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Unblocking

*Daily Prompt

Composes email to journal. Attaches file. Hits “send.”

A momentary sense of relief sets in upon the completion of a written work. This is usually followed with deep breaths and a generous serving of Pinot Noir. But then the next day arrives and an inkling of unease snakes into my thinking:

“Now what am I going to write? That was it! I am out of ideas! I’m done. Oh no! I’ve got nothing.”

A second serving of wine will not suffice; instead I go for an extra dirty martini.

For me, writer’s block has been nothing more than an appealing way to describe mental paralysis brought on by my own anxiety. When you stop to ruminate on the wondrous thing that is writing, it’s quite astonishing. Ideas that exist only in the mind and do not occupy space needle your physical self to move your fingers and usher those ideas into the physical world. On paper or on the computer, ideas that only the thinker was privy to, become object. Your mental activity suddenly emerges as something to be seen or heard. The beauty of this act of creation also spurs anxiety because in writing, one actively unveils the contents of the mind.

While writing and thinking are primarily solitary affairs there remains the crucial component of sharing this work. Inevitably, a reader (or readers) need to come into the picture. “What will they think of what I think?” Leading with that question cloaked in fear, I’ve learned, only launches a bout of writer’s block. Here are some steps I take to diffuse the anxiety:

  1. Stepping away for a while allows for the mind to re-boot. Sometimes I honestly don’t know what is more challenging, forcing myself to stop writing or forcing myself to write. I have found that when I overcome the guilt of not writing for a few days I tend to return to my laptop fresh and ready to start.
  2. I make it a point to visit interesting places.

    Yours truly at Huntington Library, Pasadena: Japanese Dry Landscape Garden.

    Yours truly at Huntington Library, Pasadena: Japanese Dry Landscape Garden.

  3. After taking time off, if I’m still at a loss for ideas I resolve to sit down and write whatever is in my head without editing. I’ve eloquently nicknamed this my “brain vomit sessions.” There will be pages and pages of non-sense before a gem of an idea presents itself. I’ve accepted it is okay to unleash paragraphs of ramblings because that is simply part of the writing process.

The best of the worst of my doozies from brain vomit sessions (I sincerely hope this makes you feel better about your own writing woes):

Reasons I Envy My Cat

Things Said At CrossFit That Would Be Awkward In Any Other Context

Chubby Introverted Atheist Growing Up In Catholic School: A Memoir

Mary Wollstoncraft Meets Ladies for Tea

Socrates Decides to Chat With The Oracle at Delphi Himself

  1. I read more and with a notebook handy to write down any interesting word or phrases. After compiling my list I work out sentences with them. Sometimes toying with a word rather than scrambling for a big idea unlocks the block.

    photo-29 copy 2

    Unfortunately this little beast often interferes!

  2. Most importantly, when anxiety encroaches on my writing time I stop and journal about why I write in the first place. Without fail, I end up at the same conclusion: I write to improve myself and to understand the world. The more honest I am with that sentiment, the less afraid I am of embarking on another writing project.

Some inspiration:

Sue Grafton: “Seriously: I write because it’s all I know how to do. Writing is my anchor and my purpose. My life is informed by writing whether the work is going well or I’m stuck in the hell of writer’s block, which I’m happy to report only occurs about once a day.”

Mary Karr: “Most great writers suffer and have no idea how good they are. Most bad writers are very confident. Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver, the bat girl in Yankee Stadium. That’s a more fruitful way to be.”

Simone de Beauvoir: “I got the desire to write very young….The meaning of this project was to make the world my own, to show my life as freely recreated by me.”

Bryan Magee: “I have written several of my books because I wanted to master a subject: producing a book about it was the best, if not the only, way I could force myself to work really hard and systematically at it over a long period of time. I can sit and think for a while, but not for months on end—unless I write.”


Don’t Bother With These Four Words

I never thought of myself as a picky sort of person. After all, I’ll eat anything, travel anywhere, and I once survived an outrageous perm in the 80s.   However, over the years of grading papers I’ve zeroed in on four words in particular that, scientifically speaking, are causing my hair to turn gray.  That won’t do.

I kindly suggest, dear students, you avoid these four words in assignments:

  1. Basically. No, I don’t want to know what Aristotle is basically saying.
  2. So. This is often unnecessary and could be replaced with “therefore” or “it follows.” And whatever you do, do not put “So basically” together lest you sound like a Kardashian.
  3. Very. Another unnecessary term sprinkled about too many papers.  Throw it out of your vocabulary now. Poof.  It’s officially dead to you. It’s very annoying. Oops.
  4. Goes. What a boring verb! “He then goes on to say…” Yikes! I can’t bear to read one more sentence like this. Are you in need of some verb alternatives? Here’s a quick exercise to spruce up your papers:

Grab a notebook and at the top of the page write “Sports.” Halfway down the page write “Cooking.” Now, list all of the verbs that come to mind regarding these two: Hits, swings, scores, tackles…peppers, boils, chops, seasons, dices… You get the point. Think of ten verbs to write under each category.

Return to a draft of your work and insert two or three of these verbs. Voila!

 

Click here to check out more tips.


On Things Best Left Unsaid

  1. “I read 50 Shades of Gray. It was interesting.” Right.  I was enjoying my meal but now…
  2. Adding “for your age” to any sentence.  A swing and a miss in the compliment arena.
  3. “Hold on.  I need to take a selfie.”  Selfies are never needed.
  4. After a meal: “Oh God I’m so full.” A simple “Loved the meal” will suffice.  How you stuffed yourself to discomfort can remain a secret.
  5. “You look tired.”  Gee, thanks.  I didn’t realize.  Now I’ll go about my day as normally as possible.
  6. When giving a present: “It was on sale.”  Pat yourself on the back for the bargain instead of announcing it.
  7. When receiving a present: “Is there a gift receipt?”  Woe is the gift giver in this situation!
  8. “I need more fiber in my diet.”  Eww.
  9. “Do you want your upper lip waxed?”  This should never be offered.  Ever. End of story.
  10. “He dies in the end.”  Oh come on!
  11. When reflecting on college: “I didn’t have to take out any loans.”  Congratulations on your economic platform.
  12. After someone mentions what they are currently reading: “Pff!  I read that in high school.”  We’re adults.  Reading is not a competition.
  13. “Totes. Amaze. Cray cray!” Let’s stick to English (or to not speaking).

5 Resolutions for College Students

Resolutions are notoriously grandiose and often unrealistic, yet we keep coming back to them at the start of the year.  Why are resolutions a “thing” if they are also known to be discarded by February?

The idea of starting “fresh” is appealing.  This implies something worth noting, namely, we are aware of our capacity for improvement.  Resolutions inherently point to the notion that we can be better.  We are not static.  We are not defined.  We can imagine doing and being better.  The new year prompts us to this realization and makes us conscious of possibility.

Resolutions must be cemented in habit.  Start with manageable baby steps.  Don’t try to be a different person; rather, focus on becoming the best version of yourself. Simply dabbling with the idea of being better is not enough to actually be better.  To achieve staying power resolutions should be broken down into actionable steps.

Here are some actionable steps for the college bound:

  • Wake up at least 1 hour before your first class.  I recommend 2 hours, but I know some of you are staying up quite late.  Do not roll out of bed and stumble into your morning classes.  Set the alarm earlier and use the extra time to grab a coffee and review your notes before the lecture.  This will only be difficult for the first few days, but by day 5 you’ll automatically be waking up earlier.
  • Join a club on campus.  This step brings you closer to the university community and, studies have shown, will increase your chances of graduating and graduating on time.  Look for a club that centers on your major.  Information will be posted in your major’s department.  This is also a nice opportunity to get the scoop on classes to take (or not take) from other students.
  • Visit the office hours of each of your professors at least once.  This will only take 30 minutes of your time, but the returns on this investment will last throughout the term.  You’ll instantly become more involved in the class.  Making the time to visit in person is also a small habit that translates nicely into “real world” action.  Connect with people face-to-face as opposed to reducing communication solely through email.
  • Read one book outside of class.   I know you are inundated with course work so you needn’t pick something that’ll weigh you down.  I don’t recommend taking a stab at Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for instance.  However, the habit of reading in addition to your workload will be just as important in your life after college in the “real world.”  The most successful people read or listen to audiobooks because advancing one’s knowledge is simply healthy and good for one’s business.  Ask three of the most successful people you know and see what they are reading and how often.  Stay curious.  (I’ve listed three book suggestions below.)
  • Buy a Journal.  Keep it in a place where you’ll remember to write in it and look it over: nightstand, desk, school bag, or the loo.  Set aside a day (or two) when you will add to the journal.  On this day write what you are thankful for, one thing you learned from each of your classes, and a new word you learned.  Increase your gratitude, awareness of your new knowledge and your vocabulary.  (I had a journal devoted only to new words.  Before a paper I’d turn to my journal and pick 2 words to use.  It became something of a game.)
Snapshot of yours truly enjoying "Off The Road" by Carolyn Cassady.

Snapshot of yours truly enjoying “Off The Road” by Carolyn Cassady.

Book Suggestions:

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.  I’ve recommended this over and over again.  This book is about climbing Mount Everest in the throes of one of the worst storms/disasters.  Krakauer’s writing is incredibly absorbing and entertaining. One of my students recently emailed that he read this book based on my recommendation and it came up during a job interview.  He thinks he got the job because he was able to chat about it with his prospective employer.  Bravo, I say!

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.  Anyone interested in business, marketing, advertising, and/or sociology should check this out.  Gladwell examines points at which a momentum shifts and trends take off.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin.  I loved loved loved this memoir.  Steve Martin brings the reader on his journey to becoming one of the most successful stand-up comedians.  He is honest, witty, and insightful.  While the book does, of course, focus on life as a comic, its real value is in the underscoring theme of commitment and dedication.  Steve Martin believed in himself, in entertaining, and in re-creating and revising his act.  Anyone needing a bit of motivation to kick start their year and follow through with their goals should read this book.

Click here to visit Gwendolyn’s Author Page.

Best of luck, dear students!  Have a wonderful year!


Overcoming Fear of Failure is a Path to Happiness

*The following is a draft of a section for my next book on Happiness and College Life.  Feedback is appreciated.  I thought I’d include a bit of my experience with Cross Fit in the manuscript.

Fear of Failure

Let’s dismantle this idea of failure right away.  There is no such thing.  Fear and failure hold power over you if you allow it.  Failure is just a perception.  You have a choice:

  1. I’ve failed therefore I give up.
  2. This is a lesson, therefore I now know what needs work.

Which option will you embrace?  As I write this I am in the throes of an extraordinary exercise regimen called Cross Fit, and I am far outside the bounds of my comfort zone.  There are two moves in particular that have my stomach in knots: a tire flip and dead lift.  Both begin with a squatting position and then upward motion with the thrust of the thighs and glutes.  While lifting the weight, one’s back cannot round but must remain straight so that all of the lifting comes from the legs and glutes.  I cringe whenever these are listed as part of the routine for the day (or WOD for you familiar with Cross Fit).  I’ve even pleaded with the coach: “Can’t we do sit-ups or something else?”  They smile and point to the weight.  I stare down at it and know that I must try again to lift.  I have yet to accomplish this movement.

The difficulty for me encompasses more than the weight itself.  My struggle in this instance resides with confronting a weakness.  When I look at the bar (or tire) I am a bundle of frustration. A mental tug of war brews.  Part of me feels like unleashing tears and questioning myself for even joining Cross Fit.  I’m embarrassed.  What in the world am I doing here?  I’ve never been athletic.  But another part of me sees this as the potential to redefine myself.  Fortunately that voice seems to be winning the mental war.  Believe me, I want to pass the weight by, move on to an exercise  I can manage, and then head out for Starbucks and snacks.  But, what would that do for me?

When we step outside of our comfort zone and “fail” we are actually being alerted to an area of ourselves that needs work and attention.  If it weren’t for these “failures” we might not be aware of an opportunity for growth.  That is why I’d like to rid you of the idea of “failure,” because they serve as life sign posts and lessons.  Failure, if you let it, means stopping and resigning.  On the other hand, lessons entail awareness, recognition, and determination to reassess our approach.

It is not easy for a weakness to be highlighted in our trials for growth. It is extremely easy to avoid discovering them and running away.

The day will come when I step up to the tire or weighted bar for the lift and my legs will carry me up.  It will happen.  I’m determined.  But the only way for it to happen is if I continue to confront the challenge and build the muscle.

In Tips From The Professor I wrote about identifying weakness and making it your strength in the context of the classroom.  I’ve had students come to me with a deflated look due to a low grade on a paper or exam.  They’ll say things like “Philosophy isn’t my thing” and “I’m just not a good writer.”  A low grade on an assignment is not a definitive statement about your ability.  The grade addresses an area that needs more energy and time.  You haven’t failed.  You’ve learned!  Now, get a move on and try again.

This attitude translates to enjoying life itself. A few years ago I traveled to Poland, and before the trip I hastily studied a bit of Polish.  On day one in Krakow when entering a shop, I proudly greeted the cashier with “Good morning,” or so I thought.  After noticing how his eyebrows knit, I realized that I actually blurted: “You’re welcome.”   What a way to walk into a store! This must have sounded silly.  I chuckled at the goof and immediately made a note to self: practice “good morning.”

It’s okay to make mistakes!  What is important is our response to them.  Delving into the unknown means accepting ridiculous moments here and there but that is essential for growth, which in turn brings us happiness.

Find something new and challenge yourself.  All of the “greats” from musicians to scientists have stumbled. Keep in mind, happiness and excellence were not achieved in spite of stumbling but as a result of learning from mistakes and having the confidence to continue.  People who flourish do so because of their method in the face of obstacles.  There need not be a fear of failure.

If you try something and the result is not what you had hoped for then stop and observe.  Ask yourself: What is there to learn here?  What do I need to strengthen?


Being Polite: Some Help From Kant

“The cashier is not part of the cash register,” my philosophy professor declared as she explained Kant’s principle of autonomy.

This simple yet clear example from my undergraduate years echoed in my mind as I waited in line at Subway this afternoon.  A young lady in front of me snapped at the man putting her sandwich orders together.  Arms crossed, phone in hand she blurted,  “Um, I want more pieces of turkey on that one.  You have more on those other two.”  He checked his work and looked at her uncomfortably.  She pressed, “That one only has four slices. Those have five.”

He gave a friendly smile and pointed to the sandwiches to show that they were in fact even: “One, two, three, four.  One, two, three…”

Cutting him off, she huffed, “Okaaaaaay.  I get it.”  Then she returned her attention to her phone.

Kant’s principle of autonomy states: Treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end, never a means only.  According to Kant, because human beings are rational, autonomous agents, their humanity must be respected.  One cannot “use” another or treat a person as a tool.

This young lady in front of me, however, behaved as though the employee existed solely to craft her sandwiches.  Judging by her demeanor, she believed him to be a “means only.” There was no hint of “please,”  “thank you,” or sense of graciousness in her tone. Cue my frustration!

One might reply, well she wasn’t aware that she was doing this.  Indeed!  That is the point!  The lack of consciousness is precisely what makes the scene problematic.  A person is more than a cash register!

My philosophy professor did employ grander approaches to exploring Kant’s principle, but the one that stuck was this very real means of using it in day-to-day life. For many jobs the work environment extends beyond the employer and employees to the interaction with customers or people of other businesses.  As a patron or customer one is essentially part of another’s work environment.  That is, when you go into a store or restaurant, even though you are not working, you are participating in someone else’s work day.

Just a friendly tip: turn off the phone, take the music out of your ears, and see the person with whom you are interacting.  Smile and take a moment to know that you are part of their work day.  The worker has a dream, a family, looks forward to the end of her/his day.  She/he is more than a servant.  The cashier is not part of the cash register!


The Honeymoon is Over; Getting Through the Mid-term Slump

The air of excitement from the first week of classes has dissipated.  The skip in your step now resembles a sluggish mosey to class, and you are armed with a highly caffeinated beverage at all times just to get through the day.  A count-down to Winter (or summer) break is mentioned in most of your conversations.

How to get over that mid-term blah:

  1. Plant yourself at the library, a study space, or a coffee shop with all of your syllabi.  Review upcoming deadlines and class requirements.  In general, take 20 minutes to reacquaint yourself with the goals of the class.  This will put you back in the frame of mind of the first day when you were more enthusiastic.
  2. Write down the grades you want this term.  Imagine the end of the term and seeing these grades next to your name.
  3. Write down 3 things (per class) you can do next week to make the grades you imagined happen.  List the amount of time and the day you will do these 3 things. The more specific you are the better.
  4. Visit your professors’ office hours.  But what to say?  Here are some conversation openers:  If you are enjoying the class, then let them know (mention a specific reading), ask a question about the material, or ask their opinion about a term paper/ project idea you will be doing for the class.   A recent guest speaker promoting study habits at Cal Poly said to university students: “There is one person in the class who knows how to get an A and that is the professor.”
  5. If you haven’t done so yet, make a friend in your class.  Get to class five minutes early and introduce yourself to the person who usually sits next to you.  When you know someone you are more likely to attend class and enjoy it.
  6. Go somewhere new.  Try out a restaurant, a different coffee shop, another spot in the library, or a place in town (like a museum).  Breaking up the routine re-charges your mental battery.

Good luck!


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