A Stoic Symphony

From The Daily Stoic, one of my favorite websites (and books), here are some notes about making progress as a Stoic.

You are making progress if you find yourself...

  • criticizing no one

  • praising no one (I don't entirely agree—a kind word can go a long way; but I understand the idea)

  • blaming no one

  • accusing no one

  • saying nothing about yourself to indicate being someone or knowing something

  • when frustrated or impeded, you blame yourself (*warning: lots of language on link!*)

  • if complimented, you laugh

  • if criticized, you ignore

  • relaxed in motivation

  • banishing harmful desire

  • watching yourself as though you were an enemy plotting an attack

I find that last one very important. As with most artists, I have an amazing capacity to self-sabotage. My harmful desires, my nihilism, my darker fascinations—such things are always at the ready to undo me. Positivity and a growth mindset (traits that don't come naturally to me) are keys to success, while balancing such aspirations must be in harmony with wisdom, a lack of naivety, measured discernment, and love. It's not enough to pretend to be optimistic and positive all the time. I have to embrace my natural Stoicism, my faith, and my five-ness. There's simply no way around the makeup of my brain and my soul. So why fight it?

“I go to sleep content, but my final thought is of Resistance. I will wake up with it tomorrow. Already I am steeling myself.” — Steven Pressfield

Harmony. Harmony is key. Polyphony. Multiple melodies acting in accord. The macro is the whole symphony. The micro is every line, every note. People will only understand the symphony (the thing I’m trying to build and communicate) if each note is properly in place.

So what are the notes of your life? The melodies? How do they weave together? Ask yourself that today.

—G

More Scary Stories

song in my head — “Pyramids of Salt” by The Wonder Years

For better or worse, I've always loved scary stories. Creepy things colored my childhood. Whether it was Goosebumps, Edgar Allen Poe, or Stephen King, I was fascinated by tales of the strange and macabre.

But few things impacted me as much as Alvin Schwartz's folkloric series, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark; greater still were the nightmare echoes that came with it in the form of Stephen Gammell's illustrations. These penciled depictions of worlds and scenes on the edges of our sanity instantly captured my imagination. The first things I ever remember writing fought to ape the feelings Gammell's illustrations gave me. And everything since has held shadows of those formative midnight mirages.

When I say I'm a horror fan, it often gets a somewhat confused reaction (especially if the reacting party knows that I'm a Christian.) The idea of enjoying scary and often "dark" things doesn't tend to vibe with the picture of a relatively positive, "normal" person like myself. I'm not wearing black makeup and listen to metal, after all. (Well, at least not today.)

But these are the assumptions of an outsider, the pictures painted by people who aren't in the know. Most typical horror fans will attest to being part of a tribe made up of mostly uber-sensitive creative-types, people who feel a little harder than the average lot or maybe see the world a little differently, maybe feel a little like outcasts. Most of us aren't odd or morbid people; we just find great fascination—comfort, even—among strange and sometimes morbid things.

Not every horror story out there is my bag. I'm not big on the slasher subgenre, and I tend to steer clear of needless gore and nudity. I prefer supernatural things (ghost stories, possessions, etc.); really bizarre or imaginative tales (anything by Guillermo del Toro); emotionally resonate stories with high tension and strong characters (something like Karyn Kusama's The Invitation.) "Slow burn" fare, as the kids call it, is my catnip. But everyone who likes being scared likes it for their own reasons, and those reasons kind of unite us in despite—or maybe because—of their divergency.

You see, I think there are two kinds of people in the world: those that avoid fear and darkness at all costs, and those who search it out. We're thrill-seekers of a type, people looking for that shiver down the spine. But consider that some of us might be looking for something more than cheap thrills. Perhaps we're searching for answers to questions, understandings on grief and terror and the traumas experienced in the actual, real world. Maybe we're looking to be surprised and transported. Or perhaps we just want to find something unique, something we haven't seen before. In that way, we're not that different from anyone else who likes books and movies and television. We're all looking for a story that sparks our senses and makes us feel.

When I'm in the basement, and it's dark, and the wind is howling outside, and a shadow moves across the corner of my vision, I turn to look at it, secretly hoping something might stir. Because at the end of the day, I want to be stirred. I want to feel bewilderment, breathlessness, to feel like a kid again.

Show me something magical, even if it's scary.

—G

Dreams

song in my head — “Impossible” by Anberlin

I had a wild dream last night. It played out vivid and clear, just like I was watching a movie. It even starred John Krasinski! (Must be all that Office binge-watching my wife and I still do to this day…)

I’ll write it down and revisit it later. I have other things to work on now, but who knows. It may rear its head again. It would make for decent fiction.

Dreams never die. They might get tired. They might fall asleep for while. But we wake them up again, and it’s like they never left.

Even the ones that star Jim Halpert.

— G

Some Days

song in my head — “One Foot Before The Other” by Frank Turner

Some days the words come. They flow from mind to fingertip or pen as easily as a river flows to the sea. The Muse is with us and there’s magic in our bones.

Other days the words are hard to come by. They hide in dark shadows just on the edge of our vision; they gang up on us and overwhelm us until we can’t make sense of them. On days like these, we might think we’ll never write again.

The great Steven Pressfield would call this feeling “Resistance.”

In the opening of his masterful creative manifesto, The War of Art, Pressfield says:

“There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.”

But are you a real writer or a wannabe?

If you’re a real writer then do the hard part. Sit down to write.

This doesn’t always mean the words will arrive, but it means the intention to write has. Struggling with the work—thinking of it, pressing through it, mulling it over—is the valuable work of a writer, too. It’s not just words on the page. It’s butt in the seat and story in the head. It’s exploring. It’s discovery. It’s wrestling with yourself and the material, battling with the Muse and the forces of Resistance. If you run from it, you’re lost. But if you face it, if your intentional, you’re doing the work.

So are you intentional with your writing time whether the words are there or not? Good. You’re being persistent. And Resistance hates persistence.

—G

Keep Moving Forward

song in my head — “Diamonds” by The Boxer Rebellion

"When I grow up, I want to be..."

But what does it even mean to grown up?

The truth is, we're never fully grown, never finished learning and discovering. Or at least we shouldn't be.

In the depths of our souls, in the quiet places of our inner lives, a longing for progression and growth burns on. Our ideal state of mind, as the Robinsons put it, is to "keep moving forward." When we keep moving forward, failure is a welcomed teacher, and the process outweighs the destination.

Setting goals and resolutions is great, but building systems and processes is better, especially if those systems are tied to never "growing up," never being done with discovery.

So that dream you had when you were 15? That invention you sketch out when you were 21? The life you wanted when you were 8 and the world was full of possibility? It’s all still obtainable, no matter how many calendars you've spent on this planet. And the opportunities of the internet and technology make such dreams and ideas more accessible than ever.

So what did you want to be when you grew up?

If you're still breathing, you're still growing. So go be it.

"Happiness is a byproduct, not an actual destination." — Jewel

—G

Thoughts On Chaos

song in my head — “It’s A Job” by Wolfie’s Just Fine

In this life, chaos is unavoidable. We all know it. We sense it. We see it. Chaos, suffering, the unexpected… these things surround us all the time. It’s in many ways, the human condition. So this being the case—that no amount of human planning or programming or control can do away entirely with the unexpected, with chaos, then the only thing that we can do to find harmony or peace is to reframe the way in which we look at chaos. Because like almost everything else, there are two sides to the chaotic coin, a lightness to the dark.

Our most human of intuitions is to look for patterns, to look for a cause and effect. With the micro chaos, sometimes this is easy. We ran over a nail; therefore we have a flat tire. Mystery solved. With the big stuff, though… this can be more difficult. This healthy person I know now has cancer. They have 6 months to live, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

That phrase, “there’s nothing anyone can do about it” has evolved into a pretty prevalent axiom these days: “It is what it is.” While on its face, this is a rather cynical or dismissive way to approach everyday chaos, (and that’s usually how it’s used), it’s a saying not without its truth. It really is what it is. But recognizing “it is what it is” and being at peace with “it is what it is” are two very different things.

The word chaos is primarily used to describe a state of total confusion or disorder, something unorganized and unbridled. But there’s another definition that I think is worth pondering for our purposes. It’s often seen as Chaos with a big C, related to the idea of the creation of the universe, the creation of all things. Chaos—that place of disorder before order is introduced—is a state of things in which chance is supreme. So if there’s a CHANCE that bad stuff we “don’t deserve” will come our way, isn’t there also a chance that GOOD things we don’t deserve will come our way? And not only that, but what if every moment of chaos, every state where chance is supreme, was approached with the mindset that not only will Good possibly come from this moment, but that Good ultimately CAN come from this moment. The possibility of either is there. It’s just a matter of how you look at it.

—G

The Points Still Count

"Without a ruler to do it against, you can’t make crooked straight." — Seneca

song in my head—”Real World” by Matchbox Twenty

We would all do better in the wilderness with a guide, someone to show us the lay of the land—where not to go, what areas are good to explore, etc. And I don't think it limits our experiences to have boundaries of a sort.

Guides don't have to be "rulers," per se, though there are aspects of life that should inspire stricter order. For the purposes of the artist, I think the best guides leave some wiggle room, some space for improvisation and exploration. I don't think a healthy aim for life (or our work) is to plan on making one perfect, impossible shot after another. That's not realistic. Instead, think of guides as goalposts in football. The kicker has a range in which to score points. It doesn't matter if the ball goes straight down the center or barely eeks in. The points still count either way.

—G