I graduated from my Master of Fine Arts program from Florida International University at 25-years old, which seemed like an impressive feat at the time. When I finished my MFA, I moved from Miami to Los Angeles, and I thought I was a pretty hot-shit writer about to head to one of the most creative cities in the world. In fact, I thought I was moments away from turning my thesis into a best-selling book, and I wasn’t worried about finding writing motivation to finish countless drafts while working long days at many different jobs. Honestly, it felt like I had already arrived.
In fact, I look back on that version of myself, a totally delusional version of myself, and realize that it’s kind of embarrassing. I remember asking one of my professors how long it took her to publish her first book after graduation, and she said, four years. At the time, four years after graduate school felt like such a long time to publish a book.
Now, I just turned 35-years old, and it’s 10 years since I graduated from my MFA program, and I don’t have a book. I have published a decent amount of non fiction and some fiction, and I have a great career where I practice my craft every day, but I know I still have a long way to go to accomplish my life goal: Filling an entire shelf with books I have written, and those books have to be worth the trees that were sacrificed. I want people to actually read the books, not just let them sit there and collect dust.
And even though so much time has passed since I graduated, I know I need to dig deep to still make my dreams come true. It’s hard to stay motivated though, especially with all that is happening in the world.
That’s why I put together a list of ways to find writing motivation. When I was researching for this blog, I read a lot of the other posts about finding writing motivation, and I realized the advice was terrible. They give trite advice like “set deadlines” and “commit to writing.” It’s time to actually hear some real advice. Let me keep it real with you.
Over the last few months, I have been thinking a lot about what this blog means to me and how it fits into my life, and I hadn’t realized how much Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism has changed my entire perception of my work and digital life. I started this blog when I first began freelancing almost eight years ago, chronicling my journey to building a life around writing. Now, I write every single day, tallying up words for novels, essays, and short stories while working on my craft within my career as a digital marketing professional. I have a great career where I help tell stories for universities.
So, I’ve been thinking, where does this blog fit into my life that I’m no longer a freelancer?
Honestly, my blog exhausted me (in a similar way to my podcast, The Working Poet Radio Show), because it began to seem like a burden rather than a passion. I know that sounds awful, especially to those people who have read or listened, but what I noticed is that the reason these projects were feeling like a burden was: 1. I was really busy at work, writing, and with my family, so something had to give. 2. I was focused on the wrong metrics — organic traffic, shares, page views — and not connecting with an audience.
As a digital marketing professional, I have learned to realize the value and the tools to increasing a digital presence, and I still see the value in this for any writing professional, but they consume me. I dedicate my day to helping our clients achieve these goals, and I thought, well, shouldn’t I be doing the same thing for my own blog? I pursued writing for this blog in the same way I approached my work: SEO optimized blog posts, listicles, social boosting. But it struck me this week: I don’t care about those things anymore for my own personal work. They are exhausting.
My thoughts have really started to change after reading Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism.” It’s a book that explores a lifestyle where you use digital technologies to support value, true value, rather than allowing the behavioral techniques that Silicon Valley — and digital marketing professionals like myself — employ so that a user keeps scrolling, keeps sharing, keeps you on your device. Newport’s book proved to be one of the most useful books I have ever read, and it helped me reorientate myself to what I care about: building a career and a community, writing books, and being there for my family.
Because of this book, I have written six chapters of a new novel and read 18 books in a month and a half, which I will catalogue at the end of this blog and flag the ones I recommend. During this time, I’ve come to a conclusion: I need to start writing without caring about being read. Well, maybe that’s not right. Clearly, I want to care about an audience. Maybe it’s more on the lines of: Be yourself and your audience will find you. That could be it. I don’t know. Realize what you value and focus on that…maybe. I don’t know.
The Line Becomes a River, Francisco Cantu (Recommend. Reminded of Kerouac if he was working at the border)
The Psychology of Time Travel, Kate Mascareenhas (Don’t recommend)
Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport (One of the most useful books I’ve ever read)
It’s 10:17 p.m., and I just returned from a walk, where I tried to ignore several meetings in the morning and the conundrum of finding a way to be present in those meetings while balancing projects that need significant brain power to complete. Work takes up a significant amount of space in my mind, and I am grateful that I can use my craft to help in my profession. I tell stories at work, and I have incredibly clear outcomes: Grow our business, please our clients, and pay my bills. There is a sense of satisfaction in that clarity.
On the other hand, my creative work doesn’t have as clear outcomes. I don’t have deadlines; I don’t get paid (at least very much); and I don’t have any true metrics to evaluate performance outside of the arbitrary ones I set for myself. After I returned from the walk, where I wondered how many days after Christmas it would take some of the neighbors to remove their holiday lights, I saw my desk calling to me: Hey, Joe. You can get a couple hours of writing in before bed. You don’t need those 30 extra minutes of sleep. At this time of night, I find myself negotiating with the desk: But I can get the work done in the morning. How about this: 10 minutes on the story and 20 minutes continuing to build the framework for the novel after I make coffee? That should satisfy you, right? The desk is cold: Shut your mouth when you’re talking to me and sit your ass down.
The desk always wins, however. It looks at me with those black eyes and coffee-stained freckles that look like constellations, a road map to the creative journey I build in my mind, and it guilts me into submission. Whether I engage or I don’t, the desk is on my mind, taking me out of whatever moment I’m trying to exist within…And I catch myself wondering: Why the hell am I doing this? Why am I negotiating with a desk?
Many years ago, I would have been able to tell you clearly why I write creatively. I would have said: When I was in college, I read George Orwell’s Why I Write, and I felt a duty to speak truth, to say something meaningful, to throw a cog in the endless machine of soothsayers and reality-shapers. In high school, I would have said I write because I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five during a summer vacation in Myrtle Beach, and when I finished, I couldn’t imagine that life would ever be the same. I would have said that I write because I feel that the only way my life has meaning is if I’m remembered after I’m dead, and leaving a legacy of writing can help. I would have said because nobody thinks a kid from Clinton, Mass, can grow up and write novels. I would have said anything that I thought I needed to hear me say.
But why do I do it now? Why Do I spend the time after a hard day’s work to write stories and novels that I’m not sure anyone will ever read? Why do I take hours out of my day to think about sentences, paragraphs, characters, verisimilitude, the authenticity of act two?
I don’t get paid for this work. I don’t get recognized every day when I come home. I don’t have a boss that can provide a performance evaluation and tell me that I’m doing a great job…here is a raise. I don’t have clients to please.
It’s 10:31 now, and my wife wants to go to bed. I have a copy of Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: Space Odyssey on my nightstand that I can’t wait to read. I hear the sink in the bathroom turning on. I hear the traffic on the highway several streets over. But still, why do I do this? Why do I spend the time to brave rejections and acceptances, to fail and succeed (mostly fail), to wait for other people’s evaluations of my work, to publish blogs that I’m never positive people will read or ignore?
These questions have been running through my head over the last month, and I realized that I was struggling to answer them. That was until it hit me: I write because I want to connect with people. I want to build a conversation. I want to hear people tell me about their stories that, perhaps, my story inspired. I want to speak to the people who don’t feel like anyone is willing to talk. I want to write stories that force people to think twice about how they perceive mental illness. I want to write stories that illuminate the power of the imagination and how sometimes our realities are not as objective as we believe.
I want to communicate. It’s as simple as that. That’s such a basic want, and somewhere along the line, I forgot the power of that, and I began to force my work to fit expectations, marketplaces, genres that might not have been me. But I have to learn in 2018 to accept that I do not have control over creative work. I can’t bend it into the shape I want. I can’t force the genre of my work to reflect the perception I want others to have of me.
I write now because I want to connect with people, and the only way I believe I can connect with them is to find a way to bleed on these pages, to use them as a mirror to the self, to share something authentic and true. That is my goal. That is why I write. To share and know the authentic self.
In May of last year, my former principal at my high school in Clinton, Massachusetts, asked if I would give the speech at the 2017 baccalaureate and give graduation advice. It was an honor to have been asked, and I gladly accepted. The offer was extended, perhaps, in November the year prior, and I had plenty of time to think about what I was going to say. I racked my brain for creative ways to inspire high schoolers, but I really didn’t know what it was like to be a high schooler in 2017. I only knew what it was like to be a high schooler in 1999 to 2003. So, I imagined what I would say to a seventeen-year-old version of myself, and I simply pretended I was in the audience, with the hopes of inspiring others. Watch the video below and let me know what you would say to your 17-year-old self.
I’m going to admit something embarrassing: Up until this year, I have never watched Seinfeld. Every time Seinfeld came on television in the 90s, I would change the channel as quickly as if I had just accidentally stumbled upon a network that consistently showed dentists drilling into teeth without putting their patients on novocaine. For whatever reason, I hated the show, and I would much rather watch reruns of The Simpsons or anything on Nickelodeon (Doug, Rugrats, All That) or reruns of Nick at Nite shows. Perhaps I was too young; perhaps I didn’t understand the jokes; perhaps Jerry’s voice just annoyed the crap out of me. Whatever it was, I never really watched an entire episode of Seinfeld.
Years later, I fell in love with Curb Your Enthusiasm, and through that show, I began to grow an superficial interest in Seinfeld. (Larry David is hilarious and awkward and brilliant.) Plus, I had a neighbor in Miami who just loved Seinfeld. He used to quote lines to me all the time, and they would float over my head. For instance, we were out to lunch one day, and I pulled out my wallet. Back then–this was when I was in graduate school–I had a gigantic, over-stuffed wallet. It was packed with papers, cards, business cards–pretty much everything but money– and I began to think it was hurting my back. When I put the wallet on the table to ask him what he thought, he burst out laughing and called it the Constanza wallet. Of course, I didn’t catch the reference.
Perhaps it was an interest in Larry David, perhaps it was a frustration with not being able to catch cultural references, but whatever it was, I knew I had to watch all nine seasons of Seinfeld in 2016. Over the last several months, I have embarked on a mission to watch every episode in chronological order. I have vowed to begin to understand references, and I have sworn that no matter how annoyed I became with Jerry’s voice, I would get through the series. Strangely, as an adult, I found that I loved the show–how can you not?–and I wanted to share with you some of the aspects I had been missing out on. Some of this might be a recap for you; some of it might be new. But this is what I learned from watching all nine seasons of Seinfeld.
1. George Constanza Gets Extremely Dark
In the episode “The Invitations,” George Constanza’s fiance dies after licking a bunch of envelopes from cheap wedding invitations that George, of course, buys. The death was shocking, and it was amazing how dark George became in the episode. We saw himself as a man who was heading into a marriage that he didn’t want to partake in but couldn’t stop from happening, and when his fiance died, he almost rejoiced–or at least remained completely indifferent–to the death of a woman he was about to spend the rest of his life with until the end of eternity. This episode didn’t seem like it came from a mainstream television show; it seemed like it originated from the mind of a brilliant French short-story writer who wanted to pursue the themes of love and existentialism. What was most shocking was the reaction that all of the actors had when they heard she died. They all just went and had some coffee.
“I couldn’t figure out how to play off of her,” [Jason Alexander] said in a “Howard Stern Show” interview Thursday. “Her instincts for doing a scene, where the comedy was, and mine, were always misfiring. She would do something, and I would go, ‘OK, I see what she’s going to do, I’ll adjust to her.’ And then it would change.”
2. Elaine Benes Was Sex in the City
For a mainstream show on a national network, Elaine Benes’ character was truly a progressive woman. Of course, she was famously a part of the masterbation game–where the four friends wanted to see who would crack first–but she was also unashamed about her life that wasn’t traditional in terms of marriage, monogamy, or career. She was clearly ahead of her time–or perhaps our world was too far behind–for mainstream television. Elaine contrasted to many of the other female characters at the time, and Brigit Katz at the New York Times wrote the following:
“While Elaine’s TV contemporaries—say, for example, Rachel from Friends—were getting bogged down in humdrum will-they/won’t-they romance narratives, Elaine was cycling through partners almost as often and usually as dispassionately as her BFF Jerry.”
I never really thought much about Elaine before watching the show, but after learning about who she was, how independent she was, how real she was, I couldn’t help but find her to be, perhaps, my favorite character on the show. I also started watching Veep before Seinfeld, and I have come to think of Julia Louis Dreyfus as one of the funniest comedians–and skilled actors–out today.
3. These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty
If you said that line (“These Pretzels are Making me Thirsty”) before I started watching Seinfeld, then I would have stared at you and waited for context, for reasoning, for logic. The entire gag would have flown over my head like a humming bird moving onto the next flower. But now I understand. In one of the funniest moments on the show (at least for me), Kramer reveals that he has a line in a Woody Allen movie, and it’s “These pretzels are making me thirsty.” Each one of the crew give their take on how to say the line. Of course, George is in the midst of car-parking fiasco, and he turns the bit of dialogue into a moment that reveals his frustrations with life, love, and success, simply by the way he says the line.
From a perspective as an aspiring novelist, this scene spoke to me clearly about writing dialogue. It was all about inflection; it’s all about the way the character moves around the room; it’s all about how he runs toward the window at the cars below who are honking for him to get back to work and confront his failing and miserable life that translates into meaning. It’s a moment of brilliance, but it’s also a moment about meaning and language. What we say can change so drastically by the way we say it.
4. The Last Episode was Horrible
Out of all the seasons, I loved seven and eight the most, and I did think that season nine took a step back. It was still a good season, however, but the finale, well, was pretty terrible. I expected a great show like Seinfeld to end in a way that was spectacular. I expected there to be something incredibly hilarious, some twist of fate that brought two worlds together in a way that no one could have seen coming, but instead, the final episode was a recap, a walk-down-memory-lane as all the characters came back to serve as expert witnesses to testify how terrible Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine are as people.
Of course, everyone must have been wanting Jerry and Elaine to admit finally how in love they were with each other. (We almost had it on the plane.) The television audience must have been craving for them to embrace each other, look each other in their eyes deeply, and say our existence is better now that we’re together. Well, it didn’t happen, and the show ends with them all in prison. (Sorry for the spoiler alert.) While the last episode was pretty lame, I admire them for not giving into the pressure, to the idea, that life should only be seen as a epic voyage to love and marriage. Of course, my life has taken that route, and I’m grateful for it, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s lives have to be that way. There are other narratives to a personal journey, and there are other ways to live.
5. A World of References Have Been Opened
In the end, if I was going to write about all the different things that I learned from watching all nine seasons of Seinfeld, then this post would be so incredibly long, and I would be forced to spend more than a couple days writing this thing. But if I had to sum up what I learned in one final point, it’s that a world of culture almost opened up to me overnight. I now understand the puffy shirt and what my friend means when he makes fun of my overstuffed wallet. I understand what it really means when someone has an incredible desire for a calzone, and I, yes, finally understand the larger appeal of “No soup for you.” But ultimately, I was able to watch a series of actors so attuned with their characters, and that feels like it only comes once in a decade on t. I just feel bad it took me this long to realize how much I was missing.