The Joy of Neglecting Stuff

Do you ever feel like there isn’t enough time in the day?

I know you do. Because I do, too. All the frigging time. It’s very frustrating, isn’t it?

It’d be one thing if you were just lazy and sat about and didn’t get round to things. Then it’d be obvious why there wasn’t enough time – you’d pissed it all away. But I don’t think that’s you. It’s certainly not me – most days, at least. That’s why I’ve always been more interested in exploring what you’re supposed to do when you’re genuinely busting your hump to try and get as much done with your day as possible and it still feels like there’s no time. What the hell do you do then?

Well, first, as I always recommend, you remind yourself what is and what isn’t under your control. Fact: You can’t change the number of hours in a day. It’s a fixed quantity – it was 24 long before you came along, and it’ll be 24 a long time after you’re gone.

Once you accept that the day is the length that it is, and that all you can change is what you do during those hours, you’re ready to hear about the two basic ways that I’ve tried to approach this problem in my own life.

I like the second one a lot more. But we’ll start with the first: BEING MORE EFFICIENT.

This is where, seeing the solution as cramming as much as you possibly can into each day, you strategise. You get smart. You try to waste as little time as possible.

You batch your tasks. You speed-read. You plan your day right down to 15-minute increments and you contort yourself in an attempt to religiously stick to your schedule. And I’ll bet that – providing you don’t give up – you get a lot done each day with this approach, possibly far more than you ever have before.

Sounds great, right? Wrong. Because although you might think you’ve solved your problem – you’re certainly using your time more efficiently – you haven’t. You might be busier. More productive. More prolific. But I’ll bet you still feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day. Why? YOU’RE NOT LIVING.

For what it’s worth, I’m only slagging this off because I’ve done it. On and off, for years. And whilst I didn’t learn nothing in experiments with efficiency, my main takeaway was that it was wrong for me. I was motivated by a desire to take back control of my life, and I accomplished the opposite – I still felt like there was not enough time, and to top it off, I was exhausted at keeping up with that pace.

What I’ve learnt is that there is a time and a place for efficiency, but that something far more important must come first – the second approach. So what is this thing that, without solving all my problems, at least mad me feel as though were suddenly more hours in the day?


It all started with a realisation. People are very quick to bring you back down to Earth when you try and better yourself, or when you try to do anything but meekly accept what you’ve been handed. They’ll talk you off the ledge by reminding you that you can’t just do what you want to all the time, or that sometimes life is hard, or that now and then you just have to put up with things not being the way you’d prefer them to be. They do this because they love you, and they don’t want to see you get hurt.

The most annoying thing is that… they’re right! You can’t just do what you want all the time. Sometimes, life is hard. Now and then, you do just have to put up with things not being the way you’d prefer them to be. Well, after resisting those sorts of beliefs for a long time, I accepted them. I made peace with them. But the more I thought about them, the more I started to wonder… “Maybe there’s some wiggle room here…”

Let’s say, hypothetically, that it’s absolutely impossible to rid your days completely of the things that drag you down. It’s never going to be 0%. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, there’s just always going to be that little shit sandwich you’re stuck with. Okay. But let me ask you this: In what way does that prevent you from seeing how small you can make that shit sandwich? Even if you could never get to 0%, and could only get to, say… 20%, wouldn’t it be worth it to try, rather than to just accept your lot at 60%?

Though I’ve gone up and down and taken two steps forward and five steps back a bunch of times – I’ve tried very hard over the past few years to say “no” to things I don’t truly want in my day. Has it made my life a heaven on Earth? No. Has it improved it? Drastically.

What drags you down? What could you start neglecting? Remember: you don’t have to commit – just do it as an experiment. Cut one unwanted thing out of your day for a week. If you really miss it, add it back in. If you don’t, you’ve just freed up some space in your day… for the rest of your life!

If you decide to take my advice, remember Voltaire’s words: “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Getting rid of anything unwanted in your life – even if you can’t get rid of everything – is a move in the right direction, and will make you feel like there are more hours in the day.

Chip Away

What happens if you don’t eat for a few hours?

That wasn’t a trick question. The answer is obvious: you will get hungry. That clever body of yours will sense the lack of incoming food, and start giving you all these signals designed to get you to eat something. And how do you get the signals to stop? By obeying your body – scarfing down some food. Ét voila – you aren’t hungry any more.

To sum up: your body senses a lack, tells you to fill that lack, and then rewards you for doing so.

That little mechanism certainly checks out when it comes to physical hunger – beautifully so. But what about when you don’t so much feel physically hungry, as you feel – for want of a better word – spiritually hungry. Empty inside. Disconnected. Adrift. Stressed out. Joyless.

Well, I’ve been there a lot. I’m sure you have too. And if you’re anything like me, you probably instinctively assume that – just as a lack of food makes you physically hungry and a bag of crisps will solve the problem – a lack of… something… is what is making you sprititually hungry. And so the solution must be to fill that void. To add something. To go and get more.

And just like me, you’d be dead wrong. Every single time.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Albert Einstein

More is very rarely more. The solution is almost never to try and add stuff. That’s because the problem is not what you think it is. You are not empty. You are full to the brim… with the wrong stuff.

Imagine two big tables, and a wicker basket. On the first table are all the things you love. All the things that mean the world to you. All the things that make your days worth living. On the second table are enormous mounds of sawdust.

Well, it really doesn’t matter how many of the things from the first table you try to cram into your basket – if it’s filled it with sawdust, they just won’t go in. You have to make room first – empty the sawdust into the bin, then go back to the first table and take what you want. Now it will fit.

Your basket, as I’m sure you’ve realised, is your life. The reason you feel empty is because you aren’t filling it with things from the first table. But it’s not enough just to try to cram them in. First you have to make space. You have to get rid of as much of the sawdust as you can first. And in this little analogy, the sawdust represents EVERYTHING that didn’t make it onto the first table. Yes, the god-awful, the stuff you hate, but – and this is the difficult part – also the stuff that really isn’t that bad. The harsh truth is that if it didn’t make the cut to get on the first table, it’s sawdust. And not only is it taking up room in your life without giving you anything in return, it’s stopping you from letting in the the really magical stuff.

It’s painful, and it feels counter-intuitive, but when you let go of something you never really wanted in the first place, though you might appear from the outside to have “lost” something, you actually experience a net gain. It feels wrong, so wrong as to be untrue… until you do it. And then you wonder why you waited so long.

You know the famous quote by Michelangelo, right? In fact, I’m sure I’ve quoted it a couple of times in the last few months. Anyway, he said something like: “David was ready and waiting within the giant block of marble – my job was simply to chip away at everything that wasn’t David.”

Chip away at everything that isn’t you.

Taking a Leap of Faith

Everything I look back on as a “good” thing in my life started with a leap of faith.

Even though, in every single case, I had absolutely no idea how – or even if – something was going to work out, I was stubborn (or perhaps stupid) enough to move forward anyway. Had I waited until I knew how all the pieces would fit together in advance, I wouldn’t have done a damn thing.

I wouldn’t have made an album 5 years ago. I wouldn’t have quit every job I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t have gotten engaged to a foreigner I’d just met and be married to her today. I wouldn’t have written this blog day-in-day-out for almost 8 months solid.

You’d think that knowing all that would help. But I still find myself constantly on the verge of wimping out. I’m deathly afraid to take a leap of faith, even though I have all the evidence I could ever need that it’s better on the other side. And that’s not because I always get what I want when I leap – in fact, I rarely do – but it’s because, as the Rolling Stones pointed out, “If you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.” And getting what you need feels even better than getting what you want.

I was thinking about it this morning. You see, I’m over a month into the first draft of a story right now. I have a little routine. Every day, I sit down at my laptop and I try to write one scene. When I’m done, I print it out, open my desk drawer, and add my new pages face-down onto the ever-growing pile.

And every single day without fail, I want to quit. I want to start again. So far, I haven’t given in yet. I have ploughed forward. I have added two or three pages to my pile every day without fail. But today was the closest I came.

My problem? I just can’t see how any of it fits together. Everything I come up with – that feels “right” in the moment – contradicts everything that came before it. Characters waltz on-stage as though they’re going to be integral parts of the story, never to be seen again. My hero’s love interest has changed her age, her hair colour, her taste in music, and even her cup size several times. And I’ve also noticed a funny habit of mine – whenever a scene starts to flag, my go-to instinct is to have either a phone ring unexpectedbly, or a doorbell ring unexpectedly. It’s hardly Hemingway, is it?

Everything inside me is crying out to quit and start this thing again. But I’m not. I’m staying the course – no matter how dumb that might seem – for one reason and one reason only: I’ve done that. I’ve quit and started again dozens and possibly hundreds of times. And I know how that goes: before long I hit another wall and want to quit and start again.

Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Well, I have a black-belt in quitting and starting again before I get to the end of a draft. So not this time. The leap of faith here – which is actually getting more difficult to take each day – is ploughing on in the face of uncertainty, and getting to “THE END.”

What I will say, however, is that even though I’m still incredibly murky as to what my story is, not a day goes by where I don’t know it slightly better when I stand up from my desk than I did when I first sit down. Each session might be the equivalent of taking one step on a journey of a thousand miles, but to me, that’s progress. And I’ll take it.

When you talk of taking a leap of faith, I suppose it begs the question “faith in what, exactly?” Well, the thing is, and not to get too “woo-woo”, I know that deep down, I do know exactly how it all fits together. Something inside me knows, at least, even if I couldn’t tell you myself. And that’s what I’m putting my faith in. A part of me that’s way deeper and far more intelligent than the tiny bit of my mind available for day-to-day living.

And I’m no special case. You have that too. That part of you is the reason why your leaps of faith work out too, just like mine always do. Again, not always “working out” in the sense that you get what you want. But always in the sense that you get what you need.

I share all this today in case you find yourself in a similar “belly of the beast” moment, facing a leap of faith. And all I can tell you is what works for me. Whenever I’ve leapt, whenever I’ve put my faith in that deeper and better part of me, it has NEVER let me down. In fact, the only thing that has ever let me down is the other part of me – the thinking part, the part that needs certainty, the part that wants to control everything and everyone… the part I funnily enough tend to think of as “me.”

That part that you think of as “you” isn’t “you”, any more than your left hand is your entire body. It is the tip of the iceberg. You are vast. There is far more to you than you can ever hope to understand. But if you want to get a glimpse of the rest of the iceberg, put your faith in it. And take a leap.

Notice Them

Don’t take them for granted this time around.

I know you weren’t trying to before, but you did a bit, didn’t you? If you want to make up for lost time, I recommend just trying to notice things about them, things you let pass you by all those years.

We’ll start simply – the face.

The wrinkles that form next to their eyes when they smile genuinely.

How they tend to blink quickly two or three times, then not at all for several seconds, and then another two or three in rapid succession.

How they when they’re trying to remember something they look up and to the left.

Moles and freckles and baby hairs and the ever-so-slightly asymmetry of their eyebrows.

I could go on, but you get the point. Notice things about them. It’s very hard to do this and find yourself appreciating them more than ever before.

You Don’t Owe Them Shit

About a year ago, I had a verbal alteraction with the bloke who was very soon to become the ex-keyboard player of the band I was in.

We were filming a promo video at The Greystones, and it had been a long, very frustrating day. The bloke in question had been getting more and more annoyed by one thing or another since his arrival at 9am sharp, and in his defence, I could see why. He’d acted like a professional, and certain other people hadn’t. They’d not shown up, then they’d been impossible to get hold of, then when they had shown up they hadn’t brought the right equipment… even I was a bit annoyed, and you know how chilled out I am all the time.

But it wasn’t til about 2pm that it all came to a head. He found that somebody had moved his keyboard case off the bench and onto the carpeted floor, and – perhaps for no reason other than convenience – I became the unfortunate target of this rather large man’s rage. He started screaming at me, accusing me of having no respect for other people, for not caring about his property, for not having a clue about the real world, and yada yada yada… (Incidentally, I still have no idea who moved his case, but it wasn’t me. Honestly. I wish it had been, but…)

Well, normally being confronted like that would knock me off-balance. I’d freeze. I wouldn’t quite know what to say. I’d try and wait it out, or hope that somebody came to my rescue. Not this time, though.

I got right in his face and I told him to fuck off and to never talk to me like that again. And then I walked slowly away, hearing him carry on at nobody in particular, whilst everybody else watched agasp from a distance.

I was proud of myself that day. For one, because this keyboard player was a very unpleasant person. He was rude. He was racist. And he had a chip on his shoulder the size of Pluto. It felt good to put him in his place, even in the very tiny way that I did.

But my feeling proud had absolutely nothing to do with him as an individual. No, it had to do with the fact that I had stared down a bitter enemy – I had confronted a type of person I have hated with a passion, and wanted to confront, ever since I was very small.

The type of person I’m talking about takes all kinds of forms. Growing up in Sheffield, I came across plenty of them, but I suspect they’re everywhere. The easiest way to sum them is with the attitude they appear to greet the world with:

“More bad things have happened to me than to you. So I win. I’m a “real” person and you’re not. You don’t have a clue about the world. So I’m going to do all that I can to make you feel small.”

To be cruder: “Bad things have happened to me so I’m allowed to be a cunt for the rest of my life.”

They’ve been there since I was very small. Teachers. Football coaches. Kids at school. Friends’ grandparents. The ex-keyboard player. No two ever looked the same, but I hated each and every one. I hated the way they made me feel, but that’s somewhat forgivable if you just stay out of their way. No, what was unforgivable was the way I had allowed them to dictate the terms of my behaviour.

I didn’t know I was doing it at first, but over the years I learnt to catch myself. People with that sort of attitude have always made me feel that being myself was somehow a mistake, and that it was better to pussyfoot around them and stay safe, even if it made me unhappy, rather than risk upsetting them.

Well, as you get older, you learn to let go of things. The day I told the keyboard player to fuck off was an important one for me, because it was the day I finally started to let the go of the idea that I owe anyone anything just because they think they’ve had a hard life. Lots of people have hard lives. Not all of them use it as a form of emotional terrorism.

I guess my message here today is to be careful who you let inside your head. If you find yourself constantly having to pretend to be something you’re not just to avoid getting on somebody’s “bad side”, ask yourself if that person is really worth sacrificing so much for. And more importantly, would they do the same for you?

If someone isn’t willing to meet you halfway, you dont owe them shit.

Learn the Rules. Play the Game.

The problem isn’t the people in power, nor the way they lie, cheat, fuck over the rest of us, and get away with it.

The problem is you, and your naive expectations.

You cling to this foolish notion that, even though literally nothing in human nature has changed for thousands and thousands of years, you should be able to expect the people who gain power – always unscrupulously – to now act towards us with decency, and dignity, and humanity. Not only is this unrealistic, it’s downright dangerous.

Power is a game. Always has been. Always will be. To those on top, you will never be anything but a pawn in their game. And for this to stay true, they need just one thing – your continued ignorance.

So long as you’re spending your time either naively expecting the best of those in power, or resignedly expecting the worst, you’re playing right into their hand, and helping them stay at the top.

But there is, of course, another way. A better way.


Every game has rules. Why should power be any different. If you don’t like who’s in charge right now, you must realise that the only thing keeping them at the top is widespread ignorance of the way the world really works. So be the change you want to see in the world – educate yourself.

Learn the rules of the game. Go beyond the kneejerk poles of naivete and cynicism, and centre yourself in reality. Only then will you have any chance of changing things for the better.

PS: A book that blew the top of my head off when I first read it almost a decade ago, and helps me see just how incredibly naive I am every time I re-read it, is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.

Check it out. Just be careful – once you read it, you can’t unread it.

Conflict Is Beautiful

I failed at writing fiction for over a decade. Here’s how it would go:

I would get a vague idea. A jumping-off point. It could be a character. A situation. A setting. Armed with this – and only this – I would start typing and just see what happened. Characters would come on-stage. Characters would talk. Occasionally, someone would “do” something, but this was rare. And after thrashing through a couple of thousand words, I’d feel as though the scene had reached a natural close.

If I happened to read back the next day – though I tended not to – I would be predictably unimpressed with myself. Yes, there would be the occasional witty bit of dialogue. And I’d find that I turned a phrase nicely every now and then. And always the hint that in the next scene, something big was going to happen. But it didn’t fill me with joy.

I’d read through and be able to put red marks next to things that didn’t work, and I’d come up with all kinds of ideas for ways to improve the scene, and where the story could go next. But I wouldn’t do them. I’d put it aside, chalk it up to experience, and vow to try harder the next time.

Over time, my system – if you could call it that – evolved. Now, rather than trying to go from beginning to end as though I were training for the Olympic Gold in typing, I would pause every line or two. Looking at what I had written, I would ask myself “Is this good…?” without anything much to base my answer upon.

Two steps forward and one step back I would go, writing something that was in many ways an improvement over my type-a-thon approach. (And easier on the wrists.) It would read better. There would be less repetition, and fewer unnecessary words. It would sound more… “writerly.” And yet the truth I was forced to confront was that it was still shite.

Why? Because, not knowing what the problem was, I hadn’t fixed the problem. I’d gilded the lily, so to speak. Polished a turd. I believed that if I just grinded long enough on the words, chopping and changing and swapping and reiterating, that at some point it would all just… come together. Instead what I ended up with was a more impressive-sounding yet equally meaningless couple of thousand words.

So what was the problem? I HADN’T SAID ANYTHING. Which, when I say it now, seems blindingly obvious, as these things always do in retrospect.

I’d sit there worrying about exactly how the girl in the scene wore her hair. I’d make it a rainy day, then change my mind, then change back again. I’d fret over what shade of brown the sofa was, and the bar of chocolate, and the birth-mark on the back of her knee. Or whether she had a birth-mark at all.

Meanwhile, nothing happened. Lots of talk. Lots of description. Lots of hints of things that had happened in the past and may happen in the future. But no action. No conflict. No pressure. Just… words.

I was painfully slow to grasp this, but I eventually did. In the end, I suppose all it took was reading Robert McKee’s Story about fifteen times, Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid just as many (as well as his wonderful podcast with Tim Grahl), and taking obsessive notes on my favourite books and films and TV shows, for the penny to finally drop.

Here’s the painful lesson: Until there is conflict on the page, you don’t have a story. Until a character is in a situation where they are forced to make a decision under pressure – and you show both their decision and what happens as a result of it – you haven’t said anything yet.

It’s not about how many words you write each day. You can write an 80,000 manuscript and say nothing. Or you can do, as Ernest Hemingway allegedly did, and tell a whole, incredibly tragic story in 6 words.

“Baby shoes. For sale. Never worn.”

To wrap up this little tale, the answer is no. I still haven’t managed to say very much in my fiction writing – you’ll be the first to know when I do. And yet I’m still very happy about all this. It turns out that when you get a handle on what’s wrong with your work, the path to fixing it becomes a hell of a lot clearer.

I guess what I’m saying is that when you feel you’re on the right track, you stop worrying about exactly where you are on the track. And as painful as it can be to feel like a dumbass, figuring out where you’re going wrong can be just the thing to help you figure out where to go right.

Frank and Jesse James

It always pissed me off.

I’d hear people who knew next to nothing about music saying that “every song should tell a story” and then sit back with a smug expression on their face as though they had said something they understood. Really? (I would think.) So you’re saying that if a song doesn’t start with some variation of “Once upon a time” and end with some variation of “And that’s the end of that chapter…” then it’s not a real song? Bullshit. Get out. Idiot.

Of course years later I realised that the only idiot was me. They didn’t mean a song had to literally tell a story – they were being much more abstract. They meant that a song should go somewhere, should start on one emotional plane and take you to another, should breathe. In other words, it should be interesting.

Once I cottoned onto what these people actually meant, I had no choice but to agree. A song should do all those things. And so over the years I relaxed into just writing songs without feeling like I had to explicitly string some sort of narrative together. My songs were about stuff, but I can’t say they particularly went anywhere.

Over time, though, listening to people like Lou Reed, and Warren Zevon, I became ever more interested in songs that actually do tell a story – they’re narratives set to music. Bored with the drivel I was coming up with, needing a new direction to make things interesting for me again, I thought this would fit me like a glove. And every time I tried to make a move in that direction, I fell flat on my face.

What’s a girl to do? Well, I waited far too long, but I eventually started stabbing my favourite songs and ripping them apart at the seams and trying to figure out just what tricks my heroes had employed to write these brilliant song/stories.

I’m sharing with you my analysis of the first song off Warren Zevon’s first album, Frank and Jesse James. If you want to listen along, here is the track:

Verse 1 – The Beginning Hook

On a small Missouri farm, back when the West was young,
Two boys learned to rope and ride and be handy with a gun.
War broke out between the states and they joined up with Quantrill,
And it was over in Clay County that Frank and Jesse finally learned to kill.

The first verse of Frank and Jesse James is the “beginning hook.” Its job is to give us a reason to keep listening. How does Zevon do that?

First, like any good Dickensian, omniscient, God-like narrator, he sets the scene. The first two lines give us a place, a time-period, an image of our leading characters growing up to be cowboys, and of course, the threat of impending violence. I’m reminded of Anton Chekhov’s famous writing advice: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

The scene is set, but nothing much has happened yet. Until the third line, when the US Civil War breaks out. BAM! An inciting incident.

And to wrap up this first verse, and get us hooked, Zevon lets the gun go off, establishing Frank and Jesse as killers. We’re off to a great start, and most importantly, we’re wondering “how is this going to turn out?”

Chorus 1 – Future Tense

Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, Frank and Jesse James,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, ’til you clear your names,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, ‘cross the rivers and the rains,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, Frank and Jesse James.

The choruses of this song are interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the point of view. Zevon switches from his previous role as an omniscient narrator – just telling us the story – to being a kind of cheerleader for our heroes. This is important, because Frank and Jesse are at no point in this song particularly sympathetic characters – they’re cold, cruel killers – and yet this makes us root for them nonetheless as the moral centre of the story.

The second interesting thing is that each chorus is from a different time perspective. This first one is in the future tense – they haven’t actually become outlaws yet, but now we’re anticipating it.

Verse 2 – The Middle Build

After Appomatox, they was on the losin’ side,
So no amnesty was granted, and as outlaws they did ride.
They rode against the railroad and they rode against the banks
And they rode against the governor, never did they ask for a word of thanks.

The second verse is the middle build. In the first two lines, Zevon gives us a sense of the dire straits they find themselves in – Appomattox was where General Robert E Lee surrendered, and one of the last battles of the Civil War. Things aren’t looking good for Frank and Jesse. They face a crisis choice: go to jail or be outlaws? That ain’t no choice…

In the third and fourth line, Zevon builds the tension even more by telling us just who they’re running from – three of the most powerful institutions of the day.

Now we’re really wondering how it’s going to turn out.

Chorus 2 – Present Tense

Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin, Frank and Jesse James,
Keep on ridin’, ridin, ridin’, ’til you clear your names,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin, ‘cross the prairies and the plains,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin, Frank and Jesse James.

This chorus is in the present tense – they’re on the run now.

Verse 3 – The Ending Payoff

Robert Ford, a gunman, in exchange for his parole
Took the life of James the outlaw, which he snuck upon and stole
No-one knows just where they came to be misunderstood,
But the poor Missouri farmers knew that Frank and Jesse’d do the best they could.

We knew this tale was probably not going to end happily. Zevon doesn’t waste any time letting us know how right we were. He sets up the villain in the first line, and has him “steal” one of the brother’s lives in the second line. Note the disdainful way in which Zevon describes Robert Ford – without using the word “coward”, he paints a picture that couldn’t mean anything else.

And then in the last two lines – the resolution, if you will – Zevon ties up this tragedy by playing to our sympathetic nature. Sure, Frank and Jesse were outlaws and killers, but they were also human beings – poor, humble folk, misunderstood by everybody except the salt of the Earth fellas they grew up with. Their own kind.

Chorus 3 – Past Tense

Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, Frank and Jesse James,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, ’til you clear your names,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, ‘cross the rivers and the rains,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, Frank and Jesse James.

The third chorus is in the past tense. They’re not riding any more – one of them is dead – but Zevon still cheers them on, keeping their memory alive, showing that even death couldn’t stop Frank and Jesse James.

Live the Questions

Maybe nothing means anything and it’s all a big joke. Maybe the fact that you love one person and hate another, or cry to one song and throw up to another, is nothing more than a coincidence. Maybe seeing it as anything more than this is a sign that you’re narcissistic and self-absorbed. Maybe.

Or maybe…

Maybe it is all connected. Maybe there are reasons, far too complex for your tiny mind to comprehend, why you’re drawn toward certain things and away from others. Maybe there is an invisible thread running through the things you love and the things that leave you cold.

Scientifically, I can’t see anyone proving either perspective right or wrong any time soon. But that doesn’t mean that a better life can’t be had if consciously choose to fall on one side of the argument or the other.

Personally? The second one. I make the bold and foolish assumption that if something affects me, it affects me for a damn good reason. Why do I do this, when I have no way of knowing if I’m actually right? Because it makes my life a lot more meaningful.

You see, even if I’m kidding myself, me believing there to be something behind what I like and don’t like launches a question in my mind… “Why?” When I get that “Why?” feeling, I can either refuse the call, or heed the call. When I have my head screwed on properly, I heed.

Off I go looking for an answer. I don’t hope to find a definitive, true-for-all-of-time answer to my questions – I think that would be very limiting. I’m just looking for a microscopically deeper understanding of why I might respond a particular way to one thing and another way to another.

Where this has found me recently is getting all forensic on the songs I love, the films that make me cry, the particular episodes of TV shows that for God knows what reason I can’t stop thinking about… I’ve been putting on the surgeon gloves, so to speak, and shoving my hand inside the body, in the hope that by feeling around its innards I might learn something more about how these things work.

Tomorrow, I’ll share one of these surgeries with you.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Rainer Marie Rilke

Say It Today

It it needs to be said, say it. Today.

I don’t care if you have to down a bottle of wine first. Or punch a cobra. However the spirit moves you. Whatever you need to do to make saying it easier, be my guest.

There are words inside you aching to come out, and there are ears outside you aching to hear those words. They’ve been waiting for a long time.

It might feel like nothing to put it off another day – God knows you’ve had enough practice. But why take the chance?

If it needs to be said, say it. Today.

Acting Like a Beggar

If you were homeless and somebody offered you a bed for the night – no strings attached – you probably wouldn’t turn it down just because the duvet wasn’t your favourite colour. You’d dive under the covers without even noticing it.

And if you were starving and they made you a sandwich, you probably wouldn’t turn it down just because they’d cut it into triangles and you normally cut it into squares. You’d wolf the bugger down, post-haste.

Beggars can’t be choosers. Sure. But how often is that in any way relevant to your situation? How often do you really find yourself in beggar-like times, where you have so few chips to play with that you cannot “afford” to make the choice you want to make? How often is that impossible for you?

Most often – 99.99% of the time – it’s not impossible. It’s uncomfortable, yes, but not remotely close to impossible. The awkard truth is that you have just as much choice as you tell yourself you have.

If you want to be a chooser, stop acting like a beggar.

Private Victories

First, the answer to your question is yes. Yes, I am aware that speaking publicly about a private victory renders it somewhat less… private. But I don’t care because I’m not trying to brag. I’m trying to offer hope.

In Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, he tells a story about how… well, why I don’t let him tell it?

“I washed up in New York a couple of decades ago, making twenty bucks a night driving a cab and running away full- time from doing my work. One night, alone in my $110-a- month sublet, I hit bottom in terms of having diverted myself into so many phony channels so many times that I couldn’t rationalize it for one more evening. I dragged out my ancient Smith-Corona, dreading the experience as pointless, fruitless, meaningless, not to say the most painful exercise I could think of. For two hours I made myself sit there, torturing out some trash that I chucked immediately into the shitcan. That was enough. I put the machine away. I went back to the kitchen. In the sink sat ten days of dishes. For some reason I had enough excess energy that I decided to wash them. The warm water felt pretty good. The soap and sponge were doing their thing. A pile of clean plates began rising in the drying rack. To my amazement I realized I was whistling.

It hit me that I had turned a corner. I was okay. I would be okay from here on.

Steven Pressfield – “The War of Art”

I had a moment like that for myself this morning.

I’ve been trying to write fiction, on and off, since I was seventeen. I sort of fell into it when my girlfriend at the time told me about Na-No-Wri-Mo. National Novel Writing Month. You write a 50,000 word manuscript in 30 days. I’m a fast typist, I thought, how hard could it be?

So the first piece of fiction I really attempted was a novel, and I say “attempted”, because at the end of 30 days, “Junkies, Queers, and People Who Live Near Cuba” was not so much a novel as a 50,000 word stream-of-consciousness… thing… with a story spine so weak no chiropractor on the planet could have saved it. It was shit. I’m not just saying that. But I didn’t care, because I’d got the bug.

In the twelve years since then, I’ve never gone more than a year without trying to write something. I tried my hand at a couple of shameful screenplays. Started dozens of very similar and very dubious novels and short stories, abandoning them all long before they were either finished or any good. I tried to write by the seat of my pants. I tried to outline until I was blue in the face.

The only thing I neve did was manage to write anything I actually liked when I was done with it.

Until today, that is. This morning, I wrote a scene that – whilst it’s still so far from good it’s not funny – I actually liked. But that’s not all. Not only did I like it, I actually had this very strange, very unfamiliar – and very pleasant – feeling whilst I was writing it that that… I know what I’m supposed to do now.

Because it’s one thing to know the theory. I’ve known for a long time now how – in theory – stories work. I know the rules, the principles, the commandments. I know them like the back of my hand. But so what? There’s a very big difference between “knowing” the theory of something and being able to actually do it.

Again, let me stress this: I didn’t write anything good yet. But for the first time in my fiction writing journey, I had the feeling that rather than flailing around desperately, I had at least one of my hands on the steering wheel. And it very felt good.

That was my private victory. And I share it with you today as a tale of hope. If you have something you don’t feel you’re getting anywhere with, then unless you’re crazy you feel like giving up sometimes. Maybe most of the time. Well, I ‘m here to ask you – on behalf of the rest of the human race – please don’t. Don’t give up. Keep studying, keep practicing, keep inching forward, no matter how far away from any kind of glory or recognition – or in my case, actually being able to do the thing you want to do – you think you are.

At some point it will come together for you. It will click. And the only mistake you can make is to give up before it does.

On Imperfection

It feels like there’s always a trade-off.

For anybody who makes stuff and puts it out into the world for all to see, the gold at the end of the rainbow is that warm, fuzzy feeling like you did good. We want to take pride in our work. But that’s not all – we want other people to like it, too. To give our efforts a purpose. And we know we’ll never win everyone over, but at least some praise would be nice.

Nothing could be more natural. The problem is when those two desires – to do our work for ourselves and to do our work for others – present themselves as mutually exclusive. This generally leads to a tug-of-war, where we flit reluctantly choose one side or the other, but sort of keep looking over our shoulder, or we try to clumsily straddle the two, and end up doing neither.

Take my writing, for example. Every day for the past 228 days, I have felt incredibly torn. Half of me wants to write something true, something I can stand by, something I feel really proud of. This half of me is quite prepared to offend people who I know are reading, in the name of art. But the other half of me just wants to put something “nice” out there. It doesn’t want to take the risk of upsetting somebody, even if that means pulling my punches.

Some days I go further to one side. Some days the other. In general, though, I regret to admit I play it far too safe.

Until recently, I just assumed that this was part and parcel of the challenge – it was either what I wanted, or what I thought “people” wanted. But over time, evidence to the contrary slowly accrued. I realised I was dead wrong. There were indeed two different types of piece, but they were different in a different way than I thought.

Basically, there were pieces where, as I hit the “publish” button, I felt a real rush, a release, a sense of catharsis. And these were almost always the very same pieces that I would receive texts and emails about. People telling me that what I’d written meant a lot to them. Or that it made them think. Or that it made me laugh.

And then there were the other pieces. The ones I didn’t feel too great about, and neither did anybody else, apparently.

So what was the common ingredient? What was it about the ones that both I and other people seemed to like? Were they edgy? Sometimes. Vulgar? Often. Funny? That’s hardly for me to say… But, no. None of those. The common thread I found can be summed up in one simple word:


Quite simply, it was when I was more honest and open about the ways in which I’m flawed, fucked up, otherwise imperfect somehow. Human, you might say. The more vulnerable I seemed to make myself to criticism, the more praise I seemed to get, from readers and from my own mind.

And now that I think about it, I’m hardly surprised.

Each of us walks around utterly terrified of what other people would think of us if they knew “the truth.” And yet… when we finally think “fuck it” and just let go of them, we not only let out a huge sigh of relief from casting off the heavy burden we’ve been carrying around, but other people’s eyes seem to widen to us as well.

Which makes perfect sense. I don’t know about you, but perfection is a real turn-off to me. I like imperfect people. Beauty spots. A poor memory for celebrity’s names. A snort when you laugh.

You won’t get this message from “the world” but the truth is that those things don’t make you a loser. They make you awesome. They make you… “you.” The real losers are the people walking around trying to convince you their shit doesn’t stink.

I’m not suggesting for a second that you start living your life like an open wound. There’s being vulnerable and honest and open, and then there’s fishing for attention. They’re not the same thing. All I’m just suggesting is that you check yourself. How much time and energy are you devoting every day to trying to control how people see you, living in fear of the moment they find out “the truth” about you?

“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.”

Criss Jami

La bêtise humaine

“Also consider that someday, when you’re dead and rotted, kids with their baby teeth will sit in their time-geography class and laugh about how stupid you were.”

Chuck Palahniuk – “Rant”

The Tudors were pretty dumb, weren’t they? Toxic lead and mercury on your face? Oh yeah, great idea, Elizabeth the first, you stupid ginger virgin. Well, I don’t know about you, I’m just glad nobody these days is doing anything at all harmful in the name of vanity…

And don’t even get me started on 17th century Salem… now, they really were a bunch of dunces! Over two hundred accused, thirty found guilty, and nineteen hanged in the end. For… that’s right, witchcraft. You couldn’t make it up! Just thank your lucky stars that all these years later, people always think twice before they commit atrocious acts in the name of their “religion”…

But – and I’ve always said this – if you want cretins, look no further than the Third Reich. Those sauerkraut-chomping dunderheads, all fawning over a dumpy little Austrian with one testicle, believing seemingly every word that came out of his mouth so long as he was slagging off Jews. Again, I just thank the almighty that I’m alive in 2020, a time when nobody in their right mind would dream of a) trying to pull the wool over an entire nation’s eyes by blaming all of their problems on some conveniently placed group in society, or b) believing anybody with the audacity to try…

I somehow don’t think we need an “in conclusion” paragraph today, do we?

Everybody’s Got to Take a Side. Right?

REMY: I mean, the father’s got him in this crack den, subsisting on twinkies and ass-whippings, and this little boy just wants someone to tell him that he’s doing a good job. You’re worried what’s Catholic? I mean, kids forgive. Kids don’t judge. Kids turn the other cheek. What do they get for it? So I went back out there, I put an ounce of heroin on the living room floor, and I sent the father on a ride, seven to life.

PATRICK: That was the right thing?

REMY: [yelling]  Fucking A! You gotta take a side. You molest a child, you beat a child, you’re not on my side. If you see me coming, you better run, because I am gonna lay you the fuck down! Easy.

Gone Baby Gone (Affleck, 2007)

Sooner or later, with pleasure or with pain, for a big thing or a small, “you gotta take a side.” Right?

If you ask most people which part of that sentence is the most important, and they will likely tell you it’s the “side.” It’s simple: to most people, what matters is not the subtleties of why you’re on a particular side, or what exactly that side really stands for.

People like feeling that they’re part of the herd. And so all that matters to most is whether or not you’re on their side. If you are, they’ll treat you well. If you’re not, they’ll hold you at arm’s length.

I don’t see it like that, though. For me, the question of which particular side you choose is not nearly as important as that you pick one deliberately. And in that spirit, I find the most important word to be “take.”

Anybody can claim to be on this side or that, choosing whichever one fits the spirit of the times like a hairstyle. Anybody can say with their words that they’re for or against whatever gives them a fuzzy feeling about themselves. Or allows them to feel they’re part of a group.

But all that talk is not the same thing as taking a side. Not if there’s no skin in the game, no risk. Until you actually take a risk in one direction or another – as Detective Remy Bressant did, planting an ounce of smack on some degenerate’s living room floor, for what he saw as the “greater good” – you haven’t “taken” a side at all. You’ve merely moved your lips and teeth.

To take a side is an active choice, and should not be frittered away on things that do not matter. The glory of life is that you get to decide what you’re going to take a stand on, and what you’re going to leave alone. Just make sure that if you find something you care enough about to take a side on, that you’re actually taking a side – which always involves a risk – as opposed to just chattering about it.

Life Is Just School With Less Acne

They might laugh in your face and call you a slag.

Or maybe just turn their noses up at you.

They might trip you up and film you falling face-first into a muddy puddle and send it round the rest of the school.

Or maybe you just won’t get invited to the next three litre bottle of diamond white session in the park.

They might tell you you’re a weirdo right to your face.

Or maybe only when they think you’re out of ear-shot.

Life is just school with less acne. Whatever you decide to do, whoever you decide to be, meeting with resistance is inevitable.

But letting it slow you down is on you.

Some Fly East, Some Fly West…

At first I thought that walking and running and cooking and showering without making damn sure I had something tickling my ears would be hellish. Well, yesterday’s little experiment proved me pleasantly wrong, and so I extended it to today.

And then the voices came.

I was walking. A few steps down the road and it all kicked off – mentally, that is. Maybe you’ve been there: you get complacent and you let your guard down for one second and then a whole cast of characters dashes on-stage, each one more beligerent and attention-seeking than the last.

It takes all sorts. There’s the professor, furrowing his brow as he tries to solve problems that may or may not exist. There’s the old Irish in the corner trying to instigate a drunken sing-along up and turning ever so vicious when nobody joins in. There’s the wannabe Eddie Van Halen, turning his amp up to 11 and playing… whatever the hell he feels like playing.

It’s a UN meeting crossed with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest located entirely within the borders my own mind.

Normally, I’m too afraid to risk letting them in. So I put on a Story Grid podcast, or a Lou Reed album, or The Ricky Gervais Show. But I got cocky. And once they caught wind that my headspace was open for business, they didn’t shy away from making themselves at home, or inviting their extended families to visit, either.

Well, I carried on walking, and although I wanted desperately to put my hand in my pocket and reach for my phone and distract myself with something, I resolved to at least try and make it home without giving up. I reasoned that if I these characters weren’t going anywhere, I may as well try to listen to them. I could even pretend that I was listening to something – a strange new radio station broadcasting from my head, to my head.

You know, I’m glad I made that decision, because it didn’t take long at all before something very cool happened – one by one, all the characters shut the fuck up. A sort of uncommon quiet descended over me. I looked around, somewhat confused, and realised that though the voices had departed – or at least gotten really quiet – I was still very much here.

I saw how the leaves are back on the trees with a vengeance. When did that happen? I saw clean people driving dirty cars and dirty people driving clean cars. I saw sillhouettes through curtains and I wondered what secrets these people were keeping from me.

The world wasn’t suddenly without its problems, but even if just for a while, they felt light as a feather.

Via Negativa

In an abundant world, productivity is about eliminating bad habits; then adding good ones.
In an abundant world, knowledge is about filtering, rather than gathering, information.
In an abundant world, discipline is the new freedom.
In an abundant world―less is more; and more is less.

Vizi Andrei

I tried something new today.

The thing is, I am a sucker for just having something playing all the time. If I’m cooking, I like the Story Grid podcast. If I’m in the shower, I like the Ricky Gervais show. If I’m running, Elliott Smith.

I’ve never questioned it before, but lately I’ve been wondering if maybe it’s not good for my mind to have pretty much zero time during the day where it’s free to roam. Either I’m working – writing, teaching – or I’m being stimulated with something. I’m never off. And I wonder what off feels like.

So today I tried very hard to “go without.” I ran with no music. I cooked and showered in silence. I went out of my way to not fill the gaps in my day with noise. And I extended this to “checking” my phone. I basically just used it to respond to texts and that was it.

To say that my experiment was life-changing would be a ridiculous overstatement – it was only one day. But day-changing? You bet. It was a lovely day. I felt freer. I felt like I had space to breathe. I felt like time expanded a little bit.

Maybe you aren’t such a slave to the stimulation your phone gives you as I am, and so your mileage might vary. But just as stuffing your face all day long makes you fat and desensitised to what hunger feels like, I suspect there’s a very similar mechanism at play when it comes to compulsively being on your phone all the time.

Make space for yourself.

Don’t Tell When You Can Show

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Anton Chekhov

Normally, I don’t re-read a damn thing I’ve written here. I’m too scared to. Whilst I am a believer in obsessive, anal rewriting, that’s not how I do this blog – I’m all forward momentum. I write with desperation, I publish with desperation, and I move on with desperation.

On rare occasions, however, I have plucked up the courage to look over my shoulder to see what wreckage I left in my wake. I’ve dared myself to read something I wrote months after I wrote it. And each and every time it’s incredibly revealing.

I go throug a real wedding-buffet of emotions. A plate of pride, a dish of disappointment, a skewer of surprise, a cupful of cringe… I try not to beat myself up about anything I don’t like, and sometimes, I succeed.

On the whole, I don’t care about what I’ve done. I’m just glad to have put in the time. But if I could allow myself one single piece of constructive criticism – the admission of one single crime I’ve been guilty of over and over and over during the past 200 or so bits of writing – it’s this: I tell when I ought to show. Overwhelmingly so.

And I think I know why: it’s a bumload easier.

Look at Chekhov’s advice above. I can’t argue with the man. But whilst it might have a lot less artistic impact to tell someone the moon is shining, it requires a hell of a lot less brain than does figuring out an elegant way to show that the moon is shining.

But if that’s the only reason I’m committing this crime, I need to grow up.

If what I wrote came out a certain way and I really liked it and I felt like that was my true voice, and it just so happened that I was a teller and not a shower, then I’d say “Chekhov be damned…” and I’d carry on as normal. But it’d be a lie. Really, I’m just being lazy.

I’ve shown myself that I can turn up and write each day, when I can’t think of a single thing to say, when I’d rather be doing anything else. What I have to do now is step up my game.

I’ve told just about as much as I can by now. I’ve said just about as much as I have to say. But there are a million and one ways under the sun to show. And by hook or crook I promise I will find them.

Sixty Seconds Is All It Takes

It’s take-away night. What do you want? Greek? Sushi? Indian? Okay, we’re getting Chinese. So what shall we order?

The more restaurants to choose from, the longer the menu, and the more delicious every option sounds, the harder it is to decide what to order.

Food’s here. What are we going to watch? Film? Series? Okay, series. Funny? Dramatic? Okay, funny. Modern Family? Friends? Friday Night Dinner? The more options each streaming service offers, the harder it is to decide what to watch.

Next morning. No teaching today. What shall I do with my day? Could write a song. Could do some writing. Could try to get some more students. Okay, I’ll do some writing. Fiction? Something to help my students? My blog?

I know this isn’t just me. I talk to people. This is life.

But the most disturbing thing to me is that basically none of these decisions, in and of themselves, are of any consequence whatsoever. They don’t matter. So long as I order something I don’t hate, I’ll be happy, and survive until tomorrow. So long as I watch something I don’t hate, I’ll be entertained. And so long as I do something vaguely productive, I’ll feel good about my day.

Yes, there are better options and there are worse options. But the big lie is that the way to make the best choice is to give yourself the most options possible, and to spend as long as possible deliberating between them. It doesn’t work. In fact, it accomplishes the exact opposite.

The longer I take to eventually decide on a kebab, the more likely I am to wonder if I should have ordered of their pizzas instead. Or gone for Chinese. Or cooked and saved a bit of money.

The longer I take to eventually watch an episode of Friends, the more likely I am to wonder if I should have picked Modern Family. Or a film. Or nothing at all, just some music.

And the next morning, the longer it takes me to eventually settle on trying to write a song, the more likely I am to wonder if I should have tried to find myself some new students instead. Or pulled some weeds in the garden. Or finally sorted out all the things I’ve shoved in the spare bedroom wardrobe since we’ve lived here.

I don’t have scientific proof of this. But tell me I’m wrong. The longer you deliberate, the less happy you end up with whatever you decide on.

So what is the solution?

The closest thing I’ve found is this: Set a timer.

If the stakes are not life and death – and they seldom are – set a timer for sixty seconds. And by the time it beeps, have a decision. And then march forward in that direction.

There’s a reason why this works – when I follow it, that is. But there’s also a reason why we are so resistant to thinking something so simple could work. You see, we all operate under this assumption that we should get clarity, and then we should act – in that order. We assume that clarity comes from thinking, from deliberating, from consciously weighing this against that, and predicting to the best of our abilities how each one will make us feel.

And it sounds nice, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s complete bullshit. It’s the total wrong way round. If you wait until you have clarity before you act, you will wait forever. Clarity comes from motion, and only from motion. Thinking and deliberation, seductive though they are, lock you in this endless circle of fuzziness. You can never know, from inside that circle, whether one thing or the other was the “right” choice. All you can do is continue to wonder. And if you do eventually make a decision, you will have little confidence in it.

Get moving, though, and you experience the best of both worlds. If, after moving forward with it, your 60 second decision feels like it was the right one, well, that’s awesome – aren’t you glad you made it in a minute instead of waiting for more clarity?

On the other hand, if your 60 second decision feels like it was the wrong one, well, that’s awesome too – now you can confidently discard it and try something else. No more wondering.

Your Inciting Incident

A taxi driver sits waiting for a fare. A 12 year old girl gets in and begs him to drive away. Before he can, the girl’s pimp pulls her out of the taxi and throws a crumpled up bill at the driver…

A romance novelist crashes his car in the snow and is rescued by his biggest fan…

A lovesick young Montague crashes a masked ball thrown by the Capulets, and falls in love at first sight with one of them…

Every story starts with an inciting incident – something that throws the lead character’s life out of whack. It can be causal or coincidental. It can be positive or negative. But whatever it is, its defining quality is that the character cannot just ignore what has happened and get on with their lives. They must respond.

And since story is nothing if not a metaphor for life, it shouldn’t take you long to find a few of these in your own personal history. You might not discover anything worthy of an Oscar-winner, but unless you’ve lived under a rock all these years, things have happened to you that forced a response from you.

You met somebody and found yourself unable to stop thinking about them. You were hired. Fired. Required to drop everything at a moment’s notice to put out some fire that was nothing to do with you in the first place.

Nobody – in a story or in real life expects an inciting incident. They are, by definition, unwanted and unplanned. And yet when they come – no matter how much they threaten to destroy everything you hold dear, how sick they make you feel, how much you wish you could go back in time and prevent them happening – they always turn out to be the greatest gift you could ever recieve.

Why? Because they force us to move. And we don’t like to move.

Human beings are incredibly conservative. We rarely do anything unless we absolutely have to. And so during “ordinary times” – so long as nothing too big happens to us – we can tell ourselves things like “Well, things are okay, really. I might not be living life exactly the way I know I should, but… it’s fine. Honestly, it is. Don’t look at me like that – I’m happy!”

You’re not. Not really. But until things get bad enough – or weird enough – to force you out of your rut, you’ll stay in it. This is not a failing. This is human nature. We can either act or avoid, and it always always feels safer to avoid. So we bumble along.

And then BAM! Something gets right up in our face and throws us off course. We can’t ignore it. We can’t pretend it’s not happening. We have to act. And so, like magic, we do, no matter how reluctantly.

And guess what? It’s always better on the other side. I don’t mean that we always “win” or “succeed” – we’ve both seen enough films to know that that’s not true. What I mean is that in having to respond to an inciting incident, we unearth the existence of this whole incredible person we’ve been keeping a secret. We glimpse the true potential, and realise what we’ve been burying. We win, even if we lose.

I suppose my point today is that we don’t choose the inciting incidents of our lives. We don’t choose what they are, how big they are, when they hit us, or why. They choose us, in every sense. But we do choose how we will respond to them.

Will you ignore them until you absolutely can’t, and then do the bare minimum through gritted teeth, resenting all the whilst what life has handed you, and whining about “This isn’t how things were meant to be…”?

Or will you realise how you thought things were “meant to be” was a lie? Will you say “I didn’t choose this and now that it’s here I wish it wasn’t, but it is, and I’ll be damned if I’m going down without a fight…”?

Most importantly, will you allow your inciting incident to sculpt you into the person you were always meant to be?

You’ll Know It When You See It

Some choose money. They covet it. They worship it. They step on toes to get as much of it as they can. Vast fortunes built, they become its paranoid bodyguard. And then they die.

Some choose fame. They want to be seen, acknowledged, by the world. They do all they possibly can – legal and illegal, sane and insane – to boost their profile. Household names, they continue to move their target higher, never quite feeling noticed enough, or by enough people, or for the right reasons. And then they die.

Some choose power. Their self-worth goes up and down depending on one thing – how many people are above or below right now. With enough ruthlessness, they can lead nations, command armies, become puppet-master for an entire planet. And then they die.

Almost nothing matters. Almost everything is – in the grand scheme things – utterly meaningless and inconsequential.

And yet, nature abhors a vacuum. It is impossible – and generally unbearable – for us humans to live without making something the most important thing in our lives. The question begged then, is, “What should it be?”

The answer is closer than you think. Something matters to you. Something holds great meaning for you. Something is of vital consequence to you. Something is worth dedicating your every waking breath to. But what?

I don’t know. I can’t tell you. It is yours and yours alone to find out.

But what I can tell you is that you think you’ve found it, and you’ve found that it’s money, fame, or power… you haven’t found it yet.

That’s okay. Pick yourself up. Start looking again.

You’ll know it when you see it.

A Day Well-Spent

As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.

Leonardo Da Vinci

Every day is a life in miniature. A fresh chance to get it right.

But what if you don’t get it right? What if you waste your day? Well, all being well, you get another chance tomorrow.

Don’t beat yourself up when you get to the evening and reflect on your day, and you feel you have spent it poorly. First, take inventory. What did you really do all day? You may surprise yourself and after some digging realise that you didn’t spend it poorly at all – you just weren’t paying attention.

And second, realise that even if you have completely wasted the day, this moment of clarity, of seeing just how poorly you have spent it, is enough to turn it into a good day, for it will teach you how not to make the same mistake tomorrow.

There are no losers in the game of life.

Let Your Anger Be Your Guide

“Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.”

Malcolm X (1925-1965)

What do you get when you drop an egg onto an open flame? A mess.

But what if, before you drop the egg, you put a pan over the flame? You get a crispy fried egg.

Anger is not the enemy. Anger is a perfectly justifiable response to, as a rational person, looking out at what’s going on in the world. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that if you’re not angry, then there is something wrong with you.

The thing is, you’ve been taught your whole life that it’s wrong to be angry. That your anger is unacceptable. Inappropriate. You’ve been encouraged to see yourself, rather than the object of your anger, as the real problem. You were lied to. You are not the problem. And neither is your anger. Anger is a gift.

But on its own – like the flame in the example above – anger isn’t all that useful. It just makes a mess. And the common way people deal with this is that they pretend not to be angry, and they pretend that there’s nothing to be angry about, not really.

No. Don’t do that any longer.

You want to be angry. You want to be seething, if that’s what you feel when you contemplate the state of the world. But you can’t stop there. You want to find a way to channel this anger, a way to make it useful. To transform it from something destructive to something creative.

There is nothing quite like anger for motivating positive change in the world. So let yourself be angry. Accept it. Welcome it in. Honour it, maybe for the first time in your life.

Just don’t stop there – decide how you’re going to use it.

Life Is Lived Scene by Scene

I was nine years old when I first fell in love. His name was Bond, James Bond.

Since lockdown began, I’ve steamed through over a dozen Bond films. Most I’ve seen at least ten times before, but never from the perspective of somebody immersed in studying how stories work. And if you’re looking for incredibly clear examples of the principles of story design, look no further than the James Bond series.

Cubby Broccoli et al. have spent over 50 years now making these things blindingly obvious, and subsequently a joy to study. Well, what I’ve been nerding out over this week is the twin ideas of the super-intention and the scene-intention. Very similar, but not the same. I’ll explain.

The super-intention is the “spine” of a story – it’s the thread that runs from beginning to end, and follows the hero trying to accomplish one very specific thing. In some stories, they succeed; in others, they fail. In a Bond film, the super-intention is very simple: “Stop the bad guy.”

They’re easy to spot. In The Great Gatsby, it’s “Get back with my old girlfriend, Daisy.” It’s Jaws, it’s “Kill the shark.” In Kill Bill, it’s… “Kill Bill.”

But the crucial thing – what makes a super-intention a super-intention – is that it cannot be accomplished in one fell swoop. If it could, it’d make for a remarkably dull story. Instead, stories are built by the characters taking actions that slowly build towards their ultimate goal. These are called scenes.

The scene-intention is what the character is trying to accomplish in this specific one scene – one small piece of their super-intention. And again, in some scenes, they succeed. In some scenes, they fail. To go back to Bond, his invididual scene-intentions might be “Go visit Q and collect some gadgets,” “Make love to this beautiful woman and then try to extract information about the villain from her,” or “Escape from the compromising position the villain has put me in.”

Each one is a step on the path towards his ultimate goal.

And anyway, because I can’t bloody help it, when I went for a run the other day, I had a mini-epiphany when I realised that this is just like real life.

Life is lived scene by scene.

We all have things we want to accomplish today, this week, this year, or at some point in our life. And when these things are small enough, we don’t even clock them. Brush your teeth. Get to work on time. Write a blog post for today. These are scene-intentions – we can accomplish them in one go.

But – hopefully – at least some of the things you want to do are bigger and grander than those things, and cannot be done in one fell swoop. That’s the spanner in the works – how do we make progress, when it’s rarely very clear what exactly needs doing, let alone in which order? Well, that’s where super-intention and scene-intention comes in.

These big dreams are the super-intentions of your story. And how does the hero of a story achieve his super-intention – or at least try to? Scene by scene.

They want something. Scene by scene, they try to do things that will move them closer to it. Sometimes their actions move them closer, but more often they move them further away. But they keep trucking on, and by the climax, they either get the thing they wanted, or they don’t. But they can at least say that they gave it their all.

So when you’re facing something that you can’t get “done” today, and you’re frustrated because you don’t know even know what to do to get closer, step back, take a breathe, and realise that this is just a scene – your job today is not to get your super-intention done. Give yourself an intention for this scene, and for this scene only. Perhaps give yourself something clear that you can accomplish in the next hour. By all means keep your eye on the prize – know what your super-intention is – but let your measure of success for today be how you tackle this scene.

Now, don’t expect everything to go smoothly. Does everything James Bond tries work out the first time? Of course not. Frequently his efforts put him in far more danger than he started in. But because he is aware of his long-term goal, and he keeps adapting scene by scene to where he currently finds himself, he eventually finds a way to accomplish his mission.

In fact, think about Bond again. Just when is Bond at his lowest ebb? At what point in the story, if you were him, would you think “Well, fuck, this really isn’t going well, is it?” Isn’t it always at the same spot in the story, just before he manages to emerge victorious? Like Bond, it’s when you feel furthest away from your goal that you’re probably a hell of a lot closer than you think. Relax, and give yourself a scene intention.

This isn’t something I’ve been working with for very, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve found it really useful. Rather than obsessing over what the perfect course of action ought to be, I’ve been trying more to decide at the beginning of the day what I can actually do about it today. What one step can I take that I think will bring me closer?

The curious thing is that the days where I make a “bad” choice – where the thing I do appears to push me further away from my dream – I still feel a big sense of accomplishment.

It feels good to be on the right path, even when all you seem to do is trip and fall.

When You Can’t Be Arsed…

“I hate writing, I love having written.”

Dorothy Parker

I’m going to ask you a question now. It’s one that I have battled with – and been fascinated by – for many years now.

“Should you do the things you want to do, or the things you know you should do?”

In any given moment, I’m a bit of shit. I’m arrogant. Rude. I feel like I don’t know who I am, but I also know for sure that I hate myself. And most annoying of all, I can’t be bothered. To do anything. Whatsoever.

Once I get into motion, however, it’s a completely different story. I perk up. I start feeling real again. Is this what they call being happy? This has always presented a problem. How do I decide what I should do, moment-to-moment? The honest-to-God answer when I ask myself what I actually feel like doing is almost always “drink a bottle of wine.” And I don’t like to think of what would happen to my lovely white teeth if I gave into that impulse every time.

I’ve tried bullying myself into being productive. Fortunately, the results were so paltry that I never managed to keep it up for long. But yeah, I’ve reasoned now and again that if I never feel like doing anything useful, then maybe I should just ignore what I feel like completely and disconnect and just… go through the motions with something.

But every time I do, that way of living makes me even more miserable. I get nothing done that means anything to me, and I don’t even get the dopamine hit of insant gratification either.

Well, it took a long time, but what I came to realise is that there are really two of me, co-existing. One of me is calm, soft, and patient, and wants pretty much the same things year-in, year-out with variations over time. The other me wants what it wants right now and it isn’t afraid to let me know about it. Loudly.

If I try to make the first one happy, the second one invariably shuts up and comes along for the ride. But – crucially – it does not work the other way round.

So these days, when I’m being clever, I generally try my best to ignore what I want in this exact moment and focus instead on what I want in general.

Life isn’t about only doing things you want to do in the moment. But it’s also a tragedy to just indiscriminately do things you don’t want to do.

No, life is about doing the things you know you truly want to do, even – or perhaps especially – in the moments you really don’t feel like it.

Pretend You Have ADHD

You know, you don’t have to have ADHD to be horrible at prioritising, but it sure doesn’t hurt…

Give me one thing to do, and whilst I doubt I’ll get it done, it won’t cause me too much stress. Give me two things to do, and the heat will rise a little, but I’ll be all right. I doubt I’ll get round to them, but I doubt they’ll keep me up at night. Give me three things to do, however, and you will see me crumble before you like a digestive biscuit in a milkman’s fist.

Now, you might be thinking, “Well that sounds a bit like me – I struggle with knowing what to do sometimes. I certainly don’t have ADHD.” And you’d be absolutely right. Like almost all of the symptoms of ADHD, finding it difficult to prioritise is merely a more dramatic and extreme version of something everybody with a pulse experiences. The only difference is in degree.

I used trouble with prioritising an example, but it could have been anything. Mood swings, feeling restless, having trouble staying focused on something, having trouble getting yourself not to focus on something… the list of symptoms is long, and none of them are altogether that unusualy or peculiar. If you’re neurotypical, these things affect you from time to time, and to a manageable degree. If you have ADHD, they affect you a lot (or all) of the time, and to a degree that makes it more difficult to get on with your life. That’s the only difference.

Which brings me to the point of this piece: when it comes to trying to get things done, pretend you have ADHD, whether you actually do or not. (I obviously don’t mean diagnose yourself with what is a genuine and complex learning difficulty. I mean make-believe – pretend temporarily that you do, as an experiment.)

The thing is, us ADHDers can’t afford to mess about. Most of the “normal” way to do things don’t just not work for us, they make us want to gouge out our own eyes. And so what normally happens is that we make ourselves miserable trying to do the “normal” way, and to get along as a square peg in a round hole in this world.

And yet… the “normal” solutions to life’s problems aren’t generally anything to write home about, whether you have ADHD or not. Most often, they’re just the status quo. The way we do things round here. Doesn’t matter if they get great results or not… they work just about well enough that nobody thinks to question them.

That’s where having ADHD comes in handy – whilst a neurotypical person might not like doing things the standard way, our breaking point comes a lot sooner. We crash, we hit a wall, we can’t go any further. And then we try to think our way round it. And sometimes, just sometimes, we think of a brand new way of solving a problem.

Now, if these solutions happened upon by ADHDers only worked for people who had ADHD, then I’d stop typing right now. But that’s the point – they don’t. A solution is a solution. And it’s not that only ADHD people could come up with these elegant solutions, it’s just that we get frustrated with the standard operating procedure a hell of a lot quicker.

We find another way because we need to. But everybody is welcome to the spoils.

A great example is Ryder Carrol and his Bullet Journal method. An arty kid from Brooklyn with ADHD, he struggled for years trying to be focused and productive before eventually stumbling upon this incredibly unique way of journaling. If you don’t know about it, clink the link above. But the point is that this novel way of journaling really helped him solve his personal problems, he started showing other people, they found it helpful too, and now hundreds of thousands of people all over the world are using his system, as well as taking it in all kinds of interesting directions. Importantly, people without ADHD are using it.

I’d like to find and give you lots more examples, and maybe I will tomorrow, but for now, I’ll just sum up what I’m trying to say:

If you have ADHD, then solutions arrived at by ADHDers are more likely to work for you than the standard advice is.

But if you don’t have it, the solutions arrived at by ADHDers are still more likely to work for you than the standard advice.

So if in doubt, pretend you have it. Next time you’re struggling with something that seems quite trivial and “everyday”, and the normal Googleable solutions don’t seem to be cutting it for you, then Google your problem followed by the word “ADHD”. It won’t take you long to find some space cowboy out there on the interwebs, offering some mad but perfect solution to your difficulties.

The ManBoy LP turned 5 today

It’s always the same when you have kids…

First it came out a week ago. A little later, it was a few months back. And then you blink and on the toilet one morning you realise it’s been five years.

I am not a prideful person and I don’t think most of what I do is any better or worse than the rest. The ManBoy LP is the sole exception to that. A rare outlier in my life. Leaving aside the day I married Emma, nothing I’ve done before or since has meant anywhere near as much as that 53 minutes of music.

So much so that five years on I still haven’t made another one. Until I do, here’s The ManBoy LP in all its glory.

Choose Your Pain, Not Your Pleasure

Some days it just flows, man.

I sit down to write one of these pieces, and I barely have to stroke the keys before I come up for air and see what is a pretty solid first draft of something in front of me. There’s a beginning, a middle, an end, a meaning, and now all I have to do now is tighten it up.

And at the risk of sounding corny and woo-woo, on those days it’s like it’s not really me who’s doing the work. I’m there, and my fingers are hitting the keys and making the words pop up on the screen, but it’s more like something is writing through me. I’m just tuned into it, taking dictation.

But not most days. Ha!

Most days, I still feel I’m like I am tuned in… to static, that is.

I type – just like on the good days – but the words don’t fit together, and they don’t make any sense, or even if they do, they mean nothing to me, and I’m embarrassed to have even considered them as options. The backspace key earns its keep on these days.

At some point, it coalesces. I put out something that is workable. But it’s agony to get there, and I spend far more time wondering why I was so stupid to ever commit to writing something every day than actually writing. I curse God. I curse the Devil. I curse my mother and father for making me.

And yet, you know what? I wouldn’t trade these painful days for the world. Because I’m doing the thing I always wanted to do. I’m not making a living at it yet. I don’t think I’ve produced anything of any great worth yet. But I’m doing it.

It’s painful far more often than it’s pleasurable. And yet it keeps providing me with more and more meaning and fulfillment every day that I show up to write something.

A couple of sunny Saturday afternoons ago, I was in the queue to get into Tesco. Because of the two metre gap between everybody, the queue extended all the way to other side of the car park – fine, I thought. Plenty of time to just stand here and do nothing and soak up the sun. Well, after about thirty seconds I was bored, so I got my phone out. I don’t quite remember how, but I ended up on Mark Manson’s blog, and this quote from the article I read that day pretty much sums up what I’m trying to impart today:

“Sometimes I ask people, “How do you choose to suffer?”

These people tilt their heads and look at me like I have twelve noses. But I ask because that tells me far more about you than your desires and fantasies. Because you have to choose something. You can’t have a pain-free life. It can’t all be roses and unicorns. And ultimately that’s the hard question that matters. Pleasure is an easy question. And pretty much all of us have similar answers. The more interesting question is the pain. What is the pain that you want to sustain?”

Mark Manson – “The Most Important Question of Your Life”

Good People and Bad People

Trouble, like most all little towns, has some people who are bad all the time.

And it has some people who are good all the time.

But most of the people are good and bad… most of the time.

Lee Hazlewood – “Long Black Train”

There are no good people and there are no bad people. Nobody is born angelic and nobody is born evil. There are only people, and the choices they make.

When people make choices you agree with, you call them good. When you disagree with people’s choices, you call them bad. But that doesn’t make it so.

You have no idea why a person chooses the way they choose. To each and every person, relative to their worldview, the things they do make perfect sense, no matter how irrational, illogical, or even evil they might seem to you.

If this sounds like I’m advocating letting people off the hook, or letting them do what they want with no consequence, or just giving them the benefit of the doubt, then please keep reading, because I’m not. Not at all.

But what I am saying is that since the reasons for why people choose what they choose are so unknowable, then spending your time thinking about them is largely a fruitless exercise. It would make far more sense to focus instead on something you can actually do something about – your choices.

There are seven billion minds on this planet – and that number is increasing every day – with each one constantly making new choices in its every waking moment. You have the privilege of being able to control exactly one of these minds. One of these choice-making apparati. Use it or lose it.

Rather than just bumbling along, make a concerted effort to choose the things you consider to be the right things. What if I’m wrong? You will be. Constantly. But so what? You’ll be less wrong than if you just left it to chance.

I lied earlier, by the way. There are good people and there are bad people. You can’t see them from the outside. The good people are the people who consciously choose what they believe to be right. The bad people are the people too cowardly to ever choose one way or the other.

Impossible? No, Just Difficult

“If Resistance couldn’t be beaten, there would be no Fifth Symphony, no Romeo and Juliet, no Golden Gate Bridge. Defeating Resistance is like giving birth. It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years.”

Steven Pressfield – “The War of Art”

Everything worth doing is difficult. And the more worth doing it is, the more difficult you will find it.

But there’s a very big difference between difficult and impossible. Make sure you’re not getting the two confused.