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Posts Tagged ‘quality’

What if you knew you were going to die in a year? Would you be doing anything differently?

I read a New York Times op-ed today on this subject. It’s always a little strange for me to see this presented as wisdom, even though I think it is. It’s strange because I’ve been living my life this way since I was nineteen. It’s strange to think that nineteen-year-old me got something so right.

I spent years thinking my mom was going to die imminently, and then she actually did die. This hammered into me the idea that time is precious. For me, it’s more precious than money. I’ve only had a few jobs that I really, really didn’t find worthwhile, and in those cases I was always planning how to make a change.

And for me, planning means looking at reality as clearly as I can. Not in order to discourage myself (luckily I am something of a natural optimist), but in order to prioritize based on the facts I’ve been able to see. And one of those facts is we’re all going to die someday. Transhuman hopes aside, so far the longest a human has lived is 122 years, and most of us live a lot less than that. We can ignore it, or we can prioritize with this basic fact in mind. I’ve always chosen the latter.

Having lived my entire adult life with my eventual demise in mind, I have the following observations to offer:

  • Living this way can lead to intensity, both of experience and of personality. And if you take it very seriously, as I have, one of the most important lessons to learn is how to both keep it in mind and chill the fuck out.
  • You become very, very good at figuring out what you want, figuring out how to get it, figuring out if you can get it, and letting go of the stuff you either figure out you can’t get or for which you are unwilling to pay the price.
  • The saying “there will be plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead” is only partially true. Time is not just about quantity but also quality, and if you don’t get enough sleep, a lot of that time will be spent in a less pleasant, less mindful, less productive way. Hence sleep remains a valuable use of time.
  • Building connections with people and animals and spending time with them is one of the most valuable uses of time of all.
  • But downtime has its place too. Not everyone can spend every minute of the day being social. Time to rest, to think, to nurture yourself and get to know yourself, even time to goof off, is also worthwhile. And it ultimately helps enrich social interactions, as long as a balance is struck.
  • You will be more likely to favor bold decisions. As long as you can balance those decisions with practicality, they will tend to be some of your favorite things about your life. Once in a while, one of them will go terribly wrong, but since the rest of them are your favorites, it more than evens out.
  • You are inspired to change whatever it is that is holding you back or causing you unhappiness sooner rather than later. Carpe diem, baby.
  • The cliché “It’s about the journey, not the destination” will ring true to you. You’re never sure you’re going to reach the destination, and you also realize so often the destination is a moving target, so you damn well better be enjoying the process.

If I were going to die in a year, here is what I’d do differently. I might choose a different vacation destination. I’d travel a bit more to spend some last quality time with loved ones who don’t live local to me. I’d maybe skip more conventions and opt for more intimate time with writer friends instead. I’d push a little harder to get Beast Girl out to publishers, and I’d think a bit more carefully about which novel I’d write this year. I’d have to do a bit of work to get my affairs in order. I wouldn’t care as much about things like going to the dentist or keeping my place within a certain standard of cleanliness or buying stuff for myself.

I'd still spend just as much time snuggling this shaggy one.

I’d still spend just as much time snuggling this shaggy one.

That’s it, though. I’d spend the bulk of my time the same way. And I can say that confidently for most of the years since I was nineteen. Of course, this is not entirely from the decisions I’ve made. A fair amount of it has come from being extremely lucky.

Still, for me, it’s the easiest way to tell the difference between what I think I should care about and what I actually care about. It’s why I studied music, why I moved to the UK, why I started a business, why I began writing seriously, why I adopted Nala. It is why I write this blog. It is why I spend time with you.

If you knew you were going to die in a year, what would you do differently? What would you keep the same?

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Resistance against self publishing has been steadily crumbling. Last week a writer friend of mine who had been vehemently opposed to such ideas no more than a year ago even mentioned that she’d consider self publishing. I never expected to hear those words from her, and it’s a powerful illustration for me of the mainstream acceptance self-publishing has begun to receive.

However, it is still impossible to have a discussion about self publishing without bringing up the question of quality. How will readers find the good books in the mountains of soul-rending slush? How can a writer ensure she is releasing a quality book without a publisher’s stamp of approval?

Well, Kris Rusch hits the answer out of the park in her blog entry last week, so I’m not going to repeat everything she said. In a nutshell, there have been huge numbers of books published for a long time, so the needle in a haystack problem is nothing new and has solutions (or at least aides) firmly in place. Having something come out from a publisher is not a guaranteed mark of quality. And it is possible to hire outside help when self publishing, thereby ameliorating the quality problem.

But it occurs to me that the question we are really asking ourselves as writers is, “How will I know when I’m good enough?”

The answer is, you won’t. You might never be sure you’re good enough, even if you’re traditionally published. Especially if you’re a newer writer without the benefit of years of practice and experience. You just might not know.

I’ve known writers who think they’re seriously good, and I can barely read their prose. I’ve known writers who have won multiple awards and still aren’t convinced they’re any good at what they do. I’ve known writers who were doing all right but got complacent and their work suffered. And I’ve known writers who fall everywhere in the middle.

Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s a cognitive bias wherein people who are less competent overestimate their own abilities. When in doubt, people tend to rate themselves as above average…way more people than could possibly actually be above average at a given skill. It turns out that when people aren’t competent at something, they also lack the knowledge to correctly assess their skill level. On the flip side, people who actually are above average suffer from false consensus effect: the false assumption that their peers are performing about the same as them, as long as they don’t have any evidence to the contrary. So they tend to underestimate their own abilities. This explains why sometimes in a conversation about a subject, the loudest person is someone who obviously doesn’t know what she’s talking about, while the quiet person listening in the corner might really know her stuff.

The problem with these phenomena is that you can’t necessarily tell if they’re happening to you (although if you’re worried about being good enough, that’s probably a positive sign). You can’t know for sure that you’re good enough. And you know what? You can’t know for sure if your novel gets picked up by a small press run by one editor either. And you can’t know for sure if your novel gets picked up by a big house…and then flops. And you can’t know if you sell a story to a big market like Asimov’s because after a few months, you might wonder if you’ll ever write another story that’s good enough.

And at some point in this cognitive tail chase, you have to decide if you are willing to stand behind your work. The answer might be no, and that’s fine. Then you wait and learn and practice and slowly become a better writer. Until the answer is yes, at which point you’re going to have to take the plunge, regardless of your method of publication, without knowing for sure if you are good enough.

And you know what I think? As long as you’re producing the best work you are able, that is good enough for right now.

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