Losing Your S@!#

Last week, I didn’t publish anything. Not for lack of trying. I got to the last paragraph and boom…Windows update. Like a lot of people, I’d exhausted my option to put off the update until later. Everything just shut down. When I logged back in, I went to my word document, and a message popped up that said the file could no longer be opened. The file had been corrupted and I’d lost all my work.

Losing work is one of the most frustrating events. I remember working on the student newspaper in college until 4 or 5 in the morning and losing an entire page of the paper near the very end of a work night. It’s a morale hit that can be hard enough get through. At 4 or 5 in the morning, I’m luckily loopy enough to maniacally throw aside my worries. But, at the end of a normal day of work, enough energy exists that I can actually experience the depth of despair that comes from losing all the work I just put in.

The hardest part about losing something you created is getting back into a creative mood. Creativity can be fickle. It can be inspired by feelings but it can also be destroyed by them. This is where one’s lose-your-S@!# meter comes into play. After years of experiencing the loss of newspaper pages and articles, I liked to think that I’ve got pretty thick skin for when random destruction occurs. But, sometimes that lose-your-S@!# meter gets reset. For some reason or another, losing something can bring you to the ground, even if you’re experienced with having to restart. There is something fresh about each occurrence.

So last week, I took a break from my work. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get myself to power through a re-rendering of my article. I couldn’t possibly think about the same topic again and have to restart the process of getting those thoughts on the page once more. Not right away anyway. Usually, writers have deadlines to deal with so this would not have been an option for me in a workplace environment. This got me thinking about what I would say to my past self if, in the final minutes before a deadline, I lost a piece of work that needed to be published very soon.

Firstly, save your files. Then duplicate them. Then, put them on a backup drive and your other devices. Save yourself the trouble of ever having to deal with lost work. This piece of advice is nearly always met with a collective “duh” from people who hear it. But most people don’t expect anything to happen to them and elect not to back up their files to keep their work safe anyway. Don’t be that person.

In these cases, all you can rely on is your pure force of will. Buckling up and taking the challenge head-on is the only way. And the more often you have to do it, the better you get at compelling your own determination. However, this is not necessarily something you want to plan for because it’s not very enjoyable to be in that situation.

This is partially why I like to be working on more than one piece. If something happens to the content I’ve already created or writer’s block hits me, I have something else to shift my focus to while I untangle the complexity of or get through mourning the loss of the article that I have nearly finished. Working on more than one writing project also gives you a backup idea that can minimize immediate suffering.

Ultimately, your ideas are fragile. They are beautiful results of your own unique human experience. Treat them with respect because they might not be around forever. Being able to capture those ideas is a gift. Treating that gift with care and giving your ideas the greatest chance of survival is the key to being a great writer. And that is a lesson I hope I don’t have to learn again…

The Mythology of Comics

Recently, I’ve been thinking about all the kinds of storytelling that I’ve enjoyed throughout my life. There are so many mediums through which great meaning can be communicated. Culturally, American film has taken the center stage as the nation’s favorite form of entertainment and storytelling. Yet, there are many predecessors to film, mediums to which film owes a great deal.

One of my favorite mediums of storytelling is the comic book. With the rise of superhero movies and T.V. Shows, it’s practically impossible to avoid some sort of run-in with material that ultimately came from the neon pages of the comic book. The history of this medium is as close to the American conscience as film is heralded to be. And it’s become a sort of mythology in a country that does not necessarily claim one.

Comics began gaining incredible popularity starting in 1938, kicking off what would become know as the golden age of comics (1938-1956). Superheroes such as Batman, Superman and Captain America were first seen defeating Hitler or other American enemies in Europe and the Pacific. This acted as a morale boost to troops participating in WW2 and the citizens supporting their endeavors. In addition, trademark genres such as Western and Sci-Fi writing were explored and blossomed in this era.

In the silver age of comics (1956-1970), the medium became ubiquitous. In the beginning of this era, horror and crime comics were incredibly popular. Fearing that these subjects would create higher rates of juvenile delinquency, consumers practically revolted against comic book companies and their subject matter. Thus, the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was created, an organization that had strict rules for what was allowed within the confines of comic pages. Unless the CCA’s literal stamp of approval was found on the cover of any comic, it was unlikely to sell.

The squeaky clean nature of comic content at the time created the stereotype of comics being for kids. Near the end of the silver age however, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare asked Marvel to write a comic dealing with the issue of drug use in their now-famous Spiderman series. Marvel was unable to gain the CCA’s stamp for their drug use issue and so published without it.

Surprisingly, the comic sold successfully and triggered the CCA to make several changes to the regulations publishers had previously had to abide by to survive. Gradually, society began to accept comics as less of a threat to their children leading to further changes to the code as the years passed by. Eventually, the CCA disappeared into the pages of history.

The bronze age (1970-1985) ushered in the return of darker plots and, again, took on real societal issues such as drug use, poverty, and pollution. Some argue this age overlaps with the modern age of comics (1985-Present Day) as the prevalence of more complex characters (otherwise known as the “anti-hero”) began to rise. “Anti-Heroes” such as Wolverine, Deadpool, and The Punisher become mainstays that eventually reached the big screen.

Ultimately, each of the tales told throughout each era have been told to address the trials and triumphs of each era’s people. And the power of these stories can be seen more broadly by observing the evolution that has taken place over the years about what stories people want to hear and how they want to hear them. With the breakthrough success of comic book stories on the big screen, we’ve been participating in a new age of American mythology.

With the final installment of Avengers: Infinity War right around the corner, it will be interesting to see how our nation changes, what problems we grapple with, and what we choose to celebrate. If an alien really wanted to know those things about us, it need not look any further than the pages of a comic book.

The New World of Connection

Communication has evolved drastically since the turn of the century. New technologies have taken us into a new era of living, one where old-world expectations are being tossed out for new ones. And, tensions have risen as society painfully adapts to a reality shift that has come into existence before social rules could be developed. We’re seeing this play out in nearly every dimension of society and the new social media landscape has been it’s most formidable contributor. With each new era comes new and unique struggles and golly do we have a unique struggle on our hands.

According to a Gallup Poll, sending and receiving text messages is the most popular form of communication for people younger than 50. More than likely, this will not surprise anyone. But, it’s not often that we take time to ask ourselves what our behavior in this new realm says about us in the modern era.

The best way to think about daily communication is to think like a computer. The first thing a computer does, in simple terms, is look for the information available to it so that it can move on to the next step, using that information for a task that was specified in the beginning. A computer has to engage the data it has available to it. Humans do the same thing. Whether consciously or not, you pick up lots of information and make decisions based on what is learned or perceived. In conversation, you can see how a person holds themselves, how their shoulders become tense or their eyes light up or how boisterous their laughter is. These nodes of data act as a complex network of feedback mechanisms that inform you and shape the communication to follow.

If you were to perform an audit of your communication methods, what would you find? How do you reach out to an audience, for what reason, and what is the overall result of your communication? Did you communicate what you wanted to with success?

When texting or communicating via social media channels, you are committing to a communication style that leaves you with far less information than you would have if you were speaking on the phone or in-person. It’s difficult to understand what another person truly means if the communicative hints are confined to words on a screen. However, this can be the most efficient method in a scenario where the content is simple (e.g. taking a friend’s restaurant order). Social media and texting have evolved though. Emojis, gifs, and memes have entered the fray, raising the quality ceiling of these channels. Now, simplistic iconography of our every day interactions can communicate a deeper level of meaning to an audience. This is one of the first adjustments made by our society to patch social media and texting 1.0.

Within the context of a phone call, the audience can hear a voice’s inflection. This gives the audience the ability to make judgments about how you are feeling or how you mean things(e.g. sad, mad, inquisitive, bored, annoyed, excited, etc.). This, too, has evolved. Now, individuals can share a stream of themselves while speaking, raising the quality ceiling on this channel of communication as well. Now, the communicators are exchanging information such as body language. Once in-person, you can use your body as a form of communication by itself (e.g. dancing, physical intimacy of any kind). As proximity increases, so does the amount and quality of information one is able to receive.

In a straightforward sense, each of these communication channels serves a purpose for us. Everyone would agree that each form of communication can be used appropriately or not. But, due to lack of information in certain forms of communication like texting or social media, people often attempt to fill the gaps with what they might perceive as fitting in that empty space and disallow the audience the opportunity to fill in that gap on their own. This is where accountability comes into play. We live in an era when people can hide behind false identities or try to communicate complex ideas through a channel unfit to carry it through to an audience.

The confusion that is born there compounds and festers into outrage and mob-mentality. People end up pinching their complex ideas and feelings through the eye of the Twitter or text needle. There have been many adjustments made to the tools at our disposal and there are sure to be more to come. However, learning all we can about the responsibility each of us has to communicate our ideas and thoughts appropriately is important.

Creation For Creation’s Sake

I’ve been writing for most of my life. It’s the medium of creation that clicks with me and helps me parse through the ideas and thoughts and feelings in my head. But sometimes, the forces of life can suck the energy right out of you and destroy your will to create anything of real value.

At times, the more parameters set upon your writing projects by third-party forces, the more difficult it can be to get creative in a meaningful way. This is not to say that deadlines or structure or editors are unimportant to creation. However, writing in different spaces with different rules at play can be a refreshing experience for those that feel they’ve been pulled into the grind.

I know for myself that it’s nice to rediscover the joy of just creating something, to take a moment to focus on playing gracefully with a new idea. It doesn’t really matter how bad the idea is. As long as you just try your hardest and completely cast out any care in the world as to whether it’s good or not until you’re done. Even then, does it always have to matter?

One of my heroes, Kurt Vonnegut, authored several amazing works such as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and a ton of short stories, The Euphio Question being my favorite (Mr. McCallum, my journalism teacher in high school gets the credit of introduction).

Like all great and successful writers of our time and times past, Vonnegut was always thinking about why humans did anything, how they ticked, what made them feel angry, happy, fulfilled, and empty. And Vonnegut had rules for himself when it came to writing. One of his rules, intertwined hilariously with the idea of purposely upsetting one’s parents, says a lot about what a writer should really be after.

“Go into the arts,” Vonnegut says. “I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward… You will have created something.”

Though I’m not sure Vonnegut, an author, truly disbelieved the arts’ potential as a fruitful career, his point is this: writing just to create a story, painting just to create art, this is the reasoning that allows for an environment in which a creator’s soul can truly blossom and flourish.

I like to think that we all have an image of the best versions of ourselves. Maybe there is a best version of you at work or a best version of you with family and friends. Giving yourself the opportunity to be aware of yourself and to create something, anything from what you find inside of you might just help elevate your skills and perhaps your enjoyment life in a general sense.

Re-energizing vs. Taking a Break

There are times when I feel that there is something missing in my writing. It usually happens after a long period of working consistently. I get tired out or feel uninspired by the world around me for a brief moment. People might call this writer’s block. Until recently, I felt that was the proper moment to take a break or walk away from the pen and paper and keyboard for a while.

Upon returning, however, I often found myself encountering the same vacant feeling I had from before. Ultimately, a break did nothing for me. I was still struggling to write anything that was worthy of my adoration or even acceptance… I then assumed the fetal position and cried. For I had been defeated.

Of course, I didn’t actually do that but the defeat that a writer can experience throughout the process of creating something is real. I set out to find a solution that would get my creative butt up off the floor and on to write my next glorious tale. There is, I found, a distinction that perhaps all of us should make between when it is time to take a break and when it is time to re-energize. Maybe people need to re-energize when they think they need to take a break. 

Creativity takes a lot of energy. If you’re unsuccessful at accessing the creative power within you, you can assume that there is a lack of energy available. “Is my time over?”, you ask. “Shall I give up on my dream here?”

Of course not. The key is to examine what’s causing your lack of focus or creative inspiration.

Sometimes, the structure-less, static-TV screen that is my brain can have me staring into my monitor for hours as I struggle to find even one iota of creative interest in the piece I’m currently working on. I’ll be thinking about other story ideas or daydreaming about new ones. This is still somewhat helpful as brainstorming is part of the process. However, those ideas have nothing to do with the story I might need to finish at the moment.

In this case, I like to intentionally set a small portion of time to go through all of these ideas, depending on the time available to me. Sometimes, trying to finish a piece while experiencing a back-up of new ideas can be an impediment to the product your working on at that moment. New ideas demand your attention for a reason. Something about each one of them feels important and takes your creative interest. Parsing through them may be just the thing you need to find the rhythm of and re-energize your will to complete your current project.

But what if you don’t have anything distracting you, no ideas or other projects taking up your head-space? If you are completely blank, then perhaps it’s time to look at other people’s work. I don’t mean plagiarize. Don’t do that. But, exposing yourself to what other’s are producing around you can re-introduce you to the revitalizing beauty that you are perhaps trying to create in your own work. 

There are of course times when a break is actually necessary. If you’re thinking about the taxes you have to do, picking up a family member, packing up for a trip, or even relationship issues, it might be time to divert energy to addressing life aspects that are dragging you down. You’ll never be able to fully realize the project you have before you if not fully committed to the subject matter. You can always come back to it later if you spend time ironing out the elements in your life that are, at that moment, barriers to your craft.

Next time you’re thinking about taking a break from your creative work, consider whether there are simpler ways to find the recently elusive creative groove. Because taking a break can feel costly and wasteful if it doesn’t garner the results you were hoping for.