On writing: what good comes from fiction?

Since the early 1990s, I have occasionally stumbled across the notion that reading fiction is a waste of time. I remember seeing a hair metal rocker in an MTV interview back then proclaiming this frivolous statement. You would think this concept was profound by the attention it was given during the “news” segment. I can’t even recall who the musician was, guess it wasn’t all that big a deal.

More recently, however, Noel Gallagher of Oasis echoed a similar time-wasting sentiment in an interview for GQ’s Icon of the Year. You can see an article about this in The Guardian here. Is it trendy for some celebrities to make this unnecessarily stupid statement? I have yet to see a legitimate reason to defend this point. At best, it promotes his pompous arrogance. It begs the question why GQ deemed Gallagher worthy of such a prestigious title; he’s certainly on track to become a Nobel Laureate.

I understand some people prefer reading nonfiction over fiction just as others prefer the inverse – I get that. I don’t argue personal preference and I don’t pass judgment either way. I enjoy reading both and writing both. So be it. But the public proclamation of fiction as a waste of time sucks the marrow from my bones as a giant mosquito would if given the opportunity. It’s far more than just stating a personal preference when delivered to a mass media outlet.

For those who don’t see the point of fiction, I offer you these groundbreaking thoughts. And yes, they are opinions, rooted in observations, professional experience, and most importantly, common knowledge. Only a narcissist would be oblivious.

Fiction provides escape. 

For some it’s a journey into another world. For others, it’s the opportunity to live out a fantasy while ignoring the day’s real life stress. There’s no magic here, it should be obvious even to the most cynical bastard.

Fiction is ubiquitous.

I wonder if the people claiming fiction is a waste enjoy TV dramas, art galleries, blockbuster movies, or even stand-up comedy. Even when based on facts there are elements of fiction throughout these media. How many Civil War documentaries feature audio clips of Abraham Lincoln’s words of wisdom? Voiced by actors, of course. As for the gaps between recorded events, writers have to surmise what probably had occurred to connect the dots – fiction based on fact.

 Fiction excites the mind. 

An amazing side affect of reading fiction is that it inspires. It can invoke creativity. Especially for children. Concepts in science fiction haves opened the way to real life inventiveness, bringing to the world submarines and helicopters. Check out this Smithsonian.com article if you don’t believe me. Star Trek fans relish in this fact considering the number of inventions the original TV show inspired.

Fiction is the livelihood for many people.

Whether we are talking about novelists, publishers, or filmmakers, fiction is at the root of many Americans’ livelihood. It’s an industry no less legitimate than music.

Fiction is this or that….

Anyone can spend a few minutes on this topic and come up with a list. My point is this: don’t berate fiction because it’s not your cup of tea, even if your cup of tea contains sulfuric acid and bleach. No one enjoys hearing of their life’s passion proclaimed a waste of time. Not even formerly celebrated musicians.

The boss scare factor

Skull and crossbonesBack on the creativity versus fear topic. It’s Halloween time, of course. Not that I have to write a scary Halloween-themed blog. That would be out of character for me to follow a seasonal impetus.

Scare Factory

Consider your workplace. Do you feel confident in your ability to speak honestly with your boss or coworkers? Are you forced to walk barefoot on a wide plank wood floor covered in eggshells without making a sound? Because, if your boss should hear the slightest crunch you will be sentenced to hard time in his sweatshop dungeon churning out handmade plastic jewelry to sell to vending machine distributors.

An open coal-fired furnace occupies half the room, providing both intense heat and the only light source. No indoor plumbing so you’re forced to use a five gallon pail. You have no choice but to endure your boss’s martini-soaked screams and rants whenever he feels the need to release a little stress, which is all the time, because he has to stick around after work hours to babysit you. At 3:00AM you’re finally permitted to surface for fresh air, covered in soot and hot glue gun burns, able to go home to bed only to return five hours later.

Yes, this really happened because you had the mind to speak up and share an honest thought. And crush an eggshell.

Unjustifiable Fear

Welcome to the wonderful world of irrational fear. It comes in all shapes and forms, hindering our abilities to do what’s right and doing things well. It controls us for as much as we allow it. It can destroy our careers if not kept in check. Letting your imagination run amuck with all that could go wrong for the simplest task – see overwrought example above – can be taxing on your well-being and mental condition. I know many of us deal with varying levels of anxiety, which tends to fuel these irrational responses, I get that. But you need to know that fear cannot rule you.

I’m getting off my pedestal now.

I am neither a sociologist nor a psychologist. I am a novice student of these disciplines when it comes to my professional life. I know from plenty of years of experience that fear is both pervasive and detrimental in the workplace and I have ideas rooted in my experience and observations on how to address it.

In reality, what’s the worst that can happen when you approach a senior level executive with a suggestion? Your fears will tell you everything can go wrong, anything from immediate termination to indentured servitude. Rational thinking should tell you the executive will thank you, maybe ask to learn more, set up a meeting to discuss. Or a simple no thanks. You’re not working for a Sith Lord, just another human being who’s accomplished a few more things to achieve that job level. Always remember they are humans too.

That thought reminded me of the many times I’ve witnessed employees in various workplaces revere the senior management as untouchable gods. I’ve never wrapped my head around that. We don’t live in a feudalistic society, so why does this innate sense of fear-based reverence exist in our culture? Perhaps it was passed down in families with harsh rules on children speaking only when spoken to followed by punishment if breeched. Whatever the cause, it’s up to each individual to take control, to annihilate those irrational fears. The critical first step is to be assertive, not pompous, assertive. There is a difference.

If I cannot communicate openly with a senior manager about a project I’m working on, or share thoughts from my expertise on how something can be improved, I’m not doing my job well. There are nuances within this statement of course, but it’s a clean generalization. Consider adopting a similar mentality in what you do, one that allows you to feel comfortable and speak freely without fear of retaliation. Push fear aside, reserve it for real problems like active war zones, category five hurricanes, and zombie infestations.

More to come on this topic. Your suggestions and comments are welcome.

On writing aesthetics: brutal intellectual honesty

Last week I finished reading a selection of essays published in 2011 by the late Christopher Hitchens in his book Arguably. I’ve known his word for over a decade and was a fan of his regular TV news show appearances before he fell ill. He brought something to those TV shows and his published works that I found both refreshing and rare amongst the modern day news media: brutal honesty.

I have been a long time advocate of writing honestly in both my professional and creative lives. When a writer holds back emotions, facts, details – anything – it’s blatantly obvious to any reader. Sometimes a reader may not know why something feels inauthentic, but the resulting uneasiness of having spent five or twenty minutes on a piece that feels dishonest is nothing short of time wasted and a lost audience.

Fortunately, I’ve have a good run of reading material lately. I haven’t felt the need to question any author’s honesty in quite some time. There is something unique about reading Hitchens, though, that goes beyond authenticity. I was granted a peak into his posthumous psyche by way of his essays, a much deeper and more intimate experience that I normally encounter. He took controversial stands on sensitive subjects, particularly with religion, like deconstructing the Ten Commandments – of which there are four different versions, I learned. His candid perspectives were well-informed, thorough, and unapologetic. And often laced with wit and humor.

This fawning over Christopher Hitchens’s work doesn’t mean I will devote my personal aesthetic to copying him. I don’t care to to be viewed as a curmudgeon who writes scathing book reviews or regarded by many as a polarizing figure on religion or politics. So let me be clear. Hitchens has been and always will be a personal inspiration in terms of creative and succinct prose, and of brutal intellectual honesty. If there is anything I can emulate in my writing it is this. Along with the ability to piss off people when I know I’m right and the satisfaction that accompanies it.

Motivation is my vicious circle

Motivation has been on my mind lately, due in large part to reading Daniel Pink’s Drive, which I recommend everyone to check out. So I’m looking at how it relates to what I do as a writer and how I can write about its existence in a professional setting. And I continue to wrestle with it.

Then I had the brainstorm when fear motivates us. What could possibly be good about a negative motivator? Are there exceptions to the rules of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? As I felt the need for my bones to rip out of my skin in pondering this, an epiphany struck me – I’m fighting through motivational issues right now as I type these words. Feeling unmotivated to write about motivation. Not good.

Returning to my earlier question about fear motivating us in a positive way – sure, in that no one wants to be called a failure or deadbeat. In business, I see fear a lot, and I see it driving people to do things – albeit strange, often counterproductive things – but it is a powerful force that must be recognized.

For example, I’ve witnessed a manager’s decision to end a key communication project – one that was nearing completion – only to replace it with another mundane safe-yet-proven-ineffective initiative. Why? The manager voiced second thoughts that a higher-up wouldn’t respect the original initiative. And fear that too much information wasn’t good because it could cause employees to be hired out of the company should info somehow leak to the competition. A frustrating scenario to say the least. And I’m not talking about trade secrets leaking, just comprehensive information for the betterment of the employee body and improve efficiency of business as a whole.

I don’t mean to write in the abstract, but various non-disclosure agreements I’ve signed over the years put me in an awkward spot.

The reality is the employee body wants honest, transparent communication. They want access to information so they know who does what in which department at what location, especially in a global organization. Access to useful information eases work processes and reduces frustrations, which in turn increases efficiencies and productivity. Not a hard concept to fathom, unless fear of trying something new and different is a restraint. This is a common theme with vertically structured organizations that have been around a long time and are finding it difficult to survive in the current business climate of horizontal matrices and the flexibility of the up-and-coming Results Only Work Environments.

So, that is just one example of many that I can somewhat write about without risking litigation. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but far less than if I was to start a sentence with “let’s be honest….” My point – this is a topic I must explore in further detail on this blog within the realm of creativity vs. fear.

That preceding statement is the motivation I needed to realize to so I could write these words. It’s all a large infinity loop of jagged lines and hooks.

If you’ve learned something – anything – from this post, please tell me about it. It’s the details between the lines readers pick out that seem to resonate most, and I learn a lot from that in return.

The Antithesis of Creativity

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Immersed in a whirlpool of ideas, some good, some worth dropping off a cliff to the jagged rocks below, still others leading to publication or other successes, creativity abounds in all of us. It’s how we use that energy, how we channel it into our passions that defines us as artists or strategists or inventors or a number of other creative-based professions. When we are fearless, we are at our best.

It’s that moment when we let apprehension stand in our way; when we let self-doubt consume our inspirations; when we allow aversion to risk-taking to override our passions. That moment when the reaper positions his queen with that bony hand to proclaim checkmate. Fear is the consummate eternal when we grant it the opportunity.

Fear comes in many valid forms: an explosion at a chemical factory, an out-of-control eighteen-wheeler on a busy highway, an angry dictatorial boss, the wrong end of a gun. All physical, all legitimate. Even a zombie invasion should one occur. It’s the fear in our heads that restrains us, prevents us from taking ownership of our ideas, of executing an idea as the lingering possibility of retribution or disappointment hangs six inches in front of our noses. That is the antithesis of creativity, which has claimed so many unwritten stories and unperformed songs. And it lives in our collective subconscious, both culturally and individually.

Those lucky fortunate few who have made a killing following their creativity passions, those people we are fans of and consume everything they produce. We love them, we want to emulate them and collect everything they’ve ever touched. We hang on their every last words. We wonder: How did they do it? Right place at the right time? Perhaps. More than likely, they took control of fear. They did not listen to the naysayers – themselves the products of internalized fear – they channeled that energy into their passions, they took risks knowing that at any moment we may reject them. Through every mountain and canyon, they persevered.

Bottom line: we are products of ourselves, we are our own creators. We define what we put out there, assuming we take the first step allowing our viscera to be exposed. The sad reality is, most of us are willing to give in without a fight. Don’t do that.

Push forward. Follow your passion. Create.