Posts Tagged ‘optimism’

I don’t really like pain, and I don’t like to feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I daydream about my ideal life, when I have fixed all my problems, have everything I want, and am exactly where I want to be in my career.I will never achieve that ideal life. And thank goodness, because if I did I’d be bored stiff…in which case I would have a problem, wouldn’t I?

Seth Godin published an insightful post last week entitled “Trading in your pain,” in which he outlines two common problems we can have due to our relationship with pain.

The first is the “if only” syndrome. We think if only something (fill in the blank) happens, then everything will be great and we won’t feel pain/discomfort/ uncertainty anymore. If only I meet the right person. If only I buy the right house. If only I remodel. If only I get an agent. If only I sell my first novel. If only my sales figures exceed a certain golden number. If only I win this award or make that bestseller list. If only I get this promotion. If only I was better or had more or …

That’s not generally the way things work, though. Whatever “if only” you’re hoping for (and I’m holding out for several myself), even if it happens, it will open the way to new challenges, new problems, new if only’s, and new pain as you strive. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing well. It doesn’t mean you’re not good enough. It’s just life.

The second is the “fear of change” syndrome. We sometimes become comfortable with a certain flavor of pain or discomfort, and we hold onto it really tightly so we won’t have to deal with another, unknown flavor instead. We become frozen. Stagnant. Afraid of success and the new problems success will bring us. Afraid of a different failure mode and how that will make us feel.

Behind the GateWriters who don’t write are having this second problem. They are used to dealing with the failure mode of “I suck because I’m not writing” and don’t want to address whatever issues might come up if they actually did write: “I suck because I’m not selling” or “I suck because I’m not selling enough” or “I suck because now I have to make business decisions” or whatever.

But I see this problem everywhere, not just in writers. We make ourselves at home with a certain problem, and settle in for keeps. And in the process, we get stuck. We can’t move on; we can’t grow.

Our identity and our personal narrative become entwined with our pain. I’m the girl whose mother died when I was only nineteen. That’s not who I am anymore. It is, however, who I could have been. It is who I was for a period of years. And then I let go and moved on. Instead I’m the girl who loved her mother very much.

Pain can be your friend. It will be lurking nearby for your entire life, and that’s okay. It means you’re alive, and it reminds you that you care what happens. It can push you forward instead of holding you still. It can give you focus instead of causing you to scatter. It can make our priorities clear to us.

If you could shed one “if only” or do one thing that makes you frightened, what would it be?

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‘Tis the season to notice gratitude, and several of the blogs I read have been recently doing just that. John Scalzi started it off with his Thanksgiving Advent Calendar (the first post of which, incidentally, makes a nice companion piece to my own post on not drinking). My friend Marie Brennan decided to follow his lead and do a month-long thankfulness project as well (and by the by, also wrote this very Amy-approved post, if you’re looking for more reading). James Van Pelt chimed in with some gratitude of his ownjust yesterday.I’ve been really enjoying reading these posts. It’s so refreshing to get a little dose of positivity every day as these writers think about the various aspects of their lives that increase their quality of existence. After all, I’m never one to shy away from optimism, and one component of that is to appreciate what you already have. So here’s my list of random happy things in honor of Thanksgiving:1. A variety of fresh fruit and vegetables: Because in the past, you could usually only eat what was locally grown. Granted, I live in California, where many fruits and vegetables can be locally grown, but I’m still grateful for this.

2. Living in the United States: Okay, it’s true that the right of habeas corpus referenced in the Constitution seems to be on a permanent holiday, and apparently we’re not allowed to protest peacefully anymore either. But even though there are a lot of things I think need to be fixed, that doesn’t change the fact that I enjoy many benefits from living in the United States. My standard of living is higher than it would be in many, many other countries; I have access to useful infrastructure; and I don’t generally have to worry about my country being obliterated in the near future. These are benefits that I very much appreciate.

3. Corrective Vision Technology: Without any technological assistance, I am very, very nearsighted and couldn’t function normally in the world. Not only do I have access to glasses with light-weight lenses that don’t make me look at the world through Coke bottle glass, but if they break I can get them fixed locally and promptly. Plus, if I get sick of them, I can opt for contact lenses that aren’t painful like the old ones used to be or get corrective eye surgery. Yay for being able to see!

4. The Internet: My life would not be nearly as rich without the increased access the internet has given me, both to a wide variety of people and to a huge collection of data. When I was a kid, if I wanted to know something I’d look it up in our set of World Book encyclopedias and hope there was a relevant entry; if there wasn’t, I’d have to make a trip to the library or just settle for not knowing. Can you imagine settling for not knowing anymore? I can’t. And if you wanted to stay in touch with someone who didn’t live in your town, you wrote letters…which meant you couldn’t stay in touch with a very large number of people. Nowadays that’s gotten a lot easier.

5. My blog: For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a lot to say. However, if you meet me in person, you might not realize this is true, because I have this ingrained habit of asking questions and listening…which means I don’t always get around to the saying what’s on my mind part. Getting to share what’s going on up there in my head with you all is a great privilege…and a significant pleasure.

6. My car: This one is a little embarrassing. I had to replace my car early this year, and I’ve been surprised at how much I appreciate the new one. Sometimes it’s the little things: I push the ignition button and it ACTUALLY STARTS. Every single time, even. Wow, do I feel grateful to not have to worry about getting from point A to point B anymore. (P.S. The seat warmers don’t hurt either.)

7. Libraries: Until the last few years, buying a book (and probably a Mass Market paperback, at that) was an extremely big deal for me. The rest of the time, I supported my reading habit by frequenting my local library. I can’t imagine what I would have done my whole life without libraries, and I’m incredibly grateful that I was given the means to live the kind of literary life that would have otherwise been outside of my grasp.

8. My family: I know I sound like a broken record, but my husband and my dog probably make the biggest difference in my life on a day-to-day level. They make the good days better and the bad days not quite as grim. Any list of happy things doesn’t feel quite complete without mentioning them.

Please tell me a few of your own happy appreciative things, or write your own post and make sure to tell me about it!

I hope you all have a very happy Thanksgiving! I’m taking next week off from blogging for the holiday, so I’ll see you again the week after next.

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Ever since I read an article in Psychology Today entitled The Double-Edged Sword of Hope, I’ve been thinking about the nature of hope.

I’m a natural optimist, and possibly as a result, I carry a lot of hope around with me. It’s not that I don’t see anything wrong in the world or in my life, but I tend to try to find the hope in a situation. Sometimes that means thinking of the best case scenario as well as the worst case one. Sometimes it means brainstorming what I might be able to control myself in order to turn things around. Other times it’s more of a blind hope–things might suck now, but things do change. (Tuesday’s blog post is a great example: We might not have a strong space program now, but that doesn’t mean there will never be one in the future.)The problem with hope is that it sometimes persists past the point of reasonable returns. We have such an ethos in our culture of not being a quitter, of persistence as a virtue, of not giving up. Many times these are beliefs that hold us in good stead and keep us going when things become difficult. But there is a line that we don’t want to cross, beyond which is the Sea of Wishful Thinking.

The Sea of Wishful Thinking, for all that it has a poetical name, is a painful place in which to reside. It is from this place that we continue to try, even though in our heart of hearts, we understand (or at least suspect) that things aren’t going to work out the way we want. We continue to hope even in the face of odds that are truly insurmountable. Perhaps there is still hope in the bigger picture (or perhaps not), but we continue to obsess over the battle that we are consistently losing.

The difficulty, then, is determining whether we are indeed in the Sea of Wishful Thinking, or whether we’re still dwelling in the Realm of the Possible and have merely fallen victim to a passing Dark Despair Cloud. If the latter, then by holding fast, we can wait out the cloud and still have the potential of a positive outcome. And indeed, in most ambitious endeavors, there will be times when we have to hang on even though things seem bleak. If the former, then at some point we will need to cut hope loose and move on to some more promising possibilities.

Hope can be a beautiful sentiment, but ultimately it is a tool we can use for both the good and the not so good. It can trick people into thinking they don’t need a practical plan, or it can keep someone going until they reach the next stage of mastery. It can bring the strength needed to survive, or it can offer someone an excuse not to take responsibility for themselves. I think as soon as we become aware that hope can both help and hinder us, we are better able to recognize how we’re using it. But sometimes its promise will burn too brightly for us to see clearly, and sometimes it will gutter and die too soon. Perhaps that is part of what it is to be human.

Hope springs eternal, the saying goes. But it is up to us to decide how we are going to use it.

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Sometime in the last few months, I read someone’s Tweet about space travel. I don’t remember who it was, but they said something to the effect of how science fiction set in space felt irrelevant or dated to them. Like it was nostalgia and nothing more. Of course, this was right around NASA’s final space shuttle launch, so depression about the space program and the likelihood of humans doing much in space is understandable. But more than the final space shuttle launch itself, that comment depressed me, and I’ve been thinking about it off and on ever since.Has space really become so passé that stories involving it are outdated? I began thinking of my own (admittedly small) body of work, almost none of which takes place in space. I have a few subtle nods to the idea that there are humans in space, even though the stories in question take place completely on Earth, and I believe I have one scene of a trunked story that takes place on the Moon. And that’s it. But I’ve written a lot more fantasy and contemporary fiction, so I don’t see myself as indicative. I actually see my lack of space settings as more of an oversight than anything else.

I love space. I love learning about space, and I love reading stories set in space. Many of my all-time favorite novels and series are set in space, and some of the most formative of my reading experiences came from space operas (the Hyperion books and Dune come to mind). As sad as I am that the space shuttle has been discontinued, I would be a whole lot sadder if science fiction that explored the possibilities of space was no longer being written.

Here’s the thing. Economics and politics are always changing. Technology is constantly being developed, and scientists are gaining new knowledge about the world and the universe around us. Our world isn’t a constant–it’s always in a state of flux.

So there aren’t any huge, aggressive space programs right now. Given the present geopolitical and economic climate, this isn’t a huge shocker. But does that mean there never will be a great space program in any country in the world? I don’t think so. The confluence of events, powers, and technologies during and after World War II led to the Cold War and provided the perfect pressure cooker in which the space race could occur. Such a perfect storm could happen again, this time with different political pressures and different emerging technologies.

In the meantime, it is science fiction that keeps the dream of space alive, whether that be in literature, film and TV, or video games. It reminds us of what is possible. Beyond that, space provides an evocative backdrop for storytelling, in which we can enjoy stories of truly epic scope, explore the other (often in the form of an alien race), celebrate innovation and a spirit of adventure, and encounter different cultures and ways of being human.

Just in the past few days, I saw another Tweet from someone who said they were watching Firefly just to see the spaceships. And i09 had an article about how we need more space adventures. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in my love for and appreciation of fiction set in space. Yes, I’m an optimist in a gloomy time, but I hope I can find space in science fiction for a long time to come.

ETA: Just found another great article on the importance of science fiction that seems relevant to this conversation: China has decided that science fiction is the key to its future success in invention and design of new products.

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A fringe benefit of being a writer (or other artist, since this certainly applied to my songwriting and singing) is that everything that happens in your life can be recycled into your work later on.  And by everything, I mean the bad stuff.  I recycle the good stuff too, of course, but while that good stuff was happening, I probably wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is character building and I can use it in a novel someday, which will make it worthwhile in end.”  I was probably just enjoying my happy moment.

No, it’s the repurposing of the bad stuff that is the real benefit.  I find it oddly comforting that when life throws something unpleasant my way, it might come in handy later for some character or plotline.  Of course, we’ve all heard the phrase “stranger than fiction”; one has to be careful not to stay too true to the actual facts for fear it will sound unbelievable (or be offensive to the involved parties) — I’ve personally had a story slip into the implausible from mirroring reality too closely, from which I learned that writing in too autobiographical a fashion can be a mistake.  But the feelings, those are a rich mine to draw upon, as are the general categories of experience.

Write what you know is the kind of writing advice that is misleadingly simple.  If writers literally only wrote what they knew, there would be precious few fantasy novels and no science fiction novels whatsoever.  Instead there would be a lot of boring novels in which nothing much happens and a lot of time is spent sleeping and doing chores and working in tiny increments towards the exciting goal.  I’ve never known anybody who was murdered, for example – does that mean I can’t write a murder mystery?  Plus, even when I do write what I know, sometimes I can’t remember all the details, at which point I’m still back to relying on Google to fill in the gaps.

But I think write what you know hides a deeper truth.   Maybe we should say instead: write what you feel.  Write what you believe in.  Write what matters to you.  Look deep inside and see what all that life stuff, good and bad, has left you with, and write about that.  Don’t shy away from the stuff that’s dark or scary or sad, because some of that will give your work the lasting resonance you’re looking for.  But don’t feel you have to look away from your streak of idealism or optimism, either.  It’s all material.

So I write a lot about death and mortality and family relationships.  At some point I’ll add in a dash of chronic pain and difficulty walking.  I also write about romantic relationships – usually in which something goes crashingly wrong (the story’s got to have a secondary conflict, after all), but once in awhile in which it goes wonderfully right … at least for awhile.  If I didn’t feel these things myself at some point in my life, I wouldn’t be half as convincing when writing about them.

And the stories that it kills me the most to write are the ones without happy endings.  Because fundamentally, I believe in the happy ending the most.  Or at least the silver lining ending.  Just as in life, in my narratives, I’m always searching for that silver lining that will make even the bad stuff worthwhile.

Ask yourself: what material has your life given to you?

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