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Learning how to stop using outlines to procrastinate from actually writing

It can happen to anyone who’s writing, no longer how long they’ve been at it.

You just keep outlining, thinking that the plan needs to be just a little better, or the pieces need to be a little more clearly aligned before you can get started.

And there was a time I thought the answer was flying blind, throwing away the outline, and just getting as many pages into a document as you could before you double back and see if they’re making any sense.

But I think there’s a way to stop people like me, who tend to go into full-on Chidi mode at this stage.

Sit down with the intention of outlining. Bring coffee (or whatever beverage floats your boat). A lot of it.

Because the point isn’t the caffeine. The point is to keep drinking it while you outline.

At some point, you will need to leave where you’re writing to use the bathroom.

That’s when you’re done outlining.

When you come back to your desk, table, chair, or typewriter pod, now you need to start actually writing the words on the page.

Is this a brilliant idea? Not really.

Is it the One True Way? Definitely not.

But when the only thing stopping you is you, a signal can help. An alarm. A chime. A timer.

And all the better if that timer doesn’t allow you to easily hit snooze or restart it.

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Things my daughter believes we need to bring with us in case of a fire

The other morning at the breakfast table, my almost-six-year-old daughter started laying out her whole life plan for me. I wound up recording about 14 minutes of it, since Sprout was really on a roll (yes, her Eggo got cold).

She had everything planned out:

  • Her career
  • Her spouse’s career
  • Where they were going to live before and after they had kids
  • How many kids she was going to have
  • What pet each kid was going to have (and be personally responsible for)
  • Where her brother Button would live, and how Button would take care of the kids she already had if she was giving birth to the younger ones (because she expects her spouse to stay with her in the hospital “just like you did with Mom.”)
  • How they would all evacuate their house in the event of a fire

Hold Up — What was that last one?

She’s been very focused on what to do in the event of a fire.

  • Who’s going to get Luna?
  • What if we’re outside and can’t hear the smoke detectors?
  • What if a fire starts when we’re asleep?
  • Will we go to the front yard, or the back yard?
  • No, really, who’s going to get our cat? We won’t have time to put Luna in her carrier.

The other day she made an emergency kit in a pile on the couch:

  • Snugglies, including Fletcher (her forever favorite) and Sushi Cat.
  • Toys
  • A coat, in case the fire happens at night when it’s cooler
  • A blanket
  • Snacks

She’s a very structured kid. She likes process and routine. It makes sense to her. So she’s drafting this all in her mind when she starts thinking about fire.

And she’s thinking about fire a lot lately. Sometimes so much that she says she can’t think of anything else.

But it’s not as if suddenly there’s been a lot of external references to fire that she’s been bombarded with. We don’t live near a fire station, nobody we know has dealt with a fire recently, and the only time we’ve ever had to call the fire department was years ago for what fortunately turned out to be a very minor issue.

So… Yeah. Where did this come from?

Buddy Holly, “Ben Hur”, space monkey, Mafia

Years ago my friends and I would riff on “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” adding new verses to this random jumble of baby boomer buzzwords. Looking back on that word salad, it feels like a proto-Twitter stream.

And I think about that because of all this around us right now. The ambient anxiety. The multi-pronged, world-on-fire assault on our attention every day.

With all that going on around her, and being a young kid, she’s processing only part of what’s going on. She understands social distancing, and she understands why she can’t play with her friends, why school closed, and why (for a long time) she couldn’t even go near her grandparents.

A fire is smaller and easier to respond to than all this.

Sometimes it comes up to the surface

Before bed time every night, Sprout and I read together. Normally I prop myself up in her bed with a few of her snugglies, but the other night she asked me not to use Nice Bear.

“Nice Bear has a fever,” she said, “And snugglies don’t have vaccines. But they do have medicine. So she’ll get better, but you shouldn’t put her in bed tonight.”

The subtext of her anxiety has always been about this pandemic, but it doesn’t always come out as directly as it did in that conversation.

Sprout is an intense extrovert who was cut off from her Young Fives Kindergarten class months ago and has spent most of that time with me, her mom, and her baby brother. Nothing about this new normal feels normal to her.

She craves the world that she’s known for most of her life and that’s kept just out of reach.

When we go out into the backyard, she makes up Star Wars themed games and tells me to do voices (My Ewan McGregor Obi-Wan has gotten pretty good over the last two months). But what do these Rebels and Imperials do every time we play?

They plan birthday parties. Or Christmas. They invite guests and think about food and games and presents.

It’s the flip side of her panic planning about fire safety.

She could have adventures in the farthest corners of the galaxy, but all she wants is to play games with some friends and share cake.

What I can and cannot do for her

I can hug her as many times a day as she’ll let me.

I can tell her she’s loved, and her mom and I will do everything we can to keep her safe, no matter what.

I can wear a mask, and can be vigilant about my own exposure when I have to venture out into the world without her (especially soon, knowing that I’m required to teach face-to-face in a classroom).

I can pretend to be Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader and, yes, even Luke Skywalker, if that’s what she needs.

But I cannot make sure that her school is safe for her to attend.

And I cannot convince every person to make the small concession for the health and safety of others and wear a damn mask.

And I cannot single-handedly convince the federal government to just try and do better.

I cannot step into a clean suit and stare into a microscope until I have an a-ha moment that allows me to save everyone with a simple answer nobody has thought of.

And I cannot be all the friends she misses. I cannot be a kid.

We do not have a metric for all we’re losing

We can measure the lives lost.

We can measure the number of people who were infected.

We can measure the number of people who were exposed, or at least the number of people who were able to get a test because they thought they were exposed and were able to jump through whatever hoops were required of them to get a medical opinion.

We can measure the number of people filing unemployment claims. We can measure the number of businesses closed or filing for bankruptcy. We can measure the value of the stock market and the GDP.

But we have nothing that measures how many good ideas will never be put to use from the people we’ve lost, or because the people still living haven’t been able to think about anything other than their fear or anger or exhaustion.

We can’t measure the achievements, advancements, or good deeds lost. We can’t even guarantee that some of these things have only been delayed.

We cannot know the landscape of the path we shall never travel.

And if we cannot have some kind of measure to know what we could have achieved if our nation hadn’t been forced a poisoned cocktail of unpredictable, indiscriminate disease and conscious, callous government disinterest and disinformation…

All we can do now is the same thing we could do before.

Wake up every day and try.

Force yourself out of the doomscrolling (literal and figurative) and find that small patch of goodness that you can tend.

If you don’t know where to start, make a list of the essentials. The things you need now, and any time that all this feels like too much.

And don’t forget to include snacks and snugglies.

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Not All Heroes Wear Capes, But They Do Wear Masks

I think people should wear masks, and I want to be clear about why.

Treat this like a story

Tell yourself that 2020 is a story where you get to be the hero.

What kind of hero do you want to be? It comes down to how you either put on the mask, or you don’t.

Choose the option that could prevent yourself and others from getting sick, or choose to assert that your personal agency and comfort trump concern for others.

On one side is Captain America, trying to save as many lives as he can, and always willing to put his personal interests aside if people need help.

On the other side is John Galt, unconcerned about the greater population; only interested in proving how special he is and being celebrated for it.

Since the free market decided the Atlas Shrugged movies were not good, I want to be clear: This is a picture of John Galt.

No mask on your face tells everyone who has to come in contact with you that you’re okay with them getting sick or dying because they just don’t matter to you.

Picture the masked barista being told by a maskless customer in a mostly empty coffee shop that she doesn’t need to put her mask on because “nobody’s in here.”

The maskless are saying that unless they know and care about you personally, you’re not a person worth saving. You’re part of the acceptable losses. Your blood can water their freedom tree.

COVID-19 isn’t an invisible antagonist — It has visible allies

The man who refuses to wear a mask because he thinks it makes him look weak, but then finds out that even outwardly strong men get sick, and sometimes die.

Or the woman yelling at the grocery store cashier about how the masks and the shortage of coins are connected, and everyone, including the cashier, is in on a global conspiracy.

Or the man with a bulging forehead vein screaming in a CostCo that asking him to put on a mask makes him feel threatened. Or the woman in a store calling people Nazis for saying she needs to put on a mask.

For all the talk some are spreading about anarchists in the streets, the people truly fighting against any kind of governance or shared social contract, and who want a lawless land of individual freedom, are the people who refuse to wear masks.

And if they will not change, they are going to hold us all hostage until doctors and researchers can finish their work.

What makes me so certain about masks?

I’m not.

But look at the options:

I Wear A Mask I Don’t Wear A Mask
Masks Reduce Infection Rate I’m helping save lives in a small way. I may cause more people to get sick or die, and don’t do anything to mitigate it.
Masks Don’t Reduce Infection Rate I tried to help, but couldn’t. I couldn’t help and didn’t try.

Whether or not masks help at all, wearing a mask better aligns with my ethical values. Not partisan. Not political. Morals and ethics.

I should try to do what good I can for others, and live as best I can without actively harming others.

It’s a little like the trolley problem

You’re on a trolley, hurtling toward a group of people stuck on the track. You can pull a lever to divert to another track and save their lives.

Or you can stay the course and ring the bell, screaming at the top of your lungs about how nobody is allowed to tell you that you can’t ride the trolley wherever you want.

A mask may not be perfect and prevent every person ever from getting sick, but it’s enough to do a measurable amount of good in reducing the infection rate of COVID-19.

Rejecting it means you see a mild inconvenience to yourself as too great a sacrifice to ask of you in exchange for protecting the lives of your fellow citizens.

There is nothing patriotic or virtuous about selfishness and turning your back on your neighbors. Demanding your freedom from any responsibility to others can only deeply wound your own pursuit of happiness, and your life.

Because even if we disagree on everything under the Sun, even if you reject everything I hold dear, even if you would condemn myself or those dear to me for who they are or the beliefs they hold dear, I still think your life must have value and is worth trying to save.

Because no one is truly beyond hope, and we should recognize every person we see, and every person we don’t, is connected to us. They matter to the people around them, and we matter to each other.

You are essential to someone. Probably many someones.

My mask protects you. Your mask protects me. And we can protect so many others if we drop the bullshit and offer each other even just a little grace and dignity.

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Which scene are you writing: Fight, Negotiation, or Seduction?

Let’s assume that one of the main goals of telling a story is to reveal some deeper truth about its characters to the audience.

What we know about a character, what we can believe to be true about them, comes from watching what they say and do. Their actions reveal their character.

But people do plenty of things throughout their day that don’t tell us much of any importance about them. They sleep, cough, use the bathroom, stare out the window, put gas in the car, and so on.

So, in writing to expose a deeper truth about a character, we need a way to push them toward meaningful action.

Which is what makes conflict important.

If your car skids off a bridge into a lake and starts filling with water, you’re not going to spend time changing the radio station or calling in a carryout order.

Conflict forces characters to take action to resolve that conflict to their benefit.

We learn what’s important to them, and what they think are the best strategies and tactics to protect what they have or gain what they desire.

If these things are true, a scene without a clear conflict is a scene that’s not revealing something meaningful about the characters to the audience.

Meaningful Conflict

Conflict is about unresolved, impeded desire: Somebody wants something badly, but they’re having difficulty getting it.

A strong desire is [fueled by something that causes the character to suffer; something that makes them wish the state of their world was vastly different.

A character arguing with a cashier to accept an expired coupon is a conflict, but that conflict isn’t meaningful unless it’s tied to some larger goal.

If they want the coupon honored because they don’t want to spend an extra 75 cents on avocados, that reveals something about their character, but that conflict may not be an essential part of their story. It’s an anecdote that reveals part of their values, but if they begrudgingly buy the avocados anyway, it may be wasted time for them and the audience.

If they can’t afford what they think is the perfect birthday gift for their estranged daughter without this coupon, that argument becomes more meaningful. That’s fueled by some larger desire worth focusing on.

A meaningful conflict applies pressure to a character to act, because if they refuse to take action, their story ends.

I like to think about the scene in The Muppets where Kermit initially refuses to even try to get The Muppets back together and Mary (Amy Adams) breaks the fourth wall and says “This is going to be a really short movie.”

If you have a clear idea of your character’s desire, and you have reasons to put that goal in jeopardy, you need to think about the terms of that conflict.

And that’s where Mike Nichols comes in.

Three Kinds of Scenes

“There are only three kinds of scenes: negotiations, seductions and fights. I’ve finished. That’s all. All scenes come in one of those three categories. […] How often have you rehearsed a scene for two weeks, and said ‘Oh my God, it’s a fight!’… And you can do the same with seduction, and, most of all, with negotiations, because that’s mostly what we do in life, especially at home.”

Mike Nichols

Let’s break this down.

A fight is a test of strength or willpower. The winner of the scene is the one who can endure for the longest, or who can overpower their opponent.

This is about physical and mental toughness, as well as presence. Think about Captain America getting back up every time he’s knocked down and saying “I can do this all day.” John MacLaine walking barefoot over broken glass. Jen and Shu Lien dueling in a room full of weapons, continuing the fight even as weapon after weapon breaks. Dr. Ryan Stone climbing her way out of an escape pod and fighting her way back on to land.

A negotiation is a test of a person’s ability to craft compromise or display logical arguments. The winner is the person who is most capable of offering a logical solution in a way that makes their correctness obvious to everyone involved.

Think about Jo March crafting the terms of her publishing agreement. Michael Corleone convincing his brother and their associates that they can get away with killing a police officer as part of settling the score between two families. Stacker Pentecost showing up at a construction site to convince Raleigh Becket to stop hiding from who he is and get back in a giant robot to go punch monsters.

A seduction is about understanding and manipulating someone else’s desires. The winner in this kind of scene is the one who can best read someone else and understand their deepest desires.

This kind of scene always makes me think of Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. When he tries to convince Luke to stop fighting and join the dark side, Vader offers Luke the two things he wants most: A place of consequence in a larger story, and a sense of belonging. Luke starts the Star Wars trilogy feeling powerless and alone, far from where important things are happening. Vader offers him a place not only as his son, but as the heir apparent to dominion over an entire galaxy. Luke refuses, but he knows the temptation is there.

The Choice Isn’t Always Obvious

You need to think about what kind of story you’re telling. It’s not just about the genre you’re working with, but also what’s most important to your characters.

As an example, I took a fairly trope-y scene (a bank holdup) and tried to spin it out as each one of these types of scenes.

Note: Because I’ve used these scenes before in the classroom, and it’s easier in that environment to shorthand some things by talking about actors instead of one-shot characters, I cast these scenes. For our purposes, Michael Keaton is the bank robber and Awkwafina is the bank teller he confronts.

First, the Fight Version:

Click/tap to read the PDF of the full scene.

Next, the Negotiation Version:

Click/tap to read the PDF of the full scene.

Finally, the Seduction Version:

Click/tap to read the PDF of the full scene.

Each one has its merits, and each one sets a different tone for what type of story you would tell before and after that scene happened.

The Fight version raises specific questions: Why is Awkwafina’s character so ready to take action in a dangerous situation? Is there something about her past that prepared her for this moment? Is she going to face more fights as the consequences of foiling this robbery chase after her?

With the Negotiation version, we’re asking different questions: How did she stay so cool under pressure? How will her savvy handling of this situation help her in the future? Could it be used against her? How will standing up in a life or death situation like this change her perception of herself and how others see her?

And with the Seduction version, there’s one big question: Can she get away with helping to rob the bank she works for?

But in each version, it starts with the same basic premise.

I’m just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking her to give me all the money in this bank.

Choosing which style of conflict works best depends on the story you want to tell before and after.

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Life vs. Liberty vs. The Pursuit of Happiness

Between CostCo and every other store creating policies about who should wear masks while shopping and people sharing a dubious video suggesting that mandatory mask-wearing is part of a larger conspiracy to force mass vaccinations, there’s a lot of grousing going on over social media and in public about masking up.

It ties in with the protests around the country where people are claiming that Stay At Home orders are an unconscionable threat to their freedom. They wave their Gadsden flags, yell about how measures to prevent a more deadly pandemic are just a test run for martial law, and demand their right to manicures, lawn care, and riding with more than one person in a golf cart.

Are there reasonable reasons to feel anxiety and anger over an inability to work, earn income, and provide for yourself and your family? Definitely. And reasonable problems can have reasonable solutions.

Unless some people’s unreasonable demands control the conversation.

A person who’s upset that they’re being asked to wear a mask or use one-way aisles in a store isn’t helping the employees who need that store to be open so they can earn money.

That person is not making a principled protest about freedom. They’re throwing a selfish tantrum about their personal convenience.

I know a thing or two about recognizing selfish tantrums, because I have a five-and-a-half-year-old at home.

When I see this kind of rhetoric, and I think about part of what inspires it, it’s the idea that we are a nation founded on the principles of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But the words don’t always mean what people want them to mean.

These Protests And Complaints Are Not About Liberty

When people make these protests about liberty and freedom, they’re using a very specific definition of what kind of freedom they’re interested in: Freedom from the consequences of their actions.

In the above example, nobody was forcing the shopper to leave the store without getting a toaster oven. No government entity banned the sale of toaster ovens, or specifically imprisoned this person within their home.

He was upset that he was unable to walk through the store in the manner he preferred.

That’s not infringing on his liberty. It is an exceedingly mild infringement on his pursuit of happiness.

And it takes some serious gall to publicly assert that your pursuit of happiness trumps concerns about the life and liberty of others.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Emphasis on pursuit.

Nowhere does it say in the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution or any of its amendments (or any other federal statute or decree that I’m aware of), that it is the government’s responsibility to make sure that every citizen is happy.

The only safeguard for happiness that the government provides is protecting its pursuit. Your happiness is still up to you, the individual.

So if that pursuit is considered a right, it needs to be considered that for a right to be truly universal, it must be equally true for all people that it applies to.

All Rights Inherently Have Limits

Your rights end at the border of another person’s rights.

You have a right to peaceably assemble and protest your grievances with the government in public spaces. You have no right to force yourself into the private home of a politician and stage a protest there against their will.

You’re allowed to yell “FIRE!” if you’re alerting other people of a fire. You’re allowed to yell “FIRE!” if you’re alone in your home or your vehicle and the spirit moves you. You’re not allowed to yell “FIRE!” in a crowded building where no fire exists, because the ensuing panic could cause injury to others.

You’re even within your rights to swing a big chef’s knife around wildly while singing selections of Gilbert & Sullivan, unless that knife winds up slashing or stabbing other people.

With that in mind, let’s look at the specific controversy of the moment: You’re allowed to shop in a CostCo. Nobody has stripped your right to engage in legal commerce with this business.

But you’re being asked to make sure that your right to choose how exposed you are to a virus doesn’t infringe on the rights of the other customers or employees who may be taking additional preventative measures to limit their exposure.

If you were to eat in a restaurant, that restaurant would be within its rights to kick you out if you walked into the kitchen and started sneezing and coughing on other people’s food. No one would suggest that you deserve the freedom to willingly contaminate the food of strangers.

This is a limit on individual freedom of choice that is not part of some novel campaign to turn the United States into a police state. It’s a reasonable extension of the existing limitations on people’s individual actions to prevent them from infringing on the rights of others.

It’s a reasonable attempt to protect people’s lives, the first, most important, part of that whole life, liberty, pursuit of happiness thing.

What They Say They Want Vs. What They Act Like They Want

People protesting to “reopen the economy” and go back to pre-pandemic behavior say they want to be able to patronize the businesses they want, and to make sure that people are able to go back to work again and not have to worry about how to pay their bills.

Okay. Then we need to take into consideration how to do that with guidelines and practices that will protect the health of those workers and the customers they come in contact with. Without their health, those employees can’t do their jobs, and businesses can’t stay open.

So mask up!

But if masks, one way aisles, and plexiglass safety shields are too high a price to pay for businesses to reopen, then was all this bloviating really about the economy?

Or was it about the fear of those protesting that they would need to acknowledge that they aren’t above restrictions? That their freedom has limits?

That other people matter?

The threats that stand to steal the life, liberty, and happiness from untold numbers of people demand a response that is organized and cooperative. They are challenges that demand the ability to see each other as valuable and trustworthy.

In the end, there can be no liberty without life, and the best chance we have at protecting our lives is to learn to live with trust in each other, and respect for each other’s rights being equal to our own.