Pages of Promise

With an hour to kill the other day I went in to a Barnes and Noble and just browsed through.  I walked each row, waiting for something to jump out at me.  While there were many books I would gladly take home, I left empty handed but satisfied.

New bookstores are great; with their targeted displays, bright lights, comfy chairs and coffee.  But even better is libraries and second hand bookstores.  The books there have more character; more gravitas.  They have been read by hundreds of people and are worn with dogeared corners and marginalia that is often indecipherable.  The people who work at these places are true lovers of books, more often than not found behind their desk nose deep in one.  Ask for a recommendation and their eyes light up as they encounter a kindred spirit.

And it is in these musty old bookstores that the magical possibility remains, of finding a treasure; some forgotten tome yielding incredible powers.  At least that is what I imagined as a kid…

My love of books and bookstores began very early, with my parents.  I was read to as a child, as I read to my kids today.  As I got older the library served as my internet and I would check out a big stack each week; a mix of science fiction and reference.  Some days I would sit at the library and read a full book before taking the rest home on my bike.

My Grandfather was also a bigtime reader of spy and thriller novels, with a large collection housed in a beautiful built in bookshelf.  I would spend Sunday afternoons with him; first mowing the lawn ($5.00!), then doing some woodworking.  Next, we would have lunch and play a few rounds of solitaire. Finally, I would choose a book from his collection for the week.  It was here that I discovered Trevanian and Ludlum, and had read the entire Bourne trilogy twice by the time I was fourteen.

Then there are found books; those books discovered in the back of an airplane seat, or on a chair at the bus stop.  I have left books in these places myself and know that they are not forgotten items, but gifts left by fellow travelers for the next reader.  I actually just found one at a heliport I flew out of – An Officers Duty by Jean Johnson –  and it was excellent.

Working at sea also encourages a lot of reading, especially in the days before ready access to TV or internet that now provides “quality of life”.  The readers would bring four to six books each trip – leaving them in the communal ships library when done.  You read it, then pass it along and take a new one.  The Seafarers Mission would also provide books to sailors free of charge, showing up at the gangway with a box brimming with the promise of adventure.

Stopping at bookstores in different countries was a magical experience.  I’ve purchased books from all over the world; both from famous bookstores and from tiny hole in the wall shops.  I began doing yoga as a result of a how-to book purchased in Bermuda.  I purchased The Moviegoer in New Orleans at a store located at the former residence of William Faulkner.  Everywhere you go, there will be something for you.

When the kindle arrived on the scene it was truly revolutionary.  Now I could travel with as many books as I wanted, minus the added weight in my luggage.  I read almost exclusively on my iPad for years to follow.  But recently I began to take note of a change in reading culture.  Ships no longer have well stocked libraries and the joy of discovering an excellent book totally by chance began to disappear; now you just dial up exactly what you want, when you want it.  In January I began my 12 Months of Modernism reading program for the year and had decided to read hardcopies, which was the best decision I could have made.  It has got me back into the bookstores and the dwindling culture of readers of the paperback novel.

There are still treasures to be found out there but you need to get out and look.  Maybe there will be a resurgence and paperback books will become ironically cool again, much like kids listening to vinyl.  But to me, a life spent with a nose in books is a life well lived, and there is nothing like walking into a store with books stacked to the ceiling, brimming with pages of promise.

Words To Live By

“Everybody loves quotes.” – Me

Quotes are powerful; little snippets of knowledge passed through time. They are easily digested and easily shared, especially through social media. They offer insight of the person who spoke them and the best ones are well loved because they share some universal truth that resonates. They can serve as mantra or reminder, helping us stay the course when in the thick of things, or giving us the courage to start over when we have faltered.

But being easily remembered does not mean they are easily acted upon. We hyper-consume information, with incoming data running through our brains like a stock ticker, rarely taking time to reflect on the deeper meaning of the words. Yet through the noise the strongest memories will always rise to the surface, shaping who we become and guiding us on the path.

Listening to a forgotten interview a while back the question was asked, “Do you have any quotes that you live by?” Immediately, a phrase popped into my head; something I’ve used as a guide for many years. Switching off the car radio, I used the rest of the drive to think about that question and my own answers to it. What quotes or phrases do I fall back on? Where did they come from? Why do they resonate with me?

These are my words to live by.

“What one man can do, another can do”

This comes from the movie The Edge with Anthony Hopkins and Alex Baldwin. It is a man vs. nature plot where the characters are lost in the wilderness, and also being pursued by a man-eating bear. In it, Baldwin’s character is giving up the will to live, and Hopkins yells those words at him.

I must have been 18 when I first saw that movie but the words have stuck with me to this day. Looking back over my life I am amazed at many of the things I have accomplished, but have always held the belief that if somebody else has done it, I can do it too. When viewed through that lens it makes success in any venture seem, if not inevitable, then at least attainable.

“If it is important, do it every day. If it isn’t then don’t do it at all”

Attributed to Dan Gable, the famous wrestling coach, I came to this through the writings of strength coach, author, and philosopher Dan John. An excellent writer, Dan’s philosophies on training and life resonate with me, but none more so than this.

In the context of physical training the idea is that you work the movements every day. Some days you’ll take it easy, others you’ll go for broke. But you practice the skill.
It works equally well for identifying your priorities. Is what I am doing important enough to commit time to, each and every day? If the answer is no, then consider why you are doing it at all. I have been known, on occasion, to go off on tangents; looking at major projects and spending hours researching them, yet have backed off on actually going ahead with them. This is the question that grounds me.

There are many things we could do, but what should we do? Just because you can do something does not mean it is the best decision, or the best use of your time. What skills have you already built? Would you not be better served staying the course on something you have already begun?

Success is the result of unflagging dedication to a small number of things. If it is truly important then you’ll find a way to work on it every day.

“Use your eyes and ears, not your mouth”

This advice came from my father and was repeated to me many times throughout my childhood.

What began as instruction for an energetic kid with a big imagination eventually morphed into method for interacting with the world. It requires patience, and allows time for judgement and decision making. It encourages both observation and introspection. It provides space to assess the situation.

And it helps you avoid putting your foot in your mouth!

We cannot learn anything new if our mouth is moving; only by carefully observing our surroundings do we gain new insight.

Your Words to Live By

Feel good quotes abound but when asked, most people only have a one or two ready to go. Those are the words that have stuck with us through the years and serve as the philosophical underpinnings on which we base many of our actions. They act as a quick reference to ensure our personal moral compass is pointed in the right direction.

What quote or phrase does that for you?

Writers Writing About Writing

Common knowledge is an interesting thing.  One person does something that works well for them.  They are followed by ten more people.  Eventually that uniform approach becomes the accepted norm.  It becomes the common knowledge; part of the language of the field.

Take writing for example.   Do you want to make it as a writer?  Well then you need a website; a platform to build your “brand” from.  You’ve got to have an email list.  And a social media account or two.  You need to engage with your followers, tribe, thousand-true-fans, frequently so they don’t fall out of love with you.  Make infographics, pdf files and listicles to give away.  Start a podcast.   Oh, and don’t forget to write something.  This is what you need to do, it’s common knowledge, duh.

Except when it isn’t.

What is the End Game?

Like anybody who enjoys writing I also enjoy reading about writing.  There are valuable lessons to be learned from those who have went before us.  Shoulders of giants and all that.  But my tastes tend to gravitate towards those who do not have those commonly accepted requirements of success.  Take a look at Lee Childs website for example.  Amazing writer, almost non-existent online presence.  Cal Newport is another, and he goes further to take a stand against social media, arguing that it is a colossal waste of time that could be better spent actually writing something.  You know he’s right.

By no means am I disparaging writers that write about writing.  I’m just making the observation that it can be easy to lose oneself down the rabbit hole of “must-do” items so it is important to be crystal clear about what your goals are.  Do you want to help others be better writers or do you want to be a published author?  Often times it seems like the goal is to be published, but the time spent sharing online outweighs the time spent writing.

Authority

“Authority” is another blogosphere brand-building catchphrase.  “Who gives you the right to tell me about this?”,  ”Well I’ve sold XYZ books or been published at ABC!”  The point being that you need to do something before having something to (over)share.  And there is some really, really good stuff out there.  2k to 10k comes to mind.  But the majority of what writers write, when writing about writing is too often regurgitated lists, inspirational quotes, diatribes on various subjects (such as this one!), and other such “common knowledge”.  I think this is because we tend to read in the same circles, rather than as wide and deep as we could.

The flip side argument is that no matter what level you are at, there will always be somebody out there that knows less about it than you do.  People are hungry for info.  They want to know.  So give the people what they want.  An example of this is Pareto’s Principle; otherwise known as the 80/20 rule.  Everybody knows what that is right?  Common knowledge.  Except when I speak to somebody who has never heard of it before.  So although I’m only retelling something that was retold to me, it has value to them.

First Things First

The point is to decide what kind of writer you want to be.  There are many paths to the same destination. Do you want to be a scholar on the act of writing and writers?  A big publishing house author?  Self-published indie ass kicker?  You can do any and all of these things, but mind your main goal and make sure that your actions support that.  Don’t let the tail wag the dog.

Work on your work first.  Take care of marketing and brand building and self-promotion later; say sixth or seventh.  By then there will be a new standard of what is common knowledge and you won’t have wasted your time learning the old common before having something to say.