Sunday, January 16, 2011

Written in the Stars

"Men are not prisoners of Fate, but only prisoners of their own minds."

-Franklin Roosevelt defines "Astrology" as "the study that assumes and attempts to interpret the influence of the heavenly bodies on human affairs."

Take a moment and think about what that means. Essentially, the way that the stars and planets are aligned or misaligned and the various ways they behave over time somehow invariably have a direct impact on who we are and the sequences of events we are destined to expereience during our individual lifetimes.

On the surface, that doesn't really make a whole lot of sense, at least not when taken at its most basic level. After all, how could such cosmic events play an integral role in shaping our earthly trajectories?

For the longest time, this is how I perceived astrology and the "phenomenon" of reading one's horoscope in an interminable search for answers to the big questions in life. Naturally, most people's chief concerns lie with their professional future and, perhaps more importantly, their love life.

I never put much stock in horoscopes and rarely, if ever, took them seriously. I've always preferred the notion that we're in charge of our own destiny vs. the concept that our lives are pre-destined and our personality is largely dependent on which day we're born and other celestial influences.

Part of this undoubtedly results from my decision several years ago not to align myself with organized religion. Though I was raised Catholic, I gradually felt myself growing apart from any established faith and finally decided to take a more open-minded approach to the world, truly giving myself the opportunity to explore what I believe in.

So many events that go on in this world seem haphazard and purposeless that often I've felt it foolish to put faith in the fact that there is some all-encompassing entity, whether a religious deity, the movement of the stars and planets or some all-powerful Force controlling everything (yes, that is a Star Wars reference... lol).

Yet, the course of my life in the six years or so since I have really begun to overcome the social anxiety that crippled me in my youth and take control of the direction and shape of my life has caused my firm stance against the concept of fate to loosen somewhat.

I'm still not convinced of the existence of a deity, since I believe that there is absolutely no justifiable reason to have blind faith in any of the thousands of organized approaches to religion that all claim to be the one true way to salvation, nirvana or whatever they decide to call the state of actualization that resolves in a happy ending after death. On the other hand, I do not contend that there isn't some sort of god out there, as such a bold statement would be just as hypocritical as accepting the existence of one without tangible proof.

Instead, I have come to embrace a more spiritual (and decidedly less religious) view on life and how it plays out. The course of events that I've endured throughout my 20s has really helped to open my eyes to the fact that maybe - just maybe, mind you - things happen with a greater purpose. Whether this is the machinations of some incarnation of God or simply the way the planets are orbitting is immaterial at this point.

The bottom line is that I don't see world as a simple, random sequence of events. In many ways, it feels like my life has been building to the point that I'm at now, and many of the struggles and obstacles I've gone through have served to enhance my character and prepare me for what lay ahead.

Astrology has admittedly become a part of the picture too. I proudly identify myself as a Cancer and was astonished to learn just how spot-on my astrological sign describes me ( Which brings me to the events of the last week...

Like many people my age, I spend far too much time entrapped on the Internet addiction commonly known as Facebook, and I found it both humorous and entertaining just how up-in-arms people were over the possibility that the structure of the zodiac calendar might change. It was as if the prospect of shifting to another sign would change the fiber of their being, forcing an involuntary personality transplant.

Most shocking of all, I was surprised that I was among those who jumped at the defense of my own zodiac sign. Why, really, should any of us take the astrological interpretation of ourselves so seriously? When it comes right down to it, we decide who we are and where our lives go, right?

It is this question that led me to select the quote that leads in to this blog entry. Having been on both sides of this belief (that life does and does not have some mysterious master plan), I am slowly reaching the conclusion that it's no so much a question of freedom of choice vs. fate but instead one of perspective.

All of those people (myself included) who were so quick to assert that their zodiac sign has informed the direction of the their life have made a conscious decision to believe. Not in the existence of a God or that the course of their lives is already laid out before them but instead in the idea that their life is heading... somewhere.

The way I see it, we can either accept the fact that life is a meaningless, purposeless, directionless journey.... OR we can view it as a learning experience, a road that's leading us exactly where we're supposed to be. It's up to us to decide where we end up and to learn from the lessons that life consistently places before us.

And yes, sometimes we may turn to outside forces, such as astrology, to give us another perspective on things or simply to to reaffirm that we're on the right path. But I believe, and I believe most of my fellow Facebookers are with me on this, that following something like the zodiac calendar is nothing more than a way to keep ourselves focused on the big picture.

Very few people in this world are completely at peace and happy with where they are in their life, and we can either bitch and moan about how pissed off we are and wallow in the bottomless pit of self-pity, drowning our way throughout the subsequent years of our inconsequential existence OR we can suck it up, adjust our life to the way we want it to be and pick ourselves up when life brings us down.

Like this post's quote above says, we are really not so much bound by fate but by the way we choose to live our lives, and nothing - not God, not astrology, nor any other outside forces - should sway us from remaining on the straight and narrow path towards self-actualization.

Years ago, I received a message (in a fortune cookie of all places) that has always stayed with me: "You cannot love life until you live the life you love." Stay focused on that, and listen to what the world is telling you. Follow the path as such, and you'll be amazed at just how easily the pieces of your life fit together. Almost as if it was fated to be so... ;)


Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Origins of Inspiration

"Genius is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration"
- Thomas Edison

Wow. Replace the paper and pen with a laptop and I must look exactly like the guy in the above picture to the outside world. Well, we also appear to be different races. And my hair is much cooler. But whatever... You get the idea.

The point is that, although writers (and other creative types, for that matter) are known for their individualism and outside-the-box perspective on the world in which we live, the irony of this is that we all share a number of common traits.

Chief among these is our constant hunger for inspiration. My own personal definition for "inspiration" is whatever motivates you to express yourself through creative means, often spurring the creation of new ideas based on something you've observed or experienced firsthand.

Now, if this was my blog (and last time I checked, it is... lol), I would like to share a little about where I personally draw my inspiration from (i.e. what makes me want to write and fuels my creative passion with an endless supply of ideas):

1) Personal experience and observation

As the old adage goes, creatives are tasked to "write what you know." If that's the case, then what else could you possibly know better than your own life? Writers, myself included, are known for having an introspective, reflective side, and this often leads to some of our best, most personal work. In fact, it's largely our best work for the very reason that it is our most personal.

In my case, I came up with a story idea years ago that is somewhat inspired by my own life, and that concept has continued to evolve and develop with each passing year. As it currently stands, it is filled to the brim with elements both big and small that are either based on something that I experienced or taken verbatim from conversations that I've had and the like.

You'll find that the older you get and the more you think, feel and experience in life, the more relatable and honest your work will become.

Because I truly believe that writers see the world differently from most people (which is what inspired the name for this very blog site), I feel it is in some way our duty to share what we've learned and witnessed with the people around us. Not only does it give us a better understanding of ourselves as writers and human beings, but it also may even help to inspire our readers to follow their own hearts and enrich their lives. After all, isn't that every writer's dream?

2) The arts

Have you ever walked out of a film or finished listening to an album and felt an overwhelming surge of creative juices flowing through every fiber of your being? I know I have, and oftentimes, the arts help me stay focused on nurturing my creative dreams, even in the face of social and professional obligations.

Whether it's the brilliant meta-universe of Stranger than Fiction, the narrative innovation of Memento or even the cinematic scope of something like The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, films are a major source of inspiration for me. Taking in a story that moves me emotionally or intellectually always gives me a stronger will to muster up the self-discipline to follow my own unique voice.

Likewise, music has a similar effect. For example, I constructed an entire custom playlist of Stevie Wonder songs (he's my favorite singer, btw) to serve as a sort of soundtrack for the story I'm currently writing. Listening to each song and imagining how it would play into what's happening in the story helped me envision the overall story arc, to the point where simply listening to those songs made me eager to return to writing. I have even put a certain song on "repeat" because it put me into the mindset of a character, making the mood of the scene far more accessible.

Whether it's film or music, literature or finger paintings, the arts are a limitless source of inspiration. After all, there's no better way to keep the fires of ambition blazing than to see the finished product of people who saw their dreams through to glorious completion.

3) The "What If" game

Like most writers, I'm known for being a notorious overthinker. While there are many instances in which this can lead to increased inhibition and anxiety towards certain aspects of life, there is an upside.

I have found that simply looking around you can often yield a great number of story ideas and characters. Now, I know what you're thinking. That sounds an often lot like "Personal experience and observation," the first item on this list, right? Wrong.

Whereas drawing from personal experience is a way of documenting and then fictionalizing actual events, the "What If" game is one in which you fill in the blanks with a spontaneously created story.

For example, you might walk down the street and see an old man sitting on a bench, his ruffled hat pulled down and a morose expression on his face. Now, you have no clue who this guy is or what in the world he's doing on this bench. And that's where the "What If" comes into play.

What if this man just lost his job, causing his wife and children to abandon him and he's waiting for the bus to take him to another town, where he will take up a new position working as a school teacher, where he is able to make good use of his misfortune and help his students achieve the success that he himself never managed to achieve?

Granted, it's a bit cliched, but it's a story idea, nonetheless. And all that from just seeing some random dude on a bench.

What makes writers such powerful, high-minded people is their ability to harness the power of their imagination. The "What If" game gives you the perfect venue to exercise this ability and maybe come up with a few so-so story ideas along the way. But, as I so often like to say, there's no such thing as a bad idea, simply works-in-progress.

So step away from your work space or home office for an hour, head down to your nearest mall and just watch the people around you. Imagine what those people's stories are. Ask yourself "What If" and you might just find yourself with seeds for some amazing stories.

Far be it for me to disagree with the above quote from good ol' Tommy, but without that 1 percent of inspiration to jumpstart the creative process, the other 99 percent is doomed to languish forevermore in oblivion. Writers find inspiration all around them, and it's essential to keep our productivity going strong.

I've already attempted to debunk the myth of "writer's block" (see for that post). To me, claiming a bout of writer's block is like saying there's no inspiration left in the world, no ideas to ponder, nothing interesting to comment on and no motivation to express yourself through the written word.

From where I sit in the corner of this Starbucks as I check just how much of my Venti-sized coffee remains, that is unequivocally merde de taureau (pardon my French, ha!).

Take a look around and open your eyes... The world is teeming with never-ending complexities and amazing people, each with incredible stories of their own. Though it is certainly an imperfect one, the world is an awesome place, and inspiration is all around us. Grab a handful of it and see where it takes you! You might just surprise yourself...

Happy writing all,

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Self-Delusion and Resolutions

"Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man." ~Benjamin Franklin

There are few concepts I find as maddeningly frustrating as New Year's resolutions.

Don't get me wrong, I love the idea in theory. With each year that passes, we set certain objectives that we then aim to achieve in the subsequent 12 months. It's definitely a well-intentioned phenomenon. But let's be brutally honest with ourselves for a moment.

You and I both know that the rate of success with New Year's resolutions is nearly non-existent. At this moment, you've probably convinced yourself that you will lose more weight, exercise more, save more money, etc. But beneath this veneer of self-righteousness, you know that you're not going to reach the goals you've set for yourself. In fact, you expect it.

And therein lies the real problem with New Year's resolutions. The very idea has become such a parody of itself that no one - not even those who make the resolutions themselves - really commits to making their goals a reality.

People so often are searching for that instant fix. Whether it's a lingering hope that they'll score millions in the state lottery or that they'll stumble across a magical pill that will shed those extra pounds for them, people by and large are unwilling to stick things out and work for what they want. And so each year, they make a New Year's resolution in the hopes that somehow their wish will be granted when that famous illuminated ball drops in Times Square on New Year's Eve.

We delude ourselves into believing that things will simply happen on their own, that simply wanting and wishing for something hard enough will grant it the power to manifest itself into reality. Then, when that inevitably doesn't come to pass, we view it as a personal failure, taking the disappointment onto ourselves and making ourselves even more powerless to incite any real, tangible changes in our lives.

It's probably pretty apparent in the previous paragraph that I'm speaking (as always) from personal experience here. For years, I used to pin all my hopes and dreams on the bogus notion that all I needed to do was be patient and everything I wanted would simply come to me when the time was right. Even reading that sentence now is a revelation. It's incredible how much we can change over the course of just a few years.

And that's precisely my point (oh yes, I do have one... lol). When we give ourselves a strict deadline of one year to accomplish our goals, we are already effectively shooting ourselves in the foot, so to speak. Jumping on the bandwagon of New Year's resolutions doesn't make you any closer to getting where you want to be in life.

Quite the opposite, in fact. You're setting yourself up for disappointment, often setting unrealistic goals and instilling in yourself from the get-go the self-fulfilling prophecy that you're going to fail.

So, how are you to go about seeking self-improvement without resorting to the useless tradition of making a New Year's resolution? Simple. Take another quick look at the quote I inserted in the top of this post.

Seriously, go ahead. I'll wait. Look, I'll even bold the next statement so you can find where you left off.

Done??? OK... Let's continue.

As Franklin suggests, we should constantly be looking to improve ourselves not for our family, friends or significant others... but for ourselves.

What is it about yourself, your life that you desperately want to change? There's no reason that you can't begin making positive steps towards achieving that this very minute (although I'd appreciate it if you finished reading this post first, hehe).

Goal-setting is a vital ingredient in a successful life. There's no denying that. But the idea of setting a New Year's resolution is too big-picture, and as I said earlier, it is accompanied by the understanding that your likelihood of success is nill. Instead, focus on what you can do today to get the ball rolling and create a list of steps you can tackle over the coming weeks, with a vague outline for a long-term plan.

Don't bother setting any concrete plans at this point because the important thing is simply to shift your focus into one of self-improvement or what Maslow called self-actualization. With every day, every month and yes, every year of our lives, we should always be looking to become the very best version of ourselves.

Granted, we may not be exactly where we want to be at the end of the year. Life has a way of creating an ebb and flow that can sometimes delay progress. As I mentioned in a previous post, the commonly used excuse that "Life got in the way" is definitely a valid point. But this shouldn't stop your focus on self-improvement.

Even if you have to put your personal goals on the backburner for a bit, never forget that life is a journey, and we all want to be able to say, when we look back on our lives, that through it all we've continued to evolve into better, wiser, more developed versions of ourselves.

If you can look back on 2010 feeling like you've emerged a stronger person and have inched ever closer to the life you want and the person you wish to become, then it was a successful year, and you should feel pride in the fact that you're that much nearer to making your dreams a reality, regardless of whether or not you've achieved last year's resolutions.

Good luck out there... and of course, happy writing!