Remember That You’re in Control

I was talking to a Praxis participant today about the upheaval of moving, and the stress of getting settled in a new city. Finding a place to live, coordinating logistics, and working on a tight timeline for all of the above can be incredibly overwhelming.

As someone who’s getting ready to move for the fifth time in the past 15 months, I understand the stress a lack of certainty can bring. Multiple moves have been made on tight timelines, when I committed to moving before I had a place lined up to go. Stress ensued. I felt like I was a victim of my circumstances, and like the situation was outside of my control, and I was only reacting to it, which is a terrible feeling to have. If I couldn’t solve this one specific problem, I’d be hard up and out of luck.

Except — I wasn’t. And when I reminded myself of this, the stress dissipated.

Here’s the thing about most situations we find ourselves in:

  1. Even if we didn’t intend to end up here, we chose the things that brought us here.
  2. We have complete agency in choosing what we do about it.
  3. No one forces us to make any decisions — including what we prioritize. We make choices based on our values.
  4. We can problem-solve no matter what happens.
  5. If we don’t like where we end up, we can deliberately choose our next steps and actions to get us somewhere better.

In the example of housing, even if we didn’t intend to end up in this city (or looking for housing on this timeline), we chose the circumstances that brought us to be looking here. I didn’t choose Charleston, but I chose my job, which brought me here. This reframes the conversation as one in which I am an active player and have agency, not someone who’s reacting to random and unpredictable things.

When I’m house-hunting, I can choose whatever solution I want to use. If I want to find roommates vs. a 1-bedroom, a house vs. an apartment, a lease vs. a sublet, or rent off of Airbnb — I have the power to choose whichever I want.

I also have the power to leave. I’m trapped in the situation only because I prioritize my job over the physical location in which I live. The situation stops being an unchosen absolute and becomes a contractual, transient arrangement.

And most importantly (once I’ve regained my agency), I concoct a backup plan. One of my favorite life strategies is knowing what to do when I don’t know what to do. Taking a big jump always feels less scary to me if I know what I’ll do in the worst-case scenario if it doesn’t pan out.

If I move to a new city looking for housing and can’t find anything, worst case scenario is that I leave and drive back. If I make a career jump and it doesn’t pan out, I can apply to these specific opportunities the very next day.

Reminding yourself that you have a backup plan in place, and that you chose this situation in the first place, does a lot to quell your anxiety — which in turn clears your mind, sharpens your focus, and makes you far more likely to avoid your feared outcomes in the first place.

Life is Better the More It’s Your Fault

“God said, take what you want and pay for it.” — Ayn Rand (or, a Spanish proverb)

The above is one of my favorite quotes. It embodies two of my favorite principles in life: freedom and responsibility.

Freedom, to take the things you want — blatantly, liberally, unabashedly.

Responsibility, to bear the consequences of those actions — competently, evenly, calculatedly.

Everything in life has a cost. We don’t always know what it is, and sometimes we experience shock after the fact, when we take something and then realize the price to pay is much higher than we expected it to be. Sometimes we’re thrown off when it’s lower. Sometimes it’s a good cost — an added benefit. Sometimes it’s a detriment that outweighs the benefits gained.

Whatever the cost, every action we take has one. There are two ways we can respond to the costs we owe — one, as a victim of it, someone beholden to an external debt that must be served. Alternately, we can view it as a part of a transaction we willingly chose, and that we’re a competent agent in navigating.

The former deems us powerless, like a leaf in an eddy or chaff in the wind. The second grants us our power, and makes the costs we bear ours.

When a cost is yours, and the choice was yours to incur it, suddenly you begin to see the choices everywhere. Choices in how you respond to the cost, choices in how you pay it, choices in your emotional reaction to the situation, choices in how you handle the repercussions.

Freedom is filled with choices. Grant yourself your own.

“Practice taking agency in everything you do — even the things that aren’t your fault. Take the blame for everything that happens to you. The more you do, the freer you’ll become.

Nothing is more toxic than a “victim” mindset. When things go wrong- people tend to point the finger at just about everyone else but themselves. Aside from great communication skills & self-awareness, personal accountability is one of the most critical traits any leader can possess.” — Brett Bartholomew

Imprecise Metaphors and Their Benefit for Your Thinking

David Perell wrote a fantastic blog post on the importance (or lack thereof) in the accuracy of maps. Side note — if you don’t follow David Perell, you should.
In a similar vein, I want to talk about the importance (or lack thereof) in the precision of one’s metaphors.
This is not an argument against being precise. It is not permission for ceasing to care about choosing the right metaphor.
This IS an argument that explores the nuance of metaphors as a vehicle for thinking — because they’re something I’ve become more and more dependent on, and dependency as complacency is a dangerous thing.
As I explored in an earlier post, I use whiteboards as a framework for thinking. They give me a structure that allows me to explore random ideas with a sense of familiarity — because there’s a framework that I know, and love, and can win.
Metaphors work in a similar way. I’ve become very fond of mathematical metaphors, because I love their streamlined efficiency. I love using mathematical metaphor to describe non-mathematical principles (like how the coaching process works, or how hiring managers think about candidates. I use mathematical metaphors in my work a lot).
The ideas are sometimes far-fetched, sometimes abstract, and sometimes things I’ve never endeavored to grapple with before — or even looked in the eye. The metaphoric framework gives me a space to explore them without having to define context.
I wonder sometimes if the metaphors are too limiting. Does an (a-b)=c equation give me enough flexibility to cover everything that matters? Am I missing important information by being artificially exclusive?
I wonder the same thing about whiteboards. Does the structure artificially constrain me and cause me to miss pivotal information that just doesn’t fit?
Here’s the thing: we can never be open to every possibility and still be conclusive. It isn’t possible. We must have absolute information in order to be definite.
Creativity likes working with definite quantities — but it isn’t static. What’s definite now can become a variable quantity in future.
The purpose of the metaphor isn’t to be absolute — the way the purpose of a map isn’t always to be exact. The purpose is to give a framework within which the information that’s most pivotal to our advancement and survival can be explored, articulated, and conveyed.

Notes on the Style of “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller

Disclaimer: do not read if you don’t like spoilers. This blog post is built of them.

I’ve been meaning to read The Song of Achilles for some time. I’d heard good things about the author and the writing, and I’m partial to the stories of the Greek and Roman heroes, even in retold form (The Love Artist, a story about Ovid, is a phenomenal novel and comes highly recommended). The novel did not disappoint.

In a sentence: the book is not just describing the era — it’s of the era it’s capturing.

In a paragraph: it perfectly captures the world of ships and heroes and Gods and blood and war and oceans and simplicity. It isn’t stuffy (as the distant formality of old works often feels). Rather, it’s simple and pure; fully reminiscent of the time, but told in a voice we can understand. The metaphors weave an understanding of the world the story is set in that gives it bones and breath.

Madeline Miller is not master, but she’s talented. Her work is good.

There are four components of her writing that I find most compelling:

  1. Dichotomy
  2. Metaphor/imagery
  3. Physical anchors
  4. Truth

I’ll dig into each separately, and explain how each helps to build the authentic framework of the book. But first, a few notes on the story itself:

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the life (and death) of Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, the greatest warrior of his time. It’s told from the perspective of his lover, the exiled prince Patroclus. The story marks each season of his life — their boyhood spent together, their youth spent in training with the centaur Chiron, the early evasions of the Trojan War (where Achilles was prophesied to die), the war itself, and finally, the death — first of Patroclus, then of a heartbroken Achilles, while Patroclus is caught in a limbo in the afterlife, trapped in the physical world but separated from all things physically anchored.  It’s a story of the fulfillment of a prophecy — for no matter how hard you try to evade it (and Patroclus and Achilles did), a prophecy must come to pass.

The story is good — well-spun and well-crafted — but the framework within which the story is told is the part of the book that is most impressive.

Dichotomy

Dichotomy is one of my favorite modes of description. It’s the art of pitting the stark realities of two different things against each other, and making them feel more stark and more real by nature of the contrast.

There’s a concept in storytelling called tensive pulls — the concept of different desires pulling a character in different directions. For example — if your character is in love with another character (and wants to be as close to him as possible), but also knows that this character will break her heart if she gets too close, these two conflicting desires pull her in two separate directions, and leave her suspended between them — held upright, but not at rest in either direction.

Dichotomy works the same way. The stark contrast between two very differing images accentuates the reality of each.

Examples of Dichotomy:

“Through the haze of terror I see a man leveling a spear at my face. Somehow I am quick enough, and it passes over me, ruffling my hair like a lover’s breath.” — this is Patroclus, in the pages before he dies. We’re slightly shocked by the starkness in difference between these two images — an instrument of death equated to the softness of life and the tender breath of a lover. See how both become more real? They become stark by contrast; and also stark because we realize that the qualities of each are akin, and that it isn’t a stretch to say so.

“For me these four years had been an abundance, time that had been wrested from the hands of miserly fates. But for them it was a life stolen: from children and wives, from family and home.” — Patroclus, reflecting on the difference in his experience of the war as opposed to the experience of the average soldier. For him, each year the war dragged on was another year cheated from the prophecy, that he got to keep Achilles before he was killed (for they came to Troy knowing Achilles would die). For those around him, though, it was life lost, while they waited restlessly for it to end.

“She stepped forward, and the grass seemed to wilt beneath her feet. She was a sea-nymph, and the things of earth did not love her.” — of Achilles’ mother Thetis. This is less stark than the others, but still powerful. The juxtaposition of land and sea, of goddess and the quelling of life.

Metaphors and Imagery

In this, Madeline Miller approaches mastery. Whenever one is establishing a setting, the vocabulary of metaphors is critical. They must be carefully selected and defined (the way one chooses a tone palette of colors, for everything in a painting, a wardrobe, or a space to feel cohesive).

The metaphors Miller chooses are direct reflections of the predominant forces and anchor points of the characters’ worlds. They’re metaphors of the sea, of love, of war, of the Gods, of the physical anchors of the Greek world. They’re relevant, and they reinforce the sense of place and grounding in a powerful way.

Examples of Metaphors and Imagery:

“She seemed to pause, and I thought she might speak again. She did not. Only opened her hand and released me, boneless, to the ground.” — Boneless. Such a good description. The metaphors of ancient times are simple. There’s a ruggedness to them. A rawness. They feel very visceral and very human on a base level — like all the extraneous metaphors have been stripped away. Almost like the Descartes approach to metaphors — strip everything down to the basics and then build it back up in a very intentional way.

“We were like gods at the dawning of the world, and our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other.” — if one were to create a matrix of metaphors for this Greek/Trojan world, describing yourself as a god would be the ultimate indicator of good — and so it’s appropriately used in this context.

“The slightest tremor, over the still water of her face.” — water is a very commonly used metaphor in this novel. It’s a key piece in the world and the time, and it’s a key anchor in the story — Achilles’s mother is a sea nymph, and they have to cross the sea to reach Troy — and then they’re locked at Troy by the sea, and must defend their boats (for if they burn, they’ll be stranded in Troy, and will be refugees instead of raiders).

“He was the only thing on the battlefield that didn’t pitch feverishly, like the salt-slicked deck of a ship, until I was sick with it.” — another ocean metaphor.

“Her words were like new leather, still stiff and precise, not yet run together with use.” — of a slave learning to speak Greek. Such a contextual metaphor, abiding by the rules of the world to find a perfect comparison.

““I feel like Daphne,” I told him, barked up in her new laurel skin.” — comparing dressing in armor to the experience of Daphne turning into a tree. This one is magic.

“A single thrust crushes her to the ground, leaves her chest torn up like a field beneath the plow.” — description of a woman cut down by a spear in battle.

Physical Anchors

Madeline Miller repeatedly grounds her story and her characters in physical space, with the use of sensory anchors — touches, scents, sensations. You don’t just conceptually understand the story — you touch it and taste it and feel it, and that makes it far more real.

Examples of Physical Anchors:

““Show me your hand.” I did, palm out. He rested his own palm against it. I tried not to startle. His skin was soft and slightly sticky from dinner. The plump finger pads brushing mine were very warm.” — one of the first instances of physical contact between Patroclus and Achilles.

“Even from where I sat I could smell the sea on him.” — admit it. This is incredibly evocative.

“I feel like I could eat the world raw.” — very physically anchored.

“I woke to the red of my eyelids straining out the sun.” — anchored and true.

Truth

As Hemingway said: “All you have to do is write the truest sentence you know.” This, ultimately, is the point of fiction — to masquerade it as truth. Or perhaps, to have it serve as a vehicle for revealing truth.

One of the risks run in both historical fiction and fantasy — and any genre even slightly removed from reality — is that it can feel false. Made-up. Contrived. There are no sea nymphs rising from the ocean in our world and birthing heroes. Such things give a sense of removal to the story, and make it harder to get lost within it.

It’s the pure, indivisible truths that bring it back to center and make it most poignant for the reader. The things that are timeless, circumstanceless, undeniably relatable. The things that are absolute, whether you were born of sea-nymph or born of mortal, whether you’re on the shores at Troy or living a modern life in a modern world.

Good fiction must have truth. Otherwise we can’t forget it’s fiction; and if we can’t forget it’s fiction, then we can never truly experience it as it was intended to be experienced.

Examples of Truth:

“I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.”

“When he dies, people will say, who?” — evocative of a primal human fear.

“I lay back and tried not to think of the minutes passing. Just yesterday we had had a wealth of them. Now each was a drop of heartsblood lost.” — again, everyone can relate to this — the sensation of time slipping by far faster than we’d like, but entirely outside of our control to stop it, and each passing second feeling like it’s draining something irreplaceable from you.

“I had embraced him too, those thin, wiry limbs. I thought, This is what Achilles will feel like when he is old.” — the surprise of imagining someone you love as old; and the accompanying sense of inevitability.

“In less than an hour the raid would begin. I had fallen asleep thinking of it; I had woken with it.” — such a true depiction of the dread of anticipation.

Other Favorite Lines:

“He looked different in sleep, beautiful but cold as moonlight. I found myself wishing he would wake so that I might watch the life return.” — such intimacy, and yet such a sense of being unsettled. Such contentedness juxtaposed against such yearning.

“His eyes opened. “Name one hero who was happy.”” — if good artists steal (and they do), then I should like to steal this.

“Dusk came at last and released us, limping and exhausted, back to our tents, dragging the wounded and dead.” — such beautiful wordplay. It almost sounds like the dusk is dragging the dead.

“It was spring, and we were surrounded by the profusion of Anatolian fertility. For three weeks the earth would paint herself in every color, burst every bud, unfurl each rioting petal. Then, the wild flush of her excitement spent, she would settle down to the steady work of summer. It was my favorite time of year.”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as it Pertains to Fiction

Alternate title: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as it relates to fiction — because it does. It has a direct correlation to the interestingness of the stories you tell.
Just as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs dictates the things in life we find most compelling (or that carry the most emotional weight), so too does it dictate the things we find most fascinating in stories — because fiction imitates reality.
The farther up the hierarchy the elements of the story, the less your reader will care, and the more melodramatic and frivolous your story will sound.
If your character doesn’t make it to soccer practice, you have to give the story extra layers of drama for it to actually matter to the reader. It runs the risk of feeling melodramatic — like you’re giving too much weight to a very small thing. The character’s life won’t be drastically different if he’s late. He’ll wake up tomorrow and he’ll look the same. His standard of life will still be the same.
On a subconscious level, your reader knows this. The melodramatic story will lack emotional appeal. It will fail to fascinate.
This is why myths are so powerful. They speak to us on a visceral level; at the base level of what makes us human. They’d feel melodramatic if we wrote them in our own time and place, because the circumstances are contrived, but in the ancient world (where the framework of the world was that of gods and goddesses and monsters and the furies) such things were part of the fabric of life, and to err bore heavy consequences. On a deep psychological level, even in a world far removed, we understand the weight, and we’re drawn to it. Our emotions are stirred and we want to know what happens, even feel a desire to alter the outcome (the indicator of a truly good story).
To write a truly good story, you have to strip it down. Write about the essentials — the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. Things like food, shelter, life — base survival.
This is (part of) why it’s easier to write about the blue-collar world than it is the white collar one. (Another reason is the simplicity and the familiarity, but that’s the topic of a future essay). It matters.
Let me give you two examples:
In the first, our character is a well-off young salesperson who is trying to close a deal with a big company. You feel a sense of emotional attachment — you want the character to succeed. But the stakes are low. He’s so far up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs already that it doesn’t really matter what happens. Even if he loses, he’ll still be alive tomorrow, drinking his mocha on the way to the office and crafting a better sales pitch.
Interesting? Yes. Deeply compelling? No.
In the second story, our character is a farmer. He grows tomatoes, and five years ago, he had an edge in the market — his crops were coming in right when they were in high demand, and his family did well. But now the market is oversaturated with tomatoes in August (the month his ripen), and prices are down. His incoming crop will barely be enough to keep the family fed.
This still isn’t as primal as, say, a story of someone fighting to survive after a plane crash in the wilderness, or a story about a soldier in the thick of a war. Those are true primacy. But this one is much closer. It’s dealing with a base level need — food — and arguably two, if shelter also becomes a concern.
In the first example, if your character gets chewed out over the phone, his insecurities uncovered and lashed into with a knife, you’ll care. You’ll feel sorry for him. But the weight of the consequences is much stronger if your character in the second story has his entire crop wiped out by an ill-timed hailstorm.
Think Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway — deeply primal. The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck — a story of people fighting to maintain both life and dignity. Base-level stories both — and therefore both deeply compelling.
This is not an absolute across the board. It is possible to write high-level stories that bear the same emotional weight. But if you do, you must make sure you’re tying them back to the things we most primally care about — because those are the things that will make your story deeply compelling and true, and that will make your readers want to keep listening.

Be Deliberate About What You Consume

In the same way that the adage is true for our bodies — we are what we eat.

So too is the same true for content consumption. The ideas we intake become the foundation with which we build all of our thoughts, our ideas, and our creative processes.

Our brains are constantly processing information. Be deliberate about what you allow yours to process.

Don’t intake senseless information out of laziness. Be deliberate about the little things — the people you spend your time around, the music you listen to, the movies you watch.

What ideas are you passively engaging your mind with? Are they ideas you want to be ingesting?