This week marks two years of showing up, sitting down and writing–everyday.
Some days I pumped out thousands of words. On others, I farted a few foul sentences and went about my day.
But such is the writing life.
When I first committed to writing, I held a secret position that green writers often hold– I wanted everyone to care about my writing as much as I did.
Whether it’s writing a book or losing 20 pounds we want people to acknowledge our efforts with a smile, a hug and the coveted big blue Facebook thumb.
When I launched my website I wanted people to stop what they were doing and care. I wanted people to read and be inspired. I wanted invitations to guest speak at conferences and wanted strangers to approach me with a nervous smile, offer a compliment and ask for a picture.
But the novice is almost always too vain for their own good.
The novice falls in love with their own fiction. A love affair that, if it doesn’t end in divorce, will certainly pin them to a barstool or a therapist’s couch or sometimes both for quite a while.
Here’s What I’ve Learned
I’ve learned writers are architects.
We want people to slow down, take pictures, tell their friends and admire what we’ve built, brick by brick, word by word.
We want recognition for our ability to craft stories and mortar ideas that stretch into the sky and, if the timing is right, throw some cool shade across the world.
I’ve learned that every subject has already been written about by writers much more talented than myself.
I’ve learned that the novice would rather dream than work. The novice wants achieve maximum results for minimum effort.
There are three phases of the writer: novice, intermediate and professional.
I’m not a professional. Stephen King and Annie Lamont are professionals. They can offer insight on how to gain access to the heavily guarded compound where the professionals work.
However, I’ve graduated from novice to intermediate. My finely matted diploma marred with failures, doubt, fear and marginal successes proves I’m now qualified to reflect on my education.
If you’re thinking of pursuing a writer’s life or striding into the gym later today, here’s the hard truth– nobody cares.
This is not to demean or passively-aggressively guilt you into caring.
The novice writer thinks everybody cares. The intermediate writer writes as if nobody cares.
The novice writes for attention. The intermediate writes for herself.
The novice writer writes when she’s inspired. The intermediate writes until she’s inspired.
Though she does appreciate them, the intermediate doesn’t write for blue thumbs. She likes praise but knows how dangerous it is to weave definitions from the threads of praise.
The intermediate enjoys the strain of the workout. A gym rat. A library mouse.
The intermediate pumps out 3,000 crappy words just to find 500 good words.
The intermediate is busy learning about truth and doesn’t realize that by learning her own truths she’s helping others discover their own.
The intermediate knows that even though writing is a vanity project– meaningful, enduring writing is always about the reader and always laced humility, sincerity and vulnerability.
She knows that other writers are scratching out posts, articles and books faster than she can and she doesn’t care. When she was a novice she stewed with jealousy. She’s now genuinely happy for other people’s accomplishments, but remains focused on her own goals.
And the intermediate knows there are miles of untraveled truths that need visiting before she can even pull into the parking lot where the professionals work.
This post marks two years of writing everyday and publishing a piece at least once a week.
Tonight, I’ll celebrate with a cold beer and some Charles Dickens. And then, when the 14.9 ounces of self-adoration ends, I will quietly return to my computer write again–as if nobody cares.
PS–Thank you to everyone who has made the journey with me over the years. Thank you to anyone who has shared my work, offered a line of support or gifted me a big blue Facebook thumb. Thank you for welcoming my writing into your life.
If you teach long enough you’ll come to learn that the human story never graduates.
I last saw him 11 years ago.
Waiting for the graduation procession to begin, under that shadow of his squared cap, tassel dangling about his face, he smiled and said, “Mr. Armstrong, can you believe it, they’re actually letting me graduate!”
I smiled, “Yeah, God knows what they were thinking.”
A few years after graduation, he married his high school girlfriend, the girlfriend he sat next to in my English class.
They had a daughter together. Built a life together. And then he died.
He was 29.
In truth, I haven’t thought much about Mark since our time together. Nothing intentional, it’s just as a teacher, so many lives come in and out of your life that it’s easy to lose track of who has passed through.
Yet when a Facebook post informed me that Mark had died, his name, his smile toggled memory, transporting me back to my old classroom–room 201.
In 2006, we were all young.
Collectively, what we lacked in knowledge we made up for in enthusiasm.
I was 26, inexperienced, short on life-lessons yet excited at the prospect of teaching and inspiring and helping mold the minds of young adults.
Most of the students were 18, fueled by hormones, seduced by the promise of adulthood and all its liquid freedoms.
They weren’t malicious.
Just kids straddling adulthood. Bursting with energy. Kids uninterested in dated stories scratched in stale books written by dead white guys.
It was in those days when I began to learn how your students’ lives wedge themselves into your life. How their drama becomes your drama. How their remarks and actions and attitudes confound you, unnerve you, keep you up at night and make you question the fate of the world.
But teach long enough and it all begins to run together.
Summers are merely conjunctions linking one run-on school year to the next.
And in this rambling life sentence, the days and weeks and years overlap. The names and faces and voices that were once so prominent, so sharp in your life only round and dull over time.
But when you learn a former student has died and you hear their name, you read their obituary, something happens. A key is turned, an engine started and the memory machine chokes and begins its work.
It’s been 11 years but…
…the class consisted of mostly males. It often felt and sounded and even smelled like a locker room. Based with deep laughs ,those students in room 201 were unconcerned with things like death, poetry and me–a young teacher fixed with a knotted tie, polished shoes teaching his little heart out.
…how the classroom windows faced east and how in the Spring sun would rise and blaze through the thin windows and how after lunch, room 201 turned into a cinder block oven.
…Mark complaining it was just too hot to learn.
…for most of the school year Mark slouched in his seat. Legs stretched out as far as they would go. In his hands, he would often work a hand grip. Squeezing the tension and releasing, until one hand would tire then he would switch to the other.
…how his girlfriend sat beside him in class. How they would slide their desks close together. How he would rest his free hand on her knee and continue to work the hand grip with the other.
…when they weren’t flirting they were fighting.
…during a stretch of days, in late May when the outside world hummed with life and there was little reason to pay attention to me, Mark’s feet were flat on the floor, elbows on the desk, hand grip unseen, eyes glued to the pages of the book we were reading, The Things They Carried.
…he told the class to shut up when I was reading how Curt Lemon, a 19 year old U.S. soldier, walked carelessly through the Vietnam jungle, stepped on a mine and blew himself apart.
…Mark holding a copy of the book, standing in the class doorway looking at me and smiling and saying, “I really like this book.”
Mark wasn’t the first of my former students to die however, it’s always hard to imagine your former students dead.
Because when you taught them, they were young and indestructible and alive. As if they would always be that way.
It’s not in the job description, no one tells you this, but teachers are carriers of life.
Every student’s story, no matter how big or small, how dramatic or pedestrian is fixed with an intangible weight. A weight that you carry with you, from lesson to lesson, from year to year, forever. So when you learn that a former student has died, that former student and their former life is suddenly present, is suddenly now.
And 11 years later, when you’re on your couch, scrolling through your Facebook feed and you read the news and see the face, you retreat into memory and you feel a familiar heat and hear the straining echoes of your first lessons and your big blue eyes dart across the classroom to find a smiling young man, working hand grips with one hand, cupping his girlfriend’s knee with the other, waiting for high school to end.
To my surprise, I don’t mind getting older. Seriously.
I would much rather be 37 then 27. Sure 10 years ago I was a few pounds lighter and strapped with a few less responsibilities but at 37, I feel like I’m finally starting to really learn some things.
I finally have enough maturity to admit my weaknesses and I’m finally have the courage to ask myself difficult questions. Questions I refused to ask 10 years ago.
(*Please note– I’m 37 and carry a Spiderman lunchbox to work everyday, so please take all of this “maturity” stuff with a grain of salt).
But seriously, I’ve recently come to learn, that I have so much more to learn.
For the past calendar year, I have explored a variety of subjects on this blog. My weekly writing practice has reinvigorated my love of learning, my desire to explore new ideas and thoughts and questions.
Below you will find a collection of 37 thoughts I had over the last year. Some thoughts materialized into a blog post. Others remain handwritten scribbles in my notebook while others simply linger on my Twitter feed waiting to be retweeted.
Either way, here are 37 thoughts I wouldn’t have had the insight or perspective to have 10 years ago.
16. True happiness only occurs when you have the courage to put others needs above your own.
17. We can say we understand another’s pain but no matter how accurately we articulate, our words fall tragically short of what is swirling in our heart and head– further exposing the flawed nature of the human design. (To Robbinsville, New Jersey)
19. We often forget we’re just animals in fancy clothes and funny hats. When we sense fear, our primal instincts kick in and we run. But as the smartest animal in the schoolyard, we know that avoiding fear will only compound fear. And we also know that those who avoid risks will spend their entire lives just dangling from the monkey bars. ( What I Learned from My Stand-Up Comedy Career)
20. Life becomes a lot less stressful and a lot more fun when you realize that everyone, yourself included, is a walking contradiction.
21.Children are champions of momentary living. I shudder to think of all the adult hours of happiness I’ve forfeited to the pills of anxiety, worry and regret. (Dad, What’s a Championship?)
22. The courage to question is often the only difference between good and great, between success and failure.
23. When I grow up I still want to see the world through childish eyes. (Bowling with God)
24. Because most of my pain (and probably your’s) is caused when we try, with all our human strength, to control the uncontrollable.
25. It takes more courage and less energy to say, “I don’t know” than pretend you do.
26. The moment you start complaining is the moment people stop listening.
28. If we condition children to think they are entitled to victory and trophies every time they compete for something they will become uncoachable players, grade-grubbing students and disillusioned adults. (Winning and Losing in our Instant Oatmeal World)
29. Despite what you may think, your private disaster is not your end–it’s your turning point.
30. To avoid the eternal hells of complacency you must be courageous enough, everyday, to stoke the fires of passion.
31. Hang around long enough and you’ll learn that living is tough business. It’s a punch-you-in-the-gut, kick-you-in-the-teeth, steal-your-lunch-money, insult-your-momma, spit-on-your-grave kind of business. Yet there is so much for to be grateful for. (Why I Decided to Start a Gratitude Jar)
32. As parents, our fundamental job is to care for others. And even though it’s necessary and healthy and humbling to put others needs first I’ve learned that devoting time to yourself gives you more energy to devote yourself to others. It’s a beautiful reciprocal.(How I Avoided Parental Burnout the Summer)
34. For some, a diploma is earned, for others it’s a reward for loitering.
35. When we let fear dictate our decisions we fail to make progress. We move in every direction except forward. When we let intuition navigate, when we have the courage to trust ourselves–we are guaranteed to move forward. (Standing at the Intersection of Fear and Intuition)
For me, it wasn’t long ago that the end of the year meant partying like a rock star deep into the suburban night followed by long, lazy stretches on the couch, burning afternoons away and watching an endless string of romantic comedies on TBS.
But now, I’m proud to announce I’m a responsible adult (of sorts). And though I still like a good party ( and a good rom-com), the end of the year serves as a better time for reflection instead of hangovers.( Plus, dading and hangovers don’t mix.)
On a national and global scale, 2016 was pretty awful. A year spiked with terrorism, racial tensions, celebrity deaths, political tomfoolery left us in a state of disillusionment and wondering if that REM song from the 80’s was about to be right ( Is this the end of the world as we know it? And do we feel fine?) Yet from a writing perspective, this much maligned year offered a wealth of material.
Though a terrible year for humanity (and I feel kind of douchy saying this), 2016 was my best year as a writer. In fact in 2016, I actually began announcing myself as a (dramatic throat clear) writer as I wrote and published 78 blog posts and WoFo had over 11,000 visitors and over 27,000 page views
But here’s something–the writer’s life is not as sexy as I thought it would be. It’s a hard life. A daily grind. One that requires much sacrifice. Early mornings, late nights and the will power to turn off the TV ( goodbye rom-coms). And most of what I write you’ll never see. Why? Because it stinks. Because most 500 word blog posts begin as 1,700 word scrabbles of run-ons, tangents and general old-man-in-a-bathrobe incoherence that I must work and shape and polish before it meets your eyes
I also learned that to uncover good, authentic material, a writer must be willing to probe themselves with questions. A writer must have the nerve (and maybe a slice of schizophrenia) to constantly interview themselves.
And asking questions is something adults simply don’t do naturally well.
My children ask questions ALL THE TIME. Questions do not intimidate them (neither does timeout or the threat of sending all their Christmas gifts back to the North Pole).
But adults, well, we fear questions. We fear the vulnerability and shame that comes with not knowing.
But if my writing in 2016 has taught me anything it’s that questions are more important than answers. That answers are finite. They are subjected to limitations. Hard, unbounded questions spark creativity and fuel the relentless pursuit of passion, of truth.
So with that, I thought it would be fitting, in this year-end post, to conduct a little Q&A with myself.
What were the things I was most proud of in 2016?
Being named my school district’s Teacher of the Year
Having to evict our tenet from our rental property and then having to spend upwards of $5K and the last two weeks in August cleaning and repairing the mess that he kindly left us. “8 Lessons from a First Time Landlord”
The worst performance review I ever received as a teacher (Yes, in the same year I was awarded Teacher of the Year. As an English teacher, I have to admit, I love the irony of it all).
What are some things I need ( and want to) work on in 2017?
Exhibiting daily gratitude.
Avoid the seduction of the smart phone when I’m in the company of real, living people.
What were some of my favorite reads of 2016?
Tools of Titans byTim Ferriss– a massive text packed full of insights, wisdom and strategies from highly successful people. This is more of a resource then a natural read. However, it’s an awesome book to have at your disposal when you’re in need of some guidance.
The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday– Reading one page from this book is now part of my morning routine. Each page offers a stoic thought for the given calendar date. The reading is simple, quick but the ideas are deep and stimulating and linger with you throughout your day.
Home is Fucking Burning by Dan Marshall– I picked this book up in bookstore on a whim. I read the first chapter standing in the aisle. Midway through the first chapter I was LOLing. By the end of the same chapter I was fighting tears. This nonfiction narrative about a son’s efforts to care for his dying father. It is funny and heart-wrenching and chuck full of obscenity ( hence the title).
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen– Ok, of course I’m biased. In 2016 I wrote 3 posts about the Boss, was featured on Blogness on the Edge of Town (the foremost Bruce blog on the internet) and was a 3 time guest on the Set Lust Bruce podcast. Nevertheless, Springsteen’s autobiography is an exceptional read. His musical lyricism bleeds into his prose as Bruce covers all aspect of his life. From growing up in the blue collar town of Freehold, New Jersey to his fractured relationship with his father to juggling fame and family life, Born to Run offers an intimate look into the life of one of rock’s greatest legends.
Linchpin by Seth Godin– I was turned on to Seth Godin and his blog in 2016. Seth writes mainly about how to run and manage a successful business, yet his writings have a certain universal wisdom to them. Like The Daily Stoic, Seth’s writings are short and simple yet packed with powerful, life-affirming ideas.
What were some of the important lessons I learned and wrote about in 2016?
Achieving happiness takes tremendous effort. And sustaining real happiness is back-breaking, knuckle-splitting, hate-yourself-for-ever-being-born work. “The Only Way to Find Happiness”
Stories are our best (and only) defense against the permanence of death. “To Robbinsville, New Jersey” (This is my most viewed and most important post of the year)
Witnessing my children collect their own stories is an absolute thrill and further punctuates the magic of life. “Why Stories Matter”
What new idea has got me all jazzed up for 2017?
I’ve never been a new years resolution guy. In fact, I tend to chuckle at those fool-hearted souls who assume that by merely flipping a calendar their life will somehow magically improve. But after some solid thought, I do want to make a resolution for 2017. And not a long winded resolution that I’ll most likely abandon by half time of the Superbowl but one that is simple and easy to remember. And because I want to parlay the progress I made in 2016.
So for 2017 my resolution will be to commit to just one word. A word that will provide my life with focus. A word that will proved perspective. A word I can rally around when I want to sink into the couch and watch The Bridget Jones Diaries.
My word for 2017 is ownership.
I chose ownership because I like its flexibility. It can be applied to all areas of my life. Writing, marriage, parenting, health, personal hygiene.
Furthermore, I’ve seen how many adults fail to accept ownership of their lives and become addictive excuse can be. I don’t want to become that kind of adult. I want to take ownership, for better or worse, of my life.
What is one goal you have for WoFo in 2017?
I want to hear from you (dear reader)!
I will admit, I’m still a novice at this blogging business. There are some days when I stare into my computer screen, feel a hot flame of panic rip up my chest and convince myself that I can’t write another post. But after I calm myself down (usually over a bowl of cereal), take a walk, surf the interwebs for a few hours until I find something worthy to write about. Something I want to share with you.
But now it’s your turn. I would very much love to hear about your WoFo experience.
What did you particularly enjoy on WoFo in 2016? Not enjoy?
Where and when did you find yourself reading the blog?
What would you like to see more of?
Feel free to leave on message on this post our to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Any final words?
Writing about personal things on a public forum is scary business. When I started WoFo I took a leap of faith and had no idea where I was going to land. I’m truly grateful for everyone who made the leap with me. Thank you for your support, for spending time with me and allowing my stories to find a place in your life.
I wish you and yours a healthy and fulfilling 2017.
PS… 20 years ago, on December 30, 1996, I was lucky enough to score a date with Cindy.
She picked me up at my parents house in her light blue Grand Am. We went to the movies, saw Jerry McGuire, checked out a Christmas light show and found ourselves sitting nervously in my parents driveway playing with the radio dial, making small talk and afraid to make eye contact.
Now there is a great deal of things I’m unsure of, but I somehow knew in that eternal moment, with unflinching certainty, that I did not need to go on another first date for the rest of my life. We were 16 then. We are 36 now. And even then I just knew.
A lot has happened in those 20 years. Too much to write in this post script but that first date 20 years ago changed my life, sealed my fate. A life, a fate I can only describe in one word…lucky.