The astronaut attitude

Not everything has to be geared towards achieving a specific future purpose to be worthwhile.

Let me rephrase that:

Don’t try to live in the future. Appreciate the present.

My dad was a storyteller. He grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, and he had a great fund of stories featuring hard work, honesty, thrift, and generosity. The theme, in addition to whatever specific value was being imparted, was that living by that value would pay off in the end. Hard work pays off in a satisfying career. My dad’s thrift as a child enabled him to lend his parents money when times were tight in the Depression. His honesty in remembering all winter that he had to repay a penny as soon as the roads cleared earned him a whole bag of penny candy from the surprised storekeeper. His mother’s generosity to a band of traveling Cree people was repaid with moccasins for him and his brother every year.

The corollary my subconscious pulled out of Dad’s stories was that you shouldn’t waste time on things that don’t have a purpose.

Or, as that annoying student used to say (there’s one in every class): will this be on the test?

This isn’t fair to my dad, who was great at having fun for the pure joy of it. But – you know how it is with your subconscious. It thinks what it thinks.

Work hard. Enjoy it.

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield proposes a different approach to thinking about what you’re doing. An astronaut who gets all his or her job satisfaction from space flight is going to be a miserable astronaut, because space flight is such a small and uncertain part of the job. For one thing, there are years of training for one day of space flight. For another, many factors outside your control determine whether you’ll actually go to space. When the U.S. space shuttles were retired, astronauts who were too tall to fit in Russian ships had no chance of space flight. Congressional budgets, disaster investigations, illness, family events – all can mean you miss your window of opportunity.

Your sense of self worth, identity, and happiness can’t be tied up in an ultimate goal that might never happen. The training and everything else that goes into the job is hard, fun, and stretches your mind. Space flight is a bonus. You don’t determine whether you arrive at the desired professional destination, but you can determine your own attitude. Work hard and enjoy the process.

Chris Hadfield is the astronaut who recorded David Bowie’s Space Oddity IN SPACE, so it wasn’t a surprise to hear him talking about learning Rocket Man before he met Elton John, just in case. He pictured the most demanding challenge he could imagine – being asked to perform on stage with Elton John – then determined what he’d have to do to be ready to meet the challenge, then practiced until he was ready. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t actually asked to perform on stage. The important thing is that he was ready.

You might learn things you’ll never use, but it’s better to know them and not need to than the reverse. You’re getting ahead if you learn, even if you stay on the same rung of your career ladder. Learning is the point.

What does this mean for writers?

A writer’s chance of getting a book published and having it succeed with readers, like the astronaut’s chance of spaceflight, is affected by a whole range of things that aren’t in the writer’s control. Writing, studying the craft, writing, researching, writing, connecting with other writers, and writing (not to mention querying, networking, developing an author platform, etc.) are hard, fun, and stretch your mind. Don’t base your sense of self-worth and satisfaction on the end result. Challenge yourself, work hard, and enjoy the process!

Watch this!

After you read the book, check out this little video that sums it up nicely. I’m listening to the audio version of the book, which is especially wonderful because it’s narrated by Colonel Hadfield himself.

 

 

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The Whole Earth Catalog

Before we had the Internet, we had this:

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This copy was printed in 1971.

It’s where I learned about Buckminster Fuller, Gurney’s seed catalogs, and how a guitar is put together. I ordered the parts to build a clock from a supplier listed in the catalog. The “access to tools” subtitle gives you the original idea, which was to be a resource for  people in the back-to-the-land movement, but it’s more than that.

It’s a way of organizing knowledge.

I’m thinking about a website and the best way to organize various things I’d want to put on it, which made me think about the Catalog.

Here’s how it’s set up:

WHOLE SYSTEMS — cosmos, universe, earth, energy, geography, surface, clouds, laws, connections, form, general systems, human beings, being human, Jung, anthropology, thought, history, future, eastern future, Think Little, future biology, funky future, world game, world organism, evolution, human evolution, ecology, ecology issues, population, liferaft Earth, ecology action, ecology periodicals, more ecology, desperate ecology action, Four Changes
LAND USE – agricultural origins, land life, organic gardening, compost, biodynamic gardening, pests, soil, vegetable & flower seeds, trees & flowers, herbs, indoor gardening, exotic crops, wildlife, goats, livestock, rabbits, chickens & horses, energy, wind & sun, water & sanitation, wells, water, mining, tools, roads, surveying & blasting, trees & saws, land buying, Canada & Alaska, wild foods, mushrooms, land use, Soleri
SHELTER – natural structure, Gaudi & Wright, Japanese house, design considerations, architecture, mode, stained glass, dome geometry, domes, owner-built home, low-cost construction, carpentry, building, stoves, lanterns, tipis, cabins, adobe, stone buildings, concrete, Frei Otto, inflatables, plastic, materials
INDUSTRY – alloy, design, Chinese technology, inventory, engineering, inventions, village technology, knots, science, technology, handbooks, plastic, data, tips, modular materials, appliances, lab suppliers, plastic, welding & winching, nifty tools, government surplus, tools, surplus, precision tools, fine tools, tool use
CRAFT – woodcraft, wood, furniture, reed craft, frontier crafts, country crafts & antiques, craft design, philosophy & craft access, craft supplies, jewelry supplies, jewelry, glass, sculpture, candles & bonsai, pottery, kilns & throwing, potters & wheels, ceramic supplies, weaving, spinning, dyeing, looms, wool & yarn, knitting, sewing, embroidery & quilts, macrame, dye, leather
COMMUNITY – forebears, funk living, Japanese communes, schemes, the commune lie, consideration, organization, market, business, funds, food, cooking, kitchen, vegetables, woks & Dutch ovens, preserving, storing, grinders & juicers, gourmet equipment, gadgets, wine & beer making, sauna, massage, Go (the board game), stuff, dogs, animals, dope, mental health, health, emergency medicine, first aid, doctoring, drugs, country cures & medical stuff, home delivery, birth, baby stuff, sex, women, death, bargain living, bargain buying, Sears, Wards, shopping, shoes etc., Hong Kong, outlaw, time, justice, organization, politics, down home, country, kindred, the arts, kindred, New Mexico road
NOMADICS – the Great Bus Race, buses & campers, campers & trailers, Volkswagen, car repair, vehicle repair, off road, motorcycles, bicycles, The Way, walking, aloof, mountains, horses, boots, moccasins, camp clothing, tents, sleeping bags, packs, outdoor suppliers, snow equipment, north, camping, camp, survival, guns, knives, bow & arrow, bowhunting, fishing, canoeing, canoes, kayaks & inflatables, boats, scuba & surf, diving, sailing, seamanship, cruising, ocean, boatbuilding, boats, boat supplies, flying, airplanes, sky sports, exploration, trips, Nepal, travel
COMMUNICATIONS – diagram, image & control, silence, culture, style, language, universe, mind, sense, brain, information, math, organization, computer design, computers, electronics, radio, electronic equipment, high fidelity, managing rock, tape, electronic synthesizers, music, instrument making, guitars & banjos, dulcimers, exotic instruments, wind instruments, music, economics, non-profit, tokens, money, capitalism, video, theater, filmmaking, film, photography, photography supplies, art, image, art, painting, silk screen, printers supplies, writing, bookmaking, printing, books
LEARNING – parent, toys, children’s books, home school, children’s art, learning books, nature, astronomy, history, pioneer, wilderness, Indians, games, kites & paper airplanes, kid technology, science, teaching, schools, school methods, school things, free schools, correspondence schools, what to do, culture, The Game, dope, psychedelics, discorporate, paranormal, mysticism, psychology, mind, centering, self-hypnosis, meditation, yoga, calisthenics, myth, China & Tibet, excursions, Don Juan, mysticism, thinking, serendipity

It’s kind of like a random walk through sixties counterculture. You can see the interest in other cultures, the reaching back to the past for skills, and the hopeful looking upward, outward, and into the future.

Not very helpful for organizing my future website, though.

It’s a cautionary tale

1971 was two years after Woodstock and seven years after Ken Kesey’s psychedelic road trip that Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. By the time this final catalog came out, people had experience with actually living in communes and trying to live a better life away from the repressive Establishment. The Community section is peppered with sad letters and essays, and this photo that says a lot about the reality of living with other people:

IMG_1972

It’s a historical artifact

The counterculture has moved on. Stewart Brand, the genius behind the Catalog, has moved on and rethought a lot of what he wrote in the sixties. For one thing, he’s now saying that the environmentally responsible thing is dense urban living, not dropping out to live on a tiny farm. Here’s a link to his current work with the Long Now Foundation, and here’s his Ted talk at the U.S. State Department.

Politics have shifted. The page on guns includes an affectionate note about the NRA, its useful magazine with tips on things like storing and preparing game, and the help it provides to any member who has a question. The writer says there are a lot of “flag-freaks and super-patriots” involved in the organization, but it hadn’t yet taken on the boundless power it seems to have today.

And I think this page on computers is a perfect illustration of how technology has grown since the year I took Fortran in college. Check out the features of the $4,400 and $4,700 desktop calculators, compared in the bottom left corner of the page.

IMG_1971

It’s hope and confidence

One thing that comes through loud and clear is the idea that people can do anything they put their minds to. Want to raise goats and churn your own butter? You can learn how from this book, and buy the supplies you need from these sources. Want to build a camera and create your own movies? The resources are here. Same for raising wool, spinning yarn, and knitting sweaters. There’s a pitch for the USDA Agricultural Extension Services, with free help and information on all kinds of things.

And bigger problems, like overpopulation, pollution, and poverty, aren’t insurmountable. Read this book, and think about these ideas, and use your ingenuity to invent solutions using these tips.

Well, this trip down memory lane didn’t help me much with the website organization question I came in with, but it gave me a lot to think about. And it led me to the Long Now and its optimistic podcast series. Just what I need in 2018.

If you also remember the Whole Earth Catalog, or if you’re from a different generation and have something else that brings your era to vivid life the way this did for me, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

 

 

 

Tucson Festival of Books 2018

I’m lucky to live a couple of hours’ drive from Tucson, home of the country’s second largest book festival. This year was the 10th annual event, which comes around on the second weekend in March while the University of Arizona students are away on spring break. Over a hundred thousand people show up to honor authors as rock stars – literally this year, when the Rock Bottom Remainders (Amy Tan, Dave Barry, R.L. Stine, and Scott Turow, among others) performed on Saturday night.

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The festival takes over the U of A campus, with hundreds of tents on the grass, and a wonderful Science City at one end. (Check out this video to get a flavor of it.) For me, though, the juicy part is the array of panels and speakers in the classrooms. I try to get to as many writing craft sessions as I can.

Choice quotes

  • Write what you want to read but can’t find. (Fonda Lee, author of Jade City)
  • “Hard fantasy” in which magic follows rigid rules is just science under a different name. (Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings and translator of The Three Body Problem)
  • Every book is different. It’s like raising children: you only learn how to write that book. What keeps you going is knowing you did it before. (K Arsenault Rivera, author of The Tiger’s Daughter)
  • I’m a collector of life stories (Katayoun Medhat, author of The Quality of Mercy)
  • I channeled the simmering rage from my own life into my 20-year-old female character, so she’s closer to me than any of my other characters. (Riley Sager, 40-year-old male author of Final Girls)
  • People who make notes of their ideas as they come up have ideas they can work with when they’re ready to work. (Windy Harris, author of Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays)
  • Reading can be a way of avoiding writing, escaping the difficulty of finding and listening to your own voice. (Ron Hogan, founder of Beatrice.com)
  • We become authors by authorizing ourselves. (Stuart Horowitz, founder of Book Architecture)

World Building from Ken Liu

The hands-down best session I attended this year was Ken Liu’s presentation, in which he shared ten tips for compelling world building. Whether you write fantasy, science fiction, or historical novels, you need to construct a sense of place so the reader feels immersed in your story. Ken’s own website describes the talk, and incidentally serves as a great example of an effective author website.

Some favorite pieces of wisdom:

  • Read outside your comfort zone and pay attention to movies, tv, video games, and even cosplay and larping (it means live-action role playing – who knew?), and learn how others evoke a sense of place.
  • If you only read secondary sources, like a science journalist’s summary of a research paper or a historian’s account of events, you’re getting someone else’s narrative. Go to primary sources, and go in person to see physical artifacts. Tour a battleship, look at original art.
  • Use “incluing” – Jo Walton’s term – instead of explaining everything. Readers can figure out more than you might think, and figuring things out makes reading more fun.
  • Study nonfiction to see how to make infodumps compelling to read.
  • Make your prose more dense. Each sentence can do more than one thing – show character, advance the plot, describe the world.
  • Think through all the implications of your ideas. If your world has flying cars, it’s not going to be just like our world but with flying cars added.
  • Give your world a history and different cultures, with all the complexity and inconsistency that comes from the way things evolve. Who knew that samurai culture in Japan came after gunpowder and firearms were available? Technology doesn’t determine everything, and stories told in other cultures are very different from the ones you grew up reading.
  • Technology is invented by tinkerers trying to solve a problem. It doesn’t come from higher level scientific principles in an orderly manner. Read The Nature of Technology by W. Brian Arthur to understand how technology creates our world. And technology isn’t just mechanical things – bureaucracy, organizations, and laws are also technologies.
  • The one thing you care about, that excites you, will lead you to the rest of your world. It isn’t photorealism, but impressionist painting. What you’re doing is world conjuring in collaboration with the reader.
  • Think through your own assumptions. Someone asked whether you have to include realistic elements like violence in your imaginary world, and Ken Liu pointed out that the question implies assumptions about what reality is like.

Idea to novel

Linnea Hartsuyker, author of The Half-Drowned King, led a workshop on turning your idea into a novel. She gave us lots of opportunities to practice developing our what-ifs, and shared a bit of her own wisdom along the way, like:

  • Plot doesn’t just happen to your characters, but because of them.
  • Different characters relate to the theme in different ways. If the theme of The Hunger Games is “how does a person navigate a world in which cruelty is necessary for survival,” the answers are different for Katniss, Haymitch, and President Snow.
  • Visualize the end. The end is where the reader sees that you’ve made your argument and something’s been settled, and it will help you along the way as you’re writing if you feel you’re writing towards something.
  • If you get stuck, think about the chapter questions to get back on track:
    • Summary
    • Central conflict
    • Decision
    • Plot purpose, character purpose, and theme purpose
  • Start on an unsteady equilibrium (the cliche is “start as late as you can get away with”).
  • Her own process is iterative. She writes the important events, a high level summary, and a few chapter questions, then writes as fast as she can till she hits a wall, then goes back and does more outlining and thinks about the three questions: what the character wants, what they need to do (what’s their primary malfunction), and what’s standing in their way.

Finding and pitching an agent

In an information-packed session, two agents (Claire Gerus and Katharine Sands) and a developmental editor (Ron Hogan) shared their sometimes-contradictory wisdom on getting an agent. Sands followed up with a whirlwind solo presentation on perfecting your pitch. In addition to common sense advice like “don’t be bridezilla, even though you’ve been dreaming of this since you were seven,” a few highlights were:

  • You’re looking for someone who believes in your work.
  • Seduce agents by showing them something that makes them want to see more, and that you can deliver.
  • Do your research, i.e. in Publishers Marketplace, look carefully at the contract, and talk to their other authors.
  • You have to kiss a lot of frogs. Don’t limit yourself too much. Bigger agencies hire new people all the time, so even if they don’t specialize in your genre, their new agent might love your work.
  • Publishers are looking to minimize financial risk; agents are looking out for your interests. In self-publishing you keep all your rights but you’re probably not putting the best version of your book out there.
  • Have a social media presence. Publishers want to know if you already have a following. Develop a relationship with your readers online. Don’t post too much in your blog – your contract will stipulate how much of your book has to be original.
  • Rehearse your pitch. Think of it like gossip, when you tell your best friend about the crazy thing that happened today: you’re animated, with drama, charm, and humor. Practice till you always have it ready to go.
  • Your pitch needs place, person, and pivot so the agent knows who the character is and what they’re dealing with. It doesn’t need backstory, theme, or how the story ends. You’re not telling the whole story, just enough to spark interest.

Tucson is for foodies

I stayed with my friend Kat, who lives walking distance from the university, and we had lunch on Saturday at the wonderful B Line on 4th Avenue. If you’re familiar with Tucson, you already know 4th Avenue is the hub of all kinds of independent shops and restaurants. I’m a vegetarian so I never get a chance to order tortilla soup, which is usually made with beef stock. The B Line had a delicious version that’s all vegetarian, and can even be made vegan if you ask them to. Yum!

If you don’t want to leave the festival, you don’t have to. You can get anything from tamales to gelato in the food tent area.

This was my fourth time at the Tucson book festival, and I’m grateful to young adult author Tom Leveen for mentioning it in a class. I’m slowly getting the hang of it – the festival is FREE and with so many book loving attendees, it can be a challenge to get into some of the sessions. If you have any tips on successfully navigating a big book festival, or if you went to this one and care to share some of the insights you gained, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

 

Scrivener update

I’ve been using Scrivener for a few years now. I wrote a post about it in July 2016, in which I raved about some of the basic features that I love about the software. Literature and Latte came out with a new version for Mac a few months ago, and it’s even more awesome now. It’s called Scrivener 3, and they haven’t released a PC version yet.

Bookmarks

There are 5 little icons at the top of the inspector column: synopsis/notes, bookmarks, metadata/keywords, snapshots, and comments/footnotes. If you click on the bookmarks icon, it opens a little panel and you can drag other documents from your binder into it, so you can refer back to other documents without losing your place in your current document!

My current project has dozens of documents in it, including text, character sheets, places, and research notes. Plus, I have a memory like a steel sieve, meaning I’m constantly going back and forth to remind myself of what I said last time I wrote about a particular character, or whatever.

The screenshot below shows the bookmark panel at the right. I’ve just put a couple of the character sheets in there as an illustration.

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 10.08.16 AM

The screenshot also illustrates another awesome new feature:

Linguistic focus

This feature is under the EDIT/WRITING TOOLS menu. It grays out everything except the kind of text you ask for. You can just look at your verbs, to see if maybe you’re overusing passive voice; you can look at adjectives or nouns to see if maybe you can inject a little more variety or elegance into your writing; and you can even look at dialogue to see if your character voices are consistent and distinct (the direct speech option highlights everything that’s inside quotation marks).

Tabs

I usually have multiple Scrivener documents open at the same time. There’s my current project, of course. I also have a catch-all called “how to write” which has my notes on everything from the 3-act structure to how to take a screen clipping, and I usually leave that one open. I keep a copy of my blog posts in a Scrivener project, which helps when I want to look up something I wrote a long time ago but am not sure when; that’s also usually open somewhere in the background. In the past, I’d have to shuffle the documents around to find the one I wanted somewhere buried behind everything else.

The new WINDOW/MERGE ALL WINDOWS feature creates tabs in your header bar, one per open project, so you can see them all nicely laid out and switch between them with ease. You can see it in my screenshot above.

Along the same lines, if you have projects you might not open very often but want to find them easily, you can add them to your favorite projects list (FILE/ADD PROJECT TO FAVORITES). I don’t know if this is a new feature, but I just learned about it.

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 10.41.42 AM

Arrange by label

This is a feature I think has huge potential for helping to see the flow of your story, or figure out if you have the right balance of different points of view, or identify what stage of drafting and revision your pieces are in.

When you’re looking at your document in group mode (the cork board with index cards), there’s a group of icons at the bottom of your document that looks like this:

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If you click on the one that looks like little tadpoles, it shows you a diagram like this:

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The way it works will depend on how you set up your labels. In the illustration, mine are set up for where the scene takes place. You can zoom out to see more of the diagram at a time (VIEW/ZOOM/ZOOM OUT). A neat thing about this is you can move the cards from one line to another and it will automatically change the label.

There are lots and lots of other cool features in Scrivener, but I’m most excited about these right now.

Happy writing, everyone! If you use Scrivener and have found other neat things to share, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing clearly

I have new glasses, and I’m seeing the world in a whole different way. Colors are more intense. There’s a bright prism-like outline of light around far-away objects. My laptop screen looks twice as tall as usual, with two copies of my header one on top of the other. Same with my little dogs – they look like elongated dachshunds. But if I move my head a certain way, everything is half its normal size. If I turn my head from side to side without paying attention, furniture comes to life and threatens to fall on me. And if I look into the distance, I see two versions of reality side by side.

Don’t worry, I’m not driving with these yet. The roads are safe.

Life with amblyopia

I have the insultingly named condition “lazy eye”. My left eye is extremely nearsighted, and what I see through it wriggles, and vanishes if I try to focus on it. An eye doctor once told me the reason for the latter problem was that at birth, your brain learns to interpret the information coming in from your eyes, and if there’s too much variation between your eyes, it might decide to ignore one of them. My right eye is fine, so apparently my brain made the efficient decision to only pay attention to it. It’s called suppression.

All this means that all my life, I’ve used my right eye to see, and my left eye just goes along for the ride. My 3-D vision is pitiful. They used to show me a holographic picture of a butterfly and ask me to try to grab it. I figured out the right answer was somewhere above the page, but my pediatric eye doctor wasn’t fooled. The old-style 3-D movies, where you’d wear cardboard glasses with one red lens, never worked for me, and when those magic-eye pictures were a fad back in the 1990s, I could never see the hidden image. My eyes just don’t work together that way.  (Here’s a fun article about those magic eye pictures.)

Treatment…and not

When I was a kid, I had eye surgery twice, at age 5 to correct a cross-eyed look and then at 15 to reverse a trend towards being wall-eyed. What they actually did was cut muscles, first on the inside (nose side) and then on the outside (ear side) of my eye. (I also had a stainless steel front tooth, thanks to a mishap with a swing set in sixth grade. It’s a wonder I survived middle school.)

Walleye_Male_Sander_vitreus_3-2017
Walleye

 

 

I also had glasses, starting at about age 4. For a few years, there was a serious effort to force me to use my left eye. This was accomplished by putting a bandaid-colored patch over my right eye, or painting the right lens of my glasses with clear nail polish.

Here’s the thing. I’m a reader. I learned to read when I was four, and I liked it. Those patches and the nail polish meant that books were a frustrating blur of squirmy spots surrounded by bright prisms, with blotches of nothing in the middle. So I got really good at pulling off just enough of the patch to see under it, and learned to tilt my head so the fuzzy glasses didn’t get in my way.

Finally, about the same time as that second surgery, the adults in my life decided that if my vision was fine in the eye I actually used, I didn’t need glasses. I saw the world without a smeary plastic filter for the next three decades, until I was old enough to start having trouble with small print.

After a few years of buying readers at the drugstore, I got tired of putting them on and taking them off and spending half my time looking for them, no matter how many pairs I stashed around the house, car, and office. I went to the eye doctor for the first time as an adult, and got a prescription. Because I wasn’t using my left eye anyway, the prescription was just for my right eye, and the optician who made the glasses made a matching lens for my left eye so I’d look more or less symmetrical.

 

New hope

Because my left eye’s so useless, I’ve always had a little undercurrent of anxiety about my right eye. The anxiety level increased a few years ago when my eye doctor told me I had cataracts developing. Cataract surgery is pretty commonplace now, and they seem to have it down, but they still only do one eye at a time – just in case.

As it turns out, there’s new research going on about treating amblyopia in adults. I’m not the only kid who didn’t comply with the patching-and-nail-polish routine. A doctor at McGill University in Canada has been experimenting with using a stereoscopic device and video games to help adults with amblyopia improve their vision – see this easy-to-read article, or this example of Dr. Robert Hess’s peer-reviewed articles about it.

And when I had to switch eye doctors because my insurance changed, my new eye doctor suggested trying a new prescription. She showed me that my left eye vision can be partially corrected, so even if I still can’t read small print with it I can read, say, 24-point font. Which might not sound like a big deal but given that uncorrected I can only read the very top line of the eye chart with that eye, it’s pretty astonishing.

Hence the new glasses. The left lens is made with some space-age plastic that keeps the thickness down, but it still has a bit of that old Coke-bottle effect. The right lens is downright weird, though. It has a line across like the one in the picture on the left below, which is the source of my up-and-down double vision. It’s called slab-off, and it’s kind of a reverse prism to make light from the thinner right lens hit the back of the eye at the same distance as the thicker left lens. The picture on the right illustrates the different angles. Physics.

When I picked up the new glasses, the optician said to try them for two or three weeks and see if they drove me crazy. I’ve had them for a little over two days, and the jury’s definitely still out. I’m happy to have better distance vision than I’ve had with my old glasses, but I’m not a fan of the bifocal-type line. I expect I’ll get used to it, as I got used to my old progressives. The real questions are whether I’ll adapt to using both eyes, whether those bright lines will disappear, and whether (heaven forfend) my left eye will start drifting inward or outward again.

I’m hopeful. I’m wondering whether my binocular vision will improve. Even my posture could potentially get better – I hold my head and shoulders a bit crooked, which is probably partly from years of carrying bags on my left shoulder but might also have something to do with subtly turning my head so my right eye faces front and center.

On the other hand – before I had that second surgery, when my left eye tended to wander outward, sometimes people would try to make eye contact with it. It’s really disconcerting when someone’s staring off towards your left ear. I haven’t had that experience in years, until yesterday: the guy in Costco handing out $2-off produce coupons stared at my left eye the whole time he was talking to me. My left eye looks a little bigger through that Coke-bottle lens, so maybe that’s what attracted him to it.

My gift to you

I did a bit of poking around on the web to see if anyone else had any advice on adjusting to new glasses with the slab-off feature. Dr. Hess says 5% of people have amblyopia, so you’d think someone else would have posted something. I couldn’t find much of anything besides articles written for people in the business. For example, here’s a good article that explains the slab-off technique. I did find a few items about adjusting to new glasses in general. In a nutshell, the advice is to wear the new glasses, don’t keep switching back to your old glasses, expect that for a minor change it will take a couple of days but for a big change it could take a couple of weeks, and be prepared to go back to the doctor if you still haven’t adjusted after a couple of weeks. I also found some YouTube videos of eye exercises for lazy eye, and a weird one about using something called eccentric circles to train your eyes, which seems to be aimed at people with wall-eyes.

If you found this because you’re struggling with a similar problem, I’d love to hear about how you’ve managed to overcome it in the comments below. I’ll update this post in a couple of weeks and add anything I think might be useful to other amblyopic adults.

 

Goals (reprise)

In my post on goal setting for writers, I wrote about things like setting measurable, achievable goals. Today’s longer post dives deeper into the idea of using goals to achieve what you want in life. It’s inspired by Brian Tracy’s Goals! (The link is to the new edition that just came out in December; I got the audio version of the 2003 original from the library, in keeping with my longstanding goal to get a handle on my overflowing bookshelves.)

The 5-minute summary

Write down your goals, make plans to achieve them, and work on your plans every single day.

Success starts inside

Tracy says, “you become what you think about most of the time.” Once you have clear goals, you’ll move towards them. Think about the future, what you want out of life, and who you want to be, and that’s what your life will be about. Don’t constantly think about the past, all the reasons you haven’t succeeded yet, all the people who hurt you – those negative emotions will hold you down. To free yourself, see yourself as in control of your own fate. Psychologists call this “locus of control,” and you’re happier if you have an internal one as opposed to external.

The timing for this couldn’t be better for me. In November, I used NaNoWriMo to write a memoir-y piece in which I dug deep into old memories, looking for characters and emotions I could work into my fiction. Great idea, right? Except…it was kind of like opening Pandora’s box. I tapped right into a deep well of fears, doubts, resentments, and guilt. And blame, which Tracy describes as the trunk of the tree of negative emotions. Good for my fiction, no doubt.

Ahem.

Clarify your values, because your goals need to be congruent with them. Integrity is the overarching value. When you have integrity, you live in alignment with your values, which makes you a happier person. Create a big dream, clearly envision your future, and don’t let self-limiting beliefs of your own inadequacy get in your way. You need burning desire to sustain the kind of work you’ll need to put in to achieve the highest level of success. Analyze your beliefs because whatever you believe with conviction becomes your reality. Your own self-limiting beliefs can be the biggest obstacle to your success. You have the intelligence, talent, and creativity you need; you have more potential than you could ever use in your lifetime. Reprogram yourself with positive statements, and learn to see setbacks as part of the plan because you’ll learn from them.

Live as though you were already the excellent person you want to become.

Now that you’ve set the stage…

You’re ready to determine and clarify your goals. You can’t hit a target you can’t see. Keep returning to the question, what do I want for my life? Start general, then move to more and more specific goals. Do a baseline assessment: identify your starting point, what good habits are helping you, what bad ones are holding you back, what your best and weakest qualities are, and what new habits and qualities you need to develop. Set deadlines and benchmarks to measure your progress. Commit to them, and discipline yourself to complete them. If you miss a deadline, set a new one: the more you use deadlines, the better you get at setting and achieving them, and the more dependable you become.

Achieving your goals

Remove roadblocks instead of giving up. Brainstorm potential obstacles and focus on solving the ones that will make the most difference. Most of your constraints will be within yourself. Don’t focus on causes of the roadblocks, but rewrite them as positive goals. Expect to fail and fall short many times.

Failure is an opportunity to begin again more intelligently.

Tracy says the best way to develop yourself is in the direction of your natural talents. Signs to look for: you enjoy doing a thing, you do it well, time stands still when you do it, and you really admire and respect other people who do it. Once you know what “it” is, become an expert: commit to excellence, to becoming one of the best people in your field. Put your whole heart into it. Work on developing the skills you need to be the best, by practicing imperfectly until you can do them perfectly. Remember that the top people in your field were at one time not even in the field at all.

Look for opportunities to help other people and make their lives easier. You’ll need lots of help to achieve your goals. Be kind, courteous, and compassionate; get to know people, and recognize and compliment their work. Come prepared, arrive early, volunteer, and cultivate a reputation as the person everyone can depend on. Choose a reference group (the people you associate with) of people you look up to; positive, goal-oriented people that you like, admire, and respect. Don’t neglect your home life, either. Treat everyone like a million dollar customer, and look for ways to make their lives better.

Plan how to achieve your goal. Even if you never look at the plan again, the process enables you to organize your thinking, figure out how to compensate for flaws or weaknesses, identify resources you need, focus on first things first, and avoid wasting time on things that aren’t possible with existing resources. Expect plans to fail at first, and learn from those failures. Manage your time by maintaining prioritized lists of what you need to do to achieve your goals, making decisions about what’s the most valuable use of your time at the moment, and following through.

The step that will change your life

Get a spiral notebook and write your goals daily. Without looking at yesterday’s goals, list your top 10-15 goals, using the 3P formula: positive, present tense, personal. “I weigh X pounds by December 31, 2018.” Your goals will change from day to day, but over time you’ll refine them into a consistent list. What you’re doing is programming your subconscious so it will help ensure all your actions are consistent with your goals. Do it last thing at night so your subconscious will work on it while you sleep, or first thing in the morning to set up your day. To multiply the effectiveness, add three actions you can take to achieve each goal, also using the 3 Ps: “I plan my meals in advance. I eat fruit for dessert. I exercise every day.”

Take control of your mind

Use mental rehearsal and constructive visualization to help you achieve your goals. By changing your internal pictures, you’ll change your reality. Improvement starts with improving your mental pictures. This sounded like mumbo jumbo to me until Tracy pointed out the flip side of this coin: when you worry excessively, you’re mentally rehearsing the negative, with the result that your life is worse than it needs to be. I do believe that, and have a handful of aphorisms squirreled away in my brain, like:

Don’t borrow trouble, or the more fun-to-say don’t trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.

So my mind is open, which is Tracy’s next point: be open to possibility that comes through serendipity or synchronicity, and be open to new ideas. Change will happen, and you have to deal with things as they are. Be flexible – be clear about your goals, but flexible about the process of achieving them. Tap into your intuition by either working on your goal wholeheartedly or taking a break and getting your mind busy elsewhere.

Strengthen your creativity by using “mind storming” to generate ideas. Write your problem as a question, and force yourself to come up with at least 20 answers. The last ones will be really hard, but sometimes that’s where the breakthrough insight occurs. You can take the best idea and repeat the exercise by writing it as a question (“how can I…”); and you can repeat the exercise on the original question every day until you get the insight you need. Use mind storming to do scenario planning; start by thinking of the three worst and three best things that could happen in the next few months, then ask how to guard against the setbacks and how to encourage and take advantage of the good things. You need to have options so you can respond to change.

Action, self-discipline, and courage

Do something every day towards achieving your goals. Go beyond what’s expected, and persist until you succeed. Build the habit of persistence; do what you need to do, whether you feel like it or not. Disappointments and adversity are normal parts of life. The higher and more challenging your goals, the more adversity you’ll face. The way you respond to disappointment predicts your success. Don’t give up.

Tackle your fears head-on. Most of us fear failure and rejection, and that’s okay – courage is mastery of fear, not absence of fear. Confronting your fears will diminish them and build your confidence, while hiding from them allows them to grow. Write a list of your fears, identify the one that’s holding you back the most, and ask how it’s holding you back, how it’s helping you, and what the payoff would be for eliminating it. Take actions consistent with courage and self-confidence, and think of yourself as courageous and self-reliant.

Where do I go from here?

There’s a lot of great advice in Brian Tracy’s book, but as he says, the best advice in the world won’t help you if you don’t act on it. I’m going to try the write-your-goals-daily thing for the rest of January 2018, and I believe that will also help me with developing a clear vision and keeping it alive in my conscious and subconscious mind. I love his advice about treating other people well, and his counsel that you become what you think about most of the time. I might cross-stitch that on a sampler to hang over my desk.

What do you think? If you’ve tried any of these ideas, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

 

Show, don’t tell

I HATE this advice. I know myself well enough to know that probably means I need to pay attention when people say it about my writing. If you ask me about it, I’ll probably say something like “I’m skeptical; it’s a newfangled notion and I’ve read plenty of books that have stood the test of time while telling mercilessly.”

Honestly, though? I hate this advice because I don’t understand it well enough to heed it.

This blog post is my attempt to come to grips with this confusing notion.

It’s in the prose

Show, don’t tell, isn’t an aspect of the storytelling side of writing. You can have a terrific plot, compelling characters, and a meaningful theme, and still struggle with telling. Show, don’t tell happens in the prose you use to tell the story.

Do you see what I did there? Storytelling. Prose that tells the story. This is probably a big reason I find this concept so vague: it’s a catchy phrase that doesn’t convey enough meaning to be helpful.

Dramatization versus exposition

The fabulously informative K.M. Weiland explains the phrase as code for mastering great narrative and allowing readers to fully inhabit the story. In the old novels I sink into when I have a bad day, I’m observing a character who’s watching something happen; the “show versus tell” goal is for me to watch something happen myself.

Weiland recommends examining every paragraph of your novel for the proper balance of showing, using a list of checkpoints.

  1. “Telling” verbs

These are verbs that put a layer of distance between the reader and the story. Weiland’s list includes ask, begin, feel, hear, look, see, smell, sound, taste, think, touch, and wonder. These words distance the reader because instead of engaging the reader’s own senses, you’re telling them what the narrator is sensing. It’s the difference between “Sally heard a lark singing” and something that describes the plaintive, desperate cry of a lark looking for a mate.

My impression of lark song from a hundred literary references was completely off base. There are no larks where I live, so I looked it up on YouTube to help me write that sentence. From reading all those old “telling” narratives, I imagined a beautiful melody, like the mockingbird outside my house sings. Now I know it’s more of a call, not very musical at all. If the way a lark sounds was important to a plot, I’d never have gotten the point.

2. Dramatize, don’t summarize

You can think of showing as dramatizing, and telling as summarizing. It’s the knife plunging into the victim’s heart versus the assassin killing the victim. Joe Bunting calls this being specific, and he says it’s the secret to showing, not telling. He recommends interrogating your story to reveal the hidden depths, and compares a summary to a closed accordion. The music happens when you pull it open and show the folds.

3. Balance

Don’t try to eliminate all the telling in your novel. You can use it to summarize tedious or extraneous events, remind readers of what they already know, and transition between scenes, times, and settings. Most of your writing should be showing, but there’s a place for telling. As a reader, I’m fine with a summary that says the second week in the new job was just like the first. Writer’s Digest says be brief, and make sure whatever you’re summarizing is really necessary for advancing the plot by developing backstory, establishing mood, or describing the setting. The flip side of adding specificity is that you’re adding length. Don’t bore the reader.

4. Show the one right detail

Find the one thing that will bring the scene to life, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Brandon Sanderson talks about this in his BYU lesson on world building: he says if you go deep on one little thing about your fantasy or science fiction world, it creates the illusion of the iceberg beneath the surface. Weiland says that trying to dramatize everything, so the reader sees exactly what you see in your imagination, doesn’t usually work, and adds unnecessary clutter. Along the same lines, Tom Leveen reminds us that everyone knows what bacon smells like, so you don’t need to waste a paragraph describing it. He says make that one right detail concrete: it’s not the length of the description but the specificity. You can choose to leave other things ambiguous.

The camera trick

The Writer’s Digest recommends Jeff Gerke’s idea from his book The First 50 Pages, to help you identify whether your prose is telling, not showing. Ask yourself, can the camera see it? “It was a peaceful land and the people lived in harmony” is telling because the camera can’t see peace and harmony.

You’ll have to imagine a camera that picks up things from the other senses. Also, interior monologue isn’t telling, even though the camera wouldn’t see it.

Showing better by stirring emotions

Another way to think about it is to say that showing is the ability to stir readers’ emotions, says Abigail Perry on the DIY MFA website. Using the courtroom verdict scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, you can see how three techniques heighten the reader’s connection to the character’s emotions:

  1. Metaphor and simile

Using vivid images and precise words pulls the reader in better than vague adverbs and adjectives. In Mockingbird, Scout says “I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers.” She could have said “the jury returned, moving slowly” but that wouldn’t have conveyed the agonizing pace. The metaphor also helps to show how Scout is perceiving the moment, in a dreamlike, time-stretched, somber way.

Metaphors and similes make scenes easier to imagine. Watch out for clichés, though – I know the first simile that comes to my mind is usually something that was overused a hundred years ago.

2.  Verbs to trigger the senses

Scout notices that Jem’s hands are “white from gripping the rails.” From this image, we know Jem is upset, and we can feel the tension in his body. Atticus “pushes” his papers and “snaps” his briefcase. Using verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs is a stronger, more direct way to describe what and how the character sees, smells, hears, and feels. Tom Leveen says we can use more than 5 senses in our writing. The senses of temperature, pain, balance and acceleration, and where our limbs are in relation to ourselves can all help deepen the reader’s connection to our work.

3.  Interweaving dialogue

Dialogue is another way to show a character’s feelings and emotions. There’s not much dialogue in the Mockingbird  scene but what little there is pulls us in deeper. Not exactly dialogue, but description of dialogue – “Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny” – conveys that same slow-motion unreality as the “underwater swimmers” jury motion. At the end of the scene, as Scout is watching from the balcony as Atticus exits the courtroom, Reverend Sykes says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’…” The short statement conveys the respect the community has for Atticus, and supports the visuals.

How to show in four easy steps

The Daily Writing Tips blog summarizes the concept briefly:

  1. Use dialogue
  2. Use sensory language
  3. Be descriptive (but don’t go so far as to write a “police blotter” description)
  4. Be specific, not vague

The great lie of writing workshops?

Joshua Henkin has a different perspective on the “show don’t tell” advice. He says there is a kernel of truth in it – fiction is a dramatic art. However, a novel is not a movie. Movies are better at certain things, but they aren’t as good at others as novels are, like conveying what’s going on in the general sense that doesn’t fit into a specific scene, or more importantly, describing internal psychological states. A movie can suggest emotion by dialogue and gesture, or borrow from the novel with a voice-over; a novel can straight-out tell you what the person is feeling.

Henkin says “show don’t tell” can be a lazy way to say something isn’t working in a story, when the teacher and the student need to dig deeper to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it. It’s easier to fiddle with the description so the reader can see the torn vinyl couch than it is to describe internal emotional states without using cheesy clichés. “Show don’t tell” can provide cover for writers who don’t want to do the hardest but most crucial work.

Mostly show but sometimes tell

Hannah Collins neatly straddles both sides of the question with this less catchy but more accurate phrase. She compares writing to music, where composers include silence to give the listener a rest from all the sounds. If you do nothing but show, your writing will be long and exhausting, and some things are better conveyed by simple telling.

Because telling comes naturally to writers, we need to learn to show, which is why the “show don’t tell” advice is so prevalent. Collins recommends practicing by writing a scene in simple “telling” style and then rewriting it to show, sprinkling in more details and context than the straightforward telling conveyed.

Ultimately, knowing when to show and when to tell comes from experience, practice, instinct, and feedback.