Why the smartest people make the most mistakes

When I was five, I sat on the white stripe that demarcated the soccer goal—or nearabout—and picked flowers.

My father was competitive, bothered. He yelled at me from the sidelines. Meanwhile, a trailing pack of children kicked the ball in large figure eights around the field.

It was my first and last soccer game.

I began and finished many things during my childhood this way, with a sort of non-acknowledging obstinacy. Maybe the flowers were more interesting; maybe I recognized that I would not be able to kick the ball, or did not want to, and so at five years old, I had the inarticulate feeling that it just wasn’t for me.

This was what led me to figure skating, to reading and writing…all things I felt were for me because my initial forays were met with some success.

And I understand now that my childhood epitomizes the American attitude toward mistakes.

The Confidence Code, a book about women and self-confidence, focuses briefly on this attitude as compared to that held by Asian cultures. Jim Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA, points out:

“In America…we see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart. People who are smart don’t struggle; they just naturally get it. In Asian cultures, they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

Stigler realized this after sitting in on a math class in Japan, where one child repeatedly attempted to draw a circle on the board. No, the other children said, it was not perfect. In the U.S., this child might have grown frustrated, might have cried. Instead, he kept repeating the process until a perfect circle emerged from the chalk in his hand. He was proud when he returned to his desk, and the others clapped.

In fairness, the American ethos is all about the struggle when it comes to sports, efforts of the body (I was just uniquely proficient at rejecting all forms of struggle as a child). But Stigler is right about the way we’ve aligned smarts with ease.

Look at any LinkedIn profile (my own included), and you’ll see a professional life swept clean of failure, a stack of work accomplishments and volunteering and awards that indicate nothing about the many disregarded job applications, lousy interviews, and instances of firing-downsizing-letting go that may or may not have occurred. On Facebook, we face similar pressure to highlight how very well our lives are progressing, to secret away our unhappiness, our lack of success, our struggle.

In her meditative memoir Excess of Being, composer and pianist Lera Auerbach describes mistakes as “cracks in the walls of your prison.”

Americans admire narratives of perseverance, of struggle. We are inspired by J.K. Rowling’s many attempts to publish Harry Potter; by Henry Ford’s five failed businesses before Ford Motor Company; by Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard, failing spectacularly with the non-functional Traf-o-Data, leading to his founding of Microsoft.

Still we are afraid to make mistakes, to fail. And I’ve come to understand that the smartest among us have figured out what American society doesn’t teach: that struggle frees us, allows us to pursue the things that we are not good at, opens us to opportunity.

But first we have to draw imperfect circles.

photo credit: Wood Circles by THOR (license)

What happens when our relationships drive our art

Seagull Tornado Fractal

I’d never met him before, and he’d made me cry. What was it like to be Kazuo Ishiguro, I wondered, and to know that, at any moment, you could encounter a stranger whom you’d made cry?

I guess, as with anything: strange at first, and then gradually less strange.

He was reading at a synagogue in D.C., and I sat in one of the pews with my fingers on the embossed cover of his new book. I’d already read two others, his most famous: Never Let Me Go, and then The Remains of the Day. That had been years ago, and his words still hung with me, surfacing at random—unconscious philosophies by which I lived.

From The Remains of the Day, this line (in paraphrase): all our interactions are motivated by the fear of rejection, and by the desire for acceptance.

How devastating…how true.

Kazuo Ishiguro only read three pages from his book. Mostly he was asked questions about his writing, his process, his characters. How do you create characters, Mr. Ishiguro?

“I don’t create characters,” he said, “What I do is much simpler: I create bridges—I create relationships.” When the relationships are interesting, he explained, the characters evolve organically around them.

He used the word bridges, but I could only see a distortion of the air in my mind, like a tiny wind vortex connecting two people, shifting and palpating with their connection.

That little vortex is the centerpiece of his creativity.

In the many years I’d taken writing courses, studied craft books, talked to writers, this was something I’d never heard. But it seemed as true as anything, and so obvious. It resonated with an assertion from another book I’d read, David Castro’s Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul:

“At the heart of every human aspiration to create is a relationship.”

Relationships with others, with ourselves, with some imagined audience: they motivate the impulse to create as well as the process. And it holds true. On reflection, the work I’ve done that I value most was pushed along by people who made me very happy, and frustrated me, and dashed my hopes, and made me laugh—cry—and laugh-cry. Sometimes all those things belonged to one person, to one relationship.

And then Ishiguro was asked a question at once too simple and too big: “What motivates you as a writer?” A sympathetic titter rose from the audience. None of us would like to be asked that, or know how to answer it.

But he took it bravely. “To share those relationships with others,” he said. That was it.

And then I realized that, for all the ways he’s a conscious genius, Ishiguro also perhaps accomplishes what we all seek to do, but on a much larger scale: distorting the air between he and us (in our pews, in our homes, on our buses). Building a world of unconscious philosophies.

So what happens when relationships drive our art?

We are more authentic. We are more complex. Sometimes, we make people we’ve never met cry because our relationships and their relationships are fundamentally the same: whorls of air, rejection and acceptance.

photo credit: Seagull Tornado Fractual by Devin Moore (license)

What no one tells you about writing…about yourself

It was my second year of an M.F.A. program in creative writing. I was enrolled in a creative nonfiction course. “Think of the ‘I’ of now,” we were told, “and the ‘I’ of then.”

Most people likely haven’t heard of this concept. I had not either. In short: the ‘I’ (or eye) of now—your present perspective, full of wisdom and understanding—should infiltrate your essay, should cast new light on the experiences that the ‘I’ of then could not fully comprehend.

That’s what makes the essay deep. We never used that word, but its requirement was unstated, a sort of prerequisite to being a great essayist.

Oh, how I wanted to write great nonfiction. The desire was so strong, I spent many long hours stop-starting on idea after idea (not the story of the three-legged dog, not the tale of the bamboo forest, etc). I was thrilled and dismayed by so many ideas in such short order that I accumulated a long list of two-sentence Word documents, each of them titled grand, hopeful things.

Finally, after much pain—and the night before my deadline—there emerged a wrought, profound twelve pages.

In the next week’s workshop of my essay, my cohort agreed on the question: “where are you in this piece?”

The ‘I’ of then was quietly offended. I was everywhere—everywhere—didn’t they see! I was in my mother and my grandfather and the many stories I had been told, all the memories passed between them and me.

But my class was right: the ‘I’ of then was kind of a terrible essayist. She had never been trained to write about herself—not directly. It all felt too close, too egoistic. It’s the first thing that no one tells you about writing about yourselfthat you must embrace your ego, put aside your humility, your disinclination to say I—I—I over and over. You must sit with yourself for hours and hours, thinking only of you: the funny, and the very best, and the very worst, and the bits of you that you have tried—but, of course, are least likely—to forget. And you must tug all these parts of yourself wide like netting, inspecting the gaps and holes until you believe you have some new understanding, something to say.

You must confront the small part of you that believes you haven’t got a story to tell.

Last week I picked up a picture is worth…: the voice of today’s high school students, a series of essays by teenagers, students at a charter school in Reading, Pennsylvania.

And did they ever have stories to tell.

This passage from student Jean Mouscardy, in particular, made me feel strange and emotional on the metro:

I remember a day when I saw my father. I was 7 years old. (He left when I was only 4.) He saw me after 3 years, and slid his hand on top of my head, then told me, ‘Hey, my boy’s grown a lot. I’m glad to see you.’ He talked to my mother a few minutes then left. I watched him go and I think when I talked to him I smelled something. I had no idea, but it sure wasn’t perfume. Now I know it was alcohol.

Sometimes the eye of now can be a cruel, enlightening bastard.

This is the second thing that no one tells you when writing about yourself: that turning these memories like snow globes will almost inevitably give us new, occasionally damning insight, that we can never unsee what the ‘I’ of now has managed in retrospect to witness.

According to Manuel Guzman, a learning facilitator at the charter school: “the evolving content of one’s personal essay serves as the gateway to all relationships of importance: personal, spiritual, economic, and political.”

This is true. In my nonfiction course, after many machinations at my desk, I wrote a second essay about-not-about myself. I sneakily used the second person: “you felt neglected,” and “you pulled the dog’s tail.” This felt right to me, because—I see now—I could not take ownership of how many times I had hit my mother’s hound dog over the head. I did it because I was jealous of how much she loved him. I could not acknowledge the memory of (what sounded to a seven year-old as) his brain rattling in his skull. I couldn’t, as myself, detail the dog crossing the road, describe how he was struck by a car and the way his body arced through the air in front of me.

It was only after reading what I had written that I realized the guilt in me had grown over the years like a swallowed seed. I had to hazard my way through those memories to understand that some part of myself held jealousy, held cruelty.

Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

It could be argued that I knew those things before. Yes, perhaps I did. But not in such words, not consciously. To process a feeling, we must articulate it.

So I forgave myself for the dog’s death. The ‘I’ of then—where I still lived, before the essay—became fused to a new self-perception. I could be unkind, but I would not let myself forget it.

In this way, the personal essay is more than gateway. It’s inception, an attempt to make un-nebulous our feelings, to point to tangible words and phrases as the concrete basis for our interactions with the world. We don’t know what we think until we’ve written it.

Writing is meditation, depth of thought. Every sentence, as we create it, is creating us—our relationships with the personal, the spiritual, the economic, and the political.

What no one tells you about writing about yourself is that most of your attempts won’t be great, or deep, and that isn’t the goal, nor is it the reward.

The reward is this: somewhere in two-dozen abandoned essays, I’ve realized that I’m no longer afraid to use that ‘I.’

But I didn’t know I felt that way until I wrote it.


photo credit: I was so scared. I just wanna run and It’s wonderfuL “The comeback” via photopin (license)

Why bliss is different (and arguably more important) in adulthood

I’m a little embarrassed that a muffin and coffee can bring me bliss. I’m passionate about food, but is my life that small? Shouldn’t I have something better?

On the other hand: why not a muffin and coffee? Why should I need a better reason to feel bliss? And while that’s the word I’ve chosen, here’s the feeling more accurately:

Daily I ride a train in and out of D.C. When it starts into Union Station’s underbelly, all the windows go black. Yesterday I rode through the tunnel with the rare treat of a pumpkin muffin on my lap and vanilla hazelnut coffee in the seat holder. And I ate the two–bite and sip, bite and sip–with singular awareness, the tunnel pressing everything to texture, smell, taste.

For those minutes, nothing could make me more content.

And I realize now that what I call bliss is really mindfulness–that lack of thought for the past or the future. And damn, does adulthood make mindfulness a lot harder than as a kid.

Your Popsicle’s Melting by Auntie K, on Flickr

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Fortune gave me only two real responsibilities as a child:

  1. Not to injure/maim/kill myself.
  2. To experience the world; to grow.

Both required mindfulness. So I felt no embarrassment about the euphoric happiness brought on by a cream-filled popsicle. Summers, nothing lay before or behind me except to sit in the hay loft of the horses’ barn and watch the straw float down. These things were allowed to have real importance, to be meaningful.

The moments when I had to think about the past or future beyond a few minutes’ or hours’ span (like, if I step in this gopher hole in the yard, I will likely twist my ankle and/or be attacked) were anomalies. Sometimes we were asked in school what we wanted to be; I made some quick determination–horse trainer; writer–and got back to being five or six or seven years old.

Today I’ve grown into different responsibilities; my memories spool out like film, and all the things I must do with myself–today, tomorrow, next week, next month and year–sit at the fore. And life has ironed out many of the “firsts,” the novel experiences. Mindfulness was easier when everything was new.

Those moments when I recapture bliss often come as surprises: switching between two guitar chords; the frisson of a powerful scene in a novel; hearing the chorus of that song; eating a muffin while drinking coffee on a train.

And as I near thirty, I can recognize that it’s different now: I’m more often blissful about things I’ve experienced many times.

Maybe this is how lovers of many years feel when they are very happy with each other. They may have loved months ago, and they may love months ahead, but all of that is not nearly as contenting–as engulfing–as loving now.

3 Books That Changed My Life

 by up to 2011, on Flickr

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Inspired by this Reddit thread (which was inspired by this), I want to do justice by a couple of books that I didn’t see mentioned (enough, or sometimes at all). All of these changed my life:

East of Eden. I received a beautiful, thick paper, serrated-edge copy of this from my best friend in college. Beneath the front flap, she’d written the number one, and her name, and mine. Pass it on, she’d implied.

And then it sat on my bookshelf for the next seven years.

I probably had some other excuse at the time, but I don’t think I was ready for it at twenty-one. Steinbeck called it his life’s work. Every time I tell people this, I feel a little embarrassed, and now I’ll tell anyone who cares to know: it made me cry. It made me cry in that awfully rare way which is not really from sorrow or joy or anger, but from recognition of all the things we can’t properly articulate about life and people. Somehow, Steinbeck did.

(Lisa: I passed it on.)

Fahrenheit 451. I read this book over a few weeks as a junior in high school and appreciated it not at all. I read it again, at twenty-seven, in one day. I’m convinced it’s meant to be read that way, or else it loses its effect. Everything about it is breakneck, an exhortation to consciousness and understanding of the world that should occur in a single sitting. Bradbury was a poet, a storyteller, and a genius gift to the English language.

Where the Red Fern Grows. The truth is, I can’t really remember the plot, or the characters, or the writing. I only have one memory of it: I was seven and it was nighttime and I came to the end of it and I began to bawl for ages. It’s the only time from my childhood I can remember crying over something that wasn’t a physical hurt, or an unkind word, or a disappointment. The book uncovered some well in me that was deep, right at the center. I understood something new, but my only way of expressing that was to cry the way an infant does when it has no words.

It’s one of those silly childhood things, and then it’s not.

On Edge of Tomorrow and Female Badassery

Tom Cruise is nobody’s sidekick. If ever an actor stood alone in film–battered, bloodied hero by the denouement–it would be he. Set him in a Groundhog Day-esque time loop, the same battle repeating over and over, and you’ve got the perfect formula: a man alone, bettering himself as warrior, as tactician, as a paragon of self-reliance.

But Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need Is Kill–the novel off of which Edge of Tomorrow is based–fathoms a world where a young woman can be both ultimate badass and mastermind. It’s a world where Keiji Kiriya, a green recruit into the Japanese army, does not mind–takes honor in–calling himself the sidekick to the Full Metal Bitch, Rita Vrataski, valkyrie on the battlefield.

Sakurazaka’s Rita has the near-mythic battlefield prowess of G. R. R. Martin’s “The Mountain,” her presence a flowering of alien body parts, a poetess with a battleaxe. “In her Jacket,” Kiriya says, “Rita was invincible.”

In Edge of Tomorrow, Rita’s first death comes about thirty seconds after she appears on screen. It’s a moment of dark comedy: two Mimics slain, her battlesword hung loose at her side as she comes over the dune to find Tom Cruise’s William Cage on his back in the sand, useless. The Full Metal Bitch. She has the masked face of war: traces of pity or wistfulness or maybe just exhaustion, or maybe that’s what we want to see, because really she’s unreadable, unknowable, a veteran of battle. And then she’s dead.

And unlike the novel, this becomes Cage’s unspoken quest: to keep Rita alive, loop after loop to get her off the beach, out of the battle. Sure, there’s the overlay of defeating the Mimics, saving humanity, but it’s Emily Blunt’s divinely inspired cheekbones, the cobra pose she dips into on first seeing her protege again and again and again, that separates Edge of Tomorrow’s William Cage from Sakurazaka’s Keiji Kiriya.

Where Cage charges himself with saving Rita, Kiriya can admit that Rita Vrataski outthinks him, outguns him, and–most of all–deserves the spotlight.

And Emily Blunt does fill the screen. During a training montage, she caps Cruise over and over again with unhesitating surety,–a resetting of the time loop–expending a bullet into his head a dozen-odd times over a broken leg, a broken spine, a useless arm. She slips expertly into Rita’s skin, tossing aside hecklers, proving herself with the battlesword, Mimic bodies cleft to pieces, and especially in her softness, the deep underlay of feeling that must contend with her warrior’s persona.

Blunt easily carries her own. But that’s as far as she’s allowed to go, and maybe that’s something, to be Cruise’s equal, a partner on the same footing. At least, the film gets this impulse right: that its heart must be between the two of them, as Sakurazaka’s novel intended, and does right.

On PAX East and (Their) Gaming Community

Gamers In Beta Podcast 049: PAX East Wra by BagoGames, on Flickr

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Last month I went to the Penny Arcade Extravaganza–East. PAX East, they call it, and what that really means is: a big, nerdy gaming convention in Boston.

Five things about PAX:

There were a gratifying number of women present. There were a gratifying number of women not being ogled. PAX was the first convention to ban “booth babes,” which are, basically: models dressed scantily to sell products. Lacking these, most booths were still absolutely mobbed on account of the cool stuff they had on the table.

It’s a community, man. There were rules about swearing, about harassment, about general behavior. And people abided by those rules, happily. At one point, standing in a tremendously long line, I watched the Cookie Brigade come by (which was a couple folk selling bundles of chocolate chip cookies). “Come on, people,” said a young guy behind me. “It’s for children. Help them out.”

And we did. Us PAXers bought loads of those cookies.

Never again will I ever enter a PAX expo hall. I thought I knew “sensory overload.” I didn’t–not at all. The expo hall is an absolute smorgasbord of screens, pockets of overlaying music, sound effects and people, people, people. Very simply, you cannot stand still in the expo hall, because the crowd will move you along. It was a shame, because there was an immense amount to see, do, and try, but between lines and toeing the “I’m about to lose my mind” line, it wasn’t really possible to stay in there for more than ten minutes.

Young people in Boston don’t know what to do with cosplayers. Cosplay–dressing in costume–is everywhere at PAX, and in the streets, and in the bars. Spike Spiegels in lines to be IDed. Nondescript angels turning sideways to fit their wingspan through a narrow grocery doorframe. I got stuck one evening on the sidewalk behind a couple of local, young Bostonians–who were themselves stuck behind cosplayers. “I don’t know, man,” one B said to the other, “they’re here for some kind of nerd thing.” Ensue laughter.

But it wasn’t comfortable laughing. It was the sort of nervous laugh you put out when you don’t know what to make of something, when you can’t fit your hands all the way around it. I liked that, and I was grateful to those Rock Lees, those Daenerys’s who were just as happy to drink their fill a night while in character.

There’ll always be people who love you for your things. I loved PAX. I loved nerdcore rapper MC Frontalot and the Magic tournaments (I entered two!), the caddy-cornered groups on their handhelds, that communal frisson at a game unveiling, even the vastly overpriced pizza and nachos that I ate sitting on hard concrete.

And I loved finding a Thai place in somewhere-Boston, late at night, eating coconut ice cream with chipper twinkle-lights all around, going on and on about Orcs Must Die: Unchained, and that was okay.

On Shyness and Writing

Human shapes by mripp, on Flickr

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I am twenty-eight, and sometimes, walking down a sidewalk, I still find a point in the far distance and make that my friend, and everything–everyone–goes to watercolors at the periphery.

I am a writer. I am shy.

They seem almost canonically opposed: to be shy is to be fearful; to write is to be brave. One is quiet, the other vocal. Many shy writers have two selves: her, in person, occasionally dull-eyed, looking away; him, in black-bolded print, to be had by the world for reading and digestion.

We treat shyness as an ailment. “Buck up,” is my dad’s phrase for me. “You have to admit,” he’ll say, “you’re too sensitive.” It would be easier not to be shy; there are times–in the world, with strangers and with people I know just a little–it’s like having an arm cleft away (oh, those phantom twinges of social grace).

But sometimes, it’s the best.

Shyness shares a bond with deep emotion, and the capacity for it. Shyness is a reaction to rejection, to things that hurt too much. Other synonyms: oversensitivity, thin skin. The shy person is sensitive, and the great boon of shyness–and the shy writer–is that sensitivity, the allowance that small, unexpected things will be felt heart-deep.

These small, unexpected things are the writer’s grist. It’s that moment, stepping onto a sidewalk, when a homeless woman says, “Like you, I used to go to work every day when I was young. Now look at me.” And though you won’t see her straight on, you’re imprinted with the gravel in her voice, and the feel of her: the downweighing, the curved back.

It’s standing at a crosswalk in February snow, becoming aware of a man singing in a delirious, half-drunk way, something about kissing and making love. And when he passes by–mostly grown, swimming in t-shirt and jeans–he sings directly at you for two or three seconds, his eyes angry, confused, bloodshot, like it’s all your fault, and all the possibilities in the world are in your head for who he is and why, and what he means to you.

It’s something awful to meet some people’s eyes. It can be a straight injection of shyness. It’s the time-slowing uncertainty of childhood all over again: what do I say? What do I do? What will happen to me? Shyness–fear–pins us to the moment. It is entirely uncomfortable.

The first tenet of writing: conflict. More is better. We’re subconsciously aware of this from the time we can speak to ask for another story, another. To be uncomfortable–to feel tension–is to perceive conflict on minute levels, to see the smallest strands of spider web in the air. This is terrible and wonderful.

What is writing but taking that discomfort and reliving it again and again until it very well sings? Until, right there on the page, you’ve got that moment. I am not always that brave, but sometimes I manage it–I see other writers do it–and that’s the story or novel or essay that makes me uncomfortable, that gets to me.

This is not about embracing shyness, because shyness isn’t itself a thing so much as a symptom of sensitivity. Recognize it. Be sensitive, I say to myself. Be uncomfortable. Let these small things get inside you.

Five unforgettable contemporary (short story) characters

I’ll be teaching a creative writing course in the fall, so I’ve been shuffling, brushing, idling my way through all my favorite short stories, mining them for the best possible instances of pen to paper or fingers to keys. In doing so, I realized that plot–while important–doesn’t wedge itself into the crevices of my mind like some characters have a way of doing so easily.

Here are the few inimitable characters that my students will definitely be meeting.

  1. Jackson Jackson from Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” He’s a sharp, homeless Spokane Indian on a quest to rescue his grandmother’s pawned powwow-dance regalia. Except that, like every other Indian in the story, he can’t raise more than a couple dollars before he’s traded them for a drink. The interesting thing about Jackson Jackson is that shades of his voice–more largely, Alexie’s–appear not only in this story, but in all of his work that I’ve read. So I guess I should say, Alexie’s protagonist represents much of his work, which would be a bad thing if his voice wasn’t so magnetic.
  2. Arnold Friend from Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The best way of describing Arnold Friend: he’s everything that he appears to be and nothing that he claims. So much of his development is accomplished through his boots. He might be the creepiest short story character ever sprung from a writer’s mind. Pretty amazing for a guy who spends the bulk of the story simply standing by a car.
  3. The nameless protagonist of Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s “Farangs.” He’s a Thai teenage boy helping his mother run a beach-side hotel, though most of his time is naturally spent looking for amour amongst the female tourists. He has a pet pig named Clint Eastwood. This character has a jagged voice, yet his innocence is palpable throughout. Lapcharoensap’s protagonist is also unforgettable for that rare obverse look into cosmopolitanism and its effects on Thai culture.
  4. Mel from Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He’s one fourth of a pair of couples sitting around a table–talking about love. Though really, it’s largely Mel talking…and talking, his wherewithal well-tempered by alcohol. He’s (arguably) not the protagonist, nor is he very sympathetic, but he’s unforgettable for the way his thoughts translate to his tongue and spill right out onto that table.
  5. Natalia of Michael Faber’s “Bye-bye Natalia.” Without slipping you the ending, she’s a young Ukrainian woman having an online romance with Bob in Montana. She has a bleakness about her that upends “mail order bride” almost from the first page. Her choice has a universality about it, though the circumstances she’s in are very much of this place and this time; she is particularly Natalia.