December 12, 2018 – Morning Journaling (Cold Conversations)

While running I have a lot of time to be in my head. I try to be more mindful and just enjoy the moment but that’s tough, instead my monkey brain likes to wander, plan, reminisce, and imagine conversations that will never happen. Recently, these conversations are with Jason Momoa.

You see, the new “Swamp Thing” TV series is currently filming in here in Wilmington and, for some reason, I got it into my head that Jason Momoa was in it. I’m not sure how that happened but it did. So while running I’ve had these kinda day dreams that they will be filming in the park on my run route. Of course I stop to watch the filming and somebody notices that I’m running without a shirt in 30 degree weather, which leads to Jason inviting me to hang out and chat while they film.

The conversation usually centers around how I handle the cold weather and starts with a simple, “Aren’t you cold?” In which I respond cleverly, “do you want the short answer or the long answer?” And, because it is my running daydream I get to answer both. So, do I get cold while running in 30 degree weather?

Short answer: Yes

Long answer: I am working to use language that doesn’t attach my identity to feelings. So, when “I” am cold I break it down into greater detail. The concept of “cold” is relative, it is a convenient linguistic short cut that really means, “The current temperature is lower than what is comfortable for me.” One person’s cold is another person’s hot. Undoubtedly, because I’ve been running since August sans any clothing that I can without getting arrested I have am more comfortable at lower temperatures than others. 

Even the idea of “comfort” can warrant some further analysis. When I say I’m uncomfortable, what is actually happening? This question is where my mindfulness meditation practice starts to show some benefit. Instead of thinking “I’m uncomfortable” I try and pinpoint the feeling more precisely. For example, “my hands hurt” become “The tips of three of the fingers on the right hand have a tingling and pulsing warm sensation. The muscles in both hands are moving more slowly than before and feel ‘full’. When stimulated the fingers transmit signals to meant to discourage further stimulation.”

This re-wording of my internal dialogue (in the form of an imaginary explanation to Jason Momoa) removes my identity from the experience. By doing that, I am not longer trapped by the experience, it isn’t a part of me, it is simply a change in the environment that can be noted and explored. And, surprisingly, as I catalog the different changes and sensations I actually become less uncomfortable.

I had a similar experience at the dentist recently. I was getting a crown put in and the numbing stuff (Novocaine… is that still what is used) started to wear off. My first response was, “Oh shit, this is starting to hurt”, but I did my best to use some of the meditation techniques I’ve used and instead I tried to observe and explore the feeling. This “pain” became “a spherical object pulsing with warmth, it vibrates regularly with stimulation from the drill outside, electrical currents are being sent down into the gums.” And, guess what, I didn’t really notice any pain. The experience wasn’t “mine”, it was something I was simply observing.

Freaking amazing. Minds are freaking amazing. 

Post Script: I figured out why I thought Jason Momoa was in Swamp Thing. The casting call webpage for Wilmington has a photo of him on it because he is part of the DC universe. Hmm, I think I’m going to submit photos for the casting call, could be fun 🙂


Wanna chat? Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below!
Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
Instagram: @peterneiger
Anonymous Questions or comments:  pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Snapchat: @pneiger
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did! It desperately needs to be redone with a professional editor involved but here it is!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”

December 11, 2018 – Morning Journaling (Creative Relationships)

“When you explore inspiration in the context of community, you get not only to see what influences the creative decisions of others but also to explore the mechanics of how others bring inspiration to life.”

The second aspect of developing a creative rhythm identified in
“The Accidental Creative” is Relationships. When I saw this I had, umm, mixed feelings. First, the idea of creating collaboratively makes my skin crawl a little. I’m naturally pretty introverted and throughout my time in the education system “group projects” really meant “Peter does a lot of work in order to not be dragged down by other people”. Depending on others rarely worked out well for me.

Second, creativity seems like a deeply personal and individual practice. This is wrong, but that is how it often seems to me. Maybe I’ve spent too much time reading Ayn Rand or something but groups don’t seem conducive to creativity to me. Most of my experiences mirror that old cliche joke, “What do you call a horse designed by a committee? A camel.” Basically, too many people involved fucks up the design.

Despite these misgivings I actually found this section of the book to be incredibly valuable so far (I’m only about halfway through this chapter). If for no other reason because I’m proactively trying to be more social and build a network/clan/tribe/group of friends here in Wilmington. So, some of the information here can be valuable in my personal and professional life.

Side note: I find it interesting that we so often separate “personal” and “professional”. I’ve found that advice for one works well with the other and that they are pretty intimately tied together. Maybe this social dualism, much like the body/mind dualism, is really kind of a bad way to view the world. 

There are three keys to cultivating stimulating and productive relationships:
1) The relationship must allow you to be real. No sugar coating, no pretending life is perfect. This isn’t an Instagram post. Real help requires real acknowledgment of reality.
2) The relationship must allow you to learn to risk. A good relationship isn’t one where the other person protects you from risks or encourages the safe path. It needs to involve skin in the game and the real possibility of falling down. We are adults and that means sometimes we get our asses kicked by the risks we take.
3) The relationship must be one where you will submit to the wisdom of others. Relationships don’t exist to give one person control or to allow a bunch of monologues. A good relationship involves trusting the other person, sometimes more than you trust yourself. Dan Savage talks about this a lot with relationships, we all need that friend that we trust who will tell us if your partner is a piece of shit or if they aren’t treating us well. Sometimes, we are so caught up in our own mess that we make terrible decisions. Trust people.

So, what does the book have to say about fostering relationships and creativity?

I’m glad you asked. There are three strategies mentioned to enrich relationships. I am going to try and implement these a bit more explicitly in my life. Here is the first one… I haven’t read the other two yet.

Strategy 1: Start a Circle
Get a group of people together in small groups to help each other stay focused and engaged. It can be a group of parents discussing issues with their children, artists talking about struggles with creation, entrepreneurs sharing tips on what works for them, or (ideally) a combination of these to get some new perspectives. Getting a group together in an intimate place to explicitly discuss our creative issues can be incredibly valuable and productive. 

I’m actually part of a circle and didn’t even realize it. Every two weeks I videochat with two friends of mine that I’ve known since about 5th grade. We catch up on each other’s lives but it is mostly to help each other with creative and entrepreneurial issues. We all have creative projects and businesses that we run or are getting started and it has been really valuable to come to each other with problems and get a new perspective. It is well worth the two hours a month.

If you’ve got some people to do this with I highly recommend it. If not, the book has a shameless plug for their website to help you out (accidentalcreative.com/circles). I don’t know how valuable it actually is but figured I’d share it. 

Within the circle there are three questions that should be asked and discussed:

1) What are you working on? What are the top creative blocks in your life? This isn’t a “to do” list, it is the projects that require some brainstorming and new perspectives. This question lets everyone know where you are coming from. During my circle sessions these can be personal “My partner and I are having trouble matching up our sex drives”, professional “I’m not sure how to inform my clients that I’m increasing my rates at the beginning of the year”, or artistic “I’ve got writer’s block with the dystopian novel I’m writing”. 

2) What is inspiring you? Most of the people I know are usually reading something, taking a class, or just working to improve themselves. They want to keep their lives moving forward and I often don’t know what exactly they are involved with. This question can really help provide books to read, artists to enjoy, movies to watch, apps to use, etc. Such a simple but powerful question. 

3) What would you like prompting on? This is all about accountability. What areas of your life would you like someone to check in on you with. Have you been procrastinating your daily writing? Eating junk food? Developing a business plan? Exercising? Making time for your kids? Tell your circle and let them provide accountability. Accountability encourages action and action breeds motivation. If you are constantly waiting for motivation then you will go to your grave without accomplishing your goals.

Interested in starting a two person email chain circle with me? Am I wrong about everything in this post? Do you have a deeply personal or mundane question that you want to ask anonymously? Then shoot me a message! 

Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
Instagram: @peterneiger
Questions:  pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Snapchat: @pneiger
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did! It desperately needs to be redone with a professional editor involved but here it is!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”

December 10, 2018 – Morning Journaling (Confessions of a Former Conservative)

I have a couple of friends that I often exchange emails with. We talk about intimate things and mundane things, it is a way to stay connected even though we live miles apart. Sometimes we respond daily and other times months can go by, but we do have a running chain of messages filled with all kinds of insights and reflections. 

Side note: If you are interested in starting one of these email chains with me please shoot me an email (pjneiger@gmail.com). It doesn’t matter if we’ve never met in person or used to be close friends, I’d love to reconnect.

I responded to one of these messages this weekend and one of the topics made me think about my perspective on life and how unique it may or may not be. I am certainly not the only former conservative of my generation and I’m not the only person who has family that are still conservatives. My drift away from the religion of my parents is hardly unique, I think most people do that… at least I kind of hope so, I wouldn’t be sure of my own beliefs if I hadn’t tried out a bunch of other ones first.

If there is a part of me that is somewhat (maybe) unique it is an understanding of the Christian perspective that isn’t so, umm, angry. I think we need to try and understand people and their points of view more than we do. Most conservatives aren’t against marriage equality or abortion or whatever because they are evil or hate freedom. Given their premises and values their conclusions generally make sense. 

And the same goes for liberals. They aren’t anti-American commies who want to destroy the country and they aren’t insane. Most liberals do not want to expand healthcare, change drug and immigration policy, or are pro-choice because they want to destroy America and kill babies. No, they have a set of principles and view of how the world works and their conclusions reflect that.

The thing is, both conservatives and liberals have the same basic goals. They want to live in a world that is free, safe, and prosperous. It is only the fringe minority that actually want to watch the world burn (so to speak). But I rarely see people giving each other the benefit of the doubt, at least online. Maybe people are better in person, I don’t really know.

Of course, this applies to more than just the political divide. It is so common for Boomers to ridicule Millennials and vice versa (I am certainly guilty of this), but maybe because I am an old Millennials I kind of see both sides of things. Both sides have a set of ideas about how the world works and what a good life is and the other side is different, so they are seen as a threat. But again, both sides really want the same things… stability, prosperity, and safety for themselves and their family. 

I’d love to actually engage in deeper discussions with people I disagree with, as long as they are willing to do the same with me. It would be nice to get in past labels and, instead, try and understand a person’s history, philosophy, and perspective that lead them to their conclusions. When we reach that kind of understanding it becomes possible to actually find a middle ground or actually work to change someone’s mind (not that that should be the goal).

I think that is part of why I love the email exchanges I do so much. It gives me an opportunity to ask deeper follow-up questions and take time to respond. We live in a world where people share images and memes that use stereotypes and straw-men to criticize people who are different, and when they are asked about it they ignore it or call you a snowflake. Remember, when you post something critical of someone different than you it tells anyone from that group that may see it that they can’t turn to you for support if things get bad. I have family members who I wouldn’t trust to help me out because they have been so publicly aggressive and critical of my generation and political belief. They have let tribe come before love. This only serves to divide, we’ve all gotten in the habit of fighting each other and punching down to those weaker than us that we have forgotten how to work together for a better world.

So, let’s try and listen once in a while. Send someone (including me) an email, go into detail about not only what you believe or what your label is but WHY you believe that or have adopted that label. Let’s stop being caricatures and one-dimensional, let’s be human. 

Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below!
Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
Instagram: @peterneiger
Questions:  pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Snapchat: @pneiger
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”

December 8, 2018 – Morning Journaling (Reading Roundup)

I slept in a little bit today and really didn’t role out of bed until 8am. Usually, by 6:30 I’m up and halfway through my first cup of coffee. Today is Saturday, though, and I really didn’t have anything urgent on my schedule. Of course, that means that I ended up with a list of “to do” items that I’ve been plugging away at all day, so I’m just now getting around to my writing.

“Daily Affirmations for Forgiving and Moving On”: Occasionally, this book really shows itself as an AA book. It usually doesn’t bother me but I do take a little bit of an issue with some of the universal statements it makes. There are a lot of “never” and “always” statements the kind of take me out of my reflection. For example, in today’s reading it says “It is never a mistake to love”. I think that is untrue and to put love up on a pedestal it opens up the door for staying in abusive relationships.

“A Year with Rumi”: I just really liked two of the passages from today’s reading:
– This turning toward what you deeply love saves you. Read the book of your life, which has been given to you.
– Move into the emptiness of question and answer and question.

“The Accidental Creative”: I can already tell that I’m going to enjoy reading this book. Whether I end up successfully implementing the techniques in it still remains to be seen, but so far I like it. One of the things I like is that it provides explicit questions and tasks throughout the writing to help people tailor it to their own experiences.
The first aspect of being creative is “Focus”, something I am terrible at (though, much better now that I am on Adderall. I felt like a lot of the stuff described was talking about me. 

Question: Are there assumptions you’re making about your current projects that are artificially limiting your options?
Hmm, I’m sure there are. I have several routines and habits that have ingrained themselves into my daily life. I’m noting this question for a future blog post. 

Question: Where do you find the Ping at work in your life?
Holy fuck, yes. The Ping is that itch, desire, obsession, whatever to check your email or Facebook or phone or whatever. It is a distraction that takes away from our ability to focus and create. I can mitigate this through leaving my phone in another room while working, sticking strongly to a schedule, scheduling entertainment and breaks, and checking email only twice a day.

That’s it for today. Love y’all and hope you have a great weekend. 


Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below!
Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
Instagram: @peterneiger
Questions:  pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Snapchat: @pneiger
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”

December 7, 2018 – Morning Journaling (Another Trip Around the Sun)

Good morning, everyone! I hope you have a wonderful Friday and start to your weekend.

With the year coming to an end I feel a real source of energy and inspiration coming forth. It took me a long time to admit it, but we humans really do thrive with ritual and having a psychological reset button. Logically, I know there is no reason why February 21st or June 3rd or November 1st couldn’t be the date to start a new habit or commit to change, but having a socially recognized date really does help.

Of course, New Years isn’t the only one, many people use birthdays or the Temple burn or some other defined moment in space and time to decide, “Now, now is when it begins.” We do it on a smaller scale as well. We start workout routines on Monday or the 1st of the month, we start a meditation practice tomorrow morning, etc. These universally agreed upon moments of transition help us. We like to be able to separate then from now, and that is more difficult if your moment of change is 2:14pm on Tuesday, July 17.

I haven’t given a lot of thought to any particular goals for 2019. I had a video chat with one of my best friends last night and it made me realize that the coming year feels like one in which I will be more community focused. This feeling is a bit intangible but I just kind of have that vibe. The last year has been exciting and busy and challenging, but it has also been one that has been quite focused on myself and my immediate family. Now that a solid foundation is laid, it is time to be more tribe-focused.

So, there were a few pieces in my daily readings that stood out to me this morning.

“Daily Affirmations for Forgiving and Moving On”:

It is not what I have in life, but what I feel about what I have that makes the difference.

A little cliche, I know. But I think there is important truth in there that warrants an occasional reminder. Once you get past the first two layers of Maslow’s hierarchy a lot of our satisfaction and happiness comes from our own perspective instead of the objective facts. Perspective can make a billionaire unhappy and a middle class person satisfied.

 

“A Year with Rumi”:

I should sell my tongue and buy a thousand ears

I’m re-purposing this phrase for my own uses. In the context of the poem it is directed at God, but I think this is something we should all do with just about everyone. Shut up and listen.

 

“The Accidental Creative”:  I don’t have a particular quote for this but I do have an observation from reading many self-help and business books. I really kind of hate the format most of these take. They are pretty predictible and a little inflated for my tastes, but I realize that others may have different preferences. They usually go something like this:

  • Preface: Usually someone I don’t know writes a dozen pages about how great the book is. I always skip this.
  • Introduction: The author tells me why they wrote the book, usually due to personal experience or from years of research. There are some anecdotes and discussion of family to humanize the author a bit… “Hey! I also have struggled with this, this guy is just like me!” And then several pages are used to tell me what each chapter discusses and provides no more valuable information than I find in the table of contents
  • First 1/3-1/2 of the book: Here is why this is a problem that needs to be fixed. I find this to be tedious and often skip it. I picked up a book on creativity because I would like to be more creative, I don’t need 100 pages telling me why creativity is important or what the benefits may be, I kind of already understand that and I think this section (especially if it includes ‘common roadblocks’) should be towards the end.
  • The last 1/2-2/3 of the book: This is the meat and what I came for. I like concrete steps and methods for reaching a goal. I know each situation is different and there is no universally correct way to be creative (or whatever) but if you have a four-part system for creating a creative rhythm starting it on page 70 is annoying, that shit should basically start on page 3.
  • Final few pages: Other books to buy or things to subscribe to “Want to really implement this?!? Buy my patented spreadsheet and join the online community forums! I promise not to bombard you with emails or other sales pitches” (I immediately start receiving daily emails with titles like “I normally don’t do this!” or “Here are the first of 10 ways to improve things, for my subscribers only!”

This always makes me want to write my own book about what has been (minimally) successful for me. I don’t think anyone would pay actual money for it, but it would be good to articulate my experiences and ideas in a concrete way.

 

“Existentialism” by David Cooper: This is a new addition to the morning readings and I think it is going to be a slow read. I wrote a bunch in the margins already and I’m only on page 4. So far, my notes say:

  • This seems to assumes something completely unique about humans but I’m not sure if that is entirely true. We don’t know enough about the mind of ourselves or animals to automatically classify ourselves as unique.
  • Accounting for humans requires referring to other things, but isn’t that true of virtually everything? Every description is a language shortcut that defines a relationship. “Cold” is “the molecules around me are moving more slowly than they previously were (or that I am comfortable with or than the molecules over there)”. An exhaustive description always requires a direct or implied comparison to something else, sometimes what that object will likely become. Humans aren’t unique in that respect
  • “exist” = “ex-ist” = “ex = out”, “ist = a person who does something, stands” = “a person who is outside or stands outside”
  • “ecstasy” comes from the word “exist” and means “displacement from proper place or of the mind”, literally a person who is outside their mind.
  • Sartre thought that someone who said that being homosexual was a fixed property was a man of “bad faith”. Did he feel the same about heterosexuality?

 

Okay, that’s my morning. Time to go for a run, meditate, go to therapy, and then make that paper. Oh, that actually reminds me. I don’t talk about work much here but I do want to note that things are going really well on that front. I have some fun projects, my primary clients are giving me greater autonomy and responsibility, and I’m feeling really good. I don’t know if my situation has objectively improved or if my mindset is just better, but either way I am in a good place.

Toodles!

Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below!

Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
Instagram: @peterneiger
Questions:  pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Snapchat: @pneiger
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”

December 5, 2018 – Morning Journaling (Creativity)

I’ve never considered myself a particularly creative person. In fact, I have many times broken one of my cardinal rules and I have identified with this trait. I’ve often mentally and vocally said, “I’m just not creative.” I have one theory about where this mindset came from.

I’m the oldest of six children and coming from a large family means that each child tends to fill some sort of role. We find ways to stand out and be individuals, often by filling pre-conceived archetypes that we aren’t even aware of. I have a brother who is 16-months younger than me and he was always the artistic one, even from a young age.

For example, I remember living in Sacramento and walking up to the neighborhood park (Colonial Playground) every day of summer. I was probably 5 or 6, he was 4 or 5, and we may have had our next youngest brother in tow who was about 3. The park had this program where they had adults at the park that gave out free meals, taught classes, and generally just looked after us.

This was clearly a different era (holy fuck, how old am I?) when a 6-year old would walk his two youngest brothers by himself several blocks to a park to be watched by strangers until dark. Surprisingly, I have a lot of memories of those days that involved a ridiculous amount of freedom. We would play in alleys and walk up to the grocery store to buy cigarette shaped candy. I walked myself and my siblings half a mile to Mark Twain elementary school (and then to the bus stop to get to Peter Burnett the next year). We also went inside neighbors homes that we didn’t know, picked fruit out of their yards, and accepted candy on a daily basis. We also ran around with a couple of the neighborhood kids who were a little older than me. We never got in trouble but we occasionally went beyond the borders that my parents had established for us. The worst thing that ever happened was a few skinned up knees or minor cuts. I even went with some people my parents didn’t really know to a San Francisco Giants game. One of the older kids that my mom trusted (I think his name was Francisco, actually) was going so that is all that mattered. I basically slept for the whole thing and don’t remember anything except the ride there.

Wow, it was a different time.

Anyway, at the park they once had a drawing contest. Everyone drew something and then we voted on whose was our favorite (we each got two votes). I remember being really embarrassed by my drawing after seeing my brothers. He has a real natural talent for art and that is something I’ve never had or tried to develop.

So, long story long, I wasn’t the artist in my family and I often explicitly identified as someone who isn’t creative. I’m changing that about me. In fact, I just started reading a book called “The Accidental Creative” by Todd Henry that I am hoping will provide me with some assistance in breaking out of this shell I put myself in. I’m only on the first chapter but here are some of the things that have stood out to me so far and my random thoughts.

  • Being sustainable creative requires adopting the goal of being Brilliant, Healthy, and Prolific. Without all three you will burnout, be unreliable, or be fired.
    • Currently, when it comes to my writing I would say I am partially brilliant, generally healthy, and not at all prolific. As Henry puts it, “To be prolific means that you not only have great ideas, but that you actually do something with them.” Damn, Henry, be nice. I’m trying
  • “Many of us view the creative process in the same way. It is mysterious, unseen force that can have powerful, unanticipated effects. We know it is there, but we don’t understand it, and so it seems beyond our ability to control. But like atmospheric pressure, once we grasp a few of its governing dynamics, we can harness its power by building structure to leverage it.”
    • This is me. I have often viewed creativity as some uncontrollable force that sparks randomly and not something that can be trained or funneled or practiced. I viewed it as a gift, not a muscle.
  • “There is the persistent myth that creativity results only from complete lack of boundaries and total freedom. The reality is that we are not capable of operating without boundaries… Total freedom is false freedom. True freedom has healthy boundaries.
    • First, I take issue with the word choice in those last two sentences. I think it would be more accurate to say “Total freedom is destructive freedom. Creative freedom has healthy boundaries.”
    • Second, the first part of that passage really struck home for me. I’ve experienced that first hand. When I have an entire day to do a few projects I get nothing done, or at least nothing good. When I have a highly structured day I end up working out, finishing work, writing, meditating, and finding time to see friends. Too many options causes stagnation.
  • “You must not confuse structure for formula… There is no formula for effective creating. Structure, on the other hand, is the undergirding platform that gives you enough stability to feel free taking risks.”
    • It is interesting that people often join the military to receive “structure” when what they are really receiving is a “formula”. In the military, there is no support for taking risks and the “structure” rarely helps outside of the military, especially if you don’t understand the reason behind the “structure”. There is a huge difference between getting up at 5am and exercising because that is what you were told to do and getting up at 5am and exercising because you understand that mornings are the best time of the day to get important health tasks like that done. The military is about following orders and not learning how to be creative and effective in the civilian world.
  • The “‘always on’ approach works against you (in creative outlets).”
    • But, many systems do not want creative people. Our school systems, many jobs, religious institutions, political institutions, none of them want creativity to thrive, they want people to fall in line and an ‘always on’ approach helps with that. If you never have a break, if you are constantly treading water, then you are never going to fulfill your passions and create great things. I’m sure I’m not the only one who finishes a day of work and is so mentally exhausted that writing a book or painting or even exercising is impossible. I may have the physical ability but my mental reserves are depleted.
  • The goal is to create “creative rhythm” by structuring five elements: Focus, Relationships, Energy, Stimuli, and Hours.
    • This is the meat of the book. I’ll be writing about each one as I read about them.

So, that’s it for me today. Now on to the rest of my day. I hope you have a lovely December 5.

Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!

Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
Instagram: @peterneiger
Questions:  pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Snapchat: @pneiger
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”

December 1, 2018 – Morning Journaling (Writing Beginnings)

About two weeks ago I decided to treat myself a little and subscribed to Masterclass. The concept intrigued me and I was really sold once I saw that Margaret Atwood had a course about writing. I’m not done with the course yet but I feel like I have already gotten my money’s worth.

One of the lessons that has stuck with me is the importance of the first page, especially the first sentence and paragraph. For many authors, those first words will be the difference between someone taking your novel home and someone putting it back on the bookstore shelf. First impressions are important, especially for new writers.

The beginning of the story has always been a struggle for me. I have concepts and worlds but figuring out where to start causes me to freeze. This is where I really felt encouragement from Atwood because she talks a lot about how important and common it is to change your book mid-writing, sometimes the true first line and page are not written for 50 pages. And that’s okay.

Another tip was to read the first part of books and authors that I like and try to really consciously think about what you are being told. There are a lot of subconscious assumptions that happen when reading and taking a step back to analyze them a bit can be the difference between developing a good first sentence and a bad first sentence.

Atwood uses some classic literature as examples of good beginnings, such as Moby-Dick, “Call me Ishmael”. Those three words shape our perception of the novel moving forward. We know the narrator survives and we can relate the name to its Biblical foundation, if you know the story of Ishmael then you learn about how the narrator views himself, as a first-born son who was cast out by his father but ended up being blessed by God out in the wilderness.

So, I decided to think about a couple of opening passages that have stuck with me. The first actually comes from the film American Beauty:

My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. I am 42 years old. In less than a year, I will be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I’m already dead.

As these words are spoken we have an aerial view of standard suburbia with matching houses and cars. The first five sentences almost lull is into a sense of security until that last sentence. We now know that someone that many people may be able to relate to died early in his life. The audience is now roped in, who killed Lester Burnham? Additionally, we are given the tone of the story, this isn’t really about Lester’s physical death, it is about the spiritual death he experienced by living this “dream” cookie-cutter, White suburbia life. So, this is also going to be somewhat political and maybe a story of redemption if Lester can revive his spirit… but we know it will be a short lived revival.

I love that beginning. In six sentences you learn so much about what you are in for and have several issues that you want to be resolved. Damn.

The second opening passage comes from the first book of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger. Now, this is my all-time favorite series and I’ve read it multiple times, so clearly I’m biased. But I do love the first passage. In fact, I think things actually starts before the first chapter with the book title and the first section title.

If you know nothing about the story and live in America then you can’t help but have visions of old westerns and tough men like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood when you read that title. Often the “strong, silent type” of men who stick to a very strong code. You are going to expect this story to involve a harsh environment where the strong survive sometimes and people live on the edge of civilization. Two words and the tone is set.

Then, before the story we are given one word alone on a page “Resumption”. King has stated this is the subtitle of the book and, personally, I think it is even more powerful displayed alone like this. One word and we know that this is a new beginning to an old task. There are years and stories behind us, as well as in front of us. And the reader hopes, nay prays, that they hear some of these stories as well. What is being resumed? We don’t know until we turn the page and read the first sentence:

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Ahh… we are in the middle of a chase of sorts. “The man in black” instantly plays upon the established norm of symbolizing evil with the color black. Or at least a rebel of some kind, like Johnny Cash. We know that we are in a desert, which isn’t surprising given the title but still confirms the feeling of the story. With one sentence we can easily see in our mind’s eye a rough, cowboy of a man standing in the middle of nowhere with the sun high in the sky and far in the distance a man in all black fleeing. It seems he fears the gunslinger, or at least we are lead to believe that in the beginning.

Want to know how this chase is resolved? Well, now you want to buy the book. It drags you in and makes you want resolution. We humans hate it when things aren’t wrapped up tidy. And, spoiler alert, King almost never wraps things up for us. We are always left wanting more.

Hopefully, some day, I will find the words to start a novel that have such powerful imagery associated with it.

Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!

Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
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Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”