3am thoughts, or why everyone says to be an accountant (Blast from the Past: October 2013)

A lot of my blog posts this week had to do with money, wealth, and politics, so when I was searching for an old post to bring back, this one made me stop and reflect for a while.

My opinions and perspective have changed a bit since I wrote it, but the fundamental message is still one that I agree with. I’ve trimmed out some of the parts where I think I was wrong, and left the stuff that still resonates. Hopefully it resonates with you as well. Either way, feel free to let me know.

I’ve been reading in bed on my smart phone recently, which is probably a bad idea because it makes it harder to go asleep. At the same time, it tends to get my mind rolling, and at 3am my thoughts tend to go some really interesting places. Sharing those thoughts is probably going to get me into trouble, but hey, you might find them interesting, so why not?

When I was eight years old, I knew I was going to be a writer.  There was never any question about that. I spent all my free time making up stories.  However, I knew I never wanted writing to be my job, because 1) everyone hates their jobs, and 2) everyone knows that writers can’t make a decent living. Even at eight years old, I had bought into some of society’s most pervasive myths about jobs, careers, and how to make money.

Americans are generally horrible with money. We struggle to keep budgets and put all sorts of things on credit, and pay more than twice what our houses are worth by signing mortgages we barely even read. Because we’re so horrible with money, we tend to see it as a magical force, something that can solve all our problems and make us happy. Rich people are like wizards or sorcerers, so far above the rest of us that we can hardly fathom their ways.

Nowhere is this stupidity more apparent than in the fact that most of us spend our lives working for some sort of hourly or salaried wage. Wages and salaries are basically the same, in that they convert time into money. That’s why we all measure income in terms of dollars per hour, or salary per year.  But for anyone who understands how money works, that is stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. Money comes and goes, but time? Time is one of the most finite and precious resources known to man.

All of us are going to die someday. Most people are scared shitless by that fact, so we try to ignore it or put off thinking about it until we have to. But not all of us get the opportunity to put our affairs in order before we die. And even if we do all live to be centenarians, our time on this Earth is still finite. It’s non-renewable, too—you can’t go back and relive that day or that hour or that minute once it’s passed.

Converting time into money is basically trading gold for lead, or wine for water. Yet that’s exactly what we do, because money is this strange, magical force that so few of us understand.

Questions like “where do you work?” “what is your job?” and “what do you make?” are much more common than “what do you do for a living?” That’s because most of us have bought into this idea that money comes from working for someone else. While we’re on the clock, the company owns us and anything we produce. That’s the pact we make in exchange for this magical substance we call money.

It wasn’t until college that I started to become disabused of my childhood notions about writing for a living. First, I came to realize that lots of people love their work—that just because you do something as a job doesn’t mean that you’ll come to hate it. But it wasn’t until I graduated unemployed in the middle of a recession that I was disabused of the notion that writers can’t make a living.

People say that about every career—that is, every career except accounting. That’s because accountants are the ones who count the magical money. They’re the ones who know where it comes from. Their jobs are the ones that the people with the magical money will always need.

But there are other ways to make money—thousands of ways. Millions, even. It’s not about time it’s about producing something that people want and need. But when you’re working for yourself, that’s hard. You have to own up to your work—the failures as well as the successes.

When you work for a corporation, it’s easy to shift the blame. It’s a rare case where one person is solely responsible for bringing down the whole collective enterprise. But when you work for yourself, you can’t blame anyone else when things go wrong. You’ve got to take the risk.

That’s why everyone says that you can’t make a living as a writer. They say the same thing about any career where you strike out on your own.

In the end, though, it’s all just silly. Money isn’t a vague magical force—it comes from the value you create. It comes from producing something that people are willing to pay you for. And you don’t need to sell your time at $11 an hour or $44,000 a year to do that. You just need hard work, a great idea, and the ability to learn from your mistakes.

So can you make a living pursuing your dreams? The answer to that question depends entirely on you.

What it’s like to write after a life interruption

Stage 0: Procrastination

I guess I should write… but first, I should check my email. Also, there’s a couple of publishing tasks I need to do. I’m also kind of hungry, come to think of it.

Wow, those publishing tasks took a lot longer than I thought they would. I could start writing now, but I’d only have half an hour, and what can I possibly get done in that time? Maybe I should just relax for a bit and play this addictive online game…

Stage 1: BIC HOC

All right, no more excuses. It’s butt in chair, hands on keyboard time!

What’s wrong with my chair? Did someone put a magnet in it? It seems like my butt gets repulsed every time I try to sit down in it. I can knock off a couple of paragraphs, but then I have to get up and pace for a while. Or do some chores. Or—

No! I’ve got to focus. But man, it feels like I’m pulling teeth. The words just aren’t coming. It’s been more than an hour, and how much have I written? Holy crap, that’s pathetic.

Well, it’s the end of the day, and I only managed a few hundred words, but that’s better than nothing I guess.

Stage 2: Progress

Is something different? It still feels like I’m pulling teeth, but my writing time is only half over and I’ve already passed a thousand words. Also, that last scene was kind of awesome. I could probably improve it in the next pass, but it turned out better than I thought it would.

I’m still way behind from where I need to be, and I have no idea if I’ll ever make my deadline, but I’m slowly making progress. Not bad. Let’s lie down for a while or go for a long walk and think about what happens next. This is actually turning out to be a pretty good story.

Stage 3: Acceleration

It’s getting late and I really should be doing other things, but I’ve got a great idea for this next scene and I just have to write it.

What’s that? My emails are piling up, and my to do list of publishing tasks has been neglected? Yeah, yeah, I’ll get around to that, but first I really have to knock out this scene. And what if I changed this one three chapters ago to foreshadow it? Then I would also have to change how that one character reacted when the big reveal happened on page 128, and…

Wow, that was incredibly invigorating! I feel like I’m reading this story for the first time. The words are really flying, but that actually doesn’t matter because this next chapter is the big one and I’ve got to focus on that. No time to count how many words I’ve written!

Stage 4: Peak Creativity

I can’t wait to wake up in the morning because the next chapter is going to be totally awesome. I spent my whole shift at the day job thinking about it, and it’s really going to tie the plot and thematic elements together.

What is this character thinking right now? What is it like to be in her shoes? Does this other character have any idea what she’s feeling right now? Is he too caught up in his own concerns? Where did those concerns come from? Obviously, they came from the difficulties in his childhood. Let’s take a few moments to work that out. What’s the story behind how this character came to be who he is today, and how does that impact everything else in the book?

All right, time to take a quick break and refill the creative well. What’s this? A mountainous stack of emails and publishing tasks? Let’s chip away at it for a while, and maybe write a blog post while we’re at it.

Enough for now. Back to writing!

Life Interruption

Oh crap. Time to go back to stage 0 again.

Heaven’s Library (Blast from the Past: June 2009)

All right, it’s time to get in the wayback machine and revisit a post from long ago. This one should be especially interesting to you aspiring writers out there, as well as the seasoned writers who need an extra gut-wrenching wake-up call from time to time. I know I certainly do.

Today was the first day of BYU’s writing conference, and it was great! The speaker in the last workshop, Dandi Mackall, was exceptional. I don’t have my notes with me and the BYU library closes in twenty minutes, so I’ll recap the best part of her presentation.

She said that once she had a dream where she died and went to heaven (thank goodness!). When she got there, the angel who greeted her offered to show her around, and asked what she wanted to see first. Her answer? The library, of course!

In heaven’s library, she found shelves stretching as far as she could see, full of the very best books. She picked out a few and recognized some of her favorites, the ones that had impacted and changed her life.

After a while, though, she started to get a little disappointed: all of the books in heaven’s library were books we already had down on Earth. Why was that? Didn’t heaven have anything new–anything we hadn’t already seen down below?

“But all these books were here first,” said the angel.

Still, she couldn’t accept that as an answer, so the angel took her down a long, winding, narrow corridor. The deeper she went, the narrower and dustier it became, until she started to feel uneasily. This part of the library was dark and dirty. It was clear that hardly anybody every came down here.

Finally, the angel led her to a door covered in cobwebs. He brushed them aside and opened the door. Here was a room many times larger than the first, with old, dusty bookshelves stretching out of sight.

She picked out a book and started reading through it. It was one she’d never heard of, but it grabbed her. She could tell that it was really good. She picked up another one, and realized that it was just the kind of book that one of her friends would have loved. She picked up another one, and realized that this one could have helped out another friend through a terrible crisis she’d recently been through.

“Why didn’t we have these books?” she angrily asked the angel. “They are just as good as the other ones. Why didn’t they make it down?”

“These are all the books that remain unwritten,” the angel answered. “Each one of these is a book that a writer, somewhere below, has in them but fails to write down.

“This one is by a writer who won’t let anyone give her the criticism she needs to improve her craft. This one is by a writer who doesn’t have the discipline to finish what he starts. This one is by a writer who doubts herself and doesn’t think she can ever get her story to work.”

Humbled, she followed the angel back to the main hall. Just before stepping through the doors, she saw one last book. The name on the cover was her own.

For some reason I don’t understand, fate, God, or genetics (or some malicious combination of the three) conspired to turn me into a writer. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m making a mistake trying to turn this passion into something that will feed myself and my future family. Looking at the millions of other writers like myself, it’s easy to feel anxious. Only a tiny fraction of us will ever make a professional career out of this. Do I even have a chance?

But then I hear a story like this one and I remember why it is that I write. Not for fame, fortune, publication, personal gratification, or even just because I can’t not do it. It’s because storytelling itself is important. It helps us connect with the world around us, to see its beauty and wonder. It helps us to appreciate ourselves and understand others. It stimulates our imaginations and lifts our eyes to see the divine potential that is all around us. It helps us to grow and to heal—to live and to love.

May you find your book in heaven’s library and bring it into the world!

The Gulf Between the Generations (Blast from the Past: February 2012)

Here’s a post I originally wrote in 2012. Given how most political commentary tends to lose relevance over time, it’s remarkable when something from the past is even more relevant now than when it was written.

Not that this post is overly political: more just a series of observations, including some red flags that, at the time, were still on the distant horizon. In recent months, those flags have drawn much closer.

Such a crazy world we live in. Stay safe, and thanks for reading.

I just watched a fascinating interview with a 1960s White House intern who claimed to have an eighteen month affair with President John F. Kennedy. But the most interesting thing wasn’t the affair itself, but the way the President’s staff, the “fourth branch” of government (AKA the media), and the entire general public of 1960s America seemed more intent on keeping the secret than on facing the truth about JFK’s many affairs.

It seems that my parents’ generation had so much trust in their government that nobody would even raise the question—that to raise doubts about the integrity of the man who held the highest office in this country would itself be unconscionable. Rather than face the facts, the American public seemed unwilling to do anything that would shatter the gilded image of the man who led the free world. And that, quite frankly, is a mindset that I simply cannot understand.

In contrast, my own generation has very little trust in our government. We’ve been raised in an age of ambiguity, where the enemy doesn’t wear a uniform or pledge allegiance to a flag, but live quietly among us, until they strap a bomb to their bodies or turn a commercial airplane into a weapon of terror. Or at least, that’s the excuse our government gives us for an increasingly invasive security regime that infringes on our basic liberties, enables the military to hold us in detention indefinitely, and sends our soldiers overseas to fight increasingly senseless wars to “liberate” the people of oil-rich nations who don’t even want us there. As if that weren’t enough, the economic crash has taught us that all that stuff our parents taught us about equality and opportunity is really just a pack of lies—that the rich get bailouts while the rest of us foot the bill, and all that stuff about changing the world and being whatever you want to be… yeah. Lies, all of it.

My Dad had an interesting rebuttal to all this, though. He said that it wasn’t his generation that put the president on a pedestal—it was his generation that tore the pedestal down. During the 60s and 70s, the Vietnam era and the rise of the hippy movement, his generation fought back and made it acceptable for us to question the president, or to criticize the government, or to do all the things that we take for granted today. In fact, he said that we’re the ones who are backsliding into complacency, with our deafening echo chambers, our social media inanities, our reactive attachment to corporate brands and advertising, and our almost religious sense of entitlement.

I’m not totally convinced he’s right, but I do think there’s a fundamental gulf between these three generations. Our grandparents’ was the silent generation, where people were expected to keep to their own business and not rock the boat. Our parents’ generation was one of top-down media, where ABC, NBC, and CBS ruled the airwaves and told us all what to think, buy, and believe. Ours is a much more peer-to-peer generation, but I worry that we’re turning into a collection of mindless herds who are turning the culture wars into a messy riot where we abandon civil dialog and rational thinking for a much more destructive mob mentality that isn’t really building anything, but tearing it all down.

Sometimes, it gets so frustrating that it makes me yearn for the days of the frontier, when you could leave it all behind and reinvent yourself somewhere out in the west. That’s probably why I’m so drawn to science fiction, where space is the final frontier. There really are times when I wish I could go to the stars and escape to it all. Writing about that is the next best thing.

Maybe that’s why I feel so compelled to write Star Wanderers. It’s not all rosy, of course—space can be a cold, dark, and lonely place—but so can this world, when you’re lost and you don’t really know what you’re doing with your life.

I don’t know if I recognize anywhere as my own country anymore. Like Van Gogh, all I can say is the sight of the stars makes me dream.