Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: help

Getting Things Done

I’m a busy dude.

But only because I want to be, so that’s nice.

Talk to me sometime.  You’ll discover that I’m full of energy.  I’m motivated.  Ambitious.  I want to get stuff done.  And I want to do it well.  The things I do, I want to be the best at them.

I’m a husband and a father, and I feel threatened by folks who seem to pull those jobs off better than I do.

I’m a writer, and I get chills of joy when I read a published book that’s worse than what I’m writing and chills of agony when I read something that I know is better than what I can do.

I’m a preacher and there’s nothing better than seeing a crowd of people inspired to love more.

I’m a student and I want to write essays that make the professor smack his forehead and say, “Wow, I never looked at it in that way before!”

I’m a friend, and I love everyone I know and want them all to know it and feel empowered through their friendships with me.

I want to excel at all these things, and I don’t really think it’s unreasonable.  But, wow, sometimes I just tank out.

I’ve never been the most organized person.  I leave things to the last minute and I get emotionally crushed under the knowledge of all the things I’m trying to pull off.  It’s not that I have too many things on my plate.  It’s just that I’m not so good at organizing my plate.  Stuff keeps falling off and I keep making messes all over the table.  My writing suffers, I lose touch with friends, I miss important family things.

All this is to ask, how do you do it?  How you you keep yourself on track with all the life-roles you want to excel at?  How do you organize your time?  How do you organize your emotional and mental energy?  How do you keep the things you love from falling through the cracks?

Tell me, people of the interwebs.  What solutions help you to get the things done that you want to get done?

On a Free Mind

     We rarely set our minds free.

     Usually we yoke them to distractions that force them to walk paths that deepen into ruts. We keep them running alongside music and books and socializing and gaming and movies and all those other wonderful things that I love so much. Those things are wonderful. But our minds need to be free sometimes. They need to graze and get free-range goodness. They need to explore those strange, sensual forests off to the sides of the road.

     To walk without destination or entertainment. To sit alone in the coffee shop and wonder about the beautiful strangers around. To let your mind run freely around.

     It will most likely stare at you once you let it loose for the first time. It won’t be used to this freedom and it may not remember what to do about it. But given time, it will remember and take off running into the woods. What will it bring back? Something good, to be sure.

     The mind that has been chained and entertained and focused for too long is afraid of being free. That’s one of the reasons we sit down to write or paint and compose and nothing comes. Not only that, but a deep feeling of revulsion sometimes arises. Sometimes we look at the page and say “Dear god, I do not want to do this.” Our minds have become domesticated. They are not longer the vibrant, proud wolves of the wildernesses. They are chihuahuas. Pretty. Cute. But bred for uselessness and novelty.

     So let your mind go, now and then. Resist the urge, once in a while, to read a book or listen to music or play a game just to ‘pass the time.’ Why would you want the time to pass? You’ve only got a little bit of it, and when it’s out, you’re dead.

An Open Letter to my Muse

     Dear Muse,

     We need to talk.

     I want to start by saying that I’m really grateful. Honestly, I am. You’ve given me some amazing things. Two novels, dozens of stories, and so many ideas that I’ll never be able to use them all. It’s great, really.

     And those moments when you come right beside me and we really churn out the goodness? Nothing is better than that. Remember the time we sat in that coffee shop in the dead of winter? There was that chapter that we just couldn’t deal with, then suddenly, boom! There it was! Five thousand words in, like, an hour! Good times, eh?

     So, I’m totally thankful. You know I am.

     But we still need to talk.

     There’s no doubt that the work is best when you’re there doing it with me. You are the talent. You are the flash. Without you, it’s all dull and flat. No doubt at all. But, here’s the thing. I show up everyday. Every single day. I’m here while I’m working and I’m here on my days off. I’m here when I feel like it and I’m here when I don’t. I’m here whether I have the time or not. Because I treat this thing seriously.

     I really wish you’d show up more often. Because I feel like I’m doing my part.

     Now, I’m not trying to blame you or anything. I don’t know much about what a muse does when she’s not helping mortals create. Maybe you’re busy. Maybe you’ve got a family or something. Maybe there’s some muse day job that you need to deal with. I get that. But I have a family and a day job too, y’know?

     You know I love you and your work. I just wonder if maybe we could work out a schedule so that we could get together at the same time. That way we can avoid those awkward moments when you show up just as I’m drifting off to sleep or driving in the car.

     And if that’s not possible, I totally understand. If the way it is is the way it’s gotta be, I can accept that. I’m willing to work around your schedule. Just wanted to throw that out there.

     Anyway, I’m still your biggest fan. Thanks for the great run around you gave me this morning.

     Sincerely,
     Matt

The Nameless Crowd

     I recently gave a talk about global economics and Christianity. It’s a pretty simple topic to go on, really. All you need to do is show how mind-bogglingly screwed up the distribution of wealth and resources is, then point to the bucketful of prophets and apostles who say that if we aren’t fixing it we’re working against God’s will. I’ve given talks like this a few times in different churches.

     But something slapped me in the face this time.

     I was reading up on the story Jesus told about Dives and Lazarus. You’ve heard the story. Lazarus was a beggar who lived outside of Dives’ house. He was destitute, homeless and covered in painful sores. Dogs used to lick them. The he died. Jesus says that after he died he got carried by angels to a nice place. Then Dives died. His place wasn’t nearly so nice. Jesus suggests guilt on Dives because of Lazarus. Not necessarily because it was Dives who caused Lazarus’ destitution, but because he didn’t give a damn.

     The neatest thing, though, is that Dives didn’t really have a name. If you read the story itself, it just calls him ‘The Rich Man’. Dives is just Latin for rich man. Meanwhile the dying beggar, covered in disease, is called Lazarus. Jesus gives this character the name of one of his best buddies.

     The wealthy, influential and, likely, well-admired hard-working dude is nameless. He’s a nobody. A stat on a page. Just the rich guy.

     The beggar, dying in the streets, ignored and forgotten in his suffering, has a name. A beloved name. A name that people like Jesus care about. Suddenly, in the midst of his horrible circumstance, Jesus gives that character dignity, while subtly taking it away from the one we would have thought was important.

     If you’re reading this blog, I’d wager that you are rich. At least in the top ten percent of wage-earners in the world. And since you have the Internet, you probably know about the suffering that goes on in the world, just like the unnamed rich man did. He did nothing about it, and lost his dignity and importance.

The rich man was guilty because he ignored the poor man’s plight, did nothing about his destitution, failed to use his affluence to relieve the poor man’s need, and acquiesced in a situation of gross economic inequality which had dehumanized Lazarus and which he could have remedied. The pariah dogs who licked the poor man’s wounds showed more compassion towards him that the rich man. Dives went to hell not because he had exploited Lazarus, but because of his scandalous indifference and apathy.
– John Stott – Issues Facing Christians Today

Beautiful, Wonderful Criticism

     Usually I don’t like getting advice. Mostly because I think I’m already the cat’s meow. I guess most of us are like that.

     But when it comes to stuff I write, things are different.

     Most of my beta readers have started getting back to me. And every time I find one of their reports in my e-mail or glance at the hardcopy they’re marking up, I get chills of happiness.

     Some writers might not feel that way. Some feel slighted when a reader crosses out half their adverbs or doesn’t click with the protagonist or thinks your hero’s name sounds silly.

     Those writers are shooting themselves in the foot.

     I love criticism in my writing. And you should, too. Here’s why:

  • It makes you a better writing. We get upset at people correcting us when our pride is higher than our desire to excel at whatever is being corrected. And when it comes to writing, my pride knows its place – in the back, whispering encouraging things when I need it, and shutting up at all other times. I’m willing to sacrifice much to be a better writer.
  • It makes you a better person. Even outside of writing, it’s important to learn how to deal with and process criticism. Criticism looks at what you’re doing and suggests something different. It’s useful. It’s everywhere. You’ve got to get used to it.
  • It connects you to your audience. There is not much difference between your beta reader and the eventual people who are going to buy your book. So when a scene connects with them, it’s authentic. And when it doesn’t connect, you still have a chance to change it so it does. They are the beta readers. The prototype readers. Listen to them!
  • Criticism is encouraging. I would be afraid of getting a manuscript back unmarked. Unmarked, it either means it’s absolute, slobbering genius. Or it’s so bad there is really no place to begin the critical analyses. Guess which one is more likely? Criticism tells you that you’re not there yet. But you’ll get there.
  • Criticism makes you step outside. Until now your book was hidden away. Now it’s taking its first steps into a scary world. Now you get to see what others thing of your monster, while you still have a chance to shove him back in the lab.

Good and Bad Similes

A dented yellow and black taxi weaved like an epileptic snake in and out of traffic through Karachi’s dense streets.

     I admit it. I wrote that. My first novel was an unpublished practice run called The Foolishness of God. It was about life, religion and culture found within the blossoming romance of a Canadian guy and a Pakistan girl. Sound familiar? It’s never seen the light of day. And I wouldn’t let it, either. Not without some major rewriting, at least.

     Because it’s chock-full of bad metaphors and similes like this one.

     A metaphor or simile is supposed to connect the reader to whatever it is you want to connect them to. In this sentence, I was hoping to communicate the idea that driving in Karachi is whack. Instead, I manage to completely distract the reader by making them wonder what a snake with epilepsy would look like. By the time the reader figures it out and tries to apply it to the taxi, he or she is completely disengaged from the story. Bad simile, Matt. Baaad. Here’s one that seems a tad better (though significantly grosser):

I can hardly stand the food, and the stuff I do eat rushes out the other end like a garden hose.

This one works better because everyone is very familiar with water coming out of a garden hose. So when the garden hose is applied to the character’s digestive system, you get a very clear, and overly graphic, understanding of what the author wants to communicate.

     Most of the similes I used when I started writing were large and elaborate. Maybe I thought big, original similes showed people how clever I was. It tainted my writing, though. It tires the reader. So, in honor of bad similes, I made a list for myself so I can remember to keep my similes powerful and useful.

     Rules for similes:

  • They must be connected to human experience. That’s why the epileptic snake fails. You’ve never seen one. But everyone has seen a garden hose.
  • They must fit your voice. If you were writing an off-the-wall comedy, then maybe there would be a place for epileptic snakes being compared to driving. But The Foolishness of God was not a comedy.
  • They must not be trite. It’s trite when it’s overused to the point of meaninglessness. And trite is always bad. So never say ‘She blubbered like a little girl.’ or ‘He ate like a horse.’ Boring!
  • They must be more effective than simply stating what you want the reader to hear. If your simile or metaphor is so complicated that the reader has to scratch his head over it, maybe you should just say ‘She was sad.’ Yes, it’s always better to show her sadness, but if you can’t, just tell.
  • They must not be bound up by rules. If your muse demands it, throw all these rules away. I just made them all up, after all. Writing is like a puzzle with unlimited solutions.

What are some of the worst, distracting similes you’ve ever seen?

A Letter I Got This Weekend

My consciousness received a letter this weekend. I figured I’d share it.

Dear Matt,
Hi there. Remember me? You’ve been shutting me out for a while now. And I see you’ve been busy while I’ve been gone. Think you got a lot done, eh? Think you’ve made progress, eh? Well, I just wanted to drop you a line to remind you that you’re not actually getting anywhere. In fact, everything that you’ve been doing is a colossal waste of time. You’re not good enough. You’re not smart enough. You don’t have ‘it’. I’d prove it to you, but you already know it, deep down. You’ll never achieve anything worthwhile in your life. You’re too old. You’re too dumb. That’s just the way it is. So you might as well delete that laughable WIP with all of its shallow characters and glaring plot holes. Because people are going to laugh at it. The same way people laugh at you behind your back when you tell them you’re a writer. Quit trying. You’re no good.
Sincerely,
The Imp on your Shoulder

I sat around thinking about the letter for most of the weekend. Finally drafted a response last night:

Dear Imp on my Shoulder,
Sod off.

I could stop there. I could leave this with a simple dismissal and get on with my day, but I feel like I ought to give you a bit more so that you’ll think again before writing me with your ‘advice.’

It’s true that my WIP is ugly and a bit malformed right now. I’m the first to admit it. It’s like a fetus. Kinda creepy looking and not meant to be exposed quite yet. Can’t stand on its own legs legs.

But I am good enough, smart enough, diligent enough to make it walk. No, I can make it fly!

I can prove it, too. I’ve done stuff, you see. I’ve written a book. I’ve travelled the world. I’ve learned another language. I’ve produced children. I’ve spread joy and love. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!

What have you done, oh imp on my shoulder?

Nothing.

You’ve sat there for twenty-nine years bitching and whining. You’ve never helped me achieve any of my goals. You’ve never cheered for any of my successes. You’ve never been a meaningful part of anything good that I’ve ever accomplished. I’m not the waste. You are. And I won’t let you consume me. The very fact that I’m clever enough to push you away makes me clever enough to realize my dreams.

So sod off, imp. Precedent says you’re wrong. And even if it didn’t, I’d rather die with a thousand failed attempts than listen to you and try nothing.

Oh-so-very Sincerely,
Matt

Thich Nhat Hanh on Generosity

When you hammer a nail into a board and accidentally strike your finger, you take care of it immediately. The right hand never says to the left hand, “I am doing charitable work for you.” It just does whatever it can to help – giving first aid, compassion, and concern. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the practice of dana is like this. We do whatever we can to benefit others without seeing ourselves as helpers and the others as the helped. This is the spirit of non-self.

– Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ

Flooding in Pakistan

The flooding in Sindh seems to be the worst I’ve ever seen it. Crops are dying. Houses are losing their foundations and falling. Diseases like malaria and typhoid are going to be spreading rampant very soon. The whole province is in pain. My mother-in-law’s house is flooded up to knee-level. They rarely have electricity.

I have been slowly building my mother-in-law a house to retire in. It’s on an elevated place and is, apparently, less damaged. I’ve been working on it for three years and it’s almost livable now. Just a few hundred more dollars and it’ll be ready. We’re hoping we can manage soon because the house they are in now is in a depression, so it’s getting hit harder than most places.

So, praying friends, pray for Sindh and for my family. In the West we don’t realize how dangerous these floods can be. The biggest danger is never drowning. It’s the failing crops, the wildly spreading diseases, the damage to the houses. When we were living in Pakistan 300 houses collapsed in my mother-in-law’s town. And this year, apparently, it’s worse. The people need help. So I ask, pray and, if you can, send some help. We’re trying to get them into their new house so this won’t be a problem and we’d also like to help with many of our other friends who live in the rural villages. If you can help, please let us know and we can give you details.

Matt

Strange Things I’ve Learned About Writing

Some of the strange things I’ve learned about writing and all the sucky struggles that come with it.

  • Busyness does not even enter into it. When I first started writing I was working as an elementary school teacher. I taught two grades at once, every weekday. I received my textbooks a few months into the term so I was always very busy with lesson plans, homework marking, test writing, math re-learning and all that silliness. And within a year I had the first draft of a novel finished. The next year I was gloriously unemployed with nothing but leisure time. Despite my desperate yearnings, I wrote nearly nothing. The amount I write, I found, has nothing to do with how busy I am. Like Jello, there is always time for writing if I want it.
  • Multitasking sucks. Driving while listening to music. Cleaning while listening to audio books. Eating while reading. All these multi-tasking habits that I was raised on have been nothing but a burden to my craft. When I turn them off I have more success. So I’ll often drive to work in silence. I try to eat with nothing in front of me. When I read, I do nothing but read. When I work, I do nothing but work. And the mind is sharper for it. And the work is better for it.
  • The search for the ideal environment hamstrung my writing. Not because it was hard to achieve. But because when I finally got it (and I did), it sucked. A huge desk. An optional typewriter. Epic music in the background. It all served to distract. Now I try to write in places that are uncomfortable. I use the tiny ledge of a counter in the kitchen. If it’s too hot, I let it be hot. If I want a snack, I refuse to get it. Writing under perfect conditions is distracting because life is never perfect. And stories are elevated reality, not idealized reality.
  • Glorious things only look glorious from the outside. Remember Dragonball Z? Remember how in nearly every episode there was a scene of Goku flexing like a crazy person while golden flames danced around him and glorious power filled his body? It was always kinda inspiring. I used to figure the same sort of thing would happen in a perfect writing session. So I was always disappointed when it turned difficult. But look at Goku again! From the outside all we, the viewers, get to see is the fire and light and power. But look at Goku’s face. There is pain and effort and heartbreak there. The end result was wonderful, of course. But the summoning of the power was harsh and bloody and raw. That’s the way it is with writing. Pain and blood in the inside. Glory and beauty on the outside.
  • Writer’s block is a lie. Or at least a misnomer. It’s just what happens when the mind and heart turn lazy. And there are two good cures for laziness. Sleep and work. The situation dictates which one is needed.
  • Everyone’s process is different. Stephen King hates outlines. Brandon Sanderson loves them. They’re both right. There is not a lot of writing advice that is true across the board for everyone. Finding my own process instead of relying on the processes of others was one of the best things I ever did for my writing.
  • Resistance is everywhere. Crouching the the corners. Sneaking up from behind. It never leaves you alone. Best be on the lookout for him.