Write a story every day, part 6: Motivation

It's been a year since I decided to write a short story every day. I’ve succeeded in doing so—including days in which I was traveling from Paris to New York and vice-versa, sick days, busy teaching days, all sorts of days. My wife, a screenwriter, recently asked me how I motivated myself to do it. I thought about it, and here are a few of the reasons I keep doing it every day without exception.

  1. I’m very competitive, in two different ways. A side of me is disciplined, structured, ambitious, dedicated, even rigid about following a schedule and delivering a commitment. Another side of me is the slacker ready to go take long naps in the afternoon, the reader of comic books slouching in the sofa, the brainless guy who does nothing all day and calls his inactivity “life.” (You guessed it: I'm a Gemini.) These two sides of me are in permanent competition, but in recent years I’ve tended to side with the disciplined me. And once I take sides, I’m brutal. I want my side to win and the opposition to lose, and I’ll do anything to ensure the right outcome.
  2. But I’m also competitive with others, not just within myself. This will sound ugly to you, dear reader, but writing every day allows me to feel superior to other people. I like to wear my discipline as a badge: I’m a pro. I know how to do it, and I can do it. I’m such a pro, I’d write the daily short story sitting on the back pew of a church during a memorial service. Even if I'm the one who's dead!
  3. Out of the year’s 365 stories, some were astoundingly bad, so much so I’ll never show them to anyone, not even my adoring wife. (Hey, I have a lot invested in that adoration of hers. Why spoil a good thing?) But some of them were touching, funny, surprising—just plain good. Every day I don’t know if I’m going to write a stinker or a gem, and the possibility of a gem coming out justifies the daily effort.
  4. Ritual is a necessary part of everyone’s life. The morning coffee, for instance, is a ritual that gets you out of bed and into the swing of things. It’s not just caffeine; there’s the anticipation, the preparation, the appeal to all the senses, your whole relationship to coffee, your memories of having drunk a particularly satisfying cup at Caribou Coffee on a visit to Minneapolis. For me the daily short story adds another ritual, makes the daily life a little more “sacred.” It requires me to stop everything else, clear my mind, and look for the portal to creativity and insight.
  5. The skill I developed in writing daily stories has permeated into my other writing activities. I can write first drafts of scenes and chapters quickly and easily; the mind opens up willingly because it does so regularly. And the storyteller’s voice seems to be always ready to speak and sing. I “improvise”  without censure or shame, and often enough the first draft comes out relatively good already. The daily short story, then, pays enormous dividents for a working writer.
  6. I’ve found ways of speeding up the process for those days when I really don’t feel like doing it. I write rants, a page of nonsense, a page about my own handwriting… Anything goes! You’re the boss! It takes three minutes, literally, to fill up a page with words and call it a “short story.”
  7. I’ve used the short story to work through personal issues. To give a banal example, my older brother’s birthday is June 1st, mine is May 31st (that means we were born almost exactly a year apart). Every year we speak on the phone for our birthdays, briefly and awkwardly as befits the state of our relationship. On June 1st I wrote a story about a man who dreads the yearly phone call from his younger brother. The story wasn’t exactly about my brother and me; it was inspired by us but not “written” by us. In an indirect, minor way the story became an expression of my love for my brother, a mini-love letter he’ll never get. I was sad-happy writing it, and the psychological benefits of writing the story added justification to the daily effort.
  8. I use short stories to test ideas for novels. For instance, I wrote 30 self-contained scenes of a ghost story over 30 consecutive days. Will I write a novel about this ghost? Do I want to? Is it worth my professional attention? Writing the stories is a good way of finding out.
  9. Some short stories of mine appeal to that lazy slacker who slouches all day reading comic books. It’s a win-win situation: I enjoy writing an absolutely stupid story, I can say I fulfilled my contract and proved myself to be a disciplined professional, and the slacker gets his drug and claims the day.
  10. Believe it or not, I really, really, really love doing it.
I wish all my readers a highly motivated New Year. Let's tell 366 stories, one per day including February, 29!


Oh reader, your talents require TLC!

In my last blog entry I riffed on the notion of talent, the gist of my convictions being that everyone is born multitalented. A brave voice rose in the wilderness, pointedly letting me know I’m crazy. Just kidding! The brave voice, who answers to the name of Lisa Marie, makes some very good points. Here they are.

I think there is a problem with the word “talent.” Isn't it used to mean the exceptional thing, the thing that most people don't have? I think one tends to use the word unthinkingly in order to designate that happy (and indeed, rare) combination of qualities and circumstances (energy, enthusiasm, time, a little salutary egoism to enable one to be a bit annoyingly obsessive, good teachers, etc.) and one ends up being mislead by the existence of the word into thinking one is referring to something else, some further magic entity, apart from these ingredients.

And so my more somber version of your “we are all multi-talented'” would be to say “we quite probably all aren't, but that this is a lot less of a problem than we have been led to believe... particularly if it is possible to muster energy, enthusiasm, time, egoism, etc.”

Genius, now that would be something else again, I suppose.

This is my abbreviation of what the brave voice is saying in the wilderness:

“Talent” as people normally see it is a kind of illusion; people do things well because of down-to-earth qualities such as energy, enthusiasm, time, and so on—not because of a magic, mysterious quality, which we might want to call “genius” instead. It’s not a problem to be “untalented” as long as you find the necessary time, energy, and enthusiasm to accomplish your goals.

I see talent as an innate capacity to do something, a biological inheritance that is independent of these down-to-earth qualities but that needs some of them to blossom. So, I do think everyone is multitalented indeed, having many built-in capacities from birth. Ultimately, however, the brave voice is quite right: things happen not by magic but through dedicated effort. Here's the film maker Ridley Scott in a recent interview in the magazine Film Comment: "[My mother] was a real force of nature. [My brother] Tony and I inherited perseverance from her. It's really the thing you need to succeed. I always say it's stamina, stamina, stamina, then perseverance, and last is talent."

As for "genius," I’d like to offer a very specific definition. I see a genius not as someone with brilliant inborn capacities, but someone with an original insight who creates a new paradigm within his or her field. In that sense Claude Debussy was a genius, since he created a new musical paradigm contributing to the development of, among other things, atonality; but Maurice Ravel wasn’t a genius, since his work—however brilliant—hewed to the paradigms, tonal and rhythmic, that came before him. Ludwig van Beethoven: genius. Felix Mendelssohn: not (even though he was an astounding child prodigy). Miguel de Cervantes: genius (he "invented" the modern novel). Jane Austen: not. Mahatma Gandhi: genius (he created a new paradigm, non-violent resistance). The Dalai Lama: not (he embraces a paradigm that was fully formed before his birth). But note that I admire the Dalai Lama unconditionally, and I think he represents humanity's highest ideals. Here I'm using the word "genius" as a technical term, narrowly (and perhaps idiosyncratically) defined.

Given a choice between talent, genius, and stamina, I know which one I would pick for myself and my career. Phew! Writing this blog entry has exhausted the resident genius here, so please excuse me while I take a nap.

 

Oh reader, you're so talented!

In my recent installments of The Naked Beginner I recounted how I used to suffer from the misconception I had no talent for drawing, and how I cured myself from that handicap with help from a fictional character, an imaginary friend, and a dead white male. Here I offer you a little meditation on the notion of talent. Since the meditation applies to all people, I’m posting this blog entry on multiple categories.

  1. Everyone is born multitalented; this you can see by watching a few kindergarten kids at play, inventing every sort of game and improvising brilliantly at arts, sport, music, relationships, and anything else. The tragedy is that many of those kindergartners (and I’m talking about you and me and your brother and your sister) will grow to “forget” how talented they were from the first.
  2. You have hidden talents you don’t know about. Every day as you go about your normal existence, amazing things lie inside you waiting to be discovered.
  3. Talents are eternal: they are always there, inside you, from birth to death. When the expression of a talent is squashed, the talent itself remains. At any time in your life, if the conditions are right the talent will come right back out.
  4. You can be absolutely sure about something and yet be absolutely wrong about it. Wanna bet? The principle is universal. It applies to your feeling certain you don’t have talent for something—drawing, music, computers, managing people, you name it.
  5. If you’ve tried to do something and failed miserably, you might still have a talent for it; perhaps you just need a good teacher, a good partner, a good environment. Think how many mean and incompetent teachers are out there, and how discouraging they can be.
  6. “I’ve never danced in my life! I don’t have a talent for it!” Can you see what’s wrong with these words?
  7. Timing is everything. Talent is always there, but sometimes you need to wait until you are good and ready to explore it. And you may not be ready until you’re 13, or 26, or 39, or 52. (Here’s testing your talent for multiplication tables!)
  8. Talent is immutable; it’s already there inside you, and it’ll always be there as a latent force. But your manner of tapping into it is highly variable. It’s easy to confuse the two. If you go about blindly trying to develop a talent, your failure doesn’t mean you don’t have the talent.
  9. You can develop a new skill in intermittent bursts of time and effort, as long as the effort is intelligent and the time well-spent.
  10. If someone has a great deal of innate facility for something but no patience to develop the skill over the long term, does he or she really have “talent”?
  11. Okay, it’s possible for you not to have talent for something and feel sure that you do. Still, that’d be a lesser problem than having talent and feeling sure you don’t.
  12. Talent isn’t contagious, but enthusiasm is.

Hey, you talented readers out there: How about submitting your stories about hidden talents, talents snuffed out by mean teachers, talents that have surprised and delighted you as you went about discovering them?

What you learn is not what you expect to learn

In my previous installment of The Naked Beginner I told you about the gesture drawing as I learned it from Kimon Nicolaïdes. Today I’ll tell you about Nicolaïdes’s second great exercise.

The contour drawing shares two characteristics with the gesture drawing: you don’t actually look at the paper as you draw; and the pencil never leaves the page. But, instead of drawing something quickly the way you do with gesture drawing, you let your eyes slowly follow the contours of whatever you’re looking at… and you let your hand slowly draw the very contour your eye is looking at, millimeter by millimeter. It’s another Zen-like meditation, in which your eye and your hand so fuse that you develop the feeling you are actually touching the object or person that you draw. The eye caresses the figure, the hand caresses the paper, and what the eye sees and what the hand draws finally become one.

At first the exercise was surprisingly difficult. I kept wanting to look at the page, not at the object I was trying to draw. I found that I simply didn’t want to let my eyes linger on an image long enough. I'd scan the image in a jerky fashion, stopping at one point and then suddenly moving my eyes jerkily to another point far away. I was impatient, quickly bored, even uncomfortable. This showed me I didn’t live in the moment. I didn’t “stay,” as it were; I “came and went” instead. It also showed me I had never, ever truly looked at the world with my attention properly focused. There’s so much to see when you really look: shape, dimension, proportion, context, expression, perspective, color, light and shadow—the amount of information at your disposal is staggering. There may well be good biological and psychological reasons not to look so closely: you can be utterly overwhelmed by what you perceive!

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1303411-1159834-thumbnail.jpgAnd that is the main thing: I was learning to broaden and deepen my perceptions of the world. It’s tempting to think that what separates an artist from a non-artist is the degree of technical expertise: in short, the artist has more and better “technique.” But that is utterly misleading. Artistry is first and foremost about perception. Caravaggio’s accomplishment wasn’t in how he depicted the world, but how he perceived it. Caravaggio, Picasso, Matisse, Kahlo, O'Keefe, Rembrandt, name whom you will—it’s the case with all artists.

My artistic initiation has had little to do with art, and everything to do with perception, with looking, seeing, and touching, with living in the moment, with trusting my instincts, with passing from the known to the unknown.

In fact, I learned so many things from Nicolaïdes’s two basic exercises that I’ll need a whole new blog entry to dissect my  experiences and to offer you a few pointers along the way.

Extra! Extra! Insane Artist Finds a Teacher!

In my recent installments of The Naked Beginner I told you about how I started drawing thanks to a fictional character and an imaginary friend who lives by night. Today I’ll tell you about a dead white male who gave me the last push.

Kimon Nicolaïdes taught drawing in New York City during the first half of the 20th century. He left behind a marvelous book that provides an extremely constructive method of drawing. The Natural Way to Draw is written with such passion and humor that it makes for wonderful reading, even if you’re not interested in drawing at all.

My wife, who’s a trained artist, had a copy of the book from before the time we met. I had leafed the book on several occasions, and was always struck by Nicolaïdes’s tone of voice, so direct and engaging. But something about the book actually prevented me from trying to draw. Nicolaïdes demanded, from the reader and putative art student, the same passion, the same commitment that Nicolaïdes himself brought to his craft—or so I imagined from his tone of voice. 15 hours of practice a week! One chapter per week! Don’t read chapter 2 before you finish the 15 hours of practice from chapter 1! It’s the least you can do! It’s normal! It’s the only way to learn! Grow up already!

It was all or nothing. Despite the many pleasures I had  his book, over the years I opted for nothing again and again.

This was doubly dumb of me. First, “all” is better than “nothing.” Second, I could simply have refused Nicolaïdes’s radical entreaties (as I foolishly perceived them) and made my own choices about how to read his book. That’s what I finally did. I decided to follow Nicolaïdes exercises one by one, and fulfill his practice schedule to the letter… but in my own rhythm. I took two months to do the 15 hours of practice scheduled in the first chapter.

It was the most blissful summer of my life.

My education started with two sketching exercises: gesture and contour. They’re both simple but far-reaching. To do a gesture sketch, sit somewhere with pencil and paper… look at a figure, an object, a passerby, a child at play, any one thing… and draw, very quickly and without looking at the paper, a sort of perception of the object’s or person’s energy.

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Draw a few continuous squiggles without letting the pencil tip leave the paper. It takes a few seconds. Don’t draw details or a literal physical rendering, but rather the essence, the intention, the gesture that the object or person conveys. It’s a way of having your eyes, your intuition, and your drawing hand converge in a Zen-like moment of completeness and freedom.

Nicolaïdes explains it rather better, and you really ought to read his book.

And you really ought to practice the exercise before you go on to the next installment of The Naked Beginner, in which I’ll tell you about contour drawing.

Extra! Extra! Graffiti Artist Goes Insane!

In my last instalment of The Naked Beginner I told you how a fictional character prodded me to start exploring my artistic bent. Today I'll tell you about another... well... imaginary friend, for lack of a better term.

I'm the client of a great doctor here in Paris, a German allopath and homeopath whose nearly shamanic guidance has taken me to plenty of unexpected places over the years. When I last visited him he said, in his own words, “We are all two people, a day person and a night person, a doer and a dreamer, left brain and right brain, what you will. You can communicate with your night person directly and engage him or her. Sit up in bed last thing before going to sleep and say hello to him or her. Tell her you have a problem and you need her help. Outline the problem briefly. Then go to sleep, and let the night person solve the problem for you. You sleep all night, you wake up in the morning, and the problem is gone.”

Yeah, I know. Your day person is saying, “Nonsense." I thought the same thing at first, but I decided I’d have a go. (The German fellow has quite a track record with me.) I bought myself a spiral-bound notebook with blank pages. On the notebook's first page I glued a card with a photo of a children’s party where a bunch of 3- and 4-year-olds were screaming and playing with balloons. Inside the card I wrote, “My dear night person, I welcome you into my life. Please introduce yourself to me, tell me your name.” I added four stamps, from a trove of old stamps from all over the world I had bought at a philatelist’s just for this purpose.

That night I had a dream, and a young being, both male and female, came into my life. He, she was called Noï, written just like that. In German, “Neu” means “new” and it’s pronounced “NAW-ee.” In Italian, “Noi” means “We, us.” The name was beautiful, full of different meanings and connotations, musical, nice to say. Every night since that dream I have written to Noï, always starting my messages with “Dear Noï of the Beautiful Name.” I tell her a little about my day, I praise her infinite creativity, I thank her about all that she’s given me, and I ask her for more of everything.

I’ve presented Noï with problems, issues, desires, fears, goals, and tasks of all sorts—some creative, some professional, some affective. And Noï has helped me deal with a number of them. I won’t tell you what these tasks were precisely. (Hey, this is the Internet, after all! If I tell you my secrets they’ll be on every one’s tongues and ears in a nanosecond.) But I’ll tell you that Noï has helped me sleep much better, work more productively, and have steadier energy throughout the day. All for the price of a notebook and a ten-dollar bag of old stamps.

After I filled the notebook with my nightly postcards, I decided I’d change medium. Some years ago I saw a marvelous show of drawings by Alberto Giacometti, better known as a sculptor (in particular of extremely elongated figures). Several of his drawings were made with ballpoint pens, just like the cheap Bics you and I use to take notes and write checks and so on. The drawings were expressive and original. I couldn’t ever be or become Giacometti, I thought, but I could certainly handle a Bic. I bought a box of Bics of many colors—blue, black, red, and green—and, on a fresh notebook, I started drawing a different face every night, for Noï’s delectation.

I started off copying photos of friends and family, alternating the colors every night. My goddaughter Marianne in black, my mother in green, my grandmother in red. My efforts came out stilted and distorted. I myself could barely recognize my family members.

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After a few nights maiming my elders, I chose to draw my nephew as a baby. Lo and behold, the portrait came out rather charming.

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Er… it was kinda scary. I still thought of myself as a stick artist, and my accidental success challenged my aesthetics and my conception of myself. But deep down I was quite pleased. Every night I showed my drawings to my wife, who happens to be a trained artist,with a fine-arts college degree from Parsons. My wife indulges me, and I’m terribly grateful to her. “Cute,” she says. “Funny.” “Not so bad.” “Pretty good.” “The eyes are all screwy.” Actually, I resented that remark bitterly. But she was right. I couldn’t do eyes. Or lips. Or noses. Or cheekbones. Or—well, you get the idea.

The thing, though, was that I was finally drawing, for the first time in 35 years. My drawing hand (I’m a leftie) loved the feeling of the pen on paper. My visual perceptions were changing. I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes, and I was having tremendous fun.

Then Kimon Nicolaïdes entered my life. He was dead, of course. But I’m used to communing with fictional characters and ghosts inside my heart, so a dead man didn’t scare me one bit. Stay tuned for the next instalment of The Naked Beginner!

Extra! Extra! Stick Artist Becomes Graffiti Artist!

In the first instalment of The Naked Beginner series, I told you about my life as a handicapped stick artist and how three strange people helped me overcome my handicap. Today I'll tell you about a non-existent guy who initiated me into the art of grafitti.

Tommy Latrella, the hero of my forthcoming time-travel novel, Backtracked, is a 16-year-old who rides the subways in New York City and defaces its wall and corridors, its cars, its benches. I thought I would do some research. I bought myself a marker and a big cheap notebook, and I tried to channel Latrella’s style of subway art. As I set out in my explorations, I splashed a few lines boldly drawn across a page, their rhythm more important than their shape. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t draw—I was just doing character research, right?

Sitting at one of my favorite Parisian cafés and working on my signature—I mean, on the signature of the NYC graffiti artist called Thomas Anthony Latrella, aka Ghost—I started drawing other things with my big fat marker. A cup of coffee. Someone’s face in a few round strokes, the drawing not even recognizably human. A sketch of my own hand.

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The smell of marker ink was delicious. The feeling of my hand defacing a blank page, exhilarating. And the visual result, on page after page, surprisingly adept (at least to my easily fooled eyes!).

It was the beginning of the end of my days as a stick artist.

After the Ghost initiated me into the visual arts, someone else decided I needed to go further—someone who may or may not exist, and if he or she does exist, he or she may or may not be... myself. I'll do my best to explain it in the next installment of The Naked Beginner.

Birth and Death of a Stick Artist

The last time I took an art class was in grade school, probably when I was about 13. Subsequently I became your stereotypical non-artist whose technique for drawing consisted of a few straight lines and a couple of circles. Dog? Five straight lines for the skeleton (one for the spine, four for the legs), one circle for the head. Human being? About the same. Women were different from men because they had two squiggles for hair. If I tried very hard, this is what I would be able to do:

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The fowl below (I suspect it's a chicken) is my absolute best drawing from my early period, covering the years 1958-2006.

chicken.jpgDrawing, painting, and sculpting were outside my domain, by a law of nature that said, “At the maternity your momma pressed a button by the side of her bed, and she chose to make you a stick artist instead of a Rembrandt. Yes, sweet little Pedro, you’re a stick artist if there ever was one. You’ll grow up a stick artist and you’ll die a stick artist. Tough nuggets.”

My momma’s button notwithstanding, like all stick artists I suffered from a severe misconception. I can’t speak Swahili—that’s a fact. I can’t pilot an airplane—that’s also a fact. I can’t draw—well, that’s a perception, not a fact. The problem is, when the wind blows just so perceptions become convictions, and convictions become realities. For roughly 35 years (that is, following my last art class in 8th grade) I didn’t draw because I couldn’t, and I couldn’t because I didn’t. “I don’t draw, you understand? I can’t! Look at my stick figures—they demonstrate I can’t draw!”

I owe the unraveling of my stick-artist identity to three people. One definitely doesn’t exist. Another has been dead for seventy years. And the third one—well, it’s hard to explain. In the next Naked Beginner installment, I’ll tell you about the inexistent one.

You're wrong about me (and I'm right about you), part 8: Judgments

A brave new voice has rung out in the wilderness, purporting to disagree with me on my “right and wrong” catechism. That I actually agree with the voice doesn’t make it any less brave. Here’s Lisa Marie’s statement.

I don't want to sound contrary, but I think negative judgments need someone to defend them.

Aren't any negative judgments ever right? Aren't any artists overrated? Wouldn't you be justifiably irritated if I suggested you were just in a bad mood and succumbing to irrational prejudice when you say that Ella Fitzgerald's bossa nova renditions give you the aesthetic equivalent of hives?

And isn't the converse of Terry's experience not “judging correctly because in a positive frame of mind, but “having one's pocket picked from being over-certain of another's good faith”?

Of course I can see that teachers, doctors and priests need/ought to hold off from judging pupils, patients and parishioners too quickly or harshly. And book reviewers should try to practice charity more assiduously even than the rest of us. But arguments about aesthetic matters are surely a form of human flourishing and must often involve someone saying "I really don't like this.” The examination of why someone objects to some great work or artist is often fascinating and need not leave one less free to come to one's own conclusions.

I absolutely agree with everything Lisa Marie says! Plenty of negative judgments are right, and plenty of positive judgments are wrong. Plenty of artists are overrated. The naive permanently risk getting their pockets picked, literally and metaphorically. The give-and-take of aesthetic arguments is very enriching, and stating one’s likes and dislikes unequivocally is all for the better. My philosophy isn’t “Never make negative judgments” but, rather, “Make the judgments that you will, positive or negative, but don’t forget you may possibly be wrong about them—particularly if the judgments come from preconceived ideas of which you may not be aware. And if you find out you’re wrong about something, change your mind and your behavior regarding the thing in question. Your change may come from a judgment that goes from negative to positive, or from positive to negative. It all depends.”

A positive judgment may be wrong and extremely harmful—for instance, when the electorate issues a positive judgment on a wicked politician. In such a case the collective duty is to scream bloody murder.

I don’t plan to start liking Ella’s bossa nova renditions any time soon. Or anything by John Denver. Or Barry Manilow. No way—not Barry Manilow. I’ll never change my mind about Barry Manilow. Not in a million years. Never, ever, ever.

You're wrong about me (and I'm right about you), part 7: Moods

After my recent call for testimonials about right and wrong, Terry sent me the story below.

I like to think I'm patient and I give people the benefit of the doubt. I remember once standing in line with my wife at a movie theater in a very grumpy mood. Why so grumpy, I can't remember. I saw a couple apparently start another line, as if to bypass us. I yelled something unpleasant out to the guy in the couple and complained loudly. He looked at me like I was some kind of a nut and just ignored me. Later I realized his line was for something else and had nothing to do with what I was waiting for. The guy was right: I was some kind of a nut. I was mentally prepared for someone to do wrong by me, so that's what I instantly saw.


Terry’s anecdote demonstrates a simple but powerful fact: when in a bad mood, our judgments of right and wrong deteriorate, and we end up doing dumb things for dumb reasons.

Fortunately, the reverse of the medal is also true: when in a good mood, we usually make fewer dumb mistakes, though of course there’s no guaranteed way of stopping all mistakes.

These are some of the things I do regularly to affect my mood for the better and, indirectly, my judgment of right and wrong and the behaviors that follow from the judgment.

  1. I instantly feel boosted when I hear the Golden Gate Quartet, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, the Miles Davis of “Kind of Blue,” or Ella Fitzgerald (except when she sings the bossa nova of my native Brazil, which she butchers with a not-so-infectious joy!). When I'm in a bad way, I listen to one of their CDs and I get good in a nanosecond.
  2. I’m a big fun of comic books and cartoons: Calvin & Hobbes, Peanuts, Fat Freddy’s Cat, The Muppet Show, Daffy Duck and his friends. (Actually, Daffy doesn’t have any friends. I meant his foes.) If I need mood therapy I watch a DVD or read a few pages from the anthologies in my library. Wile E. Coyote’s humiliating losses in battle make mine seem rather petty, so I give up my irritation and take it easy instead.
  3. Chocolate is a legal mood enhancer, packed with caffeine, theobromine, and many other chemicals that end in “-ine” (just as in “coca-ine” and “hero-ine”). A few ounces of dark chocolate can turn Scrooge into a pussy cat. Like all drugs, however, chocolate has unpleasant side effects: the unwillingness to eat your vegetables, diabetes, Flabby Belly Syndrome, you name it. But—hey, today I want my chocolate. Tomorrow’s another day.
  4. My childhood friend Debby and I like chatting in Portuguese on the phone, gossiping, whining, and telling each other all the terrible things we’ve done in recent days. Somehow when Debby laughs at my right-and-wrong struggles I go from upset to relieved, from grumpy to cheerful, from dumb to intelligent.

It’s best to use these tools preventatively. If you spend your days eating candy and watching cartoons on TV, you’ll be in a permanent good mood. In fact, your mood will be so good you won’t do anything wrong at all (other than spending your days eating candy and watching cartoons on TV!).

You're wrong about me (and I'm right about you), part 6: Ah, the French! (Ah, the Brits!)

We have a guest blogger today: John, a Brit living in France who’s an expert on Brazilian music. His story is about assumptionsperceptions, and convictions—and how they all lead you to being WRONG. Enjoy!

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I am in the midst of a community perceptual spectacle along the lines of your topic.

The building in Roubaix, where I am 5 days a week at Le Day Job, formerly housed on its 2nd floor a branch of Trésorier Publique, the public-treasury office that handles tax returns. They moved out in January, taking everything, including the door handles. They put a sign up indicating the move and took their own sign down. However, now not even the "We have moved" sign remains.

Not a morning goes by without someone in my company (or our neighbours) having to explain as calmly as possible to someone or other that the Treasury office is no longer here. Some of these people are so convinced that it is here (after years of knowing it really was here) that the "It's moved" possibility is not the first thing in their minds. The 2nd floor is totally empty and dark (they even took the light bulbs), there is no door handle or any indication that anyone has touched the place for close to a year... yet it is not uncommon to find people on the staircase who want to know at what time "we" open, since no one is there yet. No sign, no furniture, no lights, yet... the treasury must be here, as here is where it has always been! Sometimes their confusion is alleviated when you point to the envelope invariably clenched in their hands, with the new address of the public treasury printed neatly in the upper left corner.

But sometimes not. "Yes, but I am looking for the place to pay my taxes..." (“Well, sir, if you are making a cash payment I will see what can be arranged….”)

I make a game with myself, seeing if I can guess who is in the building, or approaching it, in order to make use of its former fiscal functionality. I count the points. Two days ago, not wanting to abandon my ipod in mid-song, I preemptively told a lady about to embark on the staircase that the public treasury was no longer here. I couldn't hear her response too well. She might even have been going to the dentist on the 5th floor... but sometimes, you just know.

Before you start thinking that I’m right all the time and enjoy rubbing it in, here’s another story. Yesterday I went to say goodbye to my mother at the station. I had even bought her train tickets for her, so I had already seen all the dates and hours. I panicked for most of the afternoon, realising I had told her to take a Eurostar that didn't exist at the appointed time, asking the check-in helpers to see if they could look up what time her train to London really was (had she left already? had she missed her train and panicked herself? was she on a later Eurostar?); I ran all over Lille looking for her and cursing my absent mindedness, why had I got the time of her train wrong??? I later realised to my horror that her train was not to London, but to Paris (and from Paris to the Eurostar). So I had doubly confused her: sending her not only at the wrong time but to the wrong station!

There is a tangible taste to this "inversion of the world" when we miss a set of circumstances that is not only possible, but probable, or indeed actual; it is disconcerting. Luckily, wise woman that she is, she got all of her trains, no problem. I am still feeling disoriented!

You're wrong about me (and I'm right about you), part 5: Seven Pointers

In this recent series of blog entries you’ve been finding out how easy it is to be wrong in assumptions, convictions, and perceptions. What can you do about it?

  1. Give yourself little reminders of how you’ve been wrong in the past, better to soften your certitudes in the present. The Gauguin object that brought me around took on an iconic role: it became the embodiment of my misperception, and as such it held sway over me, made me a little more open-minded, invited me to approach things and people without an overly passionate or dismissive attitude. The syrup of prevention is better than the surgery of cure, or words to that effect!
  2. Once you discover you've been wrong about something or someone, acknowledge your mistake, to yourself and to the public. I don’t mean quite to the whole world, only to the parties concerned: your wife, a friend, a shopkeeper with whom you picked a fight over a nickel. Acknowledgment frees your conscience and wins you a lot of good will.
  3. Make amends. There have been many situations in which I became retroactively aware of being in the wrong with someone. I approach the person in question and offer him or her a small gift. I often choose to give a copy of my iconic Gauguin book, telling the gift recipient of how Gauguin had taught me a lesson or two about  being wrong. Books, cards, stationery, candy, flowers, CDs, DVDs, small objects, a bottle of olive oil... the possibilities are endless.
  4. You’ve been wrong and you’ll be wrong again. Given that you can never be totally sure of a great many things, it may be useful to develop the mental habit of inserting a little doubt into your verbal interactions. Spice up your conversations with one of these formulations: " I may be wrong, but it seems to me that…" "As far as I can tell, I think that…" "I’ve been wrong in the past and I’ll be wrong again. Nevertheless, here’s what I think about this…" "I may be missing something here, but if I understand it right you’re saying that…" "I’m not sure about this, but let me say it anyway. I may need to retract it before long."
  5. If you catch yourself engaging in fixed patterns of thought and speech, stop your statement in mid-flight and park it back at the hangar.
  6. My wife sweetly allowed me to stay wrong about Gauguin for years, until I came around to the truth when I was good and ripe for it. You may be absolutely sure that someone close to you is terribly wrong about something. Well… you may need to give the person in question minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years to let go of his or her wrong opinion. Remember: facts don’t stand a chance against convictions.
  7. To be wrong and learn from it is better than to be right and not learn a thing.
I have every intention of revisiting this subject in the near future. For instance, I'd like to tell you about the Brazilian who didn't believe I was Brazilian regardless of what I said or did. I'd like to tell you about all my ex-friends, the objectionable men and women whom I misjudged for much too long. I'd like to tell you about my ex-stepmother, who so liked picking fights she'd disagree with herself if you agreed with her. But I won't tell you any of these gossipy delights until at least THREE OF YOU READERS write in with stories of your own about being wrong. Capisce?

You’re wrong about me (but I’m right about you), part 4: Perceptions

Many years ago, during one of my summer visits to my family in Brazil, I went to visit my ailing, housebound grandmother. I took the bus to her neighborhood and walked from the bus stop to her apartment building. Way down the block I spotted my father, walking toward me.

Dad wasn’t very tall—about 5-foot-4, I’d say. His large skull was totally bald on top and scraggly on the sides. On this occasion was dressed in the garb he wore daily to his job teaching at the university hospital: grey trousers, white shirt, brown cardigan. His walk was endearing, somewhat ridiculous, and absolutely individual. He took fast, small steps, always looking down at his feet, lost to his inner world, thinking and thinking—that was his thing, thinking.

As he walked toward me, he ate popcorn out of a paper bag. In Brazil you can buy fresh popcorn from street carts, much as you can buy pretzels in New York or crêpes in Paris. I come from a family of popcorn fanatics. We eat a lot of it, we eat it often, and we eat it in public as well as in private.

Dad was so absorbed in his popcorn and his inner world that he didn’t see me walking toward him. I decided to play a joke on him. We got nearer and nearer to each other, and right when he were side by side I put my mouth practically in his ear and asked, “You enjoying your popcorn?”

Dad was totally freaked out, of course. He looked up at me with alarm in his eyes. It’s not every day that a total stranger invades your inner world for no good reason.

For a microsecond I was proud of my joke. Then it was my turn to freak out. The guy wasn’t my father at all! He happened to look like my father, dress like my father, walk like my father, and eat popcorn like my father. And he happened to be at my grandmother’s neighborhood, as my father was likely to be two or three times a week. But—he wasn’t my father.

I have no idea who that guy was or how he reacted to my assault, because I didn’t hang around to find out. When I realized I had made a mistake, I sped away without looking back. I rushed to grandma’s and sat at her feet for an hour, pretending that I was the angel she had long thought I was. Why spoil her illusions? That’d have been quite selfish of me.

The moral of the story is, “You can’t ever be totally sure of anything. It doesn’t matter how much evidence you have in your favor, you still risk being wrong. Everyone in this world has been wrong and will continue to be wrong from time to time, or often, or even always. DO NOT COUNT ON YOUR PERCEPTIONS AND SUPPOSITIONS ALONE TO NAVIGATE THE WORLD! USE YOUR DISCERNMENT TOO! AND THINK TWICE BEFORE PLAYING A JOKE ON YOUR FATHER!”

You're wrong about me (and I'm right about you), part 3: Convictions

I can date the onset of my interest in art to a precise date: the opening of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in November, 1968, when I was 10 years old. The museum’s building was daring, floating on twin pillars way above ground. And the paintings in the main collection were displayed in a unique manner, intimate and immediate: each painting at eye level on its own glass wall, the collection a labyrinth of glass. My exploration of the art world at the time was like all adolescent exploration: disorganized, in fits and starts, incomplete. Nevertheless, I’ve been looking at art ever since, letting myself become excited by what I see—excited, enthusiastic, fascinated, but also bored, dismissive, and even angry.

Take Paul Gauguin. At some point I decided I hated him. His sense of perspective was so awkward, the bodies on each plane looking too big or too flat or too long or too short. His paintings of naked natives (which the white colonists like himself bedded and discarded, no doubt) struck a politically incorrect note. And the naked bodies weren’t even attractive. A thigh round and fat like a ham, fingers on a hand like so many sausages. As for Gauguin’s colors? Blah.

My wife would tell me, “You’re wrong about Gauguin.” I’d reply, “I know what I like and don’t like. And I have good arguments to demonstrate that Gauguin is no good.” “You’re not looking.” “I just told you, I looked, sensed, thought, and concluded. I don’t like Gauguin.” This went on for several years. One day my wife gave me a postcard of a Gauguin painting. “All right, it’s kinda pretty,” I said. “But it doesn’t change the basic problem.” And I meant, Gauguin was the basic problem.

One day I visited someone who had a little book on his coffee table. “Noa Noa,” it said on the cover. I leafed through it. It was a facsimile of one of Gauguin’s diaries. Watercolors, woodcuts, sepia photos, stories written in a flowing script… The watercolors alone were divine. The whole object and the author’s personality that shone through it blew me over.

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1303411-1064147-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1064148-thumbnail.jpgMy wife was doubly right: Gauguin was brilliant; I wasn’t looking at him properly. He had been inviting me to enter a certain world, and I was too close-minded to accept his invitation.

I bought a copy of “Noa Noa” and, for a long time, kept it within easy sight, the book’s cover facing me as reminder to myself: Despite strong feelings, despite apparently objective evidence, despite aesthetic convictions, despite everything that TOLD me I was right… I was in fact wrong.

Needless to say, I’ve been wrong about many things and many people besides my beloved Gauguin. In a sense that's a good thing: Changing one’s mind about something, and in particular changing one’s opinion from negative to positive, is a heady pleasure, a liberation of sorts. In the visual arts alone, I've had the experience of changing my mind from negative to postivie a great many times: about Andy Warhol, about Piet Mondrian, about Roy Lichtenstein, about Barnett Newman... I'm glad I hate a few things still, because they hold the potential to prove me wrong and to set me free.

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You're wrong about me (but I'm right about you), part 2: Words

Recently I told an anecdote about how people assume I must love the heat simply because I grew up in Brazil. The moral of the story was, “Make no assumptions.” But we all do. We make assumptions about people, about things, about situations. We make assumptions without knowing we’re making them. Facts? Who needs facts when we have convictions?

Certain words and expressions are good indicators of a mind that may be looking at the world with preconceived ideas. But we won’t assume that the expressions below NECESSARILY indicate a closed mind, right? See if you recognize some habits of thought and speech in one or more of these statements. And try to suss out why they may reveal a prejudice or three.

  • Always. Never. Should. Should not. Must. Must not. Everyone. Nobody, ever!
  • As everyone knows…
  • I’m sure you’ll agree with me.
  • You and I are exactly alike.
  • I know what I’m talking about.
  • Absolutely. Absolutely not.
  • It doesn’t matter what you say anymore. You won’t change my mind.
  • I’m surprised you don’t see it.
  • You, of all people?
  • I was raised that way.
  • Where I come from, we really respect other people. Unlike here, where there are so many morons.
  • It’s always been that way, and it’ll always be that way. That’s just how it goes.
  • I hate oysters. I don’t even have to eat one to know that I hate eating them.
  • It’s so obvious.
  • You’ll love it! Everyone does!
  • It’s the most natural thing in the world.
  • I know what you mean.
  • Oh, yes, I’ve met many Israelis (or Nigerians, or South Americans, or weight-lifters, or any one group of people). At least five of them.
  • It’s a well-known fact.
  • That’s what they do, those people.
  • You left me with no choice.

You're wrong about me (but I'm right about you), part 1: Assumptions

It’s a hot and muggy summer day, and like a million other people without air conditioning I’m sticky and fatigued. One of my students arrives for a lesson. “You must be very happy today,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re Brazilian. Brazilians love the heat.”

I can never resist this conversation, although I know exactly how it turns out. Here we go.

Me: “You’re wrong about it, and I’d be happy to explain to you why.”

Student: “Uh?”

Me: “First, look at me. Pink skin, shaved skull, blue eyes… From a genetic point of view I’m really European. The sun is very harmful to my biological type.”

Student: “Huh-huh.”

Me: “Also, I left Brazil 30 years ago. I’ve lived in Northern climes since. Brazil is history.”

Student: “Huh-huh.”

Me: “People have very different metabolisms, regardless of their national origins. That’s why on some days you see some people walking around in shorts and tee-shirts, others wearing sweaters and coats. Some people get cold easily, others not. I’ve always preferred cold weather. I was born that way.”

Student: “Huh-huh.”

Me: “Go to Brazil at the height of summer and ask everyone in sight, ‘Do you like this heat?’ Almost everyone will say, ‘No, it’s unbearable. I can’t wait until the summer is over.’ Rich people go to the mountain resorts during the heat waves, because it’s nice and cool up there. The poor suffer miserably. A lot of Brazilians in Brazil don’t like the heat.”

Student: “Huh-huh.”

Me: “So, you can see that I don’t like the heat, even though I grew up in Brazil.”

Student: “But... you’re Brazilian, you must love the heat!”

It’s funny and it isn’t funny. The truth is, we all have fixed ideas on hundreds of subjects. Instead of looking at people and things as they are, instead of learning from each encounter and each situation, we let pre-formed visions dominate our minds. Then we confuse the inner visions with the things and people in front of us. Not all Brazilians love the heat, soccer, and Carnival (although some do, maybe even many). Not all Americans like defrosted hot dogs and watery beer (although some do, maybe even many). Not all Frenchmen cheat on their wives (actually, they all do). (Just kidding!)

In this series of blog entries I propose to look at how we fail to pay attention and grasp reality, and the price we pay for being so sure that the mirage is the oasis. Can't you see it? It's right there, in front of your eyes! Dive in!

Write a story every day, part 5: Helpful Books

A book becomes good or bad, pertinent or boring, constructive or not depending on how you read it. In fact, no two readers will ever read the same book in the same way. For that reason, recommending books we love for others to read may be tricky. What if you hate the books I live by? What if you resent me for making you read a lousy book? Well, you can always post a comment on my blog offering counter-recommendations. And don't forget nobody made you do anything in the first place!

 

ideas.jpgI suggested that finding a concept for a story is the easiest part of writing one. That doesn't mean it's easy, exactly; it's just easier than some other steps in the writing process. But if you're having a hard time finding an idea, a hook, a portal, a trigger, or what you will, help is at hand in Jack Heffron's The Writer's Idea Book. In a friendly and encouraging manner, Heffron comes up with several hundred prompts to get you going. They are numerous enough for you to find one or more that will trigger your imagination or, more precisely, your unstoppable urge to pour words out.

 

courage.jpgI wrote about the threatening blank page or computer screen that trips up many writers. In The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, Ralph Keyes looks at the question of writerly anxiety and comes up with many astute and sympathetic observations. Keyes says, quite rightly, that courage isn't the absence of fear, but the willingness to act despite fear. Ultimately you're better off not getting rid of your fear, but learning how to harness it creatively.


1303411-1020792-thumbnail.jpgI suggested that one way of finding one's inner courage to write was by entering a trance. Trance is a big subject: there exist dozens of types of trances, each with its merits, risks, and dangers. Milton H. Erickson, M.D. was perhaps the 20th-century's greatest expert on trance states. A psychiatrist by training and a trailblazer in hypnotic techniques and their application to individual problem-solving, Erickson was also a master storyteller and a highly sensitive therapist with shamanic capabilities. Milton H. Erickson, M.D.: An American Healer, edited by Bradford Keeney and Betty Alice Erickson, is by no means a how-to on trance. Instead, it's a collection of essays, anecdotes, photo albums, and interviews that paints a delightful and compelling portrait of a free mind. Reading it might inspire you to free your mind in your own ways.

 

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Rhythm & Flow in a Writer's Career is my own book for writers. It contains many dozens of suggestions and exercises to make you a more fluid, confident, and productive writer. My book has a singular defect, however: it hasn't been published yet! Until it comes out you'll have to resort to the other wonderful books on this page. But if you ask me nicely, I just might post my book's table of contents and a sample chapter on my website.

 

 

 

Make a fool of yourself

Today you’re going to make a fool of yourself. This will happen whether you want to or not, so you’re better off embracing the idea and going with it. If you’re a normal human being, you make a fool of yourself every day anyway. That’s the very definition of “normality.” Right now you’re going to do it for a specific purpose.

Meet Peggy Babcock. She’s not old enough to stop caring about how old she is, so she’s probably 57 or 60. But that's immaterial. I just need you to say her name out loud:

“Peggy Babcock.”

Now say it three times in a row, at a pretty fast clip.

“Peggy Babcock, Peggy Babcock, Peggy Babcock.”

Congratulations. You’ve just made a fool of yourself. You’ve become a babbling, incapacitated baby sheep. It happens to everyone. Your lips, tongue, and jaw couldn’t face the challenge of saying sweet ol’ Peggy’s name three times in a row. You tensed your neck and shoulders. You tried to use every last body part to compensate for the failure of speech—head, hands, feet, pelvis, everything. And you became frustrated and annoyed.

First and foremost, you’ve demonstrated that the physical and the emotional are so connected as to be inseparable. A tiny physical challenge gave rise to strong emotions. The relationship between the physical and the emotional may not be always so intense or unbalanced, but there always is some relationship.

Second, you’ve demonstrated that trying too hard to accomplish anything is kinda not very smart, if you know what I mean. You fell apart trying hard and still didn’t accomplish the task. Well, quit it. From now on, don’t try so hard.

Third, you’ve demonstrated that speaking clearly is a function of the whole person—not voice alone, not mouth alone, but the whole body plus the words plus the emotions.

Stop thinking about Madame Babcock for a moment. Calm down. Center yourself. Take those famous deep breaths you see in the movies. Now say “Bab.” It’s easy, right? You can do it without killing yourself, right? Now say, “BAB-Cock,” the Bab louder than the Cock. Lengthen the “a” of Bab: “BAAAB-Cock.”

Now say “Peggy.” You don’t need to stiffen your neck or go berserk. Say it slowly, repeat it a few times. Now say, “Peeeeggy… BAAAB-Cock,” lengthening the “eh” of Peggy, waiting between Peggy and Bab, and making BAB the strongest of all four syllables.

Now say it all a few times in a row, and then start speeding it up gradually, making the vowels not so long, making the separation between syllables not so big, making Bab not so loud.

Congratulations again. You’ve learned how to use inflection, timing, rhythm, organization, and a little self-awareness in order to speak beautifully. I propose you always talk that way.

Here are some more Tongue Twisters. They really ought to be called Person Twisters. Enjoy them.

  • Seventy-seven benevolent elephants.
  • Sheena leads, Sheila needs.
  • Extinct insects' instincts.
  • All rural girls will wear jewelry.
  • Black background, brown background.
  • Double bubble gum, bubbles double.
  • Elmer Arnold.

Write a story every day, part 4: The Trance

There you are, trying to write a story every day. You found a good concept—that was the easy part. Now all you need to do is to enter the frame of mind in which telling the story too becomes easy.

A web of oppositions exists inside every one of us: masculine and feminine qualities, yin and yang, right brain and left brain, adult and child, doer and observer. For writers, one opposition is particularly important: between the creator and the editor. The creator is free-flowing, playful, risk-loving. The editor is careful, judgmental, risk-averse. The creator says, “I want to. Let me. Yes.” The editor says, “Not so fast. Not quite. No.”

The real difficulty in writing the first draft of anything—a daily short story or an 800-page novel—is to let the creator prevail over the editor. Just as the masculine and the feminine can become integrated inside us, so can the creator and the editor. Sometimes they work so well together that a story is born perfect, freely conceived yet tightly structured. But if you haven’t achieved such an integrated state, your creator won’t say a word as long as the editor is breathing down her neck. The editor plays a fundamental role in all good writing, but the creator must be left alone for a little while in order to find her voice.

How can you make the editor shut up?

By entering a trance. A trance is a state where the editor takes a siesta while the creator runs the show. When you’re in a trance, you suspend judgment, criticism, the urge to question and to censor. Then the stories come out of their own accord, directly from your heart to the page. You don’t even need to type them. They type themselves! Honest Injun!

Locomotion sometimes creates the trance: walking, pacing, jogging, dancing, and otherwise moving at a regular rhythm all help the editor get tired and want a nap. Music can do the trick. Some sounds calm the editor, others excite it; when I play Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue,” my editor relaxes as soon as he hears the first beat of the first track. If you sit somewhere—at home or in public—and you concentrate your stare on a fixed point, your editor gets bored and falls asleep. Strangely, the opposite strategy also works: sit where you will and keep sweeping your eyes across the landscape, and the editor will get dizzy and call it quits.

The editor is a wimp. But the creator who lets the editor beat her up is a wimp too. Go sit down with a notebook right now. Pump the editor full of sleeping pills. Then just watch as the pencil dances on the page.

Lessons from the balloon's baby brother: Readiness

You’ve been playing with a balloon and learning some surprising lessons about your voice and your upper body. The time has come for you to broaden your exploration. Take a tennis ball in your hand. It doesn’t matter if it’s old and beat-up. If you don’t have a tennis ball at home, an orange or tangerine will do, anything with a similar dimension and texture. Tennis ball or citrus fruit, just hold it as a playful, mischievous, curious child would: What can I do with this thing? In how many ways can I amuse myself? How can I use this object to annoy my mother?

Objects invite the resourceful child inside us to discover the capacity of the hands to hold, squeeze, pinch, poke, caress, slap, throw, catch, and so on. Squeeze the tennis ball, for instance. It yields to some degree, it resists to some degree, both more or less at once. You can feel the ball’s rubbery core at the same time you feel its outer surface, fuzzy like a kitten’s back. And you can also feel the skin, flesh, and bones of your own hand, which—like the ball—is innately resilient and multilayered.

It’s a double exploration: you find out about the object at the same time you explore your hand, or more broadly, your whole self. Throw the ball up in the air, catch it; throw it from hand to hand, find a rhythm and let the rhythm do the work for you. The tennis ball was born to be thrown, and it invites you to go with it, to enter the game and never leave it.  Let your palms, fingers, wrists, and arms enjoy the object's bounciness, and before long their own inborn elasticity will enter your awareness. Hold the ball in between the palms of both hands and roll it about, massaging the ball with your palms and your palms with the ball. The ball’s roundness, its shape, texture, and weight all contribute to making the experience delightful. And the delight comes not from the ball itself, but from your hands.

Every object in your life has lots of wisdom to impart—and I mean every object without exception, including headbands, eyeglasses, furniture, shoes, belts, toothbrushes, cell phones. All you need is to approach each object with the right frame of mind, which I propose to call “readiness.” Needless to say, your violin, your piano, your flute are fine partners in the game of object wisdom. And they’re dying to play with you.

 

Readiness

Ø n. the state or quality of being ready

Ready

Ø adj. (readier, readiest)

1a prepared mentally or physically for some experience or action

1b prepared for immediate use

2a (1) willingly disposed

2a (2) likely to do something

2b spontaneously prompt

3 notably dexterous, adroit, or skilled

4 immediately available