No Big Deal Syndrome

Do you find yourself unable to break the inertia of not writing in your work-in-progress? Several times a week or month do you sit down in front of said piece, type perhaps a word or two, and then retreat from so much as even looking at it for weeks on end, despite wanting to get to it? Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or even your personal journals seem like judgmental strangers, and you can barely bring yourself to work on them.

It’s more than mere procrastination, from which we all suffer. And of course you have already ruled out underlying medical and mental conditions and illnesses.

You know it isn’t writer’s block, because you suffer no void of ideas and concepts to explore. In fact, the unpleasant mindset of which I speak can only coincide with a fairly well-defined project—a well-defined project you simply cannot bring yourself to visit, even though you are clearly not lazy.

Could it be that confidence hobgoblin that that often follows artists about, the so-called Imposter Syndrome? After all, that toxic mindset does indeed present as a persistent belief that one is not as talented or worthy of accolades as others may say. This may certainly slow down our daily word count.

Yet you do feel, most of the time, that you are in fact an artist, and as such have every right to create art. You feel like an impostor when you succeed at times, but in the privacy of your own thoughts you find your self-worth as a creator is in tact for the long haul.

Still, a constraint, as invisible as it is pervasive fetters you and makes even a well-planned writing session as daunting as swimming a rough ocean.

To coin a phrase, I ask you if perhaps you are suffering from No Big Deal Syndrome.

Aside from what I mentioned above, symptoms can include a pervasive lack of willingness to invest time or energy into your story—a procrastination of sorts, brought on by a latent feeling of inequality to the task of writing your particular piece.

I admit, it sounds similar to Impostor Syndrome at first pass. Yet instead of feeling you do not deserve success, what you are actually struggling with in No Big Deal Syndrome is the belief that your story, poem, article, is by its nature not significant enough to justify all of the time you need to set aside for it.

This doesn’t refer to accumulating awards and accolades for a piece. Right or wrong there are at least perimeters and requirements that must be met for most of the specific awards out there. If we are not writing something that conforms to those expectations, we aren’t likely to expect out work has a chance in running that gauntlet.

No, it’s the pieces we write for ourselves at first, or for smaller, less defined readership. Or the things we write about because we simply “have to” get them written. Words that when they first come to us won’t let us sleep until we jot them down.

It could even be the idea of writing a little bit of anything each day that stymies us with NBD Syndrome. After all, if our writing, our ideas, our concept isn’t significant to us, if it becomes, “no big deal,” we are going to have a difficult time mustering from within us the proper investment required to bring it to bare.

There are only two ways to combat MGD Syndrome. The incredible thing is, both “cures” are polar opposites.

First, consider that it is a big deal, whatever it is. It’s a big deal because the vast majority of people never bother to create. It’s a big deal because its yours. (Not because it is 100% original in every aspect, which is impossible.) It’s a big deal to be an artist, and artist create stuff. It’s a big deal because…it is a big deal.

To the contrary, you might ironically get past the numbing effects of NBD Syndrome by concluding that “big deals” are in and of themselves “no big deal.”  Why does something have to be a big deal, anyway? Artists tend to yoke themselves, or allow the world to yoke them with the idea of being a big deal, and creating a big deal. If you can’t buy into your own artistic significance, buy into the fact that you don’t need to be significant in the first place.

Is My Work Worth the Work?

Writing is work. So, of course, is marketing.

I don’t limit the concept of marketing to agents and publishers and glossy magazine pitches. Marketing your work also includes the delicate balancing act between gaining an audience for a piece on your blog or other platforms and spamming the life out of social media by linking to your work every fifteen minutes. (I’ve seen people do it, and so have you.)

Even a perfect balance of give and take, or a well researched properly addressed pitch require mental, even emotional energy. Some require more of it than others. I especially need a great deal of energy and lead up time for most marketing actions, given my particular personality.

So it’s not only natural but wise for people like myself, (as you might be) to allocate our energies wisely.

Joshua Gresham on Unsplash

Sometimes the decision comes easy. I finish a piece I have been longing to write, and realize by the end of the first draft that I either have less passion for the idea than I initially thought I had, the words aren’t “clicking” (you know what I mean, I know you do) or some other issue that makes us set the piece aside without further work. It’s almost always still worth writing, because of the practice I gained, or the expansion of my viewpoint and overall attitude toward my work in general. But, other people probably don’t need to see it after all.

In the above case, no marketing energy needed. In fact little to no revision energy needed.

Then there are the finished pieces that I’ve revised, polished, double checked. They are, for all intents and purposes, complete, ready for prime time. Yet there is still a question to ask myself; is this piece marketable? Perhaps the broader and better way to form the question is, does this piece have an audience?

It can be hard to make this determination. I won’t pretend to have the answers, or even all the questions you should ask to determine this about your work. And it goes without saying that even if you decide the piece has an audience, that it can serve others, you may fail, despite your best efforts, to attract that audience to your piece. Finishing, talking it up, social media posting, offering the link in conversations online. And that’s just for your own self-published stuff.

If you hope to have your work featured in a well known publication, or want an agent say to represent your book in hopes of getting it traditionally published, there is research, pitch-writing, waiting, more waiting, direct rejection, more, waiting. I repeat myself, but that’s a lot of energy to put forth for what is, at best, a lottery at times.

You may love the piece you wrote. You may have felt a strong need to get it down, to edit it, to polish it to a showroom shine. You may feel better about yourself as a person and a writer once you have done so. And yet you still may conclude that your energies are better spent elsewhere. This time you may have produced art for art’s sake alone. You may pop it onto your site, or Medium and some other platform, and throw up a flair here and there about it. You could get lucky after all. But in the end, it’s not the best use of your energy.

Then of course, there are times when you write something, polish it, polish it again, go over it, share it with a few beta readers, sit on it, ponder it some more and come to one inescapable conclusion; you love the piece and feel it can greatly serve an audience. You will pour your efforts and energies and thoughts into pitching it everywhere, (or advertising it everywhere yourself) until it has attained the status you want. You either never stop until you make it, or you spend far more time trying than you do on most of your pieces.

Even then, after a while you may have to begin to consider if this belongs in the art for art’s sake folder if you get no bites.

It’s damn hard to write well, damn hard to market effectively, and damn hard to make the decision whether or not you want to market something at all. It’s not a decision I ever make easily. I am proud of all of my public work; I don’t allow it to become public, with my name attached, unless I have some pride in it. But I’ve lost more than an hour of sleep at times trying to decipher which of my “solid” pieces are worthy of the energy of standard marketing, and which are best left as semi-private personal testament to my passion and discipline.

What is one to do when faced with such challenging determinations? I admit I don’t know. But I do know, whichever category a given piece ends up in, it wouldn’t have even gotten that far if I had never written it.

I am bone weary at times, but I must keep writing something, damn it.

So do you.

Yes, Virginia. There Was a Writer (Repost)

Originally published on my website Christmas Eve, 2010

Due to it being the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the history of the English language (verified), most people, regardless of their faith, are familiar with this piece, known now to history as “Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus.”

Unsigned at the time of its publication in The Sun in 1897, it was of course written in response to a letter received from eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas. Though over time there has been some amount of scholarly doubt as to whether or not an eight year old actually penned the letter bearing her name (appearing as “Virginia O’Hanlon” in the paper), the woman to whom the letter has been attributed lived a life that was rather well documented. Her Wikipedia page, as well as other more legitimate sources cover her life in plentiful, if not meticulous detail. Virginia herself received fan mail for the rest of her life, to which she graciously responded. She indicated near the end of her life that the attention she received as a result of her famous letter had affected her life in a positive way.

Several movies, animated specials, and other works have been created that tell the story of Virginia and her letter. She has become a rather integral part of the Christmas zeitgeist. At least in the United States.

Coming in a distant second to Virginia in this story, in regards to eventual fame, scholarly investigation, dramatic presentation in various media, and inspiration to generations of Christmas lovers? One Francis Pharcellus Church. Who was he? Nobody special. Just the man who actually wrote the editorial itself.

Francis Pharcellus Church

I don’t want to go on and on about that. But I did think it worthy of mention that the author of the words which move so many of us that love Christmas, and the work of whom sparked the most popular editorial of all time seem almost to be an after thought.

Oh yeah,” folklore personified seems to say. “He took care of that whole writing part of the Virginia story.”

Folks, nothing against Virginia, but in the end Mr. Church was the story. Mr. Church is the story.

Yet his section of the link I provided is basically just his picture. His Wikipedia entry merely mentions he wrote the piece, where he went to school, that he died childless and where his body is buried. It’s barely longer than the piece for which he is (not so) famous.

Now I am not beating up anybody over this. Virginia deserved some attention and admiration. However I do confess it has over the years annoyed me a bit that though it is Mr. Church’s work that instantly captured the hearts of millions, it continues to be Virginia’s story.

So that being said, allow me, on this Christmas Eve of all days, to talk a little bit about what this work of Francis Pharcellus Church says about him, and about writing.

Set aside how famous it is. Really think about the piece. The prose is eloquent but concise. Touching on a multifaceted and deep spiritual truth in a manner that is accessible to an eight year old without boring an adult reader. It both confirms the truth about “Santa Claus”, without blowing the mystique of Santa Claus. It upholds the magical in a child’s Christmas experience without telling one single lie or half truth. On top of it all its magnificent diction makes it perfect for easy recitation or performance.

In other words, it is a brilliant piece of writing that accomplished its mission. And far, far more.

There is much we will never know about the circumstances of Mr. Church composing this editorial. We cannot know what exactly Mr. Church was thinking when he wrote the piece. We probably have no way of knowing if it was assigned to him as opposed to being a request he made to write it. And certainly his muse, like those of all us writers, will remain a mystery. Certainly more of a mystery than what Virginia went on to do with the rest of her life.

Still I think we can make a few assumptions safely. It is safe to say that this was more than a staff writer cutting his pay check. There is a superior quality of soul within the words. I find it hard to accept he didn’t believe each and every one of them as he wrote it.

Safe, also, is the assumption that Church had no idea of the impact he was about to have on an entire nation’s holiday experience over the next hundred-plus years and counting. Anybody who sits down to pen something with that as a goal needs to be locked up someplace.

He did know, as we know, one thing; he was a writer. It was his job to write, and to do so well. To live up to the standard’s expected of him by his employer and by himself. Pursuant to that, he sat down (as so many of us have before and since) with a goal, a resource, his experience, his talent, and his words. And he penned something. Something to which he could not (or would not) attach his name originally. And as a result of his gift for words, he changed not only Virginia’s life, but millions of others. Perhaps even Christmas itself to some degree. And all of that would be true whether or not the “Virginia” letter was really written by an eight year old.

This is why I write. This is why I seek out places and opportunities to make use of this talent I apparently have to assemble words in such a way as to affect, inspire, change, entertain, inform, provoke, and perhaps on occasion save other people. It is why I chose to be a starving freelancer for now. (Unless some perfect staff writing position should show up.) It is why I do my damnedest to write even though I know that nobody is reading. Why, despite a hiatus here and there I muster up within myself time after time that exhausting, that perplexing, that frustrating, that miraculous and inexplicable component within my spirit that accounts for me being a writer.

This stuff isn’t easy, folks. But it can be worth it, when you get it right. Even more worth it when the right people read at the right time what a writer composes. Just as they did for Francis Pharcellus Church. Just as they still do 113 years after he submitted it to the paper.

Was that ubiquitous yet beloved editorial a fluke? Did Church merely get lucky, and strike a cord or two, or a million? Maybe. But I think not. He was, as history tells us a “veteran” journalist, which means he had been writing large amounts of copy for at least quite a few years. That experience may have sharpened him and his words over time in just the right way to make his tapping into the consciousness of a whole culture more likely than it otherwise would have been. But that isn’t being lucky. That’s showing up. We get rewarded for showing up.

Thus far I have shown up to write far more often than I have been rewarded for same. And I get weary of it. Sometimes I even step away for weeks at a time. But the knowledge that showing up can lead to that one moment, article, sentence, speech or novel that changes everything eventually brings me back to the bottom of that hill, ready to push that bolder ever upward. I wonder if Francis Pharcellus Church ever felt that way.

As I mentioned, we know Church died having had no children. But did he? If children be extensions of ourselves and our love, while also taking on a life of their own as time goes on, I say perhaps the man did have at least one child. That child was an unsigned editorial in the September 21, 1897 edition of the New York Sun. And look at how many children, of all ages, it has touched in the decades since.

All because there was once a writer who showed up.

New Release!

I break my blog-writing hiatus to announce with pride the launch of my latest book.

Frederick County, Maryland has been home my entire life. Much of the writing for this blog, my books, and anything else with my name on it has come to fruition within Maryland’s largest county. And when i get tired of working at home, I like to move about local places, for a change in perspective, and perhaps to encounter new muses.

This books is a detailed look at 14 such places I have, from time to time, gone to for writing work. Usually, I do my out of home writing at the library, but when I tired of that fine institution as well as home, I seek out any number of nooks, corners, and little thought of locales to get down a few sentences. Some I visited more than others, and there are of course plenty of spots not included in this book. But this is a great primer for those locals who may be looking for different environments for their creation.

It is not mere travelogue, however. In this brief volume, (about 15,000 words) I explore what aspects of good writing and good writing practice can be gleaned from the particular venues. All subjective of course, but so is writing. Perhaps you will find yourself in agreement with what I write.

Here is the link, which will also go into the “My Books” menus at the front of this website.

If you download this free ebook and check out any or all of the places therein, I’d love to hear from you.

Defending Imagination

We live in a cynical world. By some metrics, it becomes more cynical as time goes on–about people, institutions, even science. If it doesn’t hammer a nail literally into wood, or figuratively into the crushing weight of the Protestant Work Ethic, it’s a waste of resources, time, energy and attention.

Late stage capitalism, folks.

It didn’t take a pandemic to gut the arts. That is just, sadly, helping it to stick. Or on the other side of that coin, it merely highlights the decreasing societal esteem for the arts.

Even the term “arts” itself has become, for some, code for “lazy hippies” who scribble in chalk on the sidewalk, or children who have their “head in the clouds” because they want to dance instead of study algebra to the point of headache.

Do something useful with your life.

That’s the refrain from voices that grow louder, and coarser in this increasingly cynical time.

As a writer and actor, I naturally want to defend the arts as an institution(s). Much of what I try to do, and have always tried to do in life ties into some aspect of the arts.

Yet, defending such huge mechanisms is not in everyone’s purview. We may not have the funds to donate to the opera, or we may not have the skill to volunteer or the stomach for straight-up activism.

That’s fine, because I have good news; worry less about defending nebulous concepts like THE ARTS. You can dedicate you time, effort and opinion to defending the DNA of all the arts, imagination.

You have an imagination. You’ve known sense Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, and probably before that. You create things in your mind. Sometimes they end up on paper, or in clay, or on stage, and sometimes they do not. Sometimes creations are only in your mind. But it takes imagination. When you acknowledge this, and acknowledge that these creations internal and external are worth brainpower, (and heart power), you are defending imagination.

When you opt not to laugh out loud at a child’s “silly” game or rudimentary drawing, you are defending imagination.

When you read fiction, to yourself or to others willing to listen, you are defending imagination.

When, instead of mocking a toy, or cartoon show, or other “goofy” medium designed to enhance imagination in the world, you applaud it, or share it with those who will benefit, you are defending imagination.

When you would rather take a kick in the gut than throw a blanket on someone’s pursuit of healthy fantasy, you are defending imagination.

When you ask colleagues to talk about their flashy clothes or “wild” hair color, instead of labeling same, you are defending imagination.

You don’t have to be an artist of any kind to recognize the importance of defending imagination, because as I said earlier, you have one. Maybe you have forgotten, or perhaps you lived through the tragedy of family and/or friends that strangled, quashed or numbed your imagination because it “served no purpose,” or “it was time to grow up.” If you’re reading this now you have my permission to no longer give a shit about that. Get your imagination back.

And if you happen to be an artist? Yeah, I am pretty sure it’s your duty to stand up for imagination in all of its forms. A photographer should be the first to defend writing. The painter should take a keen interest in making sure less-fortunate people have access to musical instruments. Actors should not be able to stomach a deliberate thwarting of someone’s dreams of being an illustrator. We must be willing to defend all of it, and more, in order to keep alive the seed it all springs from: imagination.

We live is cynical times, and, for the time being, a crumbling American society in the very least. Your son’s poem or your nieces impromptu dance will not fix it. But the message you emblazon into those souls by allowing them the freedom to pursue such things will eventually lead to the type of people, type of society, that will fix things.

Defend the imagination.