A New Year's Reflection on Five Years Worth of Writing

I've been writing regularly for five years. And in those five years, I have written the following:

  1. Three fanfic pieces (10K to 20K words each)
  2. Two novel-length manuscripts (150K words)
  3. Six novellas (15k to 30k words each)
  4. Hundreds of blog posts, short stories, personal essays spread throughout various websites

It might not seem like a lot, but prior to those five years, I only wrote about 100k words in the span of ten or fifteen years. Creatively, that is. I'm not including papers for school or reports for work.

I wish I hadn't stopped. If I'd been writing for all those missing years, my writing would've been on a whole other level today. But then again, I'm not sure if I really had anything meaningful to say back then.

Time goes by so fast. I was a different person five years ago. Different priorities. Different dreams. It's the end of 2014 (at least it was when I was writing this), and nostalgia has been keeping me up at night.

Also, a really bad cold. (I'm surrounded by snotty tissues right now.)

I tell everyone that Bioware changed my life. Looking back, if I hadn't been so inspired by their stories, I wouldn't have started writing again. If I hadn't been writing, I'm not sure I would still be here. At some point, showing up, typing out my words one at a time became my only way to breathe.

I talk about the girl I used to be as if she was a different person. And in a way, that's true. The cells inside me today are different from the ones that used to make up my body back then. But maybe there's a thread that connects the kid-me to the person I am today. If there is, I'd like to imagine that little girl—the one I see in my writing—giving me permission to keep breathing.

Growing up is a funny thing. When you're young, you think you're growing into the person you want to be, but I'm starting to think it's more about rediscovering who you used to be. We're made up of scattered memories—some good, some bad—but it's not until we're older that we can tell the difference between what's real and what's not.

I've always liked this particular quote by Steve Jobs:

"You can't connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path and that will make all the difference."

Which also happens to be the first part of my favorite motivational video:

I have a love-hate relationship with well-worn paths. It feels like I've been out of step with life since I was old enough to walk, yet I can't not be out of step anymore than I can stop writing. The more I talk to other writers, dreamers, artists, weirdos, the more I see this sense of unease, or dissatisfaction, in them too.

If wishes were real, then my New Year's wish for you would be to follow your heart no matter where it leads you, to fall down a lot, to dream. I hope you dance. A lot. With or without pants. Be brave, be strong. I hope you find your joy, that one thing that keeps your feet on solid ground when things turn crazy but also that one thing that will give your heart beautiful, giant, extraordinary wings with which to fly.

I'm starting to ramble. I blame the cold medicine.

Anyway, my goals for the next five years? Keep writing. Keep making meaningful art. Keep breathing.

In Which I Finally Understand Bruce Lee and Discover What “Being Like Water” Means to my Writing

My birthday is coming up. This one feels like a milestone even though it's not. I'm not turning thirty—I passed that a while ago—but I think my heart's finally catching up to my age. It's a good feeling, because I think I finally understand what Bruce Lee was talking about.

"Be like water," he said. "Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow."

When I first heard that quote, I was in my twenties.

"Ridiculous," I said. "Water's weak. It's shapeless. It dilutes."

I wanted to be like fire: vibrant, painful, all-consuming. The passion of my youth was like a roaring bonfire. I graduated from a program that I'd fought so hard to get into and got a job everyone told me would be near impossible to get. I binged on life so hard that I never had to deal with the repercussions of taking whatever I wanted whenever I needed it.

I was a winner, because I had to be.

Part of that was to make up for lost time. When I was in my teens, I felt like rock: dull, lumpy, stuck. I was forced to sit still while life roared at me like wind buffeting against cliffs. Whether I was in class or at home, I was surrounded by people who knew what was best for me. I followed someone else's dreams, believed in someone else's way of thinking. It may have taken a while, but enough of my pieces chipped away until I was ground down to sand.

And now, with another birthday on the horizon, I finally want to be like water.

It's not about being the strongest or the brightest in the room, it's about showing up and having the discipline and honor to put in 110% no matter how shitty I'm feeling. It's not about being shapeless, it's about having the quiet confidence to flow around obstacles. Not to smash or burn them away, but to accept their presence and acknowledge the resulting ripples as beautiful and necessary things. It's not about following a path—whether career or personal—it's about being true to yourself.

And the truth is: No matter how I've changed, my writing has been the only constant in my life. Maybe the style or the purpose behind it has changed, maybe I wrote on blank pages with pencils instead of on a laptop, but the act of creation makes more sense to me than anything I've ever done. I may have wanted to be like fire or forced to be like rock, but my writing has always been like water.

And it only took me a couple of decades to figure that out.

The Writer as a Modern Nomad

I sit down to write another thousand words in my work in progress, but my writing seems a bit more mehhh than usual. I'm having a hard time focusing. I think I'm getting sick or maybe my body is trying to recover from traveling so often the last six months.

It's hard to be back home, to be forced into a regular schedule. I miss being on the move, but writing while traveling is hard for me too. It takes a while for me to put an experience into words, because I don't realize how things affect me until long after I'm home. It's always the smallest things that end up sticking to my brain.

In Rambles: A Field Guide to the US, Eric Peterson writes that stories are about a man leaving home or a stranger coming into town. I think that's why I need to travel every so often, I'm happiest when I'm unsettled, because stories are about movement.

Life should be about movement.

If I stay in one place too long, I feel like a stranger in my own skin, like all the boxes we're supposed to check off in the game of Life become the only measure of a life well lived. It's a load of crap. I know this. What's on our business cards shouldn't mean more than who we are, yet I'm guilty of judging people and allowing myself to be judged. My family includes doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, lawyers, and here I am, just a vagabond writer, struggling to put experiences into words.

Traveling isn't only about seeing sights, it's about the experience of being a stranger in someone else's town. I'm a solitary traveler. Some people make friends easily, but I'm not one of them.

Being a nomad means not having a home. It means always moving and being unsettled. Hard to do because biologically and culturally, we're supposed to form attachments with people and places. I have my day job where I'm as attached as a house to its foundation, and then there is my writing where I feel the best when I'm unsettled.

There is a lot in common between traveling and writing. Our ability to create art expands our metaphorical horizon the same way our literal boundaries expand each time we travel to a new town. To be able to stand as an observer when we're strangers in someone else's town is to be able to witness what it means to be human: chaotic, unfathomable. To write someone's life, even if it's the life of a fictitious person, is to find a bit of meaning in that chaos.

On the side of Dog Bark Park Inn, a giant dog-shaped bed and breakfast in Idaho, there is a sign that reads: A Noble and Absurd Adventure. After driving a thousand miles, I stumble out of my car to stand beneath this sign. There's not much around me; I'm surrounded by fields of wheat. There's no reception, no wifi, and the nearest town has a population that's less than the number of students at my old high school.

I don't know why I drove so far out of my way or why I chose this place as my destination, but all it took were those five simple words to illuminate the thinnest thread of meaning throughout my life. Writing is like building a giant dog-shaped bed and breakfast in the middle of nowhere just because you can. It's noble and absurd, and that's why I do it.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth

All sixty-four of its pages are yellowing, and the copyright date says 1987. It must've been purchased used, because there's a stamp on the inside depicting two bears holding a "this book belongs to" sign. I never filled it in, because as a kid, I felt my garish handwriting (and name) would somehow sully the book. I can't remember when I first read The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth, but this book has traveled with me through two countries, ten different homes, five schools, six pets, and a marriage. If I had children, this would be the story I'd read to them every night.

Good Fortune is a cat who lives with a poor artist. She sits with him every day watching him work on a commissioned painting of the death of Buddha. But as he paints a procession of the courageous horse, the gentle snail, the noble elephant, and other earthly animals bidding farewell to Buddha, he knows Good Fortune wants to be in the painting too.

"But where is the cat?" thought the artist to himself, for even in his vision he remembered that in none of the paintings he had ever seen of the death of Buddha, was a cat represented among the other animals.
"Ah, the cat refused homage to Buddha," he remembered, "and so by her own independent act, only the cat has the doors of Paradise closed in her face."

The artist loves his gentle cat, but he needs the money. If he puts a cat in his painting, the temple priest will burn the sacrilegious art.

Good Fortune came out from his shadow. When she saw the tiger she trembled all over, from her thistledown whiskers to her little tail, and looked at the artist.
"If the tiger can come to bid farewell to Buddha," she seemed to say, "surely the cat, who is little and often so gentle, may come. O master? Surely, surely, you will next paint the cat among the animals who were blessed by the Holy One as he died?"

I love this story and not just because I have three cats of my own. When I read this as a kid, I loved it because it was a story about animals. When I read this as teen, I loved it because it was about an animal who changed a man's life for the better. My childhood dog changed my life, except I hadn't known just how much he'd affected me until years after he passed away. When I read this story as an adult, I love it because it reminds me that the things that move us—be it cats or art—can lead us to surprisingly beautiful places.

A Life in Pursuit of Hikaru's Go and Jiro's Sushi

A manga turned anime, HIKARU NO GO was released almost a decade ago. It's a coming-of-age story and a story about devoting one's life to a singular passion. When Hikaru discovers an old go board in his grandfather's attic, he accidentally awakens a ghost named Sai, a go player who lived during the Heian era of Japan. All Sai wants to do is study go, and Hikaru reluctantly plays a few games to appease the friendly spirit. But when the young boy's lack of interest soon turns to enthusiasm, Sai is surprised to learn that Hikaru displays an innate talent for the game.

The heart of the story lies in their master-student relationship. The most poignant scenes happen after Sai begins to see that in Hikaru lies the path to achieve the divine move—a move so perfect and inspired that it is considered the pinnacle achievement of every go master. Sai's quest for Kami no Itte, or the Hand of God, is the reason why his soul has been unable to rest.

Sai never reaches the divine move, and by the end of the anime, he quietly accepts that sometimes you are but a single step toward something greater. He sets his ego, his sense of self, aside, and the master becomes the student when Sai lifts Hikaru in his stead to reach for the stars.

Over a decade later, a popular documentary titled JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI is released. The film follows the life of a sushi master named Jiro Ono, an eighty-five year old man who has devoted his life to crafting the perfect sushi. His Michelin three-star restaurant is in the basement of an office building near a Tokyo subway station. It takes months to get a reservation, and a twenty-minute meal costs over $300.

The documentary is a study in the simple joy of devoting your life to mastering your craft, but mastery doesn't come without sacrifice. In Jiro's case, he rarely saw his family while his children were growing up, and they lived in poverty for years.

In a review of the film, Roger Ebert asks: "If you find an occupation you love and spend your entire life working at it, is that enough?"

Yes.

For me, it is.

Sometimes, the hardest part isn't about figuring out what you love to do, but in humbly accepting that even if you never reach your Kami no Itte, it is enough to dedicate your life in pursuit of its truth.

This is what writing means to me.