My students ask for my opinion on things, especially when I’m covering film and television in class.
Sometimes it’s a litmus test to get to know me. Sometimes they want to hear if I’ve got an opinion so they feel free to share theirs. And sometimes it’s just pre-class chatting about whatever’s trending.
Mostly because I just don’t feel like spending energy on being negative.
It’s easier to point to reasons why something works well than to explain exactly what’s wrong with it
You can feel fairly confident in pointing out something that’s working in a narrative and why it works. But if there’s something in a film or show that you bump on; that doesn’t work for you, it’s not always easy to tell what caused that disconnect.
For one thing, pointing out what doesn’t work involves making suggestions for what could have worked better. You can offer opinions, but that’s a conversation about some imagined version that isn’t constrained by whatever realities of production shaped the actual finished product.
Without being there in the midst of the process of making a thing, it’s easy to cast blame, but hard to be correct in your accusations.
It doesn’t do my students, or me, any favors to offer half-assed opinions on what went wrong with something.
One thing I’ve gotten more confident with as I’ve gotten older (and as I’ve gotten more experience with teaching) is not having an opinion on everything.
My daughter has the right idea
It was a vocal quirk that she developed early on, but she’s stuck with it as she’s gotten older. When Sprout didn’t like something, she was likely to say:
“It’s not my favorite.”
What better way to put it when something doesn’t bowl you over? When you can see the flaws, but don’t feel a need to engage in a lengthy post-mortem examination. You can just move on.
Because I’d rather talk about exciting things I think we should aspire to instead of wasting time in discussions that say more about the people in the conversation than the thing they’re supposedly talking about.
What good does it do for me to add my voice to a chorus excoriating something for failing to satisfy its audience?
There’s no required response to artistic entertainment.
I’m not required to like it. I can’t be forced to list my disagreements with it. And I shouldn’t point fingers without accurate knowledge of the inner workings of the project.
If given the choice between trying to feel smugly superior to others who have taken on a difficult task, or to admire the work of giants, I know where I stand. I’d rather live in the shadow of the greats, aspiring toward something higher, than spending my time pretending I can trample others under my own feet.
Early on in the semester for my Introductory writing class, I like to bring in motivational and inspirational quotes from other disciplines. I’m looking for examples of strong writing that also offer an opportunity to segue into discussing the work of writing.
For example, when I talk about the process of revision with students, I bring in Max Weber:
“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.”
Writing can feel that slow. It’s hard, focused work, and I tell my students that they need to respect the process and prepare themselves for the slowness of it.
But it’s not always easy to take your own advice
I recently chucked out about 40 pages of a script draft. I was treating a character as a throwaway gag, but I realized there was more dramatic and comedic value in bringing them into the story properly.
Normally it feels a little easier to toss pages aside after an exciting discovery like that. If I kept going without making the changes, I’d only wind up doubling back and starting over again as soon as I typed FADE OUT.
So why not save myself some effort and get going with that new version now?
But I’ve recently started a new semester of teaching. I have a new baby in the house. I have a child starting kindergarten. I’m starting to give some of my bandwidth to the promotional side of the writing project I worked on for the past year. I’m learning to re-wire my brain so I spend less time fighting against it. And so on.
There’s momentum for my writing, but less of it. I have less energy, and I need to spend time learning new ways to adapt.
Take the new baby (Button). Before, I started pushing myself to get up earlier to try and carve out an hour to an hour and a half of solitude for coffee and work before the rest of the house would wake up. Now, Button usually starts stirring mid-way through that time.
At that point, I bring him downstairs so Dena can get some more sleep. Sometimes Button will fall back asleep quickly, but sometimes he just wants to wiggle. Other times he demands to be held.
Austin Kleon offers artists with newborns the advice to “find a one-armed miniature version of what you do.” Not everything I have to do is easily accomplished (or workable) while holding a baby, but most of the time I can shift gears. Re-prioritize, or break something into smaller tasks.
Totally sensible, but my brain says “Nope.”
I fight, resisting the need to change. I deny that I should lower my expectations for myself. I tell myself I need to hustle harder, sleep less, and juggle faster.
In an episode of Jocelyn K. Glei’s Hurry Slowly podcast, she talks about the very kind of impulse I’m fighting against and gives it a name:
When you commit to a schedule or a workload that you intuitively know at the outset is unrealistic and is destined to result in overwhelm. And then later on, you beat yourself up when you are unable to meet that schedule. That’s productivity shame.
When you set an incredibly challenging goal for yourself without creating any structure for emotional support or accountability, and then you blame your failure to meet those goals on a lack of personal willpower. That’s productivity shame.
I’ve been trying to introduce some other ideas into my head to populate my brain with counter-arguments against that inner Productivity Monster.
For example, I read Atomic Habits by James Clear, where he uses a great example to demonstrate the idea that small changes and tiny, consistent actions can still lead to big results:
The impact created by a change in your habits is similar to the effect of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.
Small actions can lead to big results if you add enough of them up. It sounds logical enough. So lately, my Write Sprints have gotten shorter, but they’re more consistent than they have been in a while. I’m not having any days where I can knock out 5+ pages, but I’m having more days where I wind up with 1 or 2 new pages of material.
Close up, that effort doesn’t feel like much motion at all. And it can be frustrating to feel like those little drips of writing aren’t connecting into a larger, coherent whole.
But there’s no point in measuring just one day
You can’t write a screenplay or a book in a single day. Anything you can completely finish in a single hour (or less) probably won’t be the thing you hold up as an example of what you’re capable of.
Reading and listening to the work of others reminds me of the idea that you need to take the long view with finishing a larger project or building up a habit.
There’s one quote about writing (and geology) gets used in the second day of the semester. It’s one I like to refer back to throughout the semester as a thematic pedal point for the class:
“When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.”
-John McPhee (from Annals of the Former World)
It’s a reminder to students that great things can come from humble beginnings: That which was once deep in the lowest part of the surface world, through time, pressure, and imperceptible movement, rose high above all else.
That the only constant on this planet is the act of change, and that how any situation looks at the moment is only temporary.
It’s something I use to remind them that no matter where they come from, or how they feel about their ability as a writer, given time and effort, they too can rise up.
Right now, it feels like it would benefit me to look at my work and my efforts as if I were one of my own students.
Dena and I have been having a lot of conversations with our daughter about Thankfulness because of the napkins on our kitchen table.
Every napkin has a discussion prompt for people at the table, and this one is Sprout’s favorite:
It’s her favorite because of the cat, not because of the question.
The other night, we wanted to know what she would say, but she stonewalled us when asked to answer the question about what she was thankful for that day.
Part of it was just being an overtired kiddo having a late dinner. Part of it was probably the fact that she’s facing all the sea changes that come with a new baby brother, starting kindergarten, and missing her friends from day care. But there’s also the part of it where she just didn’t seem to understand the question.
So we worked to define thankfulness for her, and how it wasn’t just about saying thank you when somebody gives you something. You aren’t only thankful for presents, or for somebody bringing you the ranch dressing when you want some for your broccoli. It’s about appreciating what other people do for you that they choose to do for you. It’s about appreciating what makes you feel fortunate.
It wasn’t clicking. She got frustrated with us. We set the topic aside and gave her an opportunity to think about the question some more until dinner the next night.
And that night I asked something different: “What are your three big thank yous for today?”
I took a phrase she was already familiar with, I narrowed it down to a set number of things, and kept the question short without a lot of additional explanation to process.
It took her all of 30 seconds, and she felt good about her answers.
Yes, it’s more precise to ask her what she’s thankful for. But for our intended audience, there was this extra layer of unpacking the words themselves that kept her from joining the conversation.
When I was younger, I always associated having a larger vocabulary or being able to deploy more complicated words and ideas as a sign of intellect. I blame all the Frasier I watched.
It’s one thing to be precise, and always use exactly the word you want. It’s another thing entirely to be clear, and try to always use the words that will be understood.
Using words you think your audience will readily understand isn’t inherently condescending. It’s a way of talking to people that shows you’re listening to them.
You show that you pay attention, and your attention is a sign of respect.
It’s also about identifying what your purpose is. If we wanted this to be a lesson in the definition of thankfulness, we may or may not have succeeded. But our goal was to encourage our daughter to express gratitude. That purpose was more important than precision.
I do an exercise with students where we talk about the way Mister Rogers wrote his tv show. In an interview with two of the writers, they discuss a variation on the process that’s a joke that tells the truth:
Fred Rogers was always laser-focused on making sure each word was appropriate to his audience.
He spoke to children on their own terms because he knew that the audience was what mattered. He wasn’t concerned with only appearing kind on camera, or looking like he had all the answers, because he left ego out of the equation.
His focus on his audience, in listening to how they interpreted the world (and their concerns about it) was practicing kindness.
Because speaking to others or writing for others can, and should, involve thinking about how you can treat your audience with kindness.
When I was interviewing for my current teaching job, they asked me to give a sample lecture to a media criticism class on any topic I saw fit.
I went with applying the Buddhist concept of Right Speech to how we evaluate media.
To summarize the concepts, Right Speech is about making sure that our communication with other people is coherent, wholesome, wise, and skillful. There are four principles that help judge if speech clears this bar.
Do we avoid lies or deceptions?
Do we avoid divisive statements?
Do we avoid abusive statements?
Do we avoid idle chatter?
Avoiding lies and deceptions is not just about speaking the truth in any given moment, but reliably acting as a truthful voice.
Avoiding divisive statements is about abstaining from slander, and trying to use speech to bring people together instead of isolating them.
Avoiding abusive statements is about showing compassion and respect for the audience, and using language that they will appreciate and take to heart.
Avoiding idle chatter isn’t just about speaking with purpose, but framing your speech so that you address topics at the proper time with words intended to remain valuable beyond that moment.
As an individual, these goals can act as a good baseline for being seen as a respectful, and respectable, person.
When thinking as a writer or person who communicates through different media platforms, it can act as a good metric for if what you’re sharing with the world feels more like useful signal or distracting noise.
If you sit down to write for others, only focused on what they will think of you, you’ll never be happy with the result. If your only metrics for success are Likes, page views, or how much you got paid for your work, you’ll wind up in an endless loop where the next project will always have to seem bigger and better.
If you’re only writing with the hope that you’ll be recognized as a great writer, no praise will ever feel like enough.
There’s satisfaction to be found in the attempt to make today’s work an act of kindness. To make today’s words something that your audience will find useful whether they encounter it now or ten years from now.
There’s satisfaction to be found this way even if your audience is ten people instead of 10,000.
And there’s satisfaction to be found in seeing how much gratitude you can express for the opportunity to help others. To speak to them directly, honestly, and thoughtfully.
My daughter loves getting in the pool, except for one thing: Getting water in her face. I know this problem well.
When I was a kid, I hated being in the water. Hated it with a passion. Needed to be bribed, heavily, in order to even attempt the most basic aspects of swimming, like going underwater. And even then I still hated it.
When I was younger, there was a PSA that ran all the time on television about how little water it could take for a child to drown. It was intended to make sure parents didn’t leave a baby alone in a bathtub, but my brain catalogued it as evidence that drowning should be a constant fear when in the water.
So I recognized that level of fear and anxiety when Sprout was asked to put her face all the way in the water to blow bubbles (called Submarine Bubbles by her swim class instructor, as opposed to Motorboat Bubbles, which just involve putting up to your nose in the water).
“But what if it hurts?” she would repeat on a loop, with different levels of anxiety and tears.
That fear of potential pain would lead to stalling. To crying. To building up a wall of anxiety around something that she could actually do when she pushed through that initial moment of fear.
And I thought about all the years I spent, afraid of the water. Afraid of getting stuck underwater and drowning. Scared witless by a moment as a tween when I got the courage to swim in the ocean with some friends, only to fall behind and get pulled under by wave after wave as I struggled back to shore.
I didn’t want that for her. I wanted her to face this fear down.
We had an opportunity: A family trip to a lodge in Ohio, where four generations of my family were spending the weekend. The lodge had a pool in the back yard, and the weather would be warm enough for plenty of opportunities for Sprout to practice.
But we needed to bribe her to do Submarine Bubbles.
At first, it was one dollar if she did five of them. Then my dad offered a matching gift for the second set of five, so two dollars for that set. And the last set, the one where she threw herself into them with gusto, involved matching gifts (as a limited time offer) from a bunch of other family members, which brought her $10.
She was practicing. She was getting better. My wife and I were both feeling more confident she could keep this up.
But the night before her final swim class, when executing submarine bubbles for her teacher would determine if she moved on from Mini Fish 1 to Mini Fish 2, she went back into her stubborn, fearful refrain. I asked her to do one Submarine Bubble in the bath tub, and —
“But what if it hurts?”
There’s a frustration and a futility to arguing against an irrational fear. You can’t out-reason it. The only thing that we could do, in trying to help Sprout break through, was normalize the thing she was afraid of: Water in her face.
At one point, during her bath, I asked her if it would be worse to get hit in the face with water or a ham sandwich. We agreed that the ham sandwich was worse (especially if it had mayo on it). Then we made other comparisons, and I asked her if I could dump water from a pitcher onto her face while we joked about it.
With every comparison, she picked water in her face as being the better of the two options. With every splash, she laughed a little harder about the water in her face.
We had to get through this. We had to, because I was not going to pass on this fear. Whenever I’ve gone swimming with Sprout, I’ve always tried to be conscious of not showing any hesitance toward what she was doing, or signal any anxiety that she might pick up on. And I wanted to feel like my failures wouldn’t become hers.
When it’s your own child, it’s sometimes hard to remember that teaching isn’t always about successes. The Last Jedi put it pretty succinctly:
Because I know the fear, I can share with her what I know about facing it. Because I know the cost of letting this fear overwhelm your common sense and your courage, I can remind her of what she’ll miss out on if she forgets how brave she is.
One pathway to success isn’t going to work for all people, but passing on which roads point toward failure can help other people narrow their choices and find the way that works for them.
Let’s cut to the end: She passed the class.
As soon as she was in the water with her teacher, Sprout was eager to talk about how much she had practiced her Submarine Bubbles and showed her teacher what she could do.
After finding out she had passed her class, Sprout was full of boundless enthusiasm for swimming, and wanted to show us all the things she’d learned in her class, without the aid of floaties.
We had to reel her back in when she said that she wanted to jump off the diving board like some older kids she saw, but it was great to see her get past the fear, to feel pride in what she’d done, and to show courage when facing down something that only days before was still paralyzing to her.
At one point we had to start calming her down to get ready to leave, and my wife, commenting on Sprout’s newfound excitement for swimming, asked her “Where did you come from?”
And like the Pawnee Goddess she is, Sprout shouted back:
“I came from your belly, and I’m made of Spicy Chicken Sandwiches!”
I didn’t realize how far the thoughts had gotten in my daughter’s mind until we were playing a game of hide-and-seek at home. My daughter (I call her Sprout online), reminded me about a game we had played the other week where she got upset when she couldn’t find me. At the time, it seemed like she was just frustrated at not being able to locate me, and we wound up having a laugh after I used our Google Home Minis to help her figure out where I was hiding.
Someone was having trouble finding me while playing hide and seek, so I had Google give her some assistance. pic.twitter.com/FeP50KZOF8
But now, a week later, she reminded me not to hide the way I did that time.
“You were pretty upset when you couldn’t find me, huh?”
She nodded. “I thought you were in Heaven.”
OKAY, let’s back up a bit
Since before she saw Coco, Sprout has had a lot of questions about death. Normally they were general, matter-of-fact questions with no follow ups.
Asking about things like how her great-grandma is dead, and that’s why we don’t see her anymore, or if this or that person who came up in conversation is dead (ex: David Bowie).
Once she came close to realizing the weight of death when talking about pets. We had tried to foster a kitten, but he didn’t get along with our much older cat, Luna. As we set up a new home for the kitten, we had to explain to Sprout that Luna needs to be the only cat in the house.
After that sank in, Sprout looks at me one day and says “I hope Luna dies so we can get a kitten.”
I explained to her how if Luna died, we’d be sad, and we’d never get to see her again, and Sprout realized she didn’t want that. “But I want Luna to be my cat forever!”
She was overwhelmed by the feeling that she had said something horribly mean about her pet, found Luna, hugged her, and formally apologized.
But at the time, she was focused on how it was mean to wish that the cat would die. She hadn’t fully grasped everything. Yet.
A four-year-old’s first existential crisis
I was sitting on the couch as Sprout did one of her regular pace-the-floor-and-talk-with-her-hands sessions, where her ideas are just kind of tumbling out of her brain, and she pauses and turns to me.
“A lot of people have already died. And a lot of other people are still going to be born. How can this be?”
It’s the kind of moment where her question is almost something you can wrap your brain around answering, but I didn’t have time to parse what was underneath it before I saw her brow furrow and the pieces click together.
The tears started, and she let out a wail: “Dying is scary!”
Dena hurried into the room, and the two of us quickly hugged her into a Sprout Sandwich on the couch. There were more tears, but we made sure Sprout knew how the people who love her are going to love her for her entire life, even after they’re gone.
Then she told us another part of what she was worried about: That after people die, she’ll forget what they look and sound like.
That’s when Dena pulled out her phone. Because not only do we have pictures and videos of Sprout’s great-grandma, but Dena kept a voicemail that she left on Dena’s birthday years ago. It’s short, sweet, funny, and includes a request that Dena give some hugs to Sprout from her great-grandma.
In the moment, we had some answers for Sprout, and we were able to use the recorded memories stored on our phones as a physical way to show her that the dead aren’t completely gone.
But if you know children, you know that this had no chance of being the end of this conversation.
Death is coming, and that’s okay
We recently had a scare where one of Dena’s aunts looked like she was about to lose her battle with cancer.
She’s rebounded, and though we know she’s not going to go into remission, we’re thankful have more time with her. But at first, when things looked like the worst was coming, we decided we needed to prepare Sprout as best we could.
Dena sat Sprout down while I finished making dinner to lay out the specifics and see if she had any questions, and she also brought home a bag full of picture books from the library about death.
We spent the weekend with family, making sure we were present. Making sure everybody got their hugs and got to spend time with one another.
And we read her the books about death and grieving. Many times. She was particularly focused on having me read a pair of books about a family grieving the loss of their dad, which was uncomfortable enough until she wanted to act out the book with me.
But, as she had me pretend to be her brother, and we went through the story about what the family did after the death of their father, I realized she was just processing her feelings in a safe way. She’s trying on emotions, and connecting with the hurt of these other people so she can think about how she feels, and how she might feel.
It’s one of the things fiction and narrative are fantastic at. You can experience an emotion from a slight remove, helping you understand it better.
I was feeling good about the lessons we were modeling for her, and the books Dena brought home were a big help in finding ways to talk about the big picture. And then came the injection of outside ideas.
If you leave a vacuum, something else will fill it
At one point I took Sprout out to lunch, and to pick up some carry-out for Dena. That’s when she started to talk about Heaven.
“Heaven’s where you get wings! And Jesus and God have wings! Everybody gets wings!”
I asked some questions to figure out where she was getting her ideas about a Red Bull Heaven, and it turned out there was a kid in her day care class who was talking about it.
As I’ve learned recently, she is very willing to believe (without question) that when her fellow four-and-five-year-olds tell her something, it must be true.
And because she’s getting a dose of theology from kids who are playing a game of telephone from what they’ve been told, we get scenes like this:
Driving home, we turn onto our street and Sprout declares (out of nowhere) “God is dead.”
Before I could figure out who had slipped her the Nietzsche pop-up book, she elaborated. “Because God is in Heaven, and everybody in Heaven is dead.”
So… this is where I talk about how I’m somewhat horribly equipped for this part of the conversation.
I didn’t go to church as a kid. There are probably many reasons.
One that I can remember clearly is at a funeral for someone on my dad’s side of the family. They hired a minister to give the eulogy who wasn’t familiar with the family, or with the deceased, and I can sum up his pitch about death as this:
Humans are a mistake. They are flawed, sinful creations. Death is God’s way of correcting His mistake.
I was maybe seven when I heard this. For almost 30 years, it has rattled around in my brain. It made that much of an impact.
My mom did her best, as we walked through the parking lot, to get me to push out the worry that I was a mistake, and that God was eager to kill us all. But you know the moment in Inception where they talk about how it’s useless to tell somebody not to think about something?
And that lack of grounding created some odd moments for me. When I was a teenager, I was hit by a car while crossing the street. I lost consciousness, got a concussion, and broke my arm. I was lucky, but I was also pretty disoriented.
While I was recuperating, I watched a lot of Viva Variety and started writing a script that I wanted to shoot with my friends. The premise was about someone who has an accident, wakes up in the afterlife, and doesn’t realize it. Whatever entities I had decided were part of the afterlife took the form of this person’s friends and family, and their job was to nudge the recently deceased toward the understanding that they were dead in a way that didn’t overwhelm them.
Because… There was a part of me that wasn’t so sure what I was experiencing. And a weird part of me that thought by writing this down and sharing it with other people, I could convince myself that it couldn’t be true for myself.
That I’d be okay if I could share it with my friends and not have any of them look at me and say, “Oh. Looks like you figured it out on your own.” I was trying to write my way out of a problem, because it was the way I knew how to ground myself at the time.
This is all to say that:
I don’t have a lot of formal religious experience
Despite having lost family members and people close to me, I’ve never formed a definitive answer to what is death aside from the scientific end of life
I am well aware of how botching this conversation can stick with someone for their lifetime, and potentially lead them to some confusing moments later in life.
So no pressure when it comes to helping my four-year-old through all this.
What I wish I could tell her (because sometimes it’s hard to speak to a four-year-old)
I don’t know what happens. We don’t know. No one is certain, but a lot of people are confident about what happens when we die. They have their reasons, they have their faith in their beliefs, but they don’t actually know for sure.
But what happens to a person after they die isn’t the only thing that matters.
We need to think about the people who are still here. The people who love them. The people they love.
We should live like this is enough. Like we will get enough time with the people we love. Like every moment is an opportunity to choose to love each other with all our hearts.
Because no matter what, it will never feel like enough. We will always want one more hug. One more meal. One more story. One more ‘I love you.’ Always. Always. Always.
Because a memory of love can be the same thing as the moment itself. Our memories can be just as strong and sustaining, and as long as our memories last, so does that love.
We will go on without them, but we will not go on without their love.