Making Peace with Increments

Successful discipline in any field is the art of making peace with increments.  Whether writing a novel, losing weight, learning guitar, studying for a master’s, or driving in a traffic jam heading home on a Friday afternoon, if you can come to terms with where you are at, you’re on the right track to success.

Humans are famously impatient. We like results. Like yesterday. How many diets go awry because tangible progress has slowed or because discouragement sets in thinking how much further the journey is?

How many stalled novels have bit the dustpan of obscurity over the years because 4000 words seems much too far away from 50,000 words?

But if we can make peace with increments, rejoice in the small, be happy in the seemingly insignificant, EVENTUALLY, your goal will be reached.

Guitar. I’m not a musician, but I love music and I have always loved writing lyrics and thinking up melodies to match.  About fifteen years ago, I watched a friend learn guitar. I was intrigued. I asked him what he did. He said he practiced for thirty minutes everyday for six months. At the end of those six months, while he wasn’t Eddie Van Halen, he was capable of playing chords fluently and even joined the worship band at his church. I was impressed, so I said to myself that I would try it. I got a basic guitar book, a guitar, and  cleared aside 30 minutes a day, and I started playing. It was painful, figuratively on my ears and literally on my fingertips. But as the daily thirty minutes went by, my fingers started to develop callouses and my chords started to develop some attributes of musicology. Six months later, he was right. I could play the guitar. I plateaued at that point because I achieved what I wanted. I wanted to play enough guitar to help me write songs. Success. And I owe it all to increments.

Novels. I’ve said this before. I was a failed novelist who never wrote a novel. I always wanted to write one, and about seventeen years ago I finally started. I wrote three pages, destroyed it all, cried inside, and abandoned all hope of ever writing a novel. About ten years later, through my renewed interest in writing prompted by a new pursuit in drama, I tried again. I wrote little by little. I tried to enjoy the process. I tried to understand the long-haul mentality. I enjoyed where I was in the process.  I counted every word every day. Literally. And before I knew it, I had written a 61,000 word novel.  Then I tried to write another. Now I’ve written eight, and I’m still at the early point in my journey.

Whatever you are trying to accomplish, don’t get stuck lamenting how far away the finish line is.  But DO focus on two things:

  1. The daily increments. Have you done what you can today in your journey? If you can say ‘yes’ to that, then be proud of yourself.
  2. Look back at progress. Look where the increments of the last two weeks have taken you. The last month. The last two months. Remind yourself of where you came from and let it reaffirm that you are on the right track.

I write this for myself, because I’m on other journeys as I write. Perhaps I’ll share another time. But I hope this can be a small reminder to those on a journey of accomplishment that if you make peace in the increments, you will find your way.

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Merry Christmas: A Vigil for a Starry Night

On a night when the clouds cover the stars like an impenetrable mountain cliff, I wait for a sign. A small tinge up my spine. A desperate plea for the ancient ways to speak once again. I wait for the light, hoping it will come, hoping it will be enough. .

The stars, spread brightly out like colored snowflakes flickering across the onyx sky, reflect a distant constellation, and begin to re-enter the atmosphere, piercing through the fractured clouds, giving faint and distant light to the voidless black, the empty sea, the sandless desert, the vacant abyss that is deep within me. The light, hushed and dimmed by a millennium of travel, is all I have. Is all I ever had.

I wait for the reflection to reach me, hoping one refracted beam from a star long ago still exists, the same ancient light that awakened the shepherd’s eyes one cool and lonely night. Can the light that ushered in a new millennium, awaken a new epoch within me. If so, it might be enough for my heart to go on.

In the midst of tears, in the solitude of our inner being, we yearn to be on that impoverished hill, to understand the magnitude of that sight, a heavenly light illuminating a darkened heart, a heavenly chorus rising to a crescendo of glory.

Will I choose to believe its truth, not blindly though because I know what the light can do for one’s soul.  And though the unbearable pain releases not its grip, I have a question to answer. Does the light still exist for me?

Does the same sky, which God ripped open that night with his right hand, planting angelic heralds of peace on the clouds to rustle awake the shepherds, still exist for me? Can he reach into my clouded heart and announce the truth like a heavenly chorus? If it is so, all suffering and cause of angst still present throughout the world will be no match for the blessed announcement: “A Child is born.”

PERSON: This child is born.

Hope

My mother-in-law, a beautiful human being, passed on from this life today. It’s been a difficult day for the family, and as my wife boards a flight to head home to be with loved ones during this time, I was reminded of one simple word: Hope. It’s a word I strongly believe in. And as I processed the day with that word in mind, here’s what I wrote:

 

Hope is not a homeless cast-off, living in squalid conditions on the edge of the sunset’s shadows.

Though you will find it there.

Hope is not a forgotten word, buried under scientific jargon, dying an abandoned existence in a dusty appendix.

Though surely you can scan the final pages with your index finger and find it there too.

Hope is not an empty, opiate-filled wish, meant to pacify the cravings of a desolate heart.

Though hope is comfortable in emptiness, tucking neatly in an upside-down crevice of a turned-out pocket.

Hope is the undefinable assurance, proved to the heart by a million micro-steps of life, that joy can never be fully extinguished.

Hope is as high as a thousand-mile mountain peak, yet as thin as an inch-thick stream spreading out indefinitely in all directions.

Hope casts off doubt and lingers until despair yields to its indomitable message.

When the world doesn’t choose hope, hope merely grows stronger, encouraged in the throes of life’s storms, emboldened on the faces of the faithful, ensured that the weary will find their way, that the righteous will find their reward, that a simple seed planted long ago will find its way home.

Only One Way to Go: Down

I was driving a van up a one-way, steep mountain incline. Four of us were on our way to a mountaintop retreat with a van packed with luggage and accessories. I whipped around one steep turn and gunned it in first as I plodded up the hill when a horribly sick sinking feeling struck me: this van was not going to make it. It bogged down and nearly stalled. The power had dissipated. The only thing which was still going higher was the engine temperature. A driving predicament presented itself in vivid tropical terms: to the left was a steep cliff down to a quick death, to the right was walled cliff straight up, to the front was the steep grade my van couldn’t conquer, so only one option remained. Down.

As I looked in my rear view mirror, I didn’t like this option any better than the other three. Well, okay, it was better than the cliff to my left. The mirror revealed a narrow steep path I would have to back down. At the bottom of the grade was a hairpin turn that I would have to make in reverse with a van full of people. If I missed the turn, we would scoot into a large gully. I didn’t like our chances. I wanted better odds, but if I couldn’t get better odds, at least I hoped I had good brakes. I didn’t want to back this down, but there was no other choice. We couldn’t very well stay stuck on the steep grade for eternity.

So with the clutch pushed in, I started backing down, now hoping, trusting, and wishing on the brakes.

Life, from time to time, gives us little moments to increase our awareness of our own humanity. One slight misdirect and it all goes crashing over the cliff. The heart rate increases, the tense eyes are brought tenser by the dour movement of the eyebrows, muscles contract, the voice is slightly raised and urgent, sights and sounds are zoomed into a narrow focus — keep it tight, keep it real, stay focused, a lot rides on this — and you give it all you have to make it right, even if it doesn’t feel right in your gut.

When was the last time you felt like this? When was the last time that circumstances gave you a lesson in humanity, its frailness, its fickleness, its fleet-footed-ness?

In this particular case, I backed the van down to the lip of the curve, and as providence would have it, a van-sized pull-off was on the right. All I had to do was pull up the hill a smidgen, back carefully into the pull-off without my front tire falling off the cliff on the right, and I was on flat ground in the middle of mountain. I could breathe again.

Whatever cliff you are next to, keep the focus, look for the nearest pull-off and remind yourself that it’s a good day to be alive.

Writing Anywhere. No Pen, No Computer Needed.

Writing is one of the most versatile passions anyone can have. To be productive, you need nothing but your brain and a little time.

Paper is helpful at some points.

Of course, a laptop is even more helpful.

But neither of those are needed. No. Not at all, or at least until “eventually” comes around. All you really need to be productive is an active mind and time to let it explore.

Here’s what I mean. I’m currently working on a variety of writing projects including book two of my first trilogy, a Christmas show for 2017, and a variety of other play ideas. But lately, I’ve been swamped and have had no time to actually write. Yes, it’s killing me, because I want to get back to the stories. I want to push them forward. I want to explore where they are going and how everything will piece together in the end. But, life happens. Weekend baseball trip to Bangkok, theatre projects, rehearsals, work requirements, etc… and I’m stuck looking at another day checked off the calendar without a word written.

But it’s all right. Calm down. Everything is not lost because writing is the most flexible of passions. The crucial element of writing is thinking. A writer must ponder, must weigh options, must zigzag around in the mind before the pen ever hits the paper. And that, the pondering, the zigzagging can happen anywhere at anytime. A stray thought during the day can bring a character to mind and make me wonder about what will happen next. A daily happening can lead to new ideas. The other day, one of the readings from my social studies class I teach talked about a certain type of snake. It jolted my memory of something I’ve written in book two of my novel series, and I started to ponder if I could actually use that snake in my story. I thought about throughout the day as I complete many tasks not related to writing. Finally, I concluded that it would be a wonderful idea and can really add to the story.

Now, have I actually added  it to the story yet? No. Like I said. No time. But I have furthered my writing. I do this many times in many different situations. Allowing your writing mind to connect to what you do in every day life is a great way to move things along and be productive  even when you have no time to actually be productive.

So I guess the bottom line is this: write at all times. When possible, use a computer.

 

 

Inspiration is Cheap. Just Open Your Eyes. (or Ears)

I’m amazed at the inspiration around me. I went for decades not seeing it. But it’s there. Everywhere – Invalidating our self-pitying claims of writer’s block.

Maybe we put blinders on and can’t see it.

Maybe we become so focused on the page that we forget that the page belongs in the world. That’s where it originated, and that’s where it will find it’s conclusion.

Every sight you see is a setting. Every person you watch is a character. Each of them need to be molded and shaped, manipulated and re-imagined on your page, but the spark is right in front of you. What’s keeping you from igniting it?

Even physical sight is not needed, and sometimes not preferred in order to be inspired by one’s surroundings. A breeze, a whistle, a bird’s persistent call, the shifting of the ocean, the honking of a horn, the laughter of friends, the confabulation of lovers, the braking of a car. All of these give depth and insight, we only need to listen. Hear the words, hear the sounds and allow the scenes to come alive in our minds.

And what of words themselves. These pre-arranged letters have a lot to offer on their own. How many of these single words or partial phrases have hidden meanings, unknown characters and plots hanging from them if we only prod them with our minds just a little.

“respectable” – Is it a son trying to please his father? Is it a girl looking for the right man? Is it the banker looking for a neighborhood to move into? Is it the drug addict with an unattainable label?

Stories are hidden behind each word.

Entire books can spring forth from a specific sound.

Trilogies have been erected upon a single panoramic scene.

Inspiration is everywhere, at each turn of every day. Don’t let it pass by.

Notice it and create.

Ideas for Indie Authors: A Novel is Chasing Me. I’m Losing. (and Winning)

When good ideas impregnate the mind, why fight them?

Over the past three weeks, I’ve had a novel idea, actually related to novel-writing, and I haven’t been able to shake it. Even in the midst of revising novel #5, which was supposed to be my priority, this new idea has consumed me every free moment that I’ve had.

When I go to the store, I’m thinking if the characters drink whole milk or skim. When I’m in my bedroom, I’m thinking about this little flying thing that annoys one of the characters and wonder what it would be like to have that happen. (Sorry, I can’t divulge what I’m talking about there.)

And the plot – it’s embarrassingly exposed – like I downloaded the novel’s Cliff Notes and have been cheating on my writing. It’s seemed so easy, so smooth – the dialogue, the characters, the setting – all laid bare in front of me.

This is the type of inspirational groove that I hope never leaves me.

So why am I losing? Because I’ve lost control of all other parts of my life because of this novel.

So why am I winning? Because I love writing this novel and have had so much fun putting it together.

Why has it been so easy so far?

Perhaps it’s an unimportant question that I shouldn’t try to answer. Just count it as a blessing and enjoy it while it lasts.

But I have to say that I might know what’s going on. In this novel, I’m starting from a premise that is completely unlike me. It dabbles in the supernatural and fantasy genres which, if you’ve read any of my writings, you know if not what excites me. I like real, down-to-earth human stories.

However, this unique premise has allowed me to tell a human story in a very different way. It has led to new discoveries and new ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of anyways. And while the end result will be different from much of my other works, the reader will undeniably see the same creative Sasse hand at the helm.

So if your inspiration is stuck firmly in a hole filled with quick-drying cement, shake things up a little. You might find yourself losing a lot of time on a winning idea.