Dear Kind Person Who Reads These Posts,
I did NaNoWriMo last month, and I’m wondering if we can talk about it for a minute. This was my 14th year taking part in the literary marathon, but it was my first time trying it without the motivational boost that a Staff shirt provides.
Holy buckets, it was hard.
Crumpling right out of the gate has long been my signature NaNoWriMo move, and I didn’t see any reason to alter my winning strategy this year. I was blessed with a story I loved, and I had as much time as I needed to get it done. So why not launch a poster shop for writers on November 1? Or take a few days off during the first week to travel up the coast? Or go to Yosemite with an old friend visiting from Scotland around Thanksgiving?
I will spare you the gory details of my 30 days and nights of literary underachievement, except to say that my respect for anyone who tries NaNoWriMo has only been deepened by my attempts to tackle it as a civilian.
On November 30th, delirious, half-naked, and covered in coffee grounds, I stumbled to within striking distance of the finish line. I headed out to gobble an electrolyte-replenishing cheeseburger before making my final push. At the burger place, a woman spotted my NaNoWriMo sweatshirt, grinned, and asked if I’d finished my book. I shared my good news, and asked if she was writing a novel too.
Her smile fell. She’d made a lot of progress, she said, but then her mother had gotten sick. She’d stopped writing to help her recuperate.
I hear many, many stories about NaNoWriMo novels derailed by real life, and they always break my heart. Bad things happen with dispiriting frequency to good people in November. Illnesses. Work drama. Technology meltdowns. I feel particularly awful when the people sharing their experiences admit they only wrote 10,000 or 20,000 words before packing it in.
This makes me sad not because it’s a poor showing, but because these people clearly have no idea how crazy they sound. YOU WROTE 20,000 WORDS IN A MONTH, I want to yell at them. And somehow you’re a failure?
Come on now.
As 2012 draws to a close, many of us are taking part in a venerable holiday tradition of berating ourselves over all the creative goals we botched this year. We had so many plans! We accomplished so few of them! But do you know who nails every deadline they set for themselves?
And do you know how many cyborgs got book deals this year?
If you, like me, didn’t achieve everything you’d hoped to in November (or during the year as a whole), that doesn’t make you a loser. It makes you a writer. A human writer with a big heart, a bigger to-do list, and a whole bunch of folks counting on you to be there for them.
Those responsibilities mean we may move a little more slowly towards our dreams than we’d like. But we’re getting there. Day by day. Page by page.
So please be proud of everything you accomplished this year. Have a fantastic, nog-filled holiday, and rest up as much as you can. We have a lot of exciting work to do together in 2013.
Photo by 1upLego.
This missive was sent to folks on the Letters from Chris mailing list last week. Want to get future emails delivered fresh to your inbox? Subscribe here!
Dear Kind Person,
This month, I’m buying my first smartphone.
I’ve gotten by with a flip phone until now. In the tech-obsessed Bay Area, owning a flip phone is seen as a cute anachronism, like trying to communicate via Morse code or alpenhorn. I love my little clamshell buddy, but I know it’s time for me to move on.
I’m concerned, though, about something built into new phones that does bad stuff to your brain. Have you heard about this thing?
It’s called the internet.
If you’re unfamiliar with it, the internet is essentially a Super Narnia Portal. It allows you to transcend the bounds of reality and step into the day-to-day experiences of a billion other humans.
For writers, the Super Narnia Portal is a gold mine because it contains tons of writing advice and encouragement. It also offers all the building blocks you need for great stories. Love. Disappointment. Triumph. Japanese cats stuffing themselves into impossibly small cardboard boxes.
So why I am I worried about getting a smartphone?
It all comes down to upload rates.
Humans, like most Internet-enabled devices, download things much faster than we can upload them. We effortlessly absorb huge volumes of information, but we’re much slower at reworking that raw material into finished pieces of writing or art that we can share with the universe.
I blame our nervous system, which is forever tying up our naturally creative brains with anxious directives about avoiding death and hoarding cheeseburgers. Creative inklings are third-class travelers on our neural pathways, constantly getting run off the road by the primal thoughts barreling past.
Sadly, our brains also have an innate love of novelties, and they will route shiny objects to the front of the cognitive queue even as our promising ideas sit idle. Given the choice between mulling a tricky novel subplot or watching a YouTube clip of a gibbon riding a dachshund, we choose the video every time. We have to, BECAUSE MY GOD THERE IS A MONKEY ON THAT DOG.
Having a smartphone gives us the historically unprecedented opportunity to fill every moment of downtime with monkeys. So how do we embrace modern telephony and still give our fledgling notions the attention they need to grow? It’s an especially pressing question as we edge ever-closer to NaNoWriMo.
And I think I have a few answers.
The first is hot water. There’s a reason so many writers get their best ideas in the shower—it’s one of the few relaxing spaces for brains that’s also deadly to gadgets. With nothing to distract us, we can finally spend some time getting to know the imaginary people who live in our heads. Dish washing, running, and bike riding in familiar places are similarly good ways to bore our brains to new creative heights.
The Super Narnia Portal, interestingly, also offers tools for reining itself in. I saw novelist Michael Chabon speak in San Francisco last month, and he admitted to using a performance-enhancing app called Freedom every time he writes. The app’s sole function: Killing your internet access for a set amount of time.
I’m downloading it now. But if any smartphone owners out there want to experience true freedom, please drop me a line. I know a guy who’s selling a flip phone cheap.
This is a copy of the missive sent to folks on the Letters from Chris mailing list this week. Want to get these emails delivered fresh to your inbox twice a month? Subscribe here!
When I told my friends last week I was heading off on a backpacking trek through the Yosemite wilderness, they weren’t worried about bear attacks or the hantavirus.
They were worried about my feet.
“If you get blisters, it’ll ruin your whole trip,” warned one outdoorsy friend.
“Your boots are broken in, right?” asked another, anxiously. “Tell me you didn’t just buy new boots for this trip.”
“Come on,” I said, laughing. “I may be stupid, but I’m not that stupid.”
The next day, my new boots arrived in the mail.
Fast forward to last Wednesday. I’m stepping out onto the John Muir Trail with a group of seasoned hikers. The first day goes great. We amble through postcard-perfect meadows cut by deep streams. Mountains rise up around us, their slopes dotted with ancient junipers. We’re in the wilderness, and it’s freaking amazing.
Before bedding down in my tent, though, I find two raw spots on my feet. I cover them with moleskin, trying not to panic. The next day we hike up and over an 11,000-foot granite pass. It’s spectacular, but I’m distracted by the growing sense that all is not well in my SmartWool socks. That night, I discover four white blisters spread across my toes and ankles.
The following afternoon, on a grinding uphill climb, the tense relationship between my boots and feet devolves into violence. Each step is pure misery, and the worst part is knowing we still have dozens of miles left to go. I’m hungry and parched, and my eyes are swimming in a stinging mixture of sweat and sunblock. I fall behind, then stop entirely. I’m wondering about the logistics of removing my big toe with a camping spork when I’m struck by two thoughts:
1. If I survive this, I will make a point of eating more taquitos.
2. The blisters are actually a good thing.
The taquito epiphany requires no explanation. But here’s my reasoning on the blisters: Blisters are a result of friction. We only get them when we’re brave or stupid enough to repeatedly let a tender part of ourselves come in contact with something tougher than we are. As much as they hurt, blisters are actually a happy indicator that we’ve tenaciously outwalked our previous limits.
Before the Taquito Moment, I’d seen my blisters as flashing red lights that I’d forced myself to plow right through. Now I saw them more like highwayside Welcome signs, alerting me to the fact that I’d entered a new state. The pain didn’t change, but I did. I started walking again, and the next two days were my favorites of the entire trip.
You saw this coming a mile away, but creative projects cause blisters as well. They tend to appear on those steep slopes that require more mental dexterity than we believe we possess. I know I’ve got a bad case of the brain blisters when I find myself closing my manuscript a minute or so after opening it. The immensity of the effort required to fix whatever is missing or broken just feels so great that I backtrack and hunker down, waiting for a day when I feel more inspired.
The truth is that we’ll never really feel up to tackling the biggest challenges standing between us and a finished story. But getting those brain blisters is a sign we’re ready to start. The blisters help us know we’ve arrived at the place where our efforts are most needed. And where, in turn, we’ll learn the moves that’ll help us sail through similarly tough spots in the future.
So here’s my suggestion. Let’s all pick a blistering stretch from one of our works-in-progress. Describe it on my Facebook page or keep it private. Either way, let’s spend the rest of September tackling it with everything we’ve got. On October 1, we’ll put our feet up around the digital campfire and swap stories of our heroic achievements.
What do you think? You ready to head out?
Let’s go get some blisters.
This is a copy of an email sent out this week to the folks on the Letters from Chris mailing list. Want to get the emails delivered fresh to your inbox? Subscribe here!
You know what? I think this might go down on record as the fullest summer of my life. Big ups. Big downs. New directions. Old friends. And a ton of fun, scary adventures. I just got back from Alaska four days ago and I’m heading out to backpack in Yosemite for a week with the Juniper Ridge crew today.
The last time I tried to lug a pack more than a couple miles was 15 years ago. Back then, I discovered that my only form of exercise—carrying my prehistoric Gateway laptop from coffee shop to coffee shop—had not adequately prepared me for the rigors of trail life. I whined nonstop and headed home after two days.
In Yosemite, we’ll be covering about 40 miles in five days. It’s not much for an experienced backpacker, but I’m feeling in over my head. Happily, unlike 15 years ago—when we hiked in burlap and toted our sleeping bags in gourds—I now have a nice pack and two shiny Tech t-shirts that REI’s marketing department assures me will make any outdoor activity a breeze. Though having just now read the online reviews for the shirts, I’m worried that they are the worst thing the company has ever made and they they’re going to transform me into a lumbering sweatsack three minutes into the hike.
Someone help me.
Anyway, because of all the comings and goings, this week’s letter from me will be delayed one week (which means it’ll go out around September 8th).
I’ll see you if/when I get back! Americans: Have a great Labor Day! Everyone else: Happy September!
Dear Kind Person,
In January, I left my job at The Office of Letters and Light to finish some writing projects that had been stacking up like baskets of zombie kittens on my doorstep. So cute! So mewly! And so deadly if ignored for too long.
The kitties were hungry for some of my brain, and without a full-time job, I was finally able to give it to them. I lived off savings and finished the young adult novel I’d been working on for six years. I sent it out to some great agents, and waited for the good news to roll in.
They all turned it down. Fast.
It was then that I realized that I didn’t have a Plan B, and I’d staked my entire financial future on a stack of kittens.
Feeling unmoored, I stuffed the manuscript in a drawer and flew off to Ireland. I’d been looking forward to the trip for more than a year, but I had trouble enjoying myself. I was too busy thinking about the implications of the rejections. A dark cloud parked itself above my head, and it stayed there until I saw something that made me think of you.
It happened in Kinvara, Ireland—a village on Galway Bay. Kinvara is home to a very photogenic roadside castle, and my traveling companion Michelle and I were shamelessly mining the castle’s Instagram potential when we heard what sounded like a gigantic mosquito buzzing towards us. A second later, a silver sedan sped into view. The driver had tricked it out with tiny tires, gleaming rims, a racing muffler, and a lowered suspension.
It was an Irish low-rider. The young driver shot past us, windows down, music up, grinning.
I smiled. Michelle smiled.
The guy was clearly an idiot.
I say this because Western Ireland is not kind to its cars. Potholes on the less-traveled routes have been known to go feral and swallow entire counties. Shoulders are rare, and the switchback turns and towering Death Hedges drop the visibility to a few feet in many places.
Given all of this, there are few things less conducive to the survival of a car or driver than moving a vehicle’s delicate undercarriage closer to all the things hell-bent on destroying it. Case in point: Even before the low-rider was out of sight, I heard a loud scrape that sounded like the bumper had just been exfoliated by a speed bump.
Still. I had to hand it to the guy. He had a vision. A deeply impractical, slightly loony vision. But he totally pulled it off. And he looked happier than anyone else we saw on the road that week.
Now that I’m back home in Berkeley, I find myself thinking about that Irish low-rider a lot. And about how the people I admire most—I’m looking at you here—are similarly piloting their own impractical dreams across a variety of inhospitable landscapes. Revising books. Making art. Writing blogs.
The financial returns on these endeavors can be meager, and the arguments for abandoning them are infinite. But then you see the joy on the face of someone who has brought their thing to life, and all the sensible arguments fall away. You have to keep trying until you get there.
So however much progress you’ve made towards reaching your creative goals, know that you’re doing something important just by giving it a shot. Partially because the stuff you’re working on may turn out so magnificently that dorks like me will eventually stand on roadsides saluting your genius.
But also because just by moving forward—and sharing your set-backs and successes along the way—you’re reminding those of us at a crossroads that our improbable projects might be possible too.
Thank you for that. Please keep doing your thing, and doing it loudly.
And if you’ve let some weeds grow up around your engine, now is the perfect time to get your stalled project back on track. We can do it together! I pulled my novel out of the drawer today, and I’m going to start in on the seventh draft tomorrow. I’ll keep you posted on how things go; I hope you’ll do the same.
Finally, to the grinning low-rider of Kinvara, Ireland: Drive on, my friend. Drive on.
This is a copy of an email sent out last week to the folks on the Letters from Chris mailing list. Want to get the emails delivered fresh to your inbox? Subscribe here!
Hello! It’s somehow been seven months since I stepped down as OLL Executive Director. I’ve loved having the extra time to write, travel, give talks, and fine tune the llama teleportation device I’ve been building in my basement.
But I also miss so much about OLL. I miss the staff and the community of writers. I miss sending pep talk emails. And I miss making posters and other fun, weird things that remind us how much ass we can kick when given the right deadline and a little encouragement.
This week, I realized—duh—that I can keep doing the things I love and miss. I’ll just do them from home, on a smaller scale, likely while wearing my pajamas.
So I’m going for it. My current plan is to send you an email every two weeks for the next year. My NaNoWriMo and Script Frenzy pep talks focused mostly on creative writing, but these will likely be a little broader. They will also likely be completely lame, so please start lowering your expectations now.
You can get the emails by adding yourself to my monkey-powered mailing list. Or you can just read them here on the blog. The first letter will go out on Thursday, August 16. It’s about something I saw in Ireland that reminded me of you.
In October, I’ll have some brand-new writing-related posters available too.
And for now? Now, I am going to try and get a llama to materialize directly behind you. If you only receive half a llama, I apologize in advance for the mess! I’m still working out a few bugs in the teleportation software.
Hoping you’re having a magnificent summer,
photo by Alexo!
Ghent University, Belgium. Spring 2013 (exact date and time TBA).
Stanford University Continuing Studies ”Making Writing Fun Again” two-day workshop. July 20th and 27th, 2013.
Johnson County Public Library, Kansas City. Fall, 2013 (exact date and time TBA).
Want me to come visit your group, conference, or festival? Drop me a line with your dates and we’ll talk!
Bus photo by Beccapie.
Hello there! I’m currently booking 2013 speaking engagements. Note to Eurofolks: I will be based out of Barcelona March 15 to June 15, so visiting you in that window will be a breeze!
Here’s my schedule so far:
Johnson County Public Library, Kansas City. Fall, 2013 (exact date and time TBA).
I love giving talks that make people laugh and feel inspired. I want everyone to walk out of the room knowing they have the power to do amazing things. Which they do.
I can give a variety of talks and will happily customize them to your needs. Potential topics include the curious benefits of high-velocity writing, surviving the novel revision process, unlocking happiness through creativity, National Novel Writing Month, kids and teens as writers, and the process of founding and growing a next-generation nonprofit.
I’ve given keynotes and talks at the European Writing Centers Association conference, Writers Digest Conference, O’Reilly Tools of Change For Publishing Conference, the Fall for the Book Festival, Facebook, Microsoft, MIT, Stanford University, and many other fine institutions.
If you’d like me come give a talk at your festival, conference, university, company, or family reunion, please drop me a line with your event date and budget. We’ll get the ball rolling!