Tuesday, March 25, 2014

masterful writing

Yesterday I finished "Ender in Exile" by Orson Scott Card.  I have some issues with the middle third having a contrived plot.  And I always felt Ender Wiggin is a wooden character -- as opposed to Bean, whom I love like a real person.

But one thing cannot be denied.  Orson Scott Card is a masterful writer.

Sometimes I read writing that is exquisite, like the Ender's Shadow series, or J K Rowling at her prime in Harry Potter 7, or Middlesex, and I feel overwhelmed by how beautifully it is executed.  Their mastery is breathtaking.

And then a vain little hope stirs in my secret heart that maybe one day, decades from now, I would be able to write a novel or short story that I would consider beautiful.  Not as beautiful as those books, since those are three of the top authors living in the world, but just a novel that I would be proud of, that I could look at and see as beautiful.

It seems a lot to hope for though.  I already am blessed to have an amazing calling-in-life, and to have work that I find deeply fulfilling.  So it seems too much to ask, to also be able to write fiction beautifully on top of that.

But when I read books by these masterful artists, hope leaps up in my heart of hearts.  

Saturday, March 22, 2014

how to stand out above the din?

I read a story recently in a screenwriting book "The Story Book".  It goes something like this:

Writing is like mining for gold hidden in the hillsides of your mind.  The young writer goes to the publisher and points at the hillsides, shouting, "Give me money and I will return you pots of gold!"

The publisher wants gold, but he's heard it all before from thousands of prospectors.  They never have the gold they claim.

Two years later, the writer returns to the publisher with a bucket of muddy nuggets.  "You have to acknowledge me now!  I have spent years digging nuggets out of the hills for you.  Look at this gold, gold, GOLD, I tell you!"

The publisher unblinkingly indicates to either side of the writer, who realizes he is in a line of a thousand other weather-beaten obsessives, who have similar weighty buckets and are shouting the same imploring mantra at the man who must decide.


Who from the thousands of writers proffering gold-filled buckets in the line and stridently proclaiming their value, will the publisher select?  Look along the line.  The writer he will deal with is easy to spot, because he's not holding a bucket full of hard-won nuggets.  He is holding up a cut and polished, solid gold necklace.

And he's not shouting at all.

I thought this was brilliant.  I get emails from strangers asking questions such as "How do I land an interview with company X?  My resume isn't great because I haven't done many challenging projects, so instead I've been persistently emailing company X every week but they ignore me" or "I'm not doing very well in school and I have few projects, but I really want to work for Google.  How can I write my resume in a striking way that gets noticed?"

There are entrepreneurs who are convinced the secret to success is not to focus on making their product high-growth but rather to maneuver their way into meeting with a venture capitalist.  There are people who are convinced the best way to further their career is go every week to a networking event, and finagle their way into meeting the highest-profile people in attendance.

These are all focused on how to shout more loudly.  Occasionally someone might shout loudly at just the right moment that they get lucky and get heard.  But that's short-lived if they don't back it up with real skills.  Shouting loudly is not reliable.  The far more reliable path is to make a solid gold necklace.

Sometimes people don't want to hear that, because it takes years.  It takes 10,000 hours to become an expert.  They want to hear that if they just format their resume in this super-special way and add these particular buzzwords, they'll get an interview and a job and can go back to not caring much about computer science but now with glory and money while relaxing.

But that's not real.  The real task is making your skills most useful to the world.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

meditation retreat

I went for a 5-day meditation retreat at Esalen.  It is a meditation center in California on the coast between San Francisco and LA.  It used to be a tribal ground for a tribe named Esalen, and has been this meditation center since 1962.

I ate all meals at Esalen.  The meals are not vegetarian, which I enjoyed!  They grow their own vegetables.  The squash and red lettuce taste amazing!

Now that I'm back in the regular world, vegetables taste boring by comparison.

Lodgings at Esalen were fully booked during the week I was there, so I had to stay nearby at an inn.  The inn has no locks on the doors!  You take out your valuables during the day, and latch the door with a little metal hook when you're inside.  I did not feel fully safe.

I spent 1.5 hours to get the fire roaring.  Tending a fire is very enjoyable!

The meditation class had 60 students.  We learned mindful self-compassion meditation each day.

This was not a silent meditation retreat.  We would do meditation exercises for 20 to 30 minutes, and then talk in small groups and then together as a class.

On the first day of class, the teacher showed a study performed on a former set of workshop participants, as compared to waiting-list people who did not get into the class.  After one year, the workshop participants tested higher for optimism and happiness.  When I heard this, I thought it was improbable!  How can a one-week class have an effect one year later?

Now that I've taken the class, I believe it.  Mindful practice is very effective!