TED Talks Redux

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A few days ago I gave an extremely impromptu talk about my passion for writing to an audience that deserve a better speaker. After graduation, a promotion, and a flurry of family-related activities the talk was the furthest thing from my mind. I got up in front of 40ish people and rambled, though I’m told I ramble well. What I found as I spoke and answered questions was that three themes emerged. Now that I’ve had some time to think back on these themes I’ve compiled a better examination of them. If I’d prepared for the talk I gave about a week ago, this is what I would’ve said:

Contemplate Your Mortality

Mortality is a subject that I think every writer becomes obsessed with in one way or another. Two years ago my mother spent nearly two months in the hospital and has periodically returned there. A few months later my grandfather passed from complications related to surgery. Last December my 13-year old cousin Ian also passed away unexpectedly. These events have had a transformative effect on my writing and my outlook on life. I try to think that the changes have been for the better but there’re times when I wonder who I’m kidding.

When I was a senior in high school my English teacher, Mr. Caughey, once told me “If you ever really want to freak yourself out at night, just think about how you’re absolutely going to die. It’s a trip.” In the past few months this has become an unescapable nightly ritual for me. In those moments between the waking world and the ethereal realm of sleep I consider how much closer I am to the end. Life is spent preparing for death, though we hardly realize that. We grown, love, and lose—with increasing rapidity as we accelerate into adulthood.

It’s become something of a crutch that I use to remind myself that I’m still alive; that there’s so little time but, infuriatingly enough, so many opportunities. While many famous writers throughout history writers have allowed their mortality to drag them down to the bottom of booze bottles and cigarette cartons (here’s to looking at you, Joyce!), I’ve spun something of an optimistic approach on it all. And also I just don’t have the funds that constant drinking and smoking require. I equate mortality with scarcity; there’s not enough of it, and it can so suddenly disappear anyways, that it has become the spine of my motivation. I’m going to spend my life working. I’m going to spend my life writing.

I had a discussion with a mentor of mine the other day at dinner. She shared with me her growing desire to retire from teaching after decades of work in high school classrooms reminding America’s youth of this country’s checkered history. It was then that I admitted that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to retire. I can’t help but think that I’m going to be one of the poor fools who works until he dies. What’s the point of retirement? What’s the point of admitting that you’re coasting until you die? I know that just about any retired person would argue me on this. Time for travel, time to relax, time for family. But if you’ve spent your whole life putting those things off until the tail end of it; that you’ve boxed your desires into a twenty year span at the end of your life, how do you deserve them? How can you expect that you’ll accomplish them?

I contemplate my mortality as a motivational tool, not a tactic of self-inflicted depression. I think that if more people were mindful of their impending deaths then we might, as a race, be happier with ourselves. Whole swaths of us might change professions. Might be more confident. It may be a rose outlook but it’s an outlook nonetheless. My advice is to think about it. To remember it. To accept that one day “you too shall grow old.”

The big question there, though, is how will you reflect on your life looking back?

Do What You’re Meant To Do.

I am lucky.

There’s no easier way to say it than that. I am lucky to have found my passion when I was fifteen years old. I’m lucky to have written something everyday since then, to have practiced and honed my craft to the point that I’m comfortable talking about and sharing my writing with others. I was stunned, during the presentations of the other artists last week, to see the sheer magnitude of passion evinced by other human beings.

Humans are a colorful, passionate race of contradictions and complexity. We aren’t meant to spend our lives doing things that make us miserable. When I think about my job I know I’m thinking about something that I’m good it. Working 9-5 is what I want to do. What I need to do in order to survive. Writing my books, staying up late and outlining the next chapter or story—that’s what I’m meant to do.

Not enough people discern this and spend lives laboring to be productive and fruitful, ultimately falling short of some grand goal. They realize they’ve spent years in the shadow of their one true passion. Coincidentally, our true passions are often the most useless things we’ve ever encountered. Painting doesn’t make the world a safer place. Taking photos doesn’t make it any more or less wretched. Writing doesn’t physically change a damned thing.

At my graduation ceremony retiring Professor Gerald Butler asked why the world questions and devalues the arts when it needs it most. He postulated that the act of sharing is what enriches the human experience, that the creative urges of mankind are what help us escape the eras of dark pragmatism and cruel budget cuts.

I agree. When things get tough humanity switches into survivalist mode. But this isn’t the preindustrial age anymore. We have our civilization, or so we’re taught, and with it we’re meant to achieve great things. Think about Leonardo da Vinci, El Greco, Boticelli—artists whose works continue to shine hundreds of years after their deaths. Each of them contributing to the legacy of humanity. At a certain point we need to back away from survivalism and reevaluate the inherent value of creative wealth we can generate.

We spend so much time doing what we’re told to do that we ignore the desire to discover and do what we’re meant to. I’m lucky to have discovered that I’m meant to be a writer. I’m meant to write my books and read unholy amounts of novels and lead a generally introverted lifestyle. The sooner that we each tap into that realization then the sooner we’ll each feel more fulfilled.

Respect Your Voice

The other night I said “to tamper with your voice is a crime.” That’s a position I maintain because of its authenticity. If you’re doing what you love to do and you tamper with your style then you’re only hurting yourself. I gladly accept edits and comments on my work but at the end of the day I alone decide whether or not to care, or even read, said feedback.

So there is an element of arrogance at work in how you treat your creative pursuits. You have to be arrogant enough to know when something will hurt your work rather than better it. You need to learn to see if you’re asking for feedback because you’re being polite or because you truly desire it.

At the end of the day, nobody gets to be renowned for bending to the desires of other. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was famously rejected twelve times before it was published and became a staple book of high school literature. J.K. Rowling’s The Sorcerer’s Stone was rejected eight times before it was published.

Not another living soul will defend your voice for you, because we’ve all seen how lonely and antagonistic the world can be when it sets itself against you. I assume, daily, that the only person who finds my writing any good is me. And, therefore, I alone retain absolute control over what stays and what goes—because I am, and was, my first fan.

I wished that I had prepare this that Sunday night instead of the dribble that I offered to such a polite crowd. What it boils down to is that your creative pursuits are the chance to set the tone for your life and your life’s work. Don’t neglect it, don’t put it off and expect it to disappear. Each wasted day is a wasted opportunity. In parting, I offer the following quote from Maurice Sendak:

“I’m clearing the decks for a simple death. You’re done with your work. You’re done with your life. And your life was your work.”

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