Still, in case you prefer to go third-party: On the Mac, I can recommend Prosoft Engineering’s Data Backup, which is also available for PC. Or you could choose something from Lifehacker’s list of readers’ picks for the 5 best Windows backup tools.

Backup destination. Any reliable external drive should do. This allows you to easily shuttle your backup to another computer if needed. Just make sure it has at least twice as much storage space as your current data requires. This gives you room to grow.

My current choice: Iomega’s MiniMax FireWire 800/USB 2. I like the flexibility of 2 types of connectivity, FireWire 800 is really fast, I’ve had great service from Iomega products, and it runs in almost total silence.

(2) Remote Backup

What you need: High-speed Internet connection; account with Dropbox, or similar online storage service

The rise of cloud computing makes remote backup easier than it ever has been. While many online storage services are available for a monthly fee, a basic Dropbox account (with 2 GB storage) is free, and free is always awesome.

Dropbox works by installing a folder on your hard drive. Anything put in that folder gets uploaded to cloud storage; when a file is changed, the latest version uploads, replacing the earlier draft. As long as you’re connected online, this synchronization happens almost immediately. It doesn’t do versioning, obviously, but you do have a near-instantaneous duplicate of whatever you choose to back up, which you can access from other computers.

Now, a lot of people, myself included, don’t want to dump everything we wish to protect into a single folder. I use Dropbox for a variety of important files — work documents past and present, financial records, e-mail database, etc. — and prefer to keep my longtime organization scheme intact.

Not a problem. I just use symbolic links (symlinks for short), instead.

If you’ve ever used a shortcut in Windows, or an alias in the Mac OS, then you’ve got the principle behind symlinks nailed already. It’s the same thing: a tiny file that points to an actual file, folder, application, etc. Symlinks just work on a deeper operating system level than the Mac’s Finder or Windows Explorer. When an alias or shortcut fails to fool a program into thinking it’s found what it’s looking for, a symlink usually does the trick.

Dropbox is one such program. It balks at shortcuts and aliases, but feed its folder symlinks and it’s happy.

How do you create symlinks? While you can do it with command line tools, it’s much easier with a utility that turns the process into a simple menu option.

On the Mac, a tiny freeware plug-in called SymbolicLinker works great. For various flavors of Windows, here’s a quick tutorial on different methods, including an add-on called Link Shell Extension.

(3) Off-Site Backup

What you need: Portable external hard drive; backup or disk cloning software; someone or someplace you trust

This is an extra level of protection that may not be necessary, depending on how complete your remote backup is. For me, it’s a good idea. I currently have 1.3 TB of stuff to back up. That’s a long, time-consuming download if I need it, and if I do need it, that means my original drives and primary backup are toast, so I’m already having a stupendously bad day and apt to be a bit impatient.

A further consideration: If things are that bad, could I even count on having a reliable high-speed connection? Plus I prefer having a bootable backup that I can quickly work or restore from, if needed.

So: I’ve used a clone utility, Carbon Copy Cloner, to make simple clones of my hard drives and partitions. If you’re on PC, check the aforementioned Lifehacker list for tools that will deliver the same results.

I store this mega-clone a few minutes away from home. Every couple weeks or so I bring the drive in, update the clones, and back out it goes.

Most of that 1.3 TB of data doesn’t change nearly as often as my active work files. Because I use Dropbox for the most important stuff, I can be more leisurely with this second backup covering all the rest.

Get Your Own Back

People who don’t back up are staking the survival of their work on two things: that they will never make a mistake, and nothing bad will happen.

When has this ever been the smart longterm play?

The world doesn’t cooperate with that. We screw up. Hard drives crash, data gets corrupted, components fry. Thieves take. Disaster strikes.

Even as I’m wrapping this up, I’ve received an email from a European publisher asking if I could send them a tax-related digital form that accompanied a recent book payment. Which they’ve deleted on their end, and apparently hadn’t bothered to … well, you know.

They’re hosed. I binned it too. Almost immediately. Because I have no need to hang onto the financial documents somebody else is required to keep for their business.

Nobody else can pull you from the fire. Only you.

Only you can minimize the damage, and preemptively prevent a data mishap from turning into an irreparable calamity that erases years of your life.

Seriously, you have enough to worry about. So protect what’s yours. Schedule an hour and set this up. And be the good example … not the horrible warning.

[Photo by Patrick Correia]

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[Cross-post with Storytellers Unplugged]

We forget the length of our reach sometimes.

We underestimate the universality of our experience — of the truth as we know and tell it — and the potential for others to tap into it.

And the more we remember the potential of stories to leap cultural chasms in a single bound, the closer we are to being writers not just for a region, for a particular demographic, for our country of residence or for the fellow native-born speakers of our tongue, but for the world.

It Came From Mumbai

I got an inquiry about optioning the film rights to one of my novels the other day. It happens sometimes. Never like this, though. Until now, the farthest afield these inquiries have ever come from is Canada. And Canada, to me, feels pretty much like the U.S., just with a lot more hockey and things with antlers.

This time the inquiry, about my crime novel Mad Dogs, came from a writer-director in the Indian film industry.

Not Indian as in Native American. Indian as in 12 time zones between Mumbai and the Rocky Mountains. Literally on the other side of the world.

One paragraph into the e-mail, my initial thought was that, okay, this is someone from a thriving foreign film industry — you’ve probably heard the term Bollywood — looking to expand into the U.S. market. Which I based on nothing other than intimate knowledge of the book in question:

Mad Dogs follows not quite two weeks in the life of a struggling actor who gets mistaken for the real-life fugitive he’s recently portrayed on an America’s Most Wanted-style TV show. A mistake like that isn’t going to hold up for long, but it sets into motion multiple chains of dominos that, once they’ve started falling, can’t be stopped. Including the actor and his situation suddenly becoming a Hollywood hot property, a status which is better served by his continuing to remain a fugitive in his own right. Then there’s the matter of the real criminal deciding that he has to meet this guy who’s just played him on TV…

It’s harsh and comic and violent and satirical, and, because I wrote the thing, I can state with 100% certainty that it was written as an allergic reaction to what I considered to be uniquely American cultural craziness.

But hardly uniquely American in the view of the man from Bollywood:

“I see great potential in it to be adapted into a ‘Hindi’ language film. Great characters and plot, very suitable to the Indian milieu and context, as the celebrity culture and the so-called associated subculture is just about bursting at its seams here.”

…And This Floored Me

I’ve never been to India. My image of it has been shaped by such personalities as Gandhi and Mother Teresa, and its longtime status as a destination for seekers of enlightenment. My closest direct contact with India has been the occasional customer service call routed to Bangalore, speaking with someone whose accent leads me to suspect he/she was not, at birth, named Suzy or Steve … so no, they’re not fooling me, but because they’re so polite, so unfailingly earnest and guileless, and so committed to a positive outcome, I excuse this tiny falsehood and want to believe them anyway.

Plus I really like the food.

Contrast this with the kind of can’t-be-bothered stateside help who, if you dare walk in and ask for assistance, look at you like you’ve just chundered on their shoes, and want nothing more than for you to leave so they can resume parsing the complexities of Jersey Shore.

So … India. I know they have nukes, and the long, ugly legacy of the caste system. It still didn’t seem like the kind of place where Mad Dogs could happen.

Now, if I hadn’t had the blinders screwed so tightly to my head, I’d’ve already recognized that modern Indian society has ample capacity to be every bit as epically vapid and shallow as ours can be.

Just a couple weeks ago, via BBC News, I saw an article on the Indian trend of vaginal bleaching. I wish I were making this up. If you believe the commercial — and when would a commercial ever lie? — beautiful Indian women are being shunned by their mates until they, quite literally, lighten up.

Whether or not men this thick-headed should even risk passing their genes down to the next generation is another matter, but there’s probably a cool story in that, too.

Think Globally, Act Locally

To boil it down: What we have here is a situation in which a writer-director in Mumbai downloads one of my novels in e-book format, reads it on his Kindle, and despite its thoroughly American DNA, feels it has a significant resonance in his own world. And feels strongly that there’s a large audience who will resonate along with it.

I have no idea, of course, where this will lead, if anywhere. But I do know it couldn’t have happened even 5 years ago, when Mad Dogs was first published in hardback. Not like this. Not with this kind of rapidity, nor this kind of fluidity, in which borders and distance mean nothing.

Yet there’s something timeless going on here, as well. It’s a testament to the power of story, its ability to transcend surface differences and cut deeper, to the heart of shared experience and the bridge of unexpected parallels.

With story in hand, your reach can be longer than you think.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to engineer a thing like this. It happens if and when it happens. But there are a few things to remember and apply when trying to extend the length of your own reach.

You already have a home field advantage. If you’re reading this, odds are that you write in English. This is a huge advantage. English is the world’s dominant language, the language of international business, finance, and technology. And it’s only going to continue to spread, through all levels of global society.

Write as deeply from the heart as you can. Beyond the words, even, emotion is the true universal language. Content and context may differ, but our joys, sorrows, and yearnings … everybody speaks these. Very often, the things that seem most personal end up being the most widely relatable. Bullets and black comedy aside, Mad Dogs was as heartfelt as anything I’ve ever written, replete with overarching themes of brotherhood, betrayal, family strife, and the hunger for success.

Study Joseph Campbell and his legacy. If you don’t know Campbell’s work, suffice to say he spent a lifetime immersed in world mythology and identifying the core elements that universally connect to the human psyche. For a look at how this feeds into modern storytelling, check out The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. This book takes Campbell’s classic, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, extracts the core elements that underlie countless myths and fables from around the world and throughout the human timeline, and shows how they work together to form a kind of master storyteller’s template that nevertheless remains endlessly malleable.

Study Shakespeare. If ever there was a writer for all time, William Shakespeare has to be the one. There’s a good reason his plays can so readily be adapted to and reimagined for periods and places far beyond their origins: The depth and breadth of his understanding of the human heart is unsurpassed.

With story in hand, your reach is longer than you think.

And so, it must follow, is your grasp.

[Photo by dullhunk]

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The doubts must cross everyone’s mind at some point:

This is just too much. I’m getting nowhere. Why bother continuing this ongoing exercise in masochism? It’ll only be more of the same. Why not pack it in and give this up.

Certainly it crossed reader FZA’s mind recently, when he posted this in the comments:

“Can I ask a delicate question? Do you agree that there is a concept that at a certain stage in somebody’s life, if you haven’t made it then you simply don’t have ‘it’?”

I do, yes. It’s that stage of life when you’re declared clinically dead.

Until then, the game is still on.

Of Course, It’s Easy To Say That

It’s easy for me, for anyone, to say don’t give up. Easy to say hang in there. Easy to quote Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss” line. That’s the easiest thing in the world. As David J. Schow once said somewhere, “Talk is cheap. Hell, talk is free.”

Doing, and enduring … that’s the hard part.

That’s the part that takes more than a skill set. It also takes defiance, and a tolerance for pain and disappointment, and the willingness to keep getting up after getting knocked down. It takes a long-term vision and commitment and belief in yourself. Most of which have come up in the last couple of posts.

But there’s a threshold where all those natural resources start to feel tapped out. There’s a point at which the pain of contemplating “It hasn’t happened yet” outweighs the pleasure of anticipating “But it might.” I’m not going to deny that.

But it’s not for me, for anyone, to tell a person when they’ve reached that stage. I’m just not in the habit of telling people to surrender. With the possible exception of that neighbor who fancies himself a singer, and hauls his guitar out onto his deck to serenade whoever’s in earshot, and never at a good time. Him, yeah, I’d consider squashing that dream like a rotten peach.

For everybody else…

Only you can say when you’ve hit the wall.

But before you finish sorting that out, be sure you’ll be making a truly informed decision.

The Myth Of “It”

As synchronicity would have it, a couple days before the above question was posted, I finished a book I’d recommend to anyone engaged in this kind of soul-searching: Talent Is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin. It’s undoubtedly going to make my 2012 list of the 5 most useful books I’ve read during the year. It’s influenced the way I approach practicing the piano, and I can already tell a difference.

The core premise is this: Whatever “it” you think there is to have, at least in the sense of some innate quality you were born with, “it” doesn’t exist. No research study has ever found a basis for inborn talent.

Rather, whatever “it” is, it’s been grown over a long time through an enormous amount of focused effort. “Deliberate practice” is Colvin’s term for it. Which means not merely sticking to your comfort zone and doing what already comes fairly easily — that’s just hanging out on a plateau, without climbing higher. It means, instead, working on what doesn’t come easily, on what’s hard. Which automatically means it’s not much fun. And unless you can be brutally honest and realistic with yourself, informed feedback is usually a necessary part of the process.

To bolster his case, Colvin argues that a couple of oft-cited yeah-but-what-about examples are just myths: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Tiger Woods. Both are widely viewed as prodigies who displayed preternatural abilities as children. In truth, they were both the products of passionately devoted fathers who were excellent teachers and started instructing them as toddlers.

Colvin doesn’t mention hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, but it’s the same story. His father had him in skates at age 2, and would flood the family’s back yard so he’d have a private skating rink right outside the door.

In my own instance, I started writing in second grade, and was winning or placing in contests by high school and college. Every so often, an influential teacher made a difference at a key point. By the time I was 22, a Harvard professor assured me I was ready to make the leap to novels … and she was right.

It sounds like an accelerated pace, but by then, I’d already been writing for 15 years. It was much less a matter of innate gifts — none of that juvenilia would I ever want to see the light of day now — than having a passion for putting in the necessary time and effort. And even then, I was still barely getting started.

Diagnosing Yourself

So if you and your writing (or any other endeavor) aren’t where you want to be, consider:

Maybe you haven’t spent enough time at it yet. And how long should that be? This brings us back to the 10,000-hour mark that comes up repeatedly: To become pro-grade good at something takes about 10,000 hours of focused effort, which is roughly equal to 3 hours/day for 10 years.

Or maybe you haven’t been getting the right kind of feedback.

Or maybe you haven’t been continually pushing yourself past your comfort zone.

This is all a double-edged sword, and may or may not be reassuring. On the one hand, it means that just about anything is potentially do-able. On the other hand, it lets the universe off the hook for what it has or hasn’t given you, and instead shifts the onus onto you.

So the question is no longer whether or not you have an innate talent or ability, but whether or not you’re willing to put yourself through the long, not-terribly-fun regimens of doing whatever it takes to cultivate it.

Keeping Up With The Joneses

Although he may not have conceived of it that way, FZA’s post was actually a two-parter. There’s also this:

“I’d like to bring your attention to a sickening story regarding talent and ability in regards to this.

“One of my favourite writers, Thom Jones, tried to place a couple of his stories with various magazines late on in his career when he resumed writing seriously after stints in the army. Joyce Carol Oates rejected ‘Rocket Man’, an absolutely amazing story.

“So in the following interview he describes what happened next:

“He approached a fellow writer for advise. This published writer said that he had to write a story that COULDN’T be rejected. So as he recalls in the interview above, he decided the write ‘The Pugilist at Rest’ which got picked out of the slush pile at The New Yorker and went on to win the O. Henry Award and then become the title story in his debut collection which was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Another story out of that collection, ‘I Want to Live’, was selected by Updike at one of the best stories of the 20th Century.

“How can anyone compete with that?”

And who told you you had to compete with that?

I certainly don’t have to. No writer I know would regard him- or herself as competing with that. It’s impressive, to be sure, but how is it in the way of whatever you want to do? And has Jones himself even duplicated the feat … and if he doesn’t, does that mean everything after is worthless?

The world’s most dismal spectator sport is using other people as the yardstick by which to measure yourself: what they’ve done, what they have, how they look. It’s one of the surest ways to make yourself miserable.

You can look at someone else’s exemplary achievement in one of 2 basic ways:

• An impossible standard to live up to, which fills you with despair, envy, or resentment.

• A confirmation of what is possible, which motivates you to work harder or smarter, or to just hang in there longer.

While there’s a lot we don’t have control over, how to frame an outlook is one of the things for which we do.

Third Alternatives

The choice doesn’t have to be as binary as quit/don’t quit. If you look for it, you might find a little wiggle room somewhere in between.

Focus only on the process awhile instead of the end goal. Sure, it’s a cliche, that line about how it’s all about the journey rather than the destination. It’s not even true. If the destination isn’t at least a little important, why set off in the first place?

Still, sometimes restricting your range of vision is necessary to keep your sanity, or hold off a sense of overwhelm.

As a part of Krav Maga practice, I also do a bit of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, just to round out my ground game a little better. Except BJJ is like falling down the proverbial rabbit hole. Where technique and its refinement are concerned, there’s no bottom. There’s always a deeper level. And when you’re grappling with more experienced training partners, you tend to get tied in knots a lot. After a while, this isn’t much fun, and can start to get demoralizing.

Here’s something the instructor recently told someone who was clearly frustrated: Forget about winning or losing. Just focus on one thing you want to do in the round. One sweep, one reversal, one technique, whatever it is. Get that, and there’s your victory for the round, no matter how the rest of it goes.

So take that same outlook to the page: Forget about publication or acclaim. Just write the story you’ve been dying to write, regardless of how marketable you think it is. Come up with the character you’ll find irresistible to work with. Craft a passage so exquisitely balanced that one errant word would throw it out of whack. Give some characters the sharpest dialogue they’ve ever spoken.

You’ll know when it’s time to raise your head and look to the distance again.

Redefine what constitutes success for you. Also around the same time FZA posted the question, links were popping up on Facebook to this brief essay by one-time screaming comedian and actor Bobcat Goldthwait, on the power of quitting to get to the happy part. Except what he’s been up to in recent years isn’t so much about quitting as recalibrating what he finds most satisfying.

People renegotiate with themselves all the time. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it’s a relief. Maybe the rarefied air of The New Yorker isn’t in your future. That doesn’t mean someplace else isn’t. It’s only the end of the world if you’ve made your world that constrained.

One Last Consideration

Walking away from something that, presumably, you once found satisfying … only you can tell yourself whether or not it’s the right thing to do. While it’s not a decision anyone is apt to make lightly, they might still forget about the responsibility they’re turning their back on.

Responsibility…? Yeah.

And to cover that, the last word goes to legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

[Photo by Gruenemann]

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