J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Category: Writing (Page 2 of 6)

“Persistment” (My Take on “Grit”)

I like the psychological concept of grit, which corresponds roughly with perseverance, and even more closely with conscientiousness (one of the “Big Five” personality traits). Popularized most recently by Angela Duckworth in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, the concept has been around at least since the early 1900’s. Grit, unlike natural genius, can to some extent be learned, and its application is more important than intelligence in terms of life success and fulfillment.

My own mental hurdle with this concept is that the word grit literally makes me think of someone gritting their teeth and just pushing, pushing, pushing, like Conan on the Wheel of Pain.

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Obviously Conan is just going in a circle, getting nowhere (though he is getting stronger and bigger). That can be the problem with brute force persistence too — you might get mentally tough but at the same time not make any progress.

For that reason I substitute the word persistment (persistence + improvement) for grit. It’s not as catchy, but it works to remind me that there are two parts to self-propelled success. Willful stubbornness will get you only so far. You have to actively get better.

A few weeks ago I wrote about my take on what it takes to create on a day-to-day basis (inspiration, daily practice, quality control, a learning system). What I didn’t really address was the mindset of the creative life. Where does the motivation come from? What should you do if you don’t “naturally” feel motivated to spring out of bed and spend hours wrestling with your medium to create something that may or may not end up good, meaningful, and/or profitable?

What is persistment (or grit, if you prefer) in terms of developing an artistic/creative career, or just living that kind of life?

Know (and Feel) Your Why

I’m talking about purpose. We get to choose if we want to dedicate our lives to something, and what that something is. For me it’s mostly about creating works that entertain others (and hopefully also inspire, fascinate, etc.). Life happens whether or not we assign or ascribe purpose to it, but I appreciate the additional agency that choosing a purpose provides. If you don’t reflect on and define your own raison d’etre, it’s too easy to get swept up in other people’s agendas, becoming a pawn in games of people craftier and more powerful than yourself.

Purpose doesn’t need to be complicated or grand. But it needs to be yours. The only requirement is that whatever you choose has a deep personal, emotional resonance. What do you care about, more than anything?

Know Where You’re Going (a Main Goal and a Plan)

For many years all I wanted was to be a successful dance music producer. That goal sustained me for my early adult life. I had a great run, publishing music on my favorite labels, co-running my own label, landing big licensing deals, co-promoting a famous San Francisco event, touring internationally as a DJ, and even quitting my technology work for a few years and paying my mortgage with only music income.

While I still love running Loöq and making music in the studio, that career has mostly run its course (probably). I no longer want to DJ, spend lots of time in airports, or participate in big dance music events, and those things are kind of required for next-level success as a producer. I won’t say I’m too old, because there are people older than me still loving it, still working the CDJs and pumping their fists in the air. But I was ready to try to something else. There’s no rule that says you can only do one thing your entire life.

I floundered, somewhat directionless, for a few years. That was a little rough. I continued to support myself and act like a responsible adult, but I didn’t have any big picture or vision for my career or creative drive.

Now I have my sights set on being a novelist. While there are many acceptable definitions of “novelist,” for me it means getting published with a reputable publisher, selling thousands of books, and making some income (though not necessarily quitting my freelance work).

I can’t promise you I’ll get there, but it’s where I’m aiming. It feels great to be headed in a specific direction, no longer floundering. I’ve committed.

(And if you’re a novelist trying to make it a dance music producer, we should get in touch and trade tips.)

Deconstruct Blockedness/Poor Performance

I enjoyed this lecture by Alan Watkins:

Watkins makes some interesting distinctions between sensation, emotion, and feelings. What he’s getting at is that we can’t just look at behavior and try to force ourselves to do better. We need to go deeper, and deconstruct what’s happening at a physiological level, then work our way back up the chain.

Same goes for “writer’s block.” If you feel blocked, deconstruct your blockedness. If you’re mildly depressed, fix your brain. If you don’t know what to write, then back up, brainstorm, outline, write what you’re going to write. If you don’t know how to write what you want to write, then do some research, study some examples, get some advice, take a class, etc. Same applies, in slightly different ways, to other creative fields.

Incremental Goals and Rewards

A friend of mine does something nice for herself every time she gets something published. I think that’s a great habit. Why not reinforce success?

But getting published isn’t within our control, and it doesn’t necessarily happen frequently. It’s important to also reward yourself for incremental progress, for setting and achieving a target. That could be meeting your daily quota, finishing a draft, or submitting a piece for publication.

Even if these actions don’t result in immediate external success (getting published, getting paid, getting famous, receiving awards, etc.) you should still count them as personal successes, and reward the behavior. Because you need to keep doing those behaviors to have any chance at external success.

So train yourself like a chicken, and condition yourself to do the things you want to be doing.

Frame Rejection as Feedback, and Progress

We all know rejection is part of the game. But that doesn’t mean you have to let it get to you. Ideally rejection should have a neutral emotional quality. Rejection is feedback, information. It can tell you any of the following:

  • that your work needs to improve
  • how your work can improve
  • that your work doesn’t fit the market you submitted it to
  • they don’t yet know who you are (reputation and connections matter)

I track my rejections, both for logistical purposes (so I don’t submit the same piece to the same outlet), but also as a measure of how much work I’ve put in.

For whatever reason, rejections no longer sting as much. Sometimes, they have a silver lining (when your work makes it out of the slush pile and the editor actually reads it, when you get personalized feedback or a nice comment).

I don’t know if I can explain exactly how to not take rejection personally. It helps having my first published story. It helps having clear successes in other areas of my life. Maybe most importantly, it helps to remember that rejection is about the work, and your progress, not you as a person.

What’s your take on grit, as it applies to the creative life? How do you nurture your own motivation?

First Published Story! (“The Beef”)

The auroch-like Heck cattle breed.

The auroch-like Heck cattle breed.

Popped a champagne cork tonight after seeing that my short story “The Beef” had gone live on Strange Horizons. It was accepted a couple months ago but I didn’t want to announce anything until I could actually give people a way to read it. Strange Horizons produced a podcast as well, and I really enjoyed Anaea Lay’s reading (and short interpretation afterwards).

The story touches on a few topics I’ve written about before on this blog, such as scenarios around human depopulation, and the moral and power dynamics of conscious-aware animals eating other conscious-aware animals. But the main theme is the migration impulse, or lack thereof (human and animal).

Heinlein’s Rules for Writing

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  4. You must put the work on the market.
  5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

I currently have nine stories out for submission. I’ve been using Heinlein’s Rules, more or less, except that whenever a story is rejected, I reread it and change anything that jumps out as needing changing (and I don’t send anything out in the first place until after at least two revisions, sometimes many more). Strange Horizons read a better story than the first two magazines that rejected The Beef. I always try to send out a finished, polished story in the first place, but if I reread it and notice something can be improved, I’ll try to improve it. Technically this is a violation of Heinlein’s Rule#3, but according to this io9 article, even Heinlein sometimes revised his work.

I like to think that Heinlein simply meant that you shouldn’t obsessively rewrite and revise when your story isn’t broken in the first place. But maybe he meant it literally — just send out the first draft. Big difference: when Heinlein was submitting short stories, it was a seller’s market. Editors might look for a gem in the rough. Editors today expect to read a polished story, and if that’s not what you send them they have a 1000 more in the slush pile to try.

I hope you read and enjoy The BeefPlease leave a comment at strangehorizons.com if you have some thoughts. And thank you for the many words of encouragement I’ve received from readers, in terms of taking up a new artistic endeavor and keeping at it.

What Does It Take To Create? (Four Aspects of Getting It Done)

Space-man/guitarist Chris Hatfield, photo courtesy of NASA

Space-man/guitarist Chris Hatfield in his orbital creative process, courtesy of NASA

I’ve been thinking about the day-in, day-out process of creating stuff and trying to make it good. Not just a piece of work in particular, but the lifestyle of creating. What’s required?

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How I Broke Into the Music Business and Made $100K

Jackie at the old Loöq Records office on Brannan.

Jackie at the old Loöq Records office on Brannan.

As I’m trying to launch a new career (fiction writing), I’m also taking stock of an old one (producing electronic music). I signed my first track in 1992, at the age of 23, to Mega-Tech records (an offshoot of the famous San Francisco disco label Megatone). I released my latest record, a reggae/breaks hybrid track, a week ago.

Breaking in wasn’t easy. I remember vividly sending out cassette tape demos in padded mailers to record labels in New York City and Los Angeles, following up via phone, and getting shot down by arrogant label runners (I’ve made a point to never be mean, running my own record label, even though our signing bar is very high).

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Peak Frustration

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I remember the moment I felt the most frustrated with my music career. It was well before my music career had actually begun. I had a middle-of-the-night radio show at a college station, a Macintosh Plus and D-70 keyboard in my dorm room, and big dreams. But none of my demos had gotten any love from music labels.

The moment: I was crossing the street, padded envelope in hand, preparing to drop yet another cassette demo in the mail to yet another label. I needed, and felt like I deserved, a cathartic release to the pent-up frustration I was feeling. Success must be right around the corner. This had to be the track that got me signed.

Well, it wasn’t. Nor was the next one. Or the one after that.

It’s a cliche that success is “right around the corner” from disappointment, rejection, paralyzing self-doubt, and abject failure. It’s not true, most of time. Usually what follows peak frustration is more frustration, hard work, more rejection, deliberate and painstaking improvement of skills, and eventually, possibly, small incremental successes. “Big breaks” which to an outsider seem to be based on phenomenal luck are more often the result of throwing enormous amounts of competently cooked pasta against the wall. Some of it will eventually stick.

I did eventually sign a couple tracks to a San Francisco disco label that was branching out into house and techno. Then I signed a track to a major label rave compilation.

Then more demos, more rejection.

It’s not like you reach a certain level of success and you no longer have to deal with being rejected (or worse, ignored). If you’re in the arts, it’s part of the territory. You can pretend you don’t care, but everyone cares. You might not care about the money or fame, but everyone wants to be acknowledged.

To get to my big break (John Digweed discovering a self-published Jondi & Spesh vinyl release in a Berkeley record store bin) I had to write a bunch more tracks, find a music partner/co-writer, put out half a dozen releases on our own credit-card funded imprint, be completely ignored by local tastemakers and scenesters for years, and generally fuel my efforts with youthful bravado, stubbornness, and plastic.

What followed was a pretty damn good couple decades, the dividends of which I am still enjoying today. Top-charting dance tracks, major TV and videogame licensing deals, US and European DJ tours (fancy hotels, limo rides, big venues and crowds), and co-hosting an epic dance music event that had a line stretching around the block every week. Though music is no longer my #1 focus, I still enthusiastically produce tracks and co-manage Loöq Records.

So what is my #1 creative focus? Writing. Fiction writing, specifically. And in that area, I’m enjoying/enduring a good run of frustration and rejection. I’m older now and I have a few life accomplishments under my belt, so the rejection doesn’t hurt as much. But it still stings! I’m currently writing and submitting science-fiction short stories to pro markets and my rejection notices just entered the double digits. Ha, that’s nothing! (think veteran writers). I don’t know if I’m at peak frustration yet. I’m not naive enough to assume that success is right around the corner.

Starting a new creative career over age 40 might be called quixotic. Less generously, deluded. More optimistically (and how I choose to frame it): an attempt at reinvention, mid-life learning, and hopefully, eventually, meaningful contribution (entertaining and inspiring readers).

I guess I’m writing this to encourage you, if you’re in a similar space. This post from Ferrett Steinmetz gave me the courage and fortitude to make a serious attempt at writing (and more recently to start submitting my work). Incidentally, the author of that post is having a great run. You can purchase his debut novel here.

Thanks for joining me on my own ride.

Changing Habits — 5 Specific Proven Techniques

What would YOU do for a scrap of bacon?

What would YOU do for a scrap of bacon?

Recently I’ve become fascinated with learning and implementing techniques to replace destructive habits with helpful ones. I’m particularly interested in giving up the habit of aimless web-browsing and other forms of online procrastination in order to become a more prolific writer. I not only want to write more words, but also to increase the intensity of my attention and quality of focus so that I can create higher quality work (I believe the two go together; increased quantity leads to increased quality).

I’ve made some progress over the last two years. I’m regularly reaching my goal of 15,000 words/month on my current novel, in addition to writing 2-3 blog posts a month. I’m curious to see how those numbers will change if I’m able to effectively implement all of the techniques below. Right now, if I were to give myself a grade in regards to how effectively I use my writing time, I’d give myself a C- (barely passing). I know I can do better.

The Problem: I either delay or interrupt my own writing process by distracting myself with email, checking social media feeds, checking link sites like reddit, or reading news and opinion articles.

The Ideal Behavior Pattern: Start writing without delay around 8:45am. Take breaks as needed to stretch, pace, exercise, and think, but don’t go down the internet rabbit hole.

The techniques below can be applied to any kind of desired behavior change, including quitting smoking, eating more healthful food, drinking less alcohol (or none at all), not fighting with your children or partner, etc.

Technique 1: Align Your Emotions with Your Intent by Asking the Hard Questions, then Commit

This is an area that I was neglecting until I read Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins. I bought my copy used for $0.01 on amazon and it’s worth every penny. Just kidding — even though there are many references to events in the nineties, the psychological techniques discussed in the book are as relevant and valuable today as they were fifteen years ago. You can download the eBook for free using the link above.

The basic idea is to associate pain with not changing the behavior and pleasure with changing the behavior. What do you stand to lose if you don’t change? In regards to smoking and other health-destroying habits, the stakes are high; you could lose your good health, and/or twenty-plus years of your life.

Web-browsing might not sound as serious as smoking, alcoholism, or destructive drug-use, but when I asked the hard questions, I realized there was a lot of potential pain associated with NOT establishing good concentration and work habits. Any chance at establishing a new career from scratch (regardless of age) depends on intense focus, productivity, and the ability to resist distractions. I really would like to call myself a novelist one day, and if I don’t take full advantage of the free time, clear mind, abundance of ideas, good eyesight, and otherwise ideal circumstances that I am fortunate enough to be experiencing at this time in my life, I will regret it.

It was more fun to consider the pleasure side of the equation. Writing prolifically is a key part of fulfilling a major childhood dream of being a novelist. There’s also the immediate, daily satisfaction of completing a great writing session (I’m on top of the world for hours). When I write well I feel like I’m fulfilling my potential as a human being. Whether it’s blog posts that might inspire other people, or science-fiction that could entertain, inspire, or even add to the collective imagination of what humanity might become, writing lifts me up and expands my mental horizons.

I don’t get that feeling when I fritter away valuable hours and only manage to get a few anemic sentences down.

So those are the stakes. The last step of this technique is committing. Was I ready to commit to being a prolific writer? To raise the bar from should to must? Yes, absolutely. Carefully considering the stakes made that decision easy.

Is there a change you’re gearing up to make in your own life? A habit you’re ready to change, permanently? Do the exercise above and you’ll be ready now.

Go ahead. Bookmark this post, stop reading, and do the exercise above. What pain is associated with not changing? What pleasure is associated with changing? Do what it takes to gain the emotional resolve, then commit.

Committing isn’t the end of the process, of course …

Technique 2: Make the Good Habit Easy and the Bad Habit Difficult

This is the part where we use our natural laziness as human beings to our own advantage. Making a bad habit even slightly less convenient (or the converse, making a good habit more convenient) is hugely effective. Google demonstrated this principle by putting candy in opaque jars and healthier snacks in clear ones. Over a seven-week period Google employees consumed 3.1 million calories fewer of M&Ms.

Before I start writing, I disable the WiFi on my computer (unless I’m working on the blog — then I need the internet in order to create links within posts). At other times I’ve used site-blocking software like RescueTime and Freedom to curb my internet use. These tools work pretty well.

On the “more convenient” side I always keep a shortcut to my current manuscript right on my desktop, so I don’t have to dig around in folders to open it.

Other examples that could apply to other habits:

The “make bad habits harder” strategy works pretty well, but I’ve run into limitations. If I’m not fully committed to behavior change, I can always find a way around these “soft” restrictions. Maybe you have a friend who has halfheartedly decided to “smoke less” and therefore only bums cigarettes instead of buying them?

Other issues arise when your family or cohabitators aren’t on board. Maybe you’re ready to give up chocolate but your wife isn’t. Maybe unplugging the internet router would be great for you, but would through a wrench in your roommate’s workflow. In that case you need to support your behavior change with other techniques.

Technique 3: Understand the Cues, and Disrupt the Habitual Behavior

These days, when I catch myself going to a website or checking email or Twitter when I should be working, I make a loud siren noise with my mouth, like a fire alarm going off. Then, out loud, I describe the exact details of the offending behavior, and coach myself back to a more productive mode.

Good thing I work from home, right?

Let me explain how I arrived at the above technique …

Earlier this year I realized I had fallen into a less-than-ideal morning ritual. The experience of turning on my computer, drinking coffee, checking email, and looking at Facebook, reddit, nytimes.com, and other sites (I’m sure you have your own list) had become comfortable, easy, and habitual. This wouldn’t have been a problem if the web-browsing only lasted for five or ten minutes, but I often found it difficult to break out of this “easy web-browsing mode” into the more mentally strenuous work of writing, revising, etc. Major time wasted! I might still cram in some work before lunch, but many mornings I would end up frustrated with myself, even angry at myself for wasting so much time. Yet I felt powerless to stop it.

My first attempt at breaking up this pattern was to NOT start my day with turning on my computer. Instead, I used a pen and notebook to sketch out my ideas, plans, and thoughts about the day. This resulted in a more conscious start. It’s a good habit and I’ve easily maintained it since I wrote that post back in April.

My second attempt at breaking the pattern was to manipulate the cue of drinking coffee. I recognized that drinking coffee had become a cue for web-browsing, so I experimented with not drinking coffee until I was actually working on fiction-writing. This worked reasonably well and increased my word count, but it wasn’t the ideal strategy. Coffee drinking was a trigger, but it was also a reward, and sometimes I just delayed coffee drinking until I got a minor caffeine headache. The process started to feel too convoluted and unpleasant, so I abandoned it and went back to studying how habits are constructed from cues, behaviors, and rewards.

Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, explains that a habit is constructed of a cue (or trigger), a behavior, and a reward. If we can develop an awareness of what sensory inputs trigger the behavior we want to change, we can modify our response to the cue.

So far I’ve noticed several cues that precede my habit of internet browsing, including:

  • turning on the computer
  • finishing a chunk of work (a scene or even a paragraph)
  • hitting a mental block … not sure how to proceed

Now, if I find myself starting to go down the internet rabbit hole, I use what Tony Robbins calls a “pattern interrupt” to disrupt the behavior (thus the siren noises and out-loud verbal self-coaching).

So far this has been very effective. But it only addresses part of the habit — the cue or trigger. What about the reward?

Technique 4: Understand and Reprogram the Reward

For lasting habit change I knew I needed to identify the reward I was getting from self-distraction, and find an alternate means of getting it.

Getting a better understanding of the triggers helped me understand the reward. I think the reward I get from self-distraction is a break in intensity, a rest for my brain.

The problem with using the infinite entertainment and distraction potential of the internet is that a five minute break can turn into a twenty or sixty minute break all too easily. Also, I don’t get the full benefits of a break, like moving around, looking at something besides a screen, doing a quick household chore, or even briefly exercising.

A household chore as a reward? Really? If you don’t understand this, you’re not a writer. 😉

Even worse, if I check email there’s a good chance my brain won’t get any rest at all, but will be pulled into a different problem. Too many times I’ve lost writing momentum because I read a client email, and my brain got sucked into how to solve that problem. It’s not fair either to my creative process or to my client to give each half my attention.

So if I feel the need for a break, I give myself a break. I might sit in a chair in my yard and soak up some sun, or do some pullups on the plum tree, or sit and meditate for a few minutes, or get a water or coffee refill. Ideally I try to keep it physical and short, then get back to work.

When I took a break from drinking, I found I was able to achieve many of the associated rewards without actually consuming any alcohol. San Pellegrino in a wine glass went a long way: something a little fancy, treating myself well, hydrating, mouth sensation, etc. Sometimes I found the craving for wine was actually a craving for sugar … adding a little juice to the carbonated water helped satisfy that need. The substitutions I used for wine, beer, and scotch help me understand that when I thought I was craving a drink, at times I was craving something else (water, sugar, being nice to myself, relaxing, time with family or friends). I probably drink about half as much now as compared to before I took the break.

Technique 5: Repeat and Reinforce Good Behavior

Eventually a good habit rewards itself. When I changed my eating and supplementation habits and eventually was able to breathe normally, the idea of going back to my old lifestyle habits held zero appeal. Nothing beats breathing.

But when you’re just starting to change a bad habit and/or establish a new one, it’s important to reward yourself immediately when you do something right.

The rewards don’t have to be big. But at least pat yourself on the back. I use out-loud verbal coaching to this effect, congratulating myself when I take a minor step in the right direction. When I reach a major milestone I usually treat myself to something … a small purchase or a nice meal.

It’s important to keep rewards simple and immediate. A complicated reward (like a trip to a foreign country) requires a great deal of work to implement. Your mind might not perceive it as positive reinforcement by the time it happens.

The most effective reward schedules are intermittent and variable. Don’t always reward yourself for good behavior, and mix it up both in terms of the kind and size of the reward. After a good writing session I’ll sometimes reward myself with dark chocolate, a walk around the neighborhood (sometimes I’ll stop by the local record store). If I finish a draft I’m going to splurge on something. My brain is going to know I did something right.

I guess there’s some possibility of creating a new bad habit by reinforcing a new good habit. You’re not going to replace smoking with candy bars, or drinking beer with drinking soda, are you?

Line ‘Em Up, Knock ‘Em Down

It’s not a bad way to approach life change. Line up the bad habits and turn them into good habits, one by one. After I kick the aimless web-browsing habit I have a few more in the queue.

What habit are you committed to changing in your own life? Step up and comment below.

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