Well, at least, my daily and regularly updated blog is not. This is now my old blog. My new blog is right here.
I will keep this one up for archival purposes for now.
But, if you want to continue reading my daily thoughts, occasional essays, and the rest you can find that here.
The following post contains excerpts from:
Mindfulness for Mere Mortals — A Minimal Guide
The latest in my Minimal Guide series contains everything you need to know to develop the processes and habits needed to maintain inner peace. If you’ve always wondered what mindfulness and meditation were about or have struggled to develop a practice of your own, this contains all you need to get started and keep going.
In addition, the eBook is a “living” guide. It will be updated as more questions, feedback, thoughts, and topic ideas not yet covered come up. The book currently contains a lot more than the preview below. And there are even more great sections to come. As updates are made, those who have purchased a copy will receive notification of future versions available free download.
Buy it today!
If you want a preview of what the book is all about, keep reading…
Take a few seconds or a minute and close your eyes. Try, really hard, to notice every sound you hear.
When I close my eyes right now, I hear the cats playing upstairs, I hear cars rushing past in the distance (we live near a busy street), I hear the the quiet hum and whine of household appliances, and snow blowers still busy after recent snow. These are things I don’t really notice when going about my day. Yet, in my home these things are still there, my mind simply filters them out as unimportant background noise. I’m focused on seeing and thinking and doing.
The truth is that we spend most of our lives missing out on most of what is going on around us. We have limited capacity and our minds prioritize our focus according to our needs and desires. Needs and desires come from a dissatisfaction with the present. The want of something else, something more, something that does not yet exist.
Yet to be fully in the present we must de-prioritize needs and desires in lieu of what is here and now. Because our capacity cannot prioritize both the future and the present. It must choose. And, it is dissatisfaction (Dukkha) that causes us to choose to focus on what’s next.
So, the true goal of mindfulness is to miss out on less of what is going on around us by prioritizing the here and now. To hear more and see more and be aware of more on a moment by moment basis.
It’s not easy. It takes sacrifice — letting go. It means closing your eyes sometimes (to focus on hearing) and plugging your ears others (to focus on seeing). It means taking time regularly to just sit, not do, and take it all in. It is the opposite of everything the little voice in our head tells us we should be doing.
But, it is entirely possible. Like any other thing, it will come easy to some and others it may take a lifetime. But, you don’t have to be a saint or a monk. Mindfulness is completely doable for mere mortals like you and I — It just takes practice. Training your brain to respond to the future with phrases like, "that’s interesting" or, "Not right now please" and trust that the idea or need or desire will return when the time is right. Because it will, if it was worth anything.
So, did you do it?
That thing I mentioned in the very first paragraph? That whole close your eyes and listening thing? For how long? A few seconds? A minute? Five minutes?
Well, guess what you just did? You meditated! You’re a friggin’ zen monk rock star! Pat yourself on the back.
Seriously, it might have seemed like nothing you expected or have been told in the past meditation is. Don’t believe anyone who tells you you need to sit in lotus position (which I still can’t do after trying for years) and focus on some imaginary dot breathing in and out through specific blowholes. That’s meditation too but it is usually served with a lot of elitist dressing poured over it.
The truth is that even just taking a few moments to stop, be present, and observe as fully as possible the world around you counts just as much as meditation as any full on two week zen retreat. And you, mere mortal, can do that. A five-year-old can.
At the very least a few seconds is a perfect place to start. A small bit that anyone can do at anytime and anywhere. A small practice that you can build on.
Next time you are at the grocery store in a line that you wish was moving faster, try closing your eyes for a few seconds and pick out all of the sounds around you. As you focus in on each one simply acknowledge it and move along to the next. Right there, in that few seconds, you’ll find you were not focused on the frustration of a slow line. For just a few seconds you were present instead of worrying about a problem that is out of your control. For just a few seconds you were neither angry or happy — you just were. That’s meditation.
And, if you can do that in a long line in a grocery store, you can do that at work in a boring meeting, you can do it in the shower, you can do it anywhere.
And, if you can do it for a few seconds with ease you can double it the next time and double it again the next time after that. It can scale.
Do it enough and five seconds won’t feel like five minutes. Five minutes won’t feel like five hours. In fact, eventually you’ll have experiences where time simply ceases to exist, feeling wise. In fact, you’ll go so deep that an hour of sitting will pass and you’ll feel like you just sat down a few seconds ago (I didn’t believe this either until it happened to me). With practice, you’ll be into some next level zen ninja stuff.
But, it starts with just a few seconds.
OK, this is going to sound a little hokey. Even I blush a little still when I tell people because I know half the people I tell it to will roll their eyes in a "Yeah, right!" gesture. But here it is…
Meditation, if practiced regularly and used prescriptively will bring the practitioner inner peace. It’s as simple as that. But, like the seconds that turn into minutes that turn into hours, peace also will scale in parallel to your meditation practice. Put simply, the more you meditate, the better you will get at it, the more at peace you will experience and feel.
How does meditation give you peace?
Because meditation helps you see the world, and your self in it, for what it is — not what you wish it to be. Meditation will help you learn to focus your energy on the things you can change — right here and now — and ignore the things you can’t (especially that which is not right here and now). When your energy is then focused on direct action on changing that which causes you suffering, discomfort, and stress, you will change it. You will learn to simply let go of those feelings for the things you can’t change.
There’s those "Yeah, sure, right?" eye rolls again.
Really, it’s true. Let’s go back to that long grocery line and break down the things you can do about it. Let’s assume there are no other shorter faster lines. Here’s your choices…
- Leave and not get groceries. There, problem solved. At least the waiting one is. You still need groceries.
- Wait and get frustrated. Does that make the line move faster? Does that change anything but making you even more angry and frustrated and dissatisfied?
- Wait and know that there is nothing to do but wait. Be OK with the wait. Be at peace with waiting.
Now, only one of those choices will bring you peace. The one where you paused in your frustration and took the time to see what you could do about the problem and choose the one that brought you peace. That is mindfulness. That is meditation. That is peace.
And, once you can learn how to approach a grocery line with mindfulness you can learn how to approach every single moment that way. No matter the situation. No matter how bad it seems or how much it hurts. With practice, you can bring yourself peace anytime and anywhere in any situation.
Once again, it’s not easy…
I don’t even consider myself all that good at it. Put me behind the wheel of a car and you will see my mindfulness fly out the drivers side window most days. But, just because my practice is not always perfect it does not mean I don’t know what the answer and solution is. I know it takes practice and, for me, it may take a whole lot more.
How much more? I have no idea. That’s future. If I focus on that I’ve already lost — I can’t put any action or effort there because it doesn’t exist. Not yet, at least, and maybe never. I can only put action and effort on today. I can’t even go back and say sorry to that driver who I flipped off when he cut in front of me and he wouldn’t likely apologize in return. That’s past and it can’t be changed. All I can do is, when I feel the road rage coming, take a second or two to be present, weigh my responses, and choose the one that brings me the most peace. It’s the only thing I can control. Because the one that brings me the most peace is the one that benefits me the most. If it sounds "selfish" it’s because it is. And that’s OK if it also benefits those around me and, by extension, the world at large. And how could the world not benefit from any one or all of us being a bit more at peace?
Dealing with dukkha.
That is really what it is all about. And, since I assume your knowledge of Sanskrit is poor at best, you are asking yourself what the heck dukkha is. Turns out, Wikipedia has a very good article on it. It’s one of the better written articles I’ve come across on there. I urge you to go read it. Here’s how it starts:
Dukkha (Pāli; Sanskrit: duḥkha; Tibetan: སྡུག་བསྔལ་ sdug bsngal, pr. "duk-ngel") is a Buddhist term commonly translated as "suffering", "anxiety", "stress", or "unsatisfactoriness". The principle of dukkha is one of the most important concepts in the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha is reputed to have said: "I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha."
So, dukkha is a fairly broad and all encompassing idea. One that is used to describe all of the general dissatisfactions of life. Not having enough, not getting what we want, physical pain, heartbreak, wishing for a better life, over indulgence, and on and on — all of these and more are dukkha. In other words, our daily lives are filled with dukkha. And, because we are creatures that, for the most part, don’t like to feel bad, much of our lives are also filled with looking for ways to lessen our dukkha. Which creates a paradox, because dukkha can also come from the desire to have less dukkha and the work chasing the wrong solutions. As long as we have dukkha we can not have complete peace. Peace will come when we learn how to properly deal with the dukkha.
So, how do we deal with the dukkha? Mindfulness. How do we achieve mindfulness? Meditation.
Do you have ten minutes?
Of course you do. Everyone does. And if you can’t spare ten minutes for meditation — ten minutes to be at peace — then you should really reexamine your priorities in life. I can’t help you and you should come back when you can. But, I’m going to assume that you can. We are going to take ten minutes to meditate. You and I, right after this little chapter where I’m going to teach you how step-by-step. I’m also going to cover some important details in each step — explanations as to why and how certain things work. Because I found that knowing the steps is not nearly as valuable as understanding them.
Also, find a way to let yourself know when the ten minutes is up. If you have a smartphone you can set a timer with it. Kitchen timers work great but I find the buzzer a bit jarring when they go off and coming out of a peaceful meditation session with a loud alarm is no fun at all. So, whatever you find, it may be nice to have a gentle alarm.
OK, here we go…
- Sit. Find somewhere to sit that is comfortable and you can sit up straight. You don’t have to sit cross legged or in "lotus" or on a zafu cushion. The reason you see many doing so or read meditation guides that advocate it is that these, in general, force one to assume good posture and sit up straight. But, you can sit up straight almost anywhere. If you can’t, try lying down on your back. The point of all of this posture stuff is to make it easy to breathe. Breathing deep and long — good in-and-out breaths. And for that you need to use your lungs and your diaphragm. And breathing is going to be very important for this. So, sit so that you can take nice, long, breaths.
- Focus your attention on your breath. Why breath? Why do all of these hoodoo guru zen geeks always want you to focus on your breath? Because it is one place of focus we all have. It’s universal. One place we all can return to when our mind wanders. No matter our physical condition or place or anything else that may be going on, if you are alive, you are breathing. If you have a pulse you have breath. When you sit and close your eyes and your mind immediately starts popping with all the other things you should be doing or have to be doing during this ten minutes, directing your attention back to your breath is something all living humans can do. So, take a few minutes now just to focus on your breath just to know what you need to do. Feel it flowing in and out? Got it? Good.
- Are you sitting up straight and comfortable and do you know how to focus on your breath? Good. Now, set your timer and close your eyes. Why? Less distractions. Heck, if you have ear plugs that help with noise distractions but still let you hear your alarm then do that a too. The more you can pro-actively deal with distractions the better. Because, your mind will have plenty of fun thinking up things to distract you with because the last thing it wants is peace and quiet. It has grown very accustomed to constant distraction and a sense of being busy. You have helped it along with all of your dukkha — your shoulds and coulds and wants and needs. Your brain will need to be retrained to want this more. Once again, it’s not easy and it takes time but it can be done and this is how you do it.
- As your eyes are closed and you you are focused on on your breath, you’ll start to think about the laundry or the errands or the work thing or… You get the idea. It’s OK. That’s normal. As things pop into your head, acknowledge them, visualize them briefly, and think to yourself, "Not right now. Come back later.", and then visualize them going away before returning your focus to your breath.
Got it? Great. Now, stop reading and go off and give it a try. I’ll wait right here…
How’d it go?
In general, folks have one of two responses which I will paraphrase here:
- "Great! Was that only ten minutes? Felt like nothing at all. I could have gone for hours."
- "Um, I only lasted about a minute and a half. Then, I remembered I needed to RSVP to a Facebook event and, well, this is stupid and I’ll never be able to do it."
If you are at number one, stop reading. You don’t need this. Just consider making this a daily practice.
If you are in the number two camp, well, so was I at first. Welcome to the club. If it makes you feel better, we are the normal ones. The ones who get this right off the bat are the weirdos. Although, believe me, I wish I was one of the weird ones. But I’m not and wishing is dukkha so…
The point being that this will take practice. You will likely fail a lot at first. Every time you go to sit for meditation you will question the point because you have yet to sit for long enough to see it. But, trust me, keep at it — ten minutes every day — and you’ll begin to wonder why you have not been doing this all your life. Then, you’ll figure out that if ten minutes of this is good then twenty minutes must be great. And you may struggle with that longer amount at first but now at least you know, from having worked hard to get to ten, that twenty is perfectly doable.
Much more in included in the book with even more on the way…
The first, and most fundamental, precept in The Eightfold Path is Right Understanding (sometimes also called Right View). This step involves seeing the world and everything in it as it really is, not as we believe it to be or want it to be. Without this view, without seeing the truth of things or assuming we know it, everything that stems from that will be clouded — based on potential falsehood. Above all, we will bias what we want to be in deference to what is. In order to get to right understanding we much approach all things with a beginners mind.
This is not only an essential way of moving through life, but I believe we might find it to be especially helpful when we apply it to our interactions on social media. Because, services like Twitter and Facebook are designed for fast thoughts and pronouncements and do not encourage full explanations or deeper examinations. Therefore, it is all too easy to rush to judgement about what another thinks or believes. We easily allow our own immediate assumptions and reactions to take hold and our opinions to become truth.
An immediate reaction or response will most often be a shallow one that only leads to suffering, anger, argument or negativity. Perhaps more importantly, we gain nothing of value by rushing to judgment. We gain tremendous value and insight by taking the time to see a view — all views — in their completeness and with an open heart and mind. We will then more fully understand how beliefs are formed, where biases and emotions can influence fundamental truths, and how our own might benefit from such knowledge.
Instead, take a deep breath, maybe even two or three, to cool your immediate reaction. Then, perhaps you might begin with some questions. Why might that person believe that? Could there be a logic or wisdom within that view that you might learn to appreciate despite the fact you may not agree with it’s conclusion? Might there be a fundamental truth hidden within their conclusion despite your dissatisfaction with it’s delivery? If it is critical of you, might there be an action that you did to cause the other to feel this way? Or, perhaps more importantly, must this view bother you and cause suffering or can you simply let it pass?
If you open up a dialog with that person, start from a desire to understand — a place of compassion. Ask questions. Approach with empathy and a true desire to know where they stand and why. In the end, you may not find a suitable answer or find yourself still on disagreement. But, in order to have even the opportunity to get to an answer or agreement one must take the time to ask in the first place. To do that means to let go of your initial reaction and give way to the potential of understanding.
Ideas and beliefs do not form in a vacuum. They are usually the product of some perception or experience. Some of these may be the same as yours. Others may be vastly different. So different, in fact, that you immediately recoil from and reject them. Yet, these ideas likely formed from very similar places and likely for very similar reasons as yours. The opposite side simply arrived at a different conclusion.
We can’t work towards agreement around that which we disagree on when we already believe we know the truth of what another believes. The only way to know the meaning or reason behind what someone says or why someone believes what they believe is to ask them.
The first step on the path to Right Understanding is admitting "I don’t know". The next is "I wish to know". The only way to know is to admit your lack of knowledge and seek the answers.
I have a new book I’m releasing today. It’s called, This Could Help.
Here’s what the book looks like:
There’s an eBook version too, of course. If you buy that one, it won’t look like this one. But, the stuff inside is just as helpful.
Here’s a bit from the introduction to give you an idea of what’s inside:
I’m going to try to keep this short so you can dig right in and see if there is something inside these pages that could help you. Let’s face it, we can always use a little help. A helpful idea or suggestion is sometimes all we need to set us in a positive direction. Every one of the essays and ideas presented here are things that I’ve had to figure out myself in order to solve a problem at some point along the way. So, my guess is that if I needed help in these areas along the way that others could benefit from that too.
The following is a combination of essays and ideas written over the past year or so and they certainly have the potential to help. Either to solve a problem you are facing right now or provide guidance for navigating through one in the future. Many of these have been published in ious forms scattered amongst the places I frequent on the Internet. Some, have not. But all have been collected here in a way I feel serves those that need it most and the individual items best. I sincerely hope that you will find something within these pages that makes a difference.
That said, I highly recommend the Paperback version. It features the beautiful cover and layout work of the best designer you should be using, Aaron Mahnke of Wet Frog Studios. . To sweeten the deal, you can get 30% off through today by using the offer code, FLASH30.
Regardless, I appreciate your even considering a purchase. The best gift you could give any writer is an engagement with the words they write. So thank you for yours.
My friend Michael and I had not a dinner together in a while. We had a regular dinner appointment on the second Tuesday of the month for years. But, then, life got in the way — mostly Michael’s. It changed rather dramatically a few months back. Not the least of which was being in a new relationship after years of not having been in one. So, I was willing to let our dinners take back seat. We’ve known each other for almost 20 years. He’d do the same for me.
So, it was great that we were finally able to get together recently over at a bistro near me. Dinner was great! Made especially good by the conversation. There was lot’s of catching up to do. We talked about life and love and creating the element of surprise in the seemingly mundane. We reminisced about the past and talked with excitement about future plans. Such things are what make a meal memorable.
But the memory of the evening that will stick out in my mind — the one that will last — came with desert. The waiter came over to ask if we wanted desert and describe our options. Among these was a type of pie neither Michael nor I had heard of before — Buttermilk Pie.
“What is that? I’ve never heard of it before.”, I asked. “What does it taste like?”
“It’s really hard to describe.”, explained the waiter. “But, I had a slice the other day and it is my new favorite pie. And, I’m not a big pie guy. If you order a slice. maybe you can weigh in.”
And, with that a gauntlet was thrown down — a challenge neither Michael nor I could refuse. The slices of pie were brought out and happily consumed. It was delicious. Yet, it was also immediately apparent why the waiter had such a hard time describing the taste. It was almost purposely elusive. The flavor was delicate. Not quite vanilla. Not sharp enough to even compare to a cheesecake. Nor was it creamy enough or sour enough or sweet enough to make an even comparison to anything else. It was almost cloud-like — etherial. Michael and I were both still at a loss when the waiter appeared again to take away our now empty plates.
“So, how’d you like it?”
“It was really good.”, I replied. Still unsure as to the answer to the obvious next question from the waiter.
“How would you describe it?”, he asked.
“It whispers tapioca.” Michael said with a sly smile after a considered pause. With those three words he completely nailed it. He managed to capture the entire experience of eating that slice of pie. He nailed the flavor, suggested the texture… All of it. The brilliance and exquisiteness of those three words left us speechless. Only nodding our heads in agreement and repeating them. It gave us all pause.
It is moments like this that I am reminded why I am a writer. I’m in love with and in awe of the power of language. The way a single word or just the right ones strung together can capture the whole of something otherwise only imagined. An entire experience can be encapsulated, examined, and then set free for others to bear witness to, all in an instant, with just three simple words.
This is why, as a writer, I keep a record of such reminders of this power. It’s a text file titled “Bits of Words and Wisdom”. Upon leaving the restaurant, adding “It whispers tapioca” to my file was my first priority. When I hear a cool word or interesting phrase that makes me stop and take notice — especially something that captures the imagination — I add it to this list. Sometimes, it is something from a conversation like the above. Increasingly, it is something I read — be it a book, a Tweet, or on a blog post. Sometimes it is from a video or something recorded. No matter the source it is added to this file soon after encountering it. Expedience is key, lest I forget it and lose it forever. Because these are the times to remember that words matter. Words mean things far beyond what you may find in a dictionary. Words are triggers and keys that blow open barriers and unlock doors to entire unknown universes.
The right ones are, at least.
I’m a writer. Writing is how I make this world better, friendlier, stronger place. If these words improved your day, please let me know by contributing here.
I love the little yellow flowers
that bloom this time of year
in the gardens
along the roadside
between the pavement cracks
in the places we otherwise
pass quickly by them
without much notice
a lost prairie fighting back
black eyed sue
that this is its proper place
that these concrete roads
and planted spaces
are convenience and facade
these flowers reveal
that they have always belonged
that they will remain, here
while we will not
we will pass quickly by
without much notice
yet these flowers
will still bloom proudly
after we are gone
and the prairie returns
There is a science fiction story I have had brewing in my head now for over twenty years. It started as just a very simple idea. A “what if” question. A spark of something. For years and years I brushed it aside whenever it popped into view. I always had, what I felt, were valid excuses for writing it off. Here’s how the dialog would most often happen inside my head…
“I’m not a fiction writer.”
“I’m certainly not a science fiction writer.”
“But, it’s a really good idea.”
“Maybe, it would be good to give to one of my friends that are, accomplished, science fiction writers.”
I would act on this. I would tell it to my sci-fi writer friends in passing. They would kindly hear me out, but express no real interest in stealing it from me. “It’s a good idea.”, they would say. “You should write it.”
“But I don’t know how?”, I would resign.
And, so, back into the the bin it would go. Only to pop back up next week/month/year. But, each time a little bit closer — more fully formed each time it returned. Closer to a real story.
The excuses to avoid it, therefore, had to become even more deft…
“I can see the story but I have no idea who would tell it.”
“Where is the voice of the story coming from?”
“Without a voice, you can’t tell a story.”
I would shove it into the bin again — with force and prudence. Convinced that this idea was beyond my reach creatively. It was not my genre. I had no voice. I only had rough ideas and sketches and major details. But, I had not the talent nor skill to weave together into a coherent narrative.
But the idea keeps coming back. It haunts me. It now wakes me up in the middle of the night. It keeps me from being able to rest. Each time getting closer. Showing me a little bit more of itself.
“Write.”, it says.
A few weeks back it gave me it’s voice. I now know who is telling the story and why. And, last night, It came to me in a dream. The opening scene at least. It was lucid while I was barely so. I saw our protagonist. I knew his motivations. It was a start. It was not the whole story. But, it was enough for me to get the opening lines down first thing this morning.
Y’weh sits on the bench with his face in his hands. He’s tired. Lately, he sits here in much the same position before the work day begins. Exhausted before he has even started. His lab coat feeling like a burial shroud. He’s been at this job for a very long time. And, if he could find another — if he had a choice — he would. But, once you start The Process, you can’t stop the stars. You have to see them through.
It may take me another twenty years to finish. But, today, I finally exhausted all of my excuses — I started.
The following post contains excerpts from:
Some Thoughts About Writing is my new collection of back pocket wisdom for those who wish to be successful writers. This guide will give you all you need to know about what it takes — especially for those looking to write for an online audience.
In addition, the eBook is a “living” guide. It will be updated as more questions, feedback, thoughts, and topic ideas not yet covered come up. The book currently contains a lot more than the preview below. And there are even more great sections to come. As updates are made, those who have purchased a copy will receive notification of future versions available free download.
Buy It Today!
If you want a preview of what the book is all about, keep reading…
Let me save you some time…
As someone who has found a way to make a modest amount of money from my writing, I’m often asked by others what the secret is. So, let me get straight to the point as to not waste your time…
Show up. Be yourself. Write. Put it out there for people to read.
If it is good, people will enjoy it. People like to share their enjoyment. If that fails, keep repeating the first three steps. If that works, keep repeating the first three steps.
That IS the big secret…
You see, people think this building an audience thing has some special secret formula. More so, people think those that have one know it. I don’t. And, I don’t believe anyone who says they do.
I only do those steps above over and over. It is all I have been doing for as long as I could write. In fact, I recently came upon the first thing I remember publishing — I was in 6th grade. Even as a kid I just followed those steps and never stopped.
There, now that you know the “big secret”, let’s talk about the steps themselves…
Successful online writing is almost always measured in years…
Sure, there is the rare overnight success. But, for the most part, if there is an online writer that you respect or whose name is recognizable in the circles in which you read, it is likely they have been at it for many years.
I get a lot of people who are relatively new to online writing asking me what it takes to be successful at it. I think one of the main things is simply showing up and doing it for a long time. Not only are you bound to get better at it from such constant long term practice, but audiences are built reader by reader over the long term as well.
If you want to get better at your art, you have to make your art every day. If you want your art to spread and gain an audience, you have to put what you make out there into the world. And, more often than not, that means looking for something to inspire that art. Some days, that may mean some deep, soul moving, insight never before explored. Some days, it may be blogging your breakfast. Some days that means the great stuff. Some days that means the less than great stuff. Some days that means the truly boring stuff. But you have to find the courage to put it out there for others to see, share, shred, or otherwise speculate on it. You often may not like what you hear but you take it and go back and make more art tomorrow.
So, why write stuff and put it out there with no promise of anyone reading it, let alone making money?
That’s easy. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “To make your soul grow”.
Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.
— Kurt Vonnegut, Letter to Xavier High School
My personal site, patrickrhone.com, is 10 years old as of November 7th, 2013. I had been writing online in one form or another long before that, of course. I published poetry, prose, short stories, and essays on an early writer centric BBS. I co-published a general interest magazine for handheld devices called HandJive Magazine. I had written technical documentation, tips, and news on company intranets. In all, I have been publishing my work online in a iety of ways for about 20 years now.
Do you know when I started making any amount of money at all from my writing? A little bit more than 3 years ago.
You see, I’ve never done it for the money or success. I did not get upset because, for the first 10 years at least, I could count on one hand the number of people that read my work regularly. When I pressed publish, I had no illusions that I would become some famous writer or that my work would be read by thousands, hundreds, or even tens. And, even today, I am absolutely gobsmacked by anyone that is willing to exchange their hard earned dollars for the work I do (thank you, once again, for doing so). Don’t get me wrong, as I stated above I’m over the moon happy that after only twenty years of doing this that other people also feel it helps them too. It is just that none of these things are my motivation.
I do this now for the same reasons I always have, to make my soul grow. Because, when I create it helps me become the best version of me, for me. And, I put it out into the world so that person I call me can point to it whenever someone else bothers to ask what it is that makes me happy and proud. I do it so I can reply, “My children, my wife, and that thing right there”.
That thing that I felt was good enough to hang up and not care who sees it. That thing that took every ounce of courage I could muster to share. That thing that this same me, twenty years ago, had neither the courage nor talent to write. That thing that I’ll likely look back on twenty years from now and cringe at because it is not as good as what I’m putting out then. But, I’ll always know that — no matter what — in the moment that thing made me tremendously happy and proud. That thing made my soul grow.
I think a lot of people put stuff out there for a few years, just like I did. And, because success does not come after three, four, etc. years or they don’t get the attention they deserve or they don’t meet even the lowest bar they set, they feel like they are wasting their time. As if their art is a cell on a spreadsheet that needs to have some dollar sign attached to it (it does not and should not). I think there is a lesson here that could help them…
Create daily. Don’t have any other measure of success other than making something you are happy and proud of, right now, and put it out there for the world to see. Do this for twenty years. Then, even if the world does not come to see, ask yourself if this made your soul grow. Did your art get better? Is it something you can point at and be proud of? I can guarantee the answer will be yes.
Then, keep doing it for another twenty. Eventually, you might find your true self along the way.
The most important step…
Be yourself (that’s why I put it in bold). Never lose sight of this. Don’t go into this trying to be anything else. It will always come back and bite you in the ass. No matter what it is you are writing — fiction or nonfiction or your life or someone else’s — what you ultimately put on that blank page is a piece of you. And, it is what people are coming to read. And, if they enjoy it, it is really you that they ultimately what they enjoy.
And, the interesting thing is, you don’t even have to know who you are going into it. Writing, like all art, is a never ending exploration of the subject of you. Not really knowing who you are is a part of who you are. Be comfortable with that.
As a teen, I published my first book. It was a book of the most painfully bad and emotional poetry that, thankfully, few have (or will ever have) seen. Yet, having re-discovered a copy recently, I realize how important it was to my path. That the seed of selling my writing — that one really could do such — was planted. That, even if not perfect (or even really that good), people who want to support you, your work, your further development, are out there. They are paying as much for the work now as the work they know could come. They were paying for the hope that me then would one day become an even better version of me.
So, I keep showing up in a never ending quest to keep being me.
Do you call yourself a “blogger”?
You are a writer.
I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the title “blogger”. I think this term cuts wrong in several directions.
First, I think it reduces the respect and credibility of those who write and publish online. Especially those who perform this craft well and are deserving of the same recognition and respect society has long bestowed upon writers in other mediums. In fact, take any of your best journalists, authors, etc. and I could show you an equal number of “bloggers” that write just as well if not better.
Secondly, I think it helps to absolve many of becoming better at a craft that they choose to participate in by giving it a label that divorces it from the very thing it is. Writing, editing, publishing – These things that have been happening for thousands of years. The methods and medium may be different but the craft is exactly the same. It does not need a new noun. The fact that technology has progressed to the point where we can do it ourselves does not make the means of the labor different. What technology has done is allow anyone who wishes to write and publish the ability to do so — no matter if they have the talent to write or not.
As with any art, part is talent but I would argue that an even larger part is also learning how to write. Once learned, practice (lots and lots of it) is what will help you eventually find, what we writers like to call, your “voice”. That little something in your writing that is uniquely you. Once you find that (and only when you find it), you will be able to cast off any other term that the collective may chose to bestow upon you. You are a writer.
Finally, the only way one can ultimately become a better writer is to write. Reading and listening to things about writing will only help if you apply them while you are writing. So write!
But first, you need something to write about…
People often ask how it is I come up with topics, thinking, and ideas to post on my site. The truth is, I have a lot of help. I have said before that one of the keys to writing is to live a life worth writing about. Such a living is intentional. It is not enough to live through it and let it happen to you. You must surround yourself with interesting and inspirational, friends, family, children, environments, situations, etc.
I’m very lucky (and remember that luck shows up for those already working). I have a regular start of the week coffee meeting with a friend who is one of the smartest people I know. I discuss some of my ideas and thinking with him and our discussion always leads to ways to improve or expand them. I also am married to one of the other smartest people I know and our conversations often produce similar fruit. Then, there is Beatrix. My little girl is always a study in creativity and unrestrained joy. There are also the places I choose to go and the things I choose to do. And I do my best to be present for and observe as much as I can about all of it.
For instance, before Christmas a few years ago, I was standing in line in IKEA. Specifically, I was waiting to check out in the food store which is a store-within-a-store of the main store itself. I’m not sure if all of them are configured this way. This one is.
I had gone first to get gravy. The cream gravy. The same that they serve with the meatballs in the restaurant upstairs. It comes in a packet that you can mix with cream on the stove top at home. It is my favorite gravy and far better and easier than I could muster on my own.
We celebrate the holiday on Christmas Eve with a large dinner and present opening. As my wife’s family heritage is Norwegian, and they constitute the majority in attendance, we prepare a traditional Norwegian meal. The gravy for the meatballs, though Swedish, is very close to that served in Norway. Close enough for our liking.
I often wonder if I’m the only Black man in America making Lefse (traditional Norwegian potato flat bread) for Christmas.
In any case, I’m standing in the long line with my four items… Yep, four. IKEA is one of those places where you go in to get one thing and, well… Two packages of cream gravy, lingonberry sauce (I wasn’t sure if we had some already — better safe, than sorry), and some moose-shaped pasta my daughter likes. After about 20 minutes, I had only made it up to number three in line. The lady in front of me was clearly restless with the lack of speed. At the front of the line is an elderly lady, slowly taking each of her 20 or so items, one by one, from the cart. It really does look like she is caught in some TV sports-like instant replay. The lady in front of me turns around, looks at me, exasperated, and lets out a long sigh. She throws up her hands and says without saying “Can you believe this?!”
I shrug my shoulders and ask her, “What can we do?” I have a lot of patience for things like this. In fact, in many ways, I look forward to them. Stuck in a line with things I have to buy and no control over the time that it is taking. It is these times I’m forced to do nothing but appreciate the moment. To observe the details of a life that goes by too fast. Mostly because, if not for these forced breaks, we run through it without recognizing that it will be over sooner than we ever think.
What I wanted to tell this lady in front of me was that I was quite enjoying the elderly lady at the counter taking as much time as she needed. That, this waiting was the first break I had had in a very busy day. That, most importantly, it is times like these that, as a writer, I took the time to feed my writing the only nourishment it needs — observation. That she and the instant replay lady and the moose pasta, and cream gravy, and lingonberry sauce were going to end up in an essay written by America’s Only Black Christmas Lefse Maker and she should just shut up and enjoy the silence of waiting but that her doing that would make my story far less entertaining…
It reminded me of the grand opening of the first Trader Joe’s here in Minnesota. I’m a big fan and, before that store opened here, would make a point of stopping at their locations in other states when I traveled and stocked up on all of my favorite items that are only available there.
The place was a zoo. Crazy busy. My wife and I got the things we absolutely felt we needed and got into the long line to check out. The line moved very slowly. Unusually so. And when it was our turn we soon realized why…
The young lady checking us out was named Anastasia. If I had to guess, they flew her out from California to help with the grand opening — likely having rescued her from a SoCal commune where she was a member of a cult. She had long brown-blond hair, several ill considered tattoos, and piercings in places that were, um… interesting. Her blue eyes had that wake-n-bake glaze that I have not seen since my college bathroom mirror.
Anastasia was friendly enough. Too much so, in fact. As she slowly removed each item from our cart, she audibly pondered its greater purpose in the grand scheme of existence. She suggested all of the traditional and innovative ways such a pre-packaged and microwaveable food item might serve us. She then attempted to scan each item, several times. And, if she failed after a half-dozen attempts, just shrugged her shoulders and threw it in our bag and moved onto the next. She did this for each item. Every. One.
I seriously think it took almost a half hour to check out. If was comical. To this day, whenever my wife and I get an especially chatty or spacey clerk, we look at each other and say, in unison, “Anastasia!”
And here I was, in IKEA, alone. If I screamed “Anastasia!” there would be no one else there to understand…
Are you getting the point here? This is where writing begins. All of these experiences, stories, circumstances, details, and observations.
Your life is full of them. Write about your morning coffee. Write about your messy desk. There’s a hundred stories in every seemingly boring moment if you simply take the time to notice them. And all of those stories are connected to each other in beautiful ways. Each one by itself is an essay. Yet, find those woven threads and they just might make an interesting book. Even something as mundane as waiting in a checkout line is an opportunity to spin an interesting yarn or insightful tale (perhaps the title of this one might be Stuck! Stories Of Tuning In While Checking Out).
Live life. In there is all the stuff you need before you get to step one.
The work starts here…
Sit your butt, in a chair, and write. That’s it. That’s all there is. Take your hind-quarters and, with purpose, plant it in a seating utensil of your choosing. Preferably, with something to write with. That’s step one (Well, not really. There’s actually a whole lot that has to happen before that step but I’ll get to that later).
It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Surprisingly, for most, that is the the hardest part of all. Because there are a whole host of things that keep us from taking that seemingly simple step. Here are some of the more common excuses which I’m going to express in the first person because I have battled all of them and lose more often than I win:
I have something else to do.
I don’t have anything to write about.
I am not good enough.
I am not talented enough.
No one will read it anyway.
You know what those are? Lies and excuses and moot points. You know what those aren’t? Your butt, in a chair, writing.
OK, fine. You don’t like to write sitting. You’d rather stand like Hemingway or lay down like Capote (That’s what I’m doing right now — on my iPhone!). That’s fine. I don’t care. The point is just write. WRITE!
Look, don’t worry about what to write about. Just start writing the first thing that comes to your mind. Write about the wall color. Write about the dirt on the floor. Write about the crazy fantasy you are currently having about tracking me down and killing me in my sleep for even suggesting such insanity. I don’t care. The world does not care.
You know who should care? You. You have a hundred million stories just sitting there, inside of you, waiting to get out. How do I know? Because we all do. It’s called “living a life” and each moment is another chapter, another story. Look, it’s like this: If you don’t have a story to tell then you are not living a life worth telling stories about.
I write most stuff on my iPhone these days. The reasons? I always have it with me and it is the closest tool I have when the mood strikes and my butt is commanded by my muse to find a chair. I don’t think about the “right” tools or the “right” environment or the “right” time. The right tool is the one I have with me. The right environment is my butt in a chair. The right time is now.
Don’t worry about the next step. That step does not matter right now. The only thing that matters is you, writing, now. So, stop making excuses and start.
But, it’s really hard too…
It takes a tremendous amount of courage to show up and face that blank page. Even for me. Because, my fear is perfectly represented here. The fear of the unknown. The fear of failure. Because I can’t even see the finished product of what this page will be once filled with words and ideas. The hardest part of writing, of anything really, is starting. Many days, I just don’t know where to start. Then, even if I manage to start, will I even know what finished looks like?
Sometimes, rarely, the page pops into my head. Completed. Finished. Before it is even started. I approach the blankness and type it and ship it and people love it and they let me know and I never reveal my secrets. The secret that it took me so little time or real effort. The secret that it almost never, ever, ever, works that way. That, most days, I spend hours completely paralyzed in front of the grave in which I’m sure my talent is destined to proceed me, long before it is time for my body and mind to follow.
I have to force myself to sit here and stare at it. To look into my fear and let it mock me with the possibility that it will beat me. That I won’t be able to start and it will remain perfectly fine. In its natural state. Blank. Therefore, I too will remain in my natural state. Afraid.
But, I know somewhere deep and primal, it is a matter of time and a test of will. That I can overcome my fear. That I have plenty to fill that empty space with. That it does not require some rare moment of clarity or enlightenment. That all it requires is the courage to write one word. Then, follow it with another. Pretty soon you have a sentence. Then, a paragraph. Then, soon enough, ideas will form. Those could turn into a letter. A post. An essay. Or, eventually, a book.
But that is true of waking up and getting out of bed in the morning too. We step into the same unknown. Anything could happen. Yet, we do that with little fear.
It starts right here — with every step and every page. For me. For everyone. Every day. A hole we are required to face our fears to fill.
Put it out there for people to read…
Look, don’t overthink this part. If you do, it is likely because you are avoiding facing the fear of putting it out there and letting people read it. And, I get that. Facing the blank page and filling it is hard. It is even harder to take the result of that courage and summoning more to publish it and risk criticism — or worse, apathy. I get it. I really do.
But, I see people fretting the platform on which to publish al the time. WordPress or Squarespace? Tumblr or Medium? Hosted yourself or somewhere else? Gah! It’s baffling to me.
Guess what? It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that wherever and whatever you post, you take ownership of what you put out there that you care about.
Taking ownership can mean many things to many people. What it means to me is that, wherever you decide to publish your work, you make sure you always retain the ability and right to put it out there for people to read no matter what changes may come. That starts at the blank page, not at the publish button.
One of my other sites, Minimal Mac, is published on Tumblr. Tumblr just happened to be the right way for me to execute my vision and purpose of the site. And, being that Tumblr is a free service whose business plan I don’t entirely understand, I have no illusions that Minimal Mac will be able to live there forever. But, it doesn’t matter. I own the domain and I own the writing that matters to me (i.e. the original work I have done for the site). If it suddenly goes FUBAR tomorrow I can rebuild it elsewhere. I own it.
In fact, everything here on my personal site could literally disappear into the ether tomorrow and it wouldn’t matter. Every single post exists as a text file backed up to no less than three separate places. It may be a pain in the butt, but I can rebuild that work anywhere. Heck, I could print it out and photocopy it and sell it via mail order. I own it.
See what I’m saying here? The platform that you publish on only matters as far as it being easy for you to publish to, easy for you to share that work (and for others to do so as well), and easy for people to find it and read.
Taking ownership means something deeper too…
You have to be able to stand behind what you write. You have to be able to be proud of it. This is why the “be yourself” part is so crucial. Because you will be less proud and take less ownership of what you put out there if it is not really who you are.
This is not a popularity contest. No one is going to give you a tiara for congeniality if that is not who you naturally are. If you are cranky and cantankerous and curmudgeonly, own that. People will come to read what you have to say if you do. Even if you piss them off they will at least be able to rationalize that with who you are. I can point to plenty of online and offline writers who fit this mold perfectly. People did not tune into the last five minutes of the TV show 60 Minutes for years to see Andy Rooney be kind and gracious and forgiving. That was not who he was. And, because he was who he was, people loved him for it.
In order to own your work you must first own who you are.
If you have enjoyed this preview…
You will find a lot more in the book. Get it now:
Yesterday, in conversation with a close friend about the nature of holidays and our relationships to them, we decided to create one of our own.
lt will fall on December 9th each year. The idea is to celebrate the practice of journaling.
There are many ways to celebrate or traditions one could keep to mark the day. For instance, this might be the day to take out previous journals and reflect on where you were then versus where you are today. Another tradition may be to let someone you trust read one you have kept and get to know the “real” you. Perhaps gift one to another person in your life who practices or you feel could benefit from doing so. Or, maybe, be so bold as to spend a year keeping a journal for someone else in your life whom you love and spend your days with — write down their day as you saw it or the things you were thinking about them at that time. How wonderful a gift would it be to allow someone close to "see" themselves and their year through your eyes?
I think you get the general idea. I would love to see others expand upon it. Let’s make a deal: On or before next December 9th shoot me a note and let me know how you are celebrating Journal Day. I’d love the opportunity to consider making your Journal Day tradition one of mine.
I see the signs. They are every where and no where. Concealed and in plain sight. Hidden to those that wish deception. For the fiction is pleasantry. Yet, for those of us who can see, we beg for blindness. For the truth is everything we fear.
I wrote this almost a year ago. I don’t know why. It is not a part of anything. Nor, do I feel that it is the start or ending to anything just yet. It just came out and, now, exists.
Sometimes, I write little snippets of things — fragments. Sometimes sentences. Sometimes paragraphs. Sometimes a whole page or two. Sometimes a single word.
I had a creative writing teacher when I was a teenager tell me this was not uncommon. That sometimes a writer’s brain does not work in linear wholes. That, sometimes a fragment will appear suddenly and have no place. Then, someday later, you might stumble across it and build upon it or find a place where it belongs.
She told me to set these aside and revisit them from time to time. That eventually their place may come along.
I have found this a helpful lesson for much of life. Not everything has to have a place right away. Sometimes we find a place. Sometimes a place comes along.