Infection

Creation is a disease. It is a virus. Once it infects a person it slowly, but surely takes over your entire being.

It is a small, invisible lifeform that moves from cell to cell in your body and takes control. It intoxicates to host and turns all energy towards the act of creating.

Once it takes hold, it is nearly impossible to destroy. Your only hope is to stop it early on. A blog is easy to stop when you’ve only posted a few things. A chapter or two of your novel can be tossed into an unmarked folder on your desktop. The paint and paintbrushes you ordered off of Amazon can sit in the corner “until tomorrow”. The guitar you borrowed from your father can gather dust in the closet after only a night or two of picking. The running shoes that cost $85 can sit by the door every morning if you’ve only run a few miles and you’re “too sore”, “running late”, or it is “too cold”.

But once creation starts to reproduce and get results, there is no stopping it. When you get the habit of writing every day and finish your book, you soon want to start a podcast. When you run daily and realize the rhythm of your feet matches the beat from a song, you want to start playing a musical instrument. When you recognize the patterns in the paintings around the room as mathematical principles you want to write a book about Leonardo DiVinci. Using your mind to make something new makes you wonder what your body is capable of, and vice versa. Creation infects every fiber of your mind, body, and soul and makes you wonder “what if?”. How strong could I be? What can I create with paint or chalk or music or poetry? Exploration of your own potential unlocks creativity that nobody can contain, and success isn’t about outside recognition but the completion of a task, and that motivates you on to the next thing you are curious about.

Creation creates creation.

You better stop now, or else there will be no stopping you.

Consumption is Key

In my experience, the best way to bust through writer’s block (or any block in creativity) is to consume more and more things. Now, I don’t mean “consume” like “spend money on a bunch of stuff or buy the newest gadget”, I am a minimalist after all. What I mean is, when the brain hits a roadblock it is usually good to explore new intellectual avenues and build some new neural networks. We live in the most amazing time in human history, the wealth of knowledge at our fingertips for free would take a thousand lifetimes to even begin to peruse. That information can help push us past our limits and help us discover new answers to our questions.

Consumption leads to creation. Just like the food we eat turns into fuel for our activities, the experiences we have turn into the things we create. And, like food and exercise, the more diverse and rounded our experiences are, the healthier and stronger the things we create will become. The body needs more than just one type of food and one type of exercise to be great and art needs more than just one perspective and one tool to be great.

Personally, I have a few “go to” services when my brain is stuck. Sometimes those services make intuitive sense. For example, maybe I’ll go to the library and pick up a book about writing (“On Writing” by Stephen King is my favorite) or I’ll check out a course on creative writing at Coursera.com.

Not all of the stuff I consume is based purely on writing, but they help my writing just the same. I’m working on improving my math skills through Khan Academy, which can help with logic and problem solving. I meditate using the Headspace app, which brings me a calmer mind and helps with focus (okay, I technically pay for this app but there are free options). Or maybe I read a book about Buddhism or business or psychology or some science fiction or philosophy or astronomy or pagan rituals to give me a new perspective on the human experience and how to communicate (or take Coursera courses about these things). Also, music and tv can help encourage new mental pathways and perspectives and, of course, video games (though, I find video games and tv/movies are the most dangerous sources of motivation because I can easily form an unhealthy relationship with them). I also enjoy looking into creating things in all the arts…. painting, dancing, cooking, drawing, etc can all make you a better writer because they round you out more as a person, they give you new adventures and perspectives.

There is, as always, a danger that consuming materials will start to become the goal instead of the act of creating. That risk is present with all things, that we will use consumption as an excuse to not create… but nobody ever said thriving in life would be easy. Ease and comfort do not lead to creation.

Practice Before Inspiration

Yesterday, while listening to the Isaac Morehouse podcast with his perennial guest TK Coleman, I had a “coming to Jesus” moment. In this particular podcast they discussed a one of Isaac’s recent blog posts where he takes issue with people “finding themselves” before knowing how to work hard. This discussion was like a punch in the gut because, in many ways, it defined my attitude. I’m that person who has been to Burning Man several times and spent a couple years biking around the country.

In a sense, I have filled my life with distractions instead of working hard towards my goals of becoming a writer. I think there was value to those distractions and my experiences have served many purposes (particularly in helping me process my PTSD), but they haven’t made me a better writer. Before I can become a “good writer”, I must become a “writer”. I haven’t put in the hard work and discipline necessary to reach my goals. Instead, I put the cart in front of the horse… I went looking for inspiration and life hacks and writing secrets instead of putting words on paper. Right now I am like a painter with all the colors and paintbrushes at my disposal, but I don’t even know how to hold the paintbrush correctly. I have ideas, I have experiences, but I need practice.

It is annoying that man cliche’s are correct. My health and fitness improved when I stopped drinking excessive beer, eliminated caloric drinks, started eating a whole-foods plant based diet, exercised regularly, and got plenty of sleep. For most people, life hacks aren’t like computer hacks, they are like hack writers… low quality and ineffective. You need to have the basics down before you can optimize. I’m laying down the basics with my health, but I haven’t started doing that with my writing.

So, were do I go from here?

Well, I need to write more. My blogging has been okay but it hasn’t been pushing me that much. I’ve allowed myself to slack on it or come up with excuses too often. I need this to be a daily thing. I also need to get back to basics, so I am going to try and take a class or two on writing. I also just need to write and read a lot more. I’m not exactly sure what system I can implement that will reach my goals, but maybe I can use something similar to my health routine.

I’m going to keep pushing forward, because I really do love writing and want to be a writer. I’m really thankful that this podcast episode came around when it did. I find it easy to get complacent and ignore the plank in my own eye (while often pointing out the speck in others – Mathew 7:3). It is always beneficial to try and objectively view yourself and figure out if criticism applies to you, in this circumstance it certainly did.  Hell, according to Isaac he often writes blog posts with a specific person in mind so maybe this one was aimed directly to me… probably not though. It is more likely that I am just lucky collateral damage.

Podcast Link: http://isaacmorehouse.com/2016/08/12/90-fwtk-anger-work-crappy-arguments-and-the-supernatural/
Blog Link: https://discoverpraxis.com/dont-try-to-find-yourself-until-you-know-how-to-work/

One Little Comment

I’ve been struggling with my writing for the last few months. I’m not sure exactly what it is, I just haven’t felt like I am creating anything of value. Nothing I write really feels original or insightful. I’ve just been down lately. That changed recently.

While rolling with two of our closest friends I was curled up with one of them and she told me that she really liked my writing. To be honest, I was a bit surprised. This is someone that I respect on all levels and love very much. For her to have a positive comment about something I created really touched me deep. I occasionally get positive comments about my writing, and I love when I do, but something about this one really stood out. I truly believed her and it has inspired me to keep writing, and even take on new projects. I am sure the MDMA was a big part of why I believed her and why the positive feelings have stuck with me (it is an amazing medicine).

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a little paranoia that I was the butt of some unknown joke. There was a thought in the back of my head that my friends were really laughing about me behind my back, that partners were with me because they pitied me, or that people would discover that I am just a giant fraud in some way. It isn’t logical, but it has been there in my mind for a long time (though, it has gotten better since I started the bike ride). Maybe it is a self worth issue. It is something that I’d love to discuss with a therapist someday.

Anyway, I think it is important for us to tell creators that we value what they create. Particularly those that don’t sell what they create. I don’t think we should lie to people, but if you love something that someone does please tell them (and constructive feedback is awesome too). It really could be the difference between them continuing to create and giving up.

Prelude: On The Mountaintop

What follows is my first draft of the Prelude for my upcoming book, tentatively titled “Mostly Flat: <something something something>”. If you have any thoughts or recommendations about clarity, grammar, etc please feel free to email me at pjneiger@gmail.com or Facebook message me. I will add chapters as I produce them and then, after some editing and such, make my book available to purchase. 

 

It started on a mountaintop in Afghanistan, as these things often do.

I guess a mountaintop in Afghanistan is specific to me, but the planting of a seed in the mind needs fertile soil, and fertile soil is often found in those moments of peace and serenity amidst chaos. When the mind has been occupied and the body afraid there is no time to think or plan or dream, but when the fear of imminent death slides away you can take stock of your life and how short it is.

My mind turned towards the future as I was laying on that mountaintop, my automatic rifle laying loosely on my lap, my helmet on the ground, and my eyes closed as the summer sun tried to pierce my lids. The men around me, my brothers, were discussing the same things we always discussed when we had spare time in a warzone. We chatted about the food we wanted to eat, the beer we wanted to drink, and the girls we wanted to sleep with. On that final point I had little to contribute, I was a virgin at the time and had sworn to my God to wait until I was married before bumping uglies.

We also talked about home and the places we wanted to go. This conversation required the help of a translator due to the regions of the US that were represented on that mountaintop. On one extreme we had Gagne, a young boy from rural Maine. Slim in stature and prone to embellishment his excited tales of his time in Maine were some of our favorites and always brought ruckus laughter. We knew his stories of competing in destruction derby’s or driving a car without a windshield or hood so that he could pour oil into the engine while he drove were likely not true, but they made us cry with laughter every time he told them. I like to believe they are true.

Gagne, being ever the story teller, was the polar opposite of Harding. Harding is a southern-boy from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and he fit every stereotype. He was big, both in height and weight, and spoke slowly with a deep southern drawl. He rarely spoke except to ask what Gagne was saying, the two couldn’t understand each other, and because of this I became the default translator. My upbringing on the west coast and neutral/boring accent allowed me to understand and translate Yankee and Redneck.

Discussing the all the towns we came from planted a seed in my mind. This seed was to see the country that I was fighting for and, in a way, pay tribute to my unit, the 82nd Airborne Division, the All-Americans[1]. Seeds in the mind are tricky things. They aren’t like physical seeds you get to plant a garden, they don’t come cleanly labeled with species and growing instructions. You may have a general idea what a mental seed will look like but as it marinates in your mind, just below the surface, it mixes with other ideas and evolves into something you couldn’t predict. Then, when the time is right, it springs forth from your mind. It may be months, years, or decades later, and you may have forgotten that the seed even existed. For me, that season for growth started when I attended Burning Man for the first time in 2011.

Burning Man is hard to describe because it isn’t one thing. At its foundation it is a community of people who gather together for a week to build a society based on 10 Principles[2]. The beautiful thing about these principles is that people apply them in different ways and to different degrees, and everyone is accepted as long as they don’t harm another person. The biggest influence for me was meeting people who had taken charge of their lives. They had decided they didn’t want a normal, stable, monotonous life, and they took action. I camped with entrepreneurs, artists, and adventurers. It was hard not to be inspired and, during a particularly pleasurable night of rolling on Molly and exploring The Playa, the seed that was planted in 2004 started to bust forth.

When I returned to DC I tried to ignore the plant that had sprouted forth. It was easy at first, it was small and existed only in my periphery. But as time went by the plant began to grow. Ignoring it became more difficult. The beauty of the idea took up more and more of my mental space and I found my mind wandering to the plant as I worked. In many ways it was like a mirror, showing me how unhappy I was living in Washington DC, working 40-50 hours a week, and buying into the system. I tried to make changes in my life by working from home and taking on hobbies, but the idea kept growing and as it grew it began to take a more solid form.

Not only was I going to explore the United States, I was going to do it by bicycle, and it would start with a solo cross country ride.

Eventually, I got to a point where I had to make a choice. The idea could not be ignored any longer and I either had to destroy it or I had to embrace it. Destroying it would have taken mental effort, but it could have been done. There were all the logical reasons in the world to destroy it. I had a good job with a bright future in an economy that was weak and I had loads of debt. There was no job waiting for me on the other side of the country. I knew nothing about cycling long distances or bike maintenance. It was a crazy idea to abandon all stability and cross 3,000 miles of unknown land on two wheels. I didn’t destroy the idea, it was too beautiful and inspiring to destroy.

Instead, I destroyed all the poisonous things in my life and used them as fertilizer for the idea. My job, stability, the doubts from friends, and my inexperience all became strengths. I quit my job, bought a $100 bicycle at target, strapped everything I owned onto the back with bungee cords, and hit the road with one paycheck in my bank account. I knew there was a good chance I would fail, but damn it, I was going to try.

 

[1] What is now the 82nd Airborne Division received the nickname “All American” from Major General Swift because it had soldiers from every state at the time.

[2] The principles are Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommidification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy. You can find out more at burningman.org/culture/philosophical-center/10-principles/

Asking Why

Over the last year or so I’ve been trying to be more conscious of my decisions. I try to ask myself why  I am doing something, particularly little things that I generally don’t give much thought to.

Why did I log on to Facebook? Am I trying to communicate with someone? Am I just bored? Am I trying to see what is going on in the world? Is there a better way to reach my goals?

Why am I drinking another beer? Am I trying to get drunk? Is it social lubricant? Am I just satisfying my oral fixation? Can I find a healthier alternative?

This practice has gotten to the point where it is almost unconscious… most of the time. Through this practice I have noticed that I spend less time on wasteful activities and direct my energy to more productive ends. That isn’t always the case, sometimes I’ll think “Why am I surfing this political blog? Is it making me happy or more informed?” and the answer will be “I’m bored and this is bumming me out”, but I keep doing it anyway. Maybe I am just a masochist sometimes or maybe my will power is reduced to the point where even my conscious analysis doesn’t give a fuck.

Anyway, I like this practice and I’m going to keep it up. There is value in challenging our impulses, habits, and the things we do because we are told we should.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self- Absorbed

I just finished reading (well, listening to) “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids”. Overall, I really enjoyed it. As an intentionally childless adult it was nice to listen to likeminded individuals explain their reasons for deciding not to have children. Many times I found myself nodding and smiling as the audiobook progressed, but mostly I was surprised at how diverse the reasoning was for many people. Even as one of the childless I still see the issue primarily through my own lens and hearing the authors (primarily women) discuss their situations opened my eyes to how easy I have it when it comes to this issue (and many others) primarily because I am a man.

The main title (Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed) is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Those accusations are something most intentionally childless people hear from time to time, and to some extent they are accurate. But, they are also accurate of people who have children. Isn’t it “selfish” to have a child because you’ve always wanted one or you get pleasure out of being a parent? Isn’t it shallow to have a child because that is what is expected of you from society? Isn’t it self-absorbed to require a genetic copy of you when nearly half a million children in the US alone need to be adopted or fostered? In the end, we are all selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed to some extent. It is our reasoning beyond those adjectives that I find much more important.

Some of the authors had abusive parents, some did not. Some were focused on their careers, but some did not. Some regret the decision, but others did not. The authors are individual humans, and as such they are complicated people and their reasoning reflects that. It is so easy to just label an intentionally childless person as selfish (or a Trump supporter as dumb or a Christian as foolish etc etc etc) but that removes their humanity. It reduces them to a small, inaccurate box based on one thing you know about them. It is like Dan Savage says about telling someone you have HIV… “When you tell someone you have HIV you are telling them one fact about you, but the way they respond tells you a lot about them”

We need to just cut each other a break once in a while. If you are truly interested in why someone chose not to have children (or why they did have children, support Trump, call themselves Christian, etc) then the proper thing to do is ask in a private and respectful way, and realize they don’t have to tell you if they don’t want to. I certainly wouldn’t ask those questions of strangers, it is kind of rude to ask a stranger why they do or don’t do the things they do with their genitalia, finances, vote, or soul.

So, if you are interested in hearing a small sample of the reasons people choose to be childless I highly recommend this book. Some of the authors are snarky and harsh, but so are some parents. It is a good read and can really open your eyes to how and why other people do the things they do.