5 steps for getting your butt in the chair (or out of the house)

Many of us set goals for ourselves with the best of intentions. We want to introduce a new habit, activity, or commitment that we feel will benefit or enhance our lives in some way. It almost goes without saying, however, that following through on the things we’ve said we were going to do can sometimes feel like the hardest thing in the world. Personally speaking, I’ve always found it a lot easier to follow through on a task (even an unpleasant one) when I’m accountable to someone else. In recent months, however, I’ve set a lot of new goals to which the only person I’m accountable is myself. This has proven to be a challenging area for me, but fortunately, I’ve identified some strategies that help me to get started, and I’m going to share them today. So without further ado, here are 5 steps for getting your butt in the chair (or out of the house):

1)   Think about how you’ll feel afterwards if you don’t do what you said you would.

Be honest with yourself and don't sugarcoat your answer. If you don’t meet your work goal for the day (or at least take a really good stab at it), if you don’t show up for the class or the meeting, how will you really feel at the end of the day? Defeated? Lazy? Ineffective? Stuck? Like you let yourself down? Are you prepared to end your day feeling this way? Didn't think so.

2)   Think about how you’ll feel after you do it.

Even if you don’t walk away from the experience having gained anything life-changing or totally amazing, you’ll at least be able to know you held yourself accountable for something and followed through. Do NOT discount how valuable and important this is.

3)   Recognize how awesome it is that you’re able to consciously (and unconsciously) come up with reasons not to do something. That's right: awesome. 

I’m too tired. It’s too far away. It’s too cold outside. I’m not going to get anything out of this anyway. We all play an active role in cultivating and feeding our favorite excuses, but most of the time, we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. While coming to terms with the fact that we are the ones responsible for inventing these (convincing and sometimes very creative) excuses can be a hard pill to swallow, it’s actually a very liberating concept: seeing ourselves as the active agent instead of the passive victim of procrastination puts us in the drivers seat and reminds us that we are the ones who with the power to decide.

4)   Tell yourself all the reasons why you WILL do it – and make sure you come up with a damn convincing argument.

My friend Christina turned me on to this one. Instead of putting your energy into talking yourself out of something, talk about why you will do it. Make a list, write a paragraph, or write a dialogue between two characters. Pour a little time and energy into bulking up the “other side’s” campaign.

5)   If all else fails, put a ban on thinking about it anymore and just take the first step. 

You heard me: a ban. Here's the truth: feelings come and go. We may never “feel like doing something,” but who says our feelings have to determine our actions? On that same note: we can and argue and debate and reason with ourselves until we’re blue in the face, but sometimes even reason isn’t powerful enough. Sometimes you just have to put your body into motion. Start by take the first step and don’t even allow yourself to think about whether or not you really want do something. The answer you're searching for is irrelevant. Getting it done is the only thing that matters.

***

The reward that comes with following through on the promises you make to yourself is twofold: you get to experience the amazing feeling of having accomplished your goal, of course, but you also get to feel great about the fact that you did what you said you were going to do. Keeping promises to yourself is just as important as keeping the promises you make to others – I would argue that it’s even more important in some instances. 

Posted on July 22, 2014 .
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Snowpiercer, stop killing off all the interesting characters!

I’ve always been drawn to the villains in stories. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that. Antagonists are almost always, hands down, more interesting than the “good guy.” This is not groundbreaking news. Personally? I like exploring peoples’ flaws, their twisted sides, their ease in committing unspeakable acts that most “good” people would never dream of doing.

Unfortunately, in the process of making a protagonist “palatable” to a mainstream audience, the “good guy” tends to be rendered incredibly bland and sorely deprived of a personality.

Snowpiercer is no exception. To fill you in on the story: we have this post-apocalyptic (or whatever) train that a bunch of people have been stuck on for a buttload of years. The good guys are all at the back of the train and are forced to eat cockroaches for dinner every night, and the bad guys who control everything are at the front. The good guys decide they’re sick of this crap and want to fight back, so they band together and start pushing their way to the front of the train. Violence ensues (shocker) and one by one, the team of marginally-more-interesting good guys are killed off, except of course for the main protagonist, played by Chris Evans. He has to stay alive so he can continue to bore us until the very end of the movie.

This is not the kind of movie I typically go to see. I’m not big on the whole dystopian thing in fiction (or in…nonfiction?). But in the spirit of opening myself up to new things, I agreed to check it out last weekend. And while there were elements of the movie I really did like (Tilda Swinton’s performance being one of them), one thing I just couldn’t get behind was the dull main character.

We’ve all seen this character a million times. It’s long gotten to the point where we immediately know who the protagonist is because he’s the blandest guy in the room. We know we should like him because we’re told we should. It’s implied. It’s force fed. It’s going to be that way, so we all might as well just suck it up and accept it, right?

"SNOWPIERCER" by marsupilani92 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

"SNOWPIERCER" by marsupilani92 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

But something was different this time. This time I found myself getting annoyed, heaving a deep, internal sigh within the first ten minutes of the movie (hell, I’m surprised it wasn’t the first five).

Why does it always have to be this way? I wondered.

I know what you’re going to say: But it's not always that way! Nowadays, we have “new and improved” protags. Just look at Mad Men! (People are always referencing Don Draper first.)

Thing is, I don’t find Don Draper all that interesting or compelling a character, either. I think we did the boring-good-guy thing for years (and are still doing it, apparently), and over the past 10 years, we’ve been trying out the evil-good-guy thing and it’s still not gelling. Honestly? I really believe we have yet to use our creativity and imaginations to come up with a truly innovative approach to developing our protags’ personalities. And that’s fine, because it simply means that we writers have an exciting challenge ahead of us and the best is yet to come.

One final note: yes, the writers did clearly try to make the main character less of a snore-fest by smooshing (and that is the exact right word) in a confessional backstory scene at the very end, which lasts way too long and, as is the unfortunate case with things that are “smooshed,” feels like a forced afterthought (they tried to do the same thing in Down with Love in 2003, and even in a comedy, this approach doesn’t really work), which further supports the idea that we could all stand to push ourselves harder when it comes to creative problem solving. 

 

Posted on July 15, 2014 .
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My Interview on the Women Who Stutter Podcast

Last month, I had the pleasure and honor of being interviewed by Pam Mertz for her Women Who Stutter podcast. Pam has a wonderful blog called stutterrockstar.com. She has been running the podcast since 2009 and has interviewed many remarkable and dynamic women. I have always been a big admirer of Pam’s blog and podcast, so it was a thrill to be on the program. She’s a great interviewer and the time flew by.

During our talk, we discussed my forthcoming novel True Rock and how many of the themes in that book parallel my own experience with stuttering. Pam asked me if any of the main characters was me. Obviously, the answer is yes!  

You can listen to the interview here. And while you’re there, check out the rest of her site. It’s amazing!

Posted on July 8, 2014 .
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Is "Sick Lit" Really So Sick?

My sister Monica and I saw The Fault in Our Stars a few weekends ago. No, I haven’t read the book and no, I didn’t even know what the heck this movie was about until I watched it. I’d had no idea that the book on which it is based had a huge following, nor was I aware that its author, John Green, apparently gets mobbed in the streets by screaming teenaged girls who can’t stop drooling over his book.

Apparently, this is one of the many instances in my life in which a WHOLE WORLD is going on and I’m just completely unaware of it.

I liked the movie. It was an entertaining and engrossing watch. Later that evening, I was engaging in my usual post-movie-viewing routine of researching the director, writer, actors, and author (if the movie is based on a book, which this one was) online, when I read that The Fault in Our Stars actually falls into a literary genre called “Sick Lit.”

Here is my (shameful?) confession: until a few weeks ago, I’d never even heard of “Sick Lit.” Apparently, this, too, is something that has been going on under the radar of my own personal awareness for quite some time. Even though there’s a Sick Lit Reading List on Goodreads.

But what exactly is Sick Lit? I wondered. During my youth, I consumed a handful of books where young people died or had some kind of chronic medical condition. Little Women comes to mind. Bridge to Terabithia rings a bell. Deenie had scoliosis. Was this Sick Lit, or was I missing something? Mostly, I wanted to know: why are we putting books where young protags die into a category all its own and slapping a cutesy-wootsey name onto it?

So, I took to the streets of Google, and what did I find? Well, firstly, that I’m about a year and a half late to the Sick Lit party. No big news flash there. Secondly: apparently this genre has sparked a bit of controversy. It didn’t take much time at all to uncover a slough of articles blasting Sick Lit for being “exploitative” “distasteful” “sensationalist” and “socially irresponsible.”

I paused. Surely these critics of Sick Lit can’t be saying that the very act of writing stories for children/teens in which the young protagonist gets sick and/or dies is totally off limits to writers, I thought.

Well, not exactly. It appears that some people are criticizing Sick Lit books and their authors for using the topic of “sick kids” (along with the tried-and-true formula of involving a love interest, running out of time, etc.) in a deliberate attempt to emotionally manipulate readers…and bring in the book sales.

Others, however, say that Sick Lit is actually a positive thing, that it’s not manipulative and, instead, gives young readers something to relate to in terms of the darker side of childhood (and of life) that most people tend to want to shield young people from.

Because I have never read a Sick Lit book (aside from the ones I mentioned earlier, which existed before “Sick Lit” had a name), I can’t say much for how I personally feel about the genre. Like I said, as a piece of entertainment, the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars held up well enough for me. I will probably take the leap and read a Sick Lit book myself in the near future in order to form a more educated opinion.

What weirds me out the most, honestly, is not the fact that people are writing highly popular books that involve kids getting sick and dying, but the seemingly exponential rate at which slapping a cutesy genre name like “Sick Lit” onto books has become a “thing.” I remember back to 2006, when Chick Lit was a trendy, slightly-demeaning term used to describe books about young women in the professional world trying to find love, like Bridget Jones’ Diary. But where the hell have I been since then? What will they come up with next? And I can’t help but ask:

Does giving a cutesy name to a genre help people to more easily find the types of books they want to read, or is it really just dumbing us all the hell down? Should we even be categorizing the hell out of every book on the market like this in the first place? Would it really be such a terrible, risky thing to let our stories stand alone as individual works instead of automatically pigeonholing them by their content? Of course, I understand that a certain amount of categorization is necessary, but how will we know when it has become too much? 

Posted on July 1, 2014 .
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Is Being "Bland" Ever a Good Thing?

Those of you who listen to the radio have surely by now heard the overplayed pop song du jour: Rude by Magic. It’s that light, fizzy, reggae-sounding ditty that goes:

“Why you gotta be so rude? I’m gonna marry her anyway…”

I immediately disliked this song the first few times I stumbled upon it while driving in my car. I thought it sounded stupid and whiney. Moreover, I found it totally bland.

The other night, the song came on the radio again while I was making dinner. I was too busy chopping up Brussels sprouts to engage in my usual reaction of abruptly switching to a different station while emitting an exasperated: “Ugh!” Instead, I decided I would sit there and allow myself to give it a chance with as open a mind as I could muster. And honestly? I actually kind of liked it. Yes, it’s dull and fizzy and pretty forgettable. After they finally decide to stop overplaying Rude on the radio, chances are I won’t be able to remember how it goes. In fact, I probably won’t even remember that it existed.

When it comes to entertainment, “bland” has become synonymous with “mass appeal.” And these types of things tend to get a bad rap altogether.

But is “bland” always as bad as some people make it out to be?

I don’t think so.

When I was younger, I tended to negatively judge things that I perceived to be “watered down” or “mainstream” before giving them a chance (and, as illustrated by the above anecdote, I still do this from time to time). But this is an area in which I’ve been trying to challenge myself over the past several years. Once I made the decision to start opening myself up to different things, even things that didn’t initially appeal to me, I found that I ended up genuinely enjoying a lot of it. My habit of jumping to conclusions was preventing me from finding joy and connection with other peoples’ work.

That being said, while there’s certainly a place in our lives for the watered-down-mass-appeal stuff, there’s also a place in our lives for the other stuff: the cerebral, edgy, artsy-fartsy stuff that packs so much of an emotional punch, it cracks open your freaking ribcage.

I have a special place in my heart for that, as well. 

Today, I’m searching for balance. I’m not totally above “bland” entertainment and I’m not totally below the stuff that intellectually, emotionally and psychologically punches me in the gut. I’m just trying to find something I can connect with, something that resonates and stirs, if only for a brief moment. Being able to create something that stands a chance of connecting with others is, in some ways, more rewarding to me than self-expression for the sake of self-expression.

If you have a “bland” movie, song, artist, TV show or whatever that you happen to love the hell out of (and rightfully so!), feel free to share it in the “Bland Confessional” (i.e. the comments section) below. 

Posted on June 24, 2014 .
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Jim Henson & the Tricky Subject of "Work"

For Christmas, I received the audio book of Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. For those of you who don’t already know: I’m a pretty huge Jim Henson fan. I say only “pretty huge” because I’m certainly not obsessed or anything. I mean, I don’t know all the names of the Muppets (though after having listened to this 17.5 hour long audio book approximately… 4 times while commuting to and from work over the past several months, I now know more of them than I ever did). It’s not like every time a new Muppet movie comes out, I’m banging down the door to the theater (though I did drag Enrique to a special engagement screening of The Muppet Movie when it was playing at the Albany Twin last December). And I don’t own any of the Muppet movies on DVD (well, except for The Muppets, which I bought the day it came out).

I guess I am actually a huge Muppet fan. I’ve obviously just been in denial about the extent of my fandom.

I’m not too big on audio books, or even biographies for that matter, but this was a bit of a unique case: last fall, my friend Christina sent me this article which gushed that this was essentially best audio book ever made because the actor who performed it (Kirby Heyborne) was amazing and did all the voices of the Muppets, rendering it less of your standard, read-aloud fare and more of an actual theatrical performance. In addition, it probably goes without saying that I’m extremely curious about Jim Henson’s life. Anyone creative, really, I find myself quite fascinated by, but Jim Henson’s creativity was also a part of my childhood, and although everyone’s creativity is inherently unique, I find his to be especially pronounced in many ways. I wanted to see what I could learn from his story.

Although many powerful themes emerge from the biography, one in particular stands out for me, encapsulated by this quote:

I don’t resent working long hours. I shouldn’t – I’m the one who set up my life this way. I love to work. It’s the thing that I get the most satisfaction out of—and probably what I do best…I think much of the world has the wrong idea of working. It’s one of the good things in life. The feeling of accomplishment is more real and satisfying than finishing a good meal – or looking at one’s accumulated wealth.
— Jim Henson

Although it’s apparent that Jim Henson worked like a madman throughout his career, I truly don’t believe he falls into the category of “workaholic.” Yes, other parts of his life didn’t always get the attention they deserved as a result of his dedication to his work, but honestly? I think some of the luckiest people on earth are those who can’t pull themselves away from their work. Not because they’re addicted to it, but because they’re in love with it. It’s like that feeling I used to get when my sister Monica and I would sit down to play The Sims on her computer and the next thing we knew: eight whole hours had gone by!

Just kidding, that’s a terrible (and embarrassing) example. But I think the real mind boggle here is that “real work” isn’t the same as the idea of work that everyone and their mama wants to sell you. The version they want you to buy is the “tough shit” version, the version that says: “Well of course you’re not supposed to enjoy it, it’s supposed to feel like a chore, you’re meant to live out every day of your miserable week counting down the hours and minutes ‘til you can finally go home and spend a few hours watching some crappy reality TV show, crawl into bed for some half-assed sleep and wake up to do it all over again in the morning.”

Most of the time, the people who are trying to sell you this message, this idea, this life are doing so because they themselves don’t enjoy their work and misery loves company. But there’s another reason: they don’t see how it’s possible. They’d want it for themselves if they could have it, but they just don’t see how everyone could possibly be happy and gain fulfillment from their work.

To be fair, I can see why they'd be dubious. It’s hard to find work that interests you and actually adds something to your life instead of sucks you dry. But if there’s anything I’ve taken away from Jim Henson: The Biography, it’s that the first step towards a different experience lies in throwing out your old, crappy notions of what everyone tells you work is "supposed" to be. Use your creativity to come up with something different, something innovative. Jim Henson’s definition of work wasn’t like everyone else’s, and I believe it was this seemingly insignificant shift in perspective on his part that allowed his work life (and his entire life, really) to take on a completely different trajectory.

Posted on June 17, 2014 .
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Rewrite Hell? More like: Rewrite Hell Yeah! (or: I've lost control of my life)

20140610_132714(0).jpg

I recently boarded a redeye to Rewrite Hell and have been inhabiting an overheated hut on the island of I’m Not Good Enough for the past week, slaving away on yet another draft of my novel, True Rock. To add insult to injury, every morning when I sit down to write, the sadistic and far-from-endangered Insecurity Python (a deadly creature indigenous to these parts) hunts me down, wraps itself around me and proceeds to crush me to death for his afternoon snack.  

One thing is clear: I need to get out of this jungle.

I’ve been through the rewrite process many, many times in my life and I still abhor it as much as I ever did. Going back to something you “finished” and working up the balls to tear it apart (again…and again) calls forth an abundance of negative (i.e. gut-wrenchingly awful) self-talk: “This is crap.” “If I show this to anyone, I’ll never live down my own humiliation.” “I WILL DIE!” 

Not to mention it feels…well…like shit.

I used to be the kind of writer who hated the idea that something wouldn’t come out perfectly the first time I slapped it down on the page (here’s a shocker: I still am). The reason? I was damn lazy and I wasn’t afraid to persuade others that my laziness was actually a desirable personality trait. In the eighth grade, I wrote an essay for my English class detailing why the revision process was completely unnecessary. My teacher wrote me a very concerned note asking me to “seriously consider giving rewriting a second chance.” My 13-year-old self was pissed at her for disagreeing with me, but deep down I knew she was right. 

The thing about writing is that it requires you to inflict a certain amount of mindeffery on yourself at every stage of the writing process just to muddle through somehow. The big mindeffery trick we need to pull off during the first draft, for instance, is to mentally and emotionally detach ourselves from the idea of anything we write being good. Hemingway says: “the first draft of anything is shit” (loved you in Midnight in Paris, btw) and Anne Lamott speaks of “shitty first drafts.” At this stage in the process, you basically have no choice but to be like: screw it. I know it sucks and I’m embarrassed as hell to know that I’m even capable of producing something so crappy, but I’m not going to get caught up in the crappiness right now. Right now, the only thing that matters is that I manage to get something, anything down. Because if I don’t get something down now, I can’t fix it “later.”

But what happens when “later” actually arrives? What about that bridge you promised yourself you wouldn’t cross until you came to it? News flash: today I’m at the tollbooth, it's rush hour on a weekday and they’re demanding $6 that I don’t have (plus I don’t use FasTrak – you fellow Bay Areans will know what the hell I’m talking about). What happens when you’ve reached the point of having no choice but to let yourself get caught up in the utter ineptitude of what you’ve written, no choice but to face the cold, blistering reality of your words head on, rip them apart, sew them back together, and toss them out with yesterdays diapers?

Insanity is what happens, my friends. Big insanity. Plus ouch.

I started this website in part because I wanted to help creatives in their quest for self-actualization (not to mention the actualization of their work). But the truth is: I’m just as human as anyone else and I don’t have all the answers (something I wasn’t planning to admit until at least six months from now). All I can do is share my own, honest experience and hope that by sharing, I can also be helpful. So, in the name of full-frontal honesty, here are a few things that have sorta-kinda-not really helped me to slog through the thigh-high, mosquito-egg-infested (gross) swamps of Rewrite Hell:

  1. Don’t aim to make the writing perfect…even if it’s the final draft. Tell yourself that all you have to do right now is aim to make the writing slightly better than it was. If it ends up becoming something close to “perfect” (whatever the hell that is) in the process, well, then that’s just gravy.
  2. Give yourself credit when you have a good moment (i.e. when you feel you improved a paragraph or really captured what you were shooting for). NOTE: “giving yourself credit” does NOT translate to feeling so satisfied with yourself that you spend the rest of the afternoon eating ice cream and watching True Life reruns on the couch. That’s just lazy! (And obviously, I speak from experience.)
  3. When it comes to self-compassion, don’t be cheap with yourself
  4. Remember that everyone gets demoralized and that feeling demoralized isn’t a direct reflection of how good or bad your work actually is. It seems like it should be, but it isn’t. Say it with me: “It isn’t.”
  5. If you’ve had a long day, it’s late, and you’re feeling like crap warmed over, go to bed already. There’s an 8.27% chance you’ll feel better in the morning. I promise.

What do you do to assuage the pain of spending your summer vacation in Rewrite Hades? Tell me in the comments below. 

Posted on June 10, 2014 .
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Writing & Longing in South City

Click here to listen to an audio version of this post.

On May 18, I got to hang with my friend Angela for the first time in almost four years. Angela is a writer-of-beautiful-things who currently resides in New York. She just so happened to be passing through San Francisco for a weekend of debauchery (i.e. a childhood friend’s bachelorette party), and her impromptu fling with pre-wedding decadence provided us with a long overdue opportunity to catch up in the flesh.

Angela and first I collided in the freezing-as-hell winter of 2006 during our study abroad semester in Strasbourg, France (seriously, people said it was the coldest winter there since like, 1897). We were two twenty-year-olds from opposite ends of the United States who bonded over our shared, tortured desire to express ourselves through the written word.

Along with our friend Jenny, Angela and I traveled to Vienna, Venice and Rome together during February of that same year, during which we shared in many Sideways-esque adventures (but that’s another post). Our odyssey through Europe was more than just mere fun: it was a time of significant self-discovery. As we frantically chased down and boarded planes, trains and buses from one country to the next, Angela, Jenny and I would engage in lengthy conversations about what we longed for most in life and how we planned to go after and attain the lives we desired. Days of geographical exploration were punctuated by evenings in which the three of us would each sit down with our personal journals and write…not just about the events of the day, but about what we had learned about ourselves along the way.

Back to three weeks ago: May 18 happened to be the same day as the infamous Bay to Breakers. Anticipating that the city would be in full cardiac arrest mode with throbbing, mobbing partygoers, Angela and I agreed that I’d pick her up at the Wharf and promptly stage an escape from the mad city, heading instead for the sleepy town of South San Francisco (also known as “South City”). Once there, our plan was to suck up some pho for lunch and generally hang out for a few hours before her 4pm flight.

Having grown up in the East Bay, the only times I bothered to venture to South SF were strictly airport-related. (Does anyone actually “hang out” near the airport unless they have to? Anyone?) Angela wanted Vietnamese food, so I simply Yelp’d a random restaurant in search of a place that seemed to get some deep-orange-star reviews. That place turned out to be Ben Tre Vietnamese Homestyle Cuisine on Grand Avenue. I knew nothing of this street at all, but when we pulled into a parking space just in time to beat the early Sunday afternoon lunch crush, Angela and I were instantly and unexpectedly struck by the strange charm of the neighborhood. It was immediately apparent that we would have to continue our tradition of exploring uncharted territory that afternoon.

Angela.

Angela.

To describe the Grand Avenue neighborhood is a beast of a task, but I’ll take a stab in saying that I for one felt like I had stepped into a different time, a different world. Over lunch, Angela and I continued our tradition of philosophizing on all things related to writing and longing (after all, the two are highly correlated). After chomping down on Pho Ga (pho with chicken) and translucent spring roles, we took to strolling up and down Grand Avenue, twirling our canes as we did (just kidding, we are nowhere near old enough to have canes). We sucked up the sights, stores, and scenery like dehydrated vampires.

The first store we visited presented a wide and colorful variety of Mexican candy, including, most impressively, pink and white marshmallows the size of a baby’s fist. This same store swanked off a variety of decadent 14-karat gold rings, one of which Angela briefly considered buying (I, of course, played the role of the “go-ahead-and-buy-it” cheerleader, a bad-influence tradition hearkening back to our Venezia days). As she slid a ring with the Virgin Mary onto her finger, I suddenly and impulsively exclaimed:

“I love this place, Angela! This whole, entire place!”

“I know!” she gasped, widening her eyes at me. “This is the stuff my dreams are made of!”

Further down the street, at Quickly, we purchased bubble tea (mine was chocolate and hers was chrysanthemum). Later on, the roar of the Sunday game on TV and smell of beer-soaked wood wafting out into the street beckoned us to peek ever-so-shyly into the dark sports bar, Topper. Even the empty parking lots in this neighborhood proved eerily picturesque.

pink with random splotches of white.

pink with random splotches of white.

But one of the major league highlights of this neighborhood was a video store called Las Brisas Video. This place was a true time capsule because: 1) video stores in general are basically relics of a not-so-ancient past these days, 2) almost all of the store’s rental merchandise was still in VHS format, and 3) a majority of the videos were Latin movies…Latin horror movies at that…revise that: Latin horror movies with amazing cover art!

Las Brisas, baby. 

Las Brisas, baby. 

After I dropped Angela off at the airport that afternoon and we promised to speak on the phone again soon, it struck me that as wonderful as it is to plan and long for an exciting, decadent future and life, the day I’d just had was pretty damn decadent in its own right. How will I know that I lived a day in the life of the “future me” today? I wondered as I sailed back across the Bay Bridge. I realized that this day, as simple as it was, had in it everything I wish every day of my life could have: enjoying the company of a friend, rejoicing and finding beauty in the world around me, and taking the time (as I did later that evening in writing the first draft of this blog entry) to create something. I didn’t have to map or plan anything out. I just had to show up and live out the day. 

Special thanks to Angela for snapping 90 percent of these pics!

Posted on June 3, 2014 .
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How to Compose a Beautiful Sentence

Someone once said that in order for a writer to truly experience what it feels like to have written something beautiful, that person should copy the entire text of The Great Gatsby from beginning to end.

Although this exercise strikes me as being just a tad intense, I have to admit, with some embarrassment, that I myself have considered undertaking it in my not-so-ample free time.

What can I say? When it comes to beauty, I’ve always been a sucker.

I was originally going to call this post: “How to Write a Beautiful Sentence.” I later changed “write” to “compose” because, well, compose just sounds more beautiful.

At least, to me it does.

You see, that’s the effed up thing about “beauty.” Whether in a person, a place, a memory, or a single sentence, it truly and only exists in the eye of the beholder. I am well aware that my own idea of what beauty looks like may not be shared by anyone. Else. In. This. World. A dish that I think tastes delicious (i.e. the culinary equivalent of beautiful) may taste like utter nasty tripe to you, and only mildly satisfying corned beef to the person after you.

My idea of a beautiful sentence is one that reads like the last sentence in a book. Or a short story. Last sentences, we are told in creative writing classes, are crucial (you didn’t exactly need to enroll an MFA program to figure that one out). They are crucial because they simply NEED to be good. They must resonate and leave the reader as satisfied as though they had just consumed an entire Thanksgiving dinner, plus some fatteningly wonderful mud pie for dessert (though not so much that they feel nauseated, cuz that would be gross.).

But I say: why wait until the last sentence to take some fool’s breath away? YOLO, y’all! Let’s shoot for knocking it out of the park every single time we step up to bat.

Here are the three components I feel are “must haves” in order to compose a beautiful sentence:

1)   A beautiful sentence needs to have a sense of deliberateness (i.e.: in yo’ face).

Example: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gastby by F. Scott Fitzgerald gives good sentence. 

The Great Gastby by F. Scott Fitzgerald gives good sentence. 

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

This final sentence gets its own paragraph, which alone has intention and deliberateness written all over it. The author clearly wanted it to stand on its own so that it could have major impact, so that it could leave you with an emotion that was sure to go on after you’d read the last word. In addition, even though it’s supposed to be summing things up, to me this sentence feels less like a conclusion and more like the anguished musings of someone attempting to grasp at or articulate some truth that would feel worthy of a conclusive tone. Which brings me to…

2)   A beautiful sentence has to sound final, yet create a verrrry subtle sense of unrest and/or discomfort in the reader, leaving him or her wondering: “What next?” and not giving the reader the satisfaction of finding out.

Example: Hold Fast to Dreams by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Yeah it's a young adult novel, but it rules. 

Yeah it's a young adult novel, but it rules. 

“After that, we drove in silence, each settling into our own private thoughts. The moon hung high and full in the blue-black sky. Its pearly, glistening light followed us along the road.”

This is a pretty traditional closing sentence. There’s a sense of: everything is finally on track now – after we spent the whole book suffering because they weren’t. Well, that’s nice. But just because things are all smooth sailing now, doesn’t mean they’re going to stay that way forever. Yes, at this very minute, the moon is guiding and shielding these people with its light, but you and I both know that the light of the moon isn’t going to hold them forever. Nothing is guaranteed except for this moment…such is life! Are you feeling a little uncomfortable about that? Good. Also: think about how effective this type of sentence would be if it wasn’t your last sentence, but a sentence that was plopped right in the middle of the book somewhere. Can we say cliffhanger…for every sentence? Imagine the effect that would have on a reader (cardiac arrest comes to mind, and I love it!).

And finally…

3)   A beautiful sentence must roll off the tongue. The rhythm of the words can’t be gawky, or awkward or feel forced IN ANY WAY (as they do in the sentences I just wrote).

Example: Cane by Jean Toomer

like buttah. 

like buttah. 

“Gold-glowing child, it steps into the sky and sends a birth-song slanting down gray dust streets and sleepy windows of the southern town.”  

I read Cane in college and the entire book felt to me like it was written in last sentences. NOW THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKIN ABOUT! Jean Toomer’s words are like honey. Like butter. I seriously can’t even describe this book except to say that if you love (my kind of ) beauty, you are going to be all over this ish, as it has all three of the elements I just talked about: You like pretty writing? YOU GOT pretty writing. You like stuff that pushes the envelope? CONSIDER THE ENVELOPE PUSHED. Do you enjoy experiencing vague undercurrents of discomfort while you read (ya know, that feeling of: “something disturbingly gory is about to happen but I just can’t figure out why I feel that way and why I feel so ill at ease!”)? If so, what are you waiting for? Go out and get this book now!

It’s fun to share what you like with others. But if you’ve taken nothing from today’s post, I want it to be that you should never attempt to write a beautiful sentence, because the definitive beautiful sentence simply doesn’t exist. You aren’t going to please everybody and as much as we’d like to believe the opposite, there is no code for achieving beauty. So screw it! And instead of chasing after some totally subjective realization of something that doesn’t exist, I suggest you do what I did and work on identifying what you think is beautiful, then go and write that. Or make that. Or buy that.

Or don’t. But either way, make yourself happy first. 

Posted on May 27, 2014 .
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2011: do whatever the eff you want

At the very beginning of 2013, I was having dinner at El Compadre with a childhood friend named Jazmyne, who confided to me that at the start of every new year, she had a tradition of selecting a “slogan” that would define her attitude and guide her choices for the next 365 days. For example:

2012: lock and load

2009: keep on truckin’

2013: are we done?

and

2011: do whatever the fuck you want

I have a secret to tell you: those slogans I just listed for 2012, 2009 and 2013? I made them up. I really don’t remember what Jazmyne said they were. In fact, I don’t remember any of the slogans she told me, except for 2011: do whatever the fuck you want. This is because for me, 2011 really was the year of doing whatever the eff I wanted.

Creatively speaking, that is.

I’d ended 2010 with the bordering-on-desperate sense that I had to shake things up in terms of my creativity. I hate to sound cliché, but I had that feeling people describe of: if I don’t create something now, I’m going to go batshit crazy.

But I was stuck. I didn’t know what to do, make, or what kind of story to tell. I wanted whatever I did to have personal importance, but I didn’t want to take on some huge overly-ambitious project I’d grow completely sick of in two weeks.

For most of the second half of 2010, I’d had the song "Loba" by Shakira stuck in my head. Americans (and other English-speaking nations) probably know this song as “She Wolf.” I’d stumbled upon it quite by accident while rifling through YouTube in search of new music one lazy summer day.   

"Loba," which means “female wolf,” is entirely in Spanish, which I don’t speak. In the beginning, I was pulled like a magnet to the sound of the song itself. But once I found a translation, I was hooked on a even deeper level:

Who hasn't wished for a licantrophe goddess
While in the heat of a romantic night
My howlings are the call
I want a domesticated wolf

I have at last found an infallible solution to completely erase the guilt
I won't stay by your side watching TV and listening to apologies

Life has given me a voracious hunger and all you give me is candies
I'm going out along with my legs and my youthfulness even if jealousy kills you

A she wolf in the closet
wants to get out
Let her eat up the neighborhood
before you go to sleep

I realized that this song had inspired me for a reason, and that this – whatever it was – was the direction I wanted to go in, in terms of my next creative project. So, on December 27, 2010, I filmed the first episode of a web series I called Little Alaska. The storyline for the pilot episode (“You Can Go Your Own Way”) is directly inspired by the song, and I put my own personal twist on some of the lyrics I loved the most:

Little Alaska wasn’t something that I extensively planned out. All I knew was that I would write, direct, and star in the episodes, that there would be ten of them, and that they would be very short. I had an idea for a kind of ongoing narrative, but I didn’t marry myself to it: the entire, refreshing concept behind Little Alaska was that it was going to be a platform for me doing whatever the fuck I wanted.

My friend Enrique agreed to compose the theme song (modeled after the xylophone-heavy theme song to Mister Roger’s Neighborhood) as well as star in the first episode, and I got my Aunt May, who is also an artist and super skilled with a sewing machine, to construct the wolf hat.

Between 2011 and 2013, I made six episodes of Little Alaska. My favorite among them is Mashup, because it’s the most “out there” episode of them all (so far). There were times while I was editing that piece when I would just stop and cackle incredulously at the fact that I was creating something so weird and daring to let other people see it. On 6/2/11, I wrote in my journal:

“I finished the cut of episode 3 of Little Alaska last night. I laughed so hard, because it actually turned out almost exactly how I originally wanted it to. It is pretty out there. But Dad said if it’s not out there, it’s probably not very interesting, which is true. The question is: can I stand behind my own weirdness? I think I can.”

Making Little Alaska has been a fun, refreshing and cathartic departure from my tendency to tie myself to long-term projects and to have those projects bear some resemblance to something “traditional.” I fully intend to finish all ten episodes, and to continue to vigorously exercise my right to do whatever the eff I want.

To watch the six episodes I’ve made so far, go here.

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