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Leo X. Robertson

News of my latest publications, events, and episodes of the Losing the Plot podcast!

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artist life

Latest Stavanger Filmmakers presentation: submitting creative work to publishers/festivals!

Here’s the latest presentation I gave at the Stavanger Filmmakers club!

I’d be interested to know what my fellow creatives think of this!

Too often, I think the process is lonely and filled with unnecessary self-blame and resentment.

By giving my perspective on this, I hope we can get on with our work with a little more confidence, I guess 🙂

Am I doing the right thing? (7/7)

This is the last one in the series!

In the last post, I wrote about how we are what we mostly do. In this post, I’ll write about the ways in which we’re passively “running in the background” of other people’s lives. I find it a life-affirm-tastic exercise!

There are a complex multitude of ways in which we influence the world, and no one of them represents the entirety of our being. Pretending any one of them does is dangerous.

So many writers say, “Be kind to your fellow writers! Help them out!” In most instances I’d bet it’s because they don’t like the idea of someone being mean to them, or because they want help.

They say, “Celebrate other people’s successes!” Only because, I don’t know, it’s nice?

They say, “We’re in this together!” Are you in it while I’m alone in my bedroom staring at the ceiling? Nope.

I agree with all these statements to some extent, but want to expand on them a bit. If you help others, you have a personal stake in their success. It doesn’t take long to help one writer, and there are very few people doing it. So a share of someone else’s success is there for your taking. That might be a selfish way of looking at someone else’s achievements—but no matter the intent, it’s a net-good thing to help others anyway.

If your only takeaway from the world of writing are the times when you personally succeed, of course you’re gonna hate it! Because there are way more writers than just you, therefore the successes of others cumulatively dwarf yours.

If you read that and think, “I don’t have time to help others out!” uh, it’s happening anyway just by your existence. People are watching what other writers do all the time, therefore you owe it to yourself to acknowledge it and experience it more to your advantage.

Here’s an example of the most minor way in which I matter.

I recently noticed that this guy at work kept staring at me, day after day, every time I passed by him. I had no idea why—until the end of the week, when I saw that he’d shaved his head. His hair had been visibly thinning, and his head looked way better shaved. I could see in the way he sat and talked to his coworkers how much more confident he looked.

In case you didn’t know, I have a shaved head too, because my baldness became noticeable last year. I’m pretty convinced that my baldness acceptance empowered him to do the same. Pretty sure. (I’m taking it as a win anyway!)

Here’s a funnier one: as you may know, I have a podcast called Losing the Plot where I talk to various creative types about their projects and life. Sometimes I’ll invite someone and they’ll say, “Thank you so much, but I don’t know why you’d want to talk to me. I’m just a [putdown]” or, “I’m too shy” or “I don’t like the sound of my voice.”

I say, “I thought it would be fun but if you don’t want to take part, I respect that.” I leave them alone.

With a very high frequency, later on—never that late afterwards—that same person will post a link to an episode of a different podcast they made an appearance on. Not to me, just on their page or whatever. In the post, they gush about the experience, say they never dreamed they would be on a podcast. They were oh so nervous but they had a blast, wonderful community etc.

And I think, “Great!”

Because surely I have a share in that experience? It’s not the flower I expected—and it’s in someone else’s soil—but it’s still my seed!

The podcast appearance messages aren’t directed at me. They’re probably posted without me in mind at all. Maybe this person has completely forgotten what gave them the idea that they could be on a podcast in the first place. (And sure, maybe I had nothing to do with it!) But think of all the other ways in which what we say and do impacts those around us!

That’s just an example of my influence that I happened to catch. How many more are there that I don’t see, do you think? I’m gonna guess 9 per caught example. I chose a minor one to illustrate my point, but other guests who came on my podcast have gone on to start their own, make appearances on other podcasts etc. Sometimes I’ll get a story published by a magazine and see others submitting to it later. I like to think it’s because they trust my taste/ writing quality—though with some it’s definitely, “He got WHAT published WHERE?! Well if HE can…!!” I wish folk like that the worst, frankly. I want to read fiction by well-meaning people—but that’s another blog post, I think…

Hey, if you’re really feeling insignificant and want to see people freak the hell out, quit drinking! Everyone tells me they’re gonna cut back drinking themselves, run a marathon, lose weight, call an estranged parent… People treat you like you’re freaking Jesus. I mean, this is a few weeks after they’ve scoffed at you, treated you with hostility and generally seen your sobriety as a commentary on them and, indeed, a personal offence. But it’s still nice to know you set them off. (Plus they’ll feel stupid for reacting that way, even if they don’t tell you.)

There are endless, endless examples of influence. I hope you have many of your own now, or find more next time you look around. Consider all the many conversations you’ve had, interactions and people you’ve passed by and so on and so forth.

People are paying attention. We owe it to ourselves not to underestimate the influence and responsibility we have to others just because the successes that we see are the iceberg tip.

We’re so much more than just this handful of categories we unkindly obsess over. And when we do that, we don’t see the influence—if we could, it probably wouldn’t be that great because of this obsession.

I bet life is like 90% silent wins. It’s partly because we aren’t there to see all of it, and also—hopefully to a lesser extent—because narcissistic people like to hoard their favourite stuff and take credit for other people’s work. But have no doubt that you matter in a complex multitude of ways.

If this has helped you, I did a good thing. Certainly better than if I hadn’t written the thing at all. Therefore the time was justified.

Is this the best blog post that ever existed? It’s the best I could make it, on this particular topic, at this time in my life, without going overboard and not dividing my time appropriately between doing this and everything else I need to do.

Am I glad I wrote it? For sure! I seem to have needed to write it.

You’re welcome to tell me if it was useful or not—I can handle it either way 😉

Am I doing the right thing? (6/7)

In the last post I wrote about the complications of writers defining themselves as “writers”, because they probably don’t spend that much time per day actually writing. Is that what we are, what we mostly spend our time on?

As a 29 year-old, I’m treating this year as a dry run for the kind of adult I want to be in my 30s. One thing I’ve done, then, is reduce my social media time. I thought I was doing this to symbolically relegate social media’s relative importance in my life to the proportion of time I spent on it. But it’s not just symbolic, it’s the reality.

You are what you do. If you spend an hour a day comparing yourself to others on social media, you’re 1/24th a complete waste of time.

If your proportion is wrong, adjust it. Your body will make you keep doing stuff. You’re designed to do stuff! And you’re mostly designed to do stuff you enjoy. So if you minimise time spent on the stuff you thought would bring you joy but have since learned doesn’t, you will force yourself to find more enjoyable things to do.

Similarly, if you release yourself from thinking about things that are bringing you no good, healthier, nicer thoughts will fill your head.

(Letting go of crap friends makes space for good ones too. Though it might take you a while to find them!)

What you think of in your life as “an absence of that thing you have given up” is not an absence at all; the time is still there. You are still here. You will do better stuff.

The better stuff you do, the better you are as a person. Which, if you’re anything like me, is the goal encompassing the full subset of things you do day-to-day that express and manifest that. So it will make you happier, healthier, more fulfilled.

I’m doing my best to be my best and lead the richest life possible in the way that I define and redefine that.

In the last post, I’ll write about some of the nice ways in which we have influence in people’s lives, and why we really, indisputably matter.

Am I doing the right thing? (5/7)

In my previous post, I wrote about the danger of defining yourself purely by your career, and what a shame it is if people don’t recognise that they are so much more than that. The exact same principle applies to defining yourself purely by creative success.

To recap: if you’ve followed the logic of these blog posts so far (if there is one!) it’s that, if you define yourself as something, you’ll feel the need to do keep doing that thing and make continuous progress at it. How to measure progress is difficult and not all that intuitive, and the temptation to compare yourself to others kicks in. Others are doing the same, and in trying to validate themselves, are prone to lying about their productivity/progress. Which escalates indefinitely until everyone feels terrible.

Creating = Self

Who you are is to a large degree determined by how you spend your time. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a writer. But you don’t spend that much time doing it.

It’s not just you. So many great writers—Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Viet Thanh Nguyen to name the first three I remember saying something about it—openly acknowledge that the intensive mental energy required to write can’t really be sustained for more than a few hours a day.

When it comes to writers so prolific that they spend more than those hours a day writing, I imagine they write with their brains switched off. Their prose typically reflects that, and I wouldn’t consider it an accomplishment.

I also don’t believe you can game your biology into greater output.

I used to think that alcohol helped writing. Now I’d guess that it lowers inhibitions rather than assists imagination—it’s really not necessary, and in fact deleterious to the writing process itself. For example, I remember that when I was hungover I’d be filled with creative ideas—but maybe lose motivation for a week or longer, and my mood would be completely shot. Typically I’d be 2/3rds into a short story draft by Friday, plan to finish it that weekend, drink a lot, wake up Saturday and maybe get back to it Tuesday, having almost forgotten what it was about.

What about coffee? Writers are always yammering about that. Well, why not go full-pelt Philip K Dick mode, snort crystal meth and finish your novel by sunrise?

You know that’s not the point. (I don’t know you, but I hope you don’t!) And yet on many smaller levels we abuse ourselves in the hopes of levels of productivity that are not innate and inevitably come with larger penalties that slow us down overall.

So I’d say, sorry: you’ve got three hours a day maximum, you’ll probably only do two or less, and struggle during them. You might be a genius, but you’re a human genius.

Accept it, Leo and others! You can only do so much. And acceptance is your only option to maximise productivity. Anything else maximises it in the short term but minimises it overall. A marathon not a sprint, as they say.

Focus on the greenness of your own grass because your neighbour is either lying about his or using weird chemical colour enhancements that make his grass greener than yours today but dry it out completely by Tuesday.

In the next post, I’ll discuss whether or not we are what we spend our time on.

Am I doing the right thing? (4/7)

In the last post on this topic, I gave some examples of “work theatre”, common things that writers claim that are not as impressive or concrete as they at first sound. In the next posts, I’ll go on to describe some dangerous fallacies that are the result of people defining themselves poorly. The first is:

Career = Self

My day job is as an engineer. When I bump into other engineers, they ask me the following variation on a theme: “What project are you working on? What does your husband do? So you’re away from your home location: are you renting out your flat? How big is it? Where is it?”

I’ve been caught off guard by these questions thus far, which means I fall back on my go-to for such situations: the truth. Not that I’m ashamed of the answer to any of these questions, but were I more awake I might charmingly divert the conversation to something, anything, more interesting.

After I fill in my verbal report, the inquisitive civilian, satisfied that his self-assigned reconnaissance task is completed and evaluated, sighs with relief. His shoulders go down. He smiles at me, and rewards me by talking with me about everything that he considers to be more trivial.

At lunch in the cafeteria, when lost, I find myself asking those same questions. I do so because I know it’ll get the conversation flowing and it’s apparently okay, nay, polite, nay, interesting to ask them. I hope to use them as ice-breakers or jumping-off questions to something else, which works out sometimes but often not.

When this is the only information anyone is willing to share with me, it’s all I have to go on in understanding who they are as a person. If I were to guess, I’d add in a family that loves them (which most of these engineers have) and then, yeah, that’s about it. The hours not spent on overtime at the office or raising kids is spent watching sitcoms, doing house repairs, or skiing.

I’m not disparaging people like this at all. It’s admirable. Making money is quite a tough thing to do. And it’s important—in terms of all the things that having money infers: food, roofs over heads, opportunities, freedom. Someone has to do the jobs these engineer guys do. (“If not for me it would be someone else” is a legitimate excuse only if the thing serves some personal or social good. Otherwise it’s just a kind of empty and unjustified cynicism.)

Only people who have money are afforded the luxury of sitting about and pontificating on its apparent unimportance. So, let’s hear it for breadwinners!

We’ve become so aware of the dark side of safety, monotony and apparent mediocrity that we forget to cheer for people like this. But sure, there is a dark side to it. If you only do or think about one thing, it will become who you are. These people are largely described by the answers to the three or four questions above. As I say, it probably works for them, though it comes with immense sacrifice—whether they notice that or not.

After I’ve answered these typical questions, the idea of me “ending there” fills me with dread. I resent the idea that I do.

In the next post I write about the dangers of defining yourself by your writing/creative success.

Am I doing the right thing? (3/7)

In my last post, I outlined why it’s difficult to understand how well you’re doing at your chosen profession/career/hobby. I use writing as the example, because it’s the most confusing of my own habits, but it applies to most other work.

A big negative effect of social media is a near-complete dissolution of authority. Every opinion is seemingly equated, without the time or info to consider on what authority it is given. The information out there is in fact so inconsistent that I don’t believe anyone anymore.

Here are some typical things writers claim that are textbook examples of “work theatre” for writers:

“I worked on X for Y hours today.”

I don’t know how slow you are and I bet you rounded up.

“I wrote 5,000 words today!”

I got just five words for you, buddy: a a a a a.

“I’ve read X magazine/ Y author for years.”

Your mum bought you one of their books when you were ten and you read it last year.

“I’ve always written.”

What does that even mean?! Is your definition so loose as to include writing emails and birthday cards/ journaling/bad teenage poetry—in which case, everyone is a writer—or so narrow as to demand 3000 words out of yourself every day at penalty of disqualification from the title of “writer”? Unlikely.

“I always thought of myself as a storyteller.”

When I started studying medicine, my mum sent me a picture of me, four years old, playing with a plastic doctor’s kit. She was in awe at this early sign of my career proclivity. But I’m sure she had photos of me displaying early signs of wanting to be a civil engineer (marble run?!) videogame designer (game boy!) a butler (red plastic tea set from which I drank orange juice with raisins in it. It’s pretty good! I might have been onto something.) Romantic people like to carve traditionally compelling narratives out of their lives, and the lives of others, in retrospect. But at best it’s just one way of looking at life and at worst it’s a fantasy. (A year and a half later I quit medicine, tears, drinking etc.)

Maybe you did always know what you wanted to be. That’s wonderful. But I sure didn’t and continue not knowing. I won’t pretend otherwise nor feel like a lesser person for it.

If I was born to do anything, it was a handful of things and I’m living my best approximation of what those are. I sure as hell know what I was born not to do—that’s when my intuition kicks in. (And now that I have a decent self-esteem, I listen to it more often than not.)

At the heart of the need to offer these clichés are the central questions: what the hell am I, and am I any good at it?!

None of us know to such an extent that we’re comfortable—if we’re really thinking about it. Does that mean we get to stop worrying about it? Maybe “worry less.” I don’t know. I’m all for worrying less 🙂

In the next post, I’ll describe some dangerous fallacies that are a result of people defining themselves poorly.

Am I doing the right thing? (2/7)

In my last post I wrote about the principle of “work theatre.” Most people talk about the many hours they put into various projects, but that it is usually testament to their inefficiency. I used the example of finishing a university project that takes other people way more time.

Adult life is of course way more complicated! Add social media, and the ability to have the kind of work ethic that allows self-reward has almost dissolved entirely.

This is because:

–          There is no common project between us.

–          Our project(s) have no beginning, end or deadline

–          Who are you comparing yourself to as a benchmark for when you’ve done enough?

–          When do you get to stop and when do you get to return?

I’m trying to find the David Foster Wallace quote, but can’t, where he said that in your mid-to-late twenties, the praise of others won’t sustain you anymore. In the short term, that means you lose a joy you used to have, and it’s quite sad. But it doesn’t happen without reason.

You come off the rails. You’re old enough to understand for yourself what is worthwhile and what isn’t—or at the very least, you become your best resource for determining what that is. I reckon you’ll probably end up doing what you were already doing, but with more conviction.

Of course, you might fail to come off the rails and attempt to continue using external praise as your prime motivating factor. I don’t think that ends well. I’d also wager that it’s at the heart of writerly boasting. This typically takes the shape of declaring word count/hours spent writing on social media. Not to say this isn’t interesting at all. It’s a relief to have a bit more information on someone else’s effort vs their productivity (as in my university example in the previous post.) However, since it causes so much stress and blows to self-esteem, it might not be worth the cost.

I reckon that for five minutes, once a week, I might feel like wanting to know how much another writer works. I wouldn’t spend more than that on it, and absolutely would not recommend obsessing over comparisons with my own productivity as the very definition of my existence. Just a thought.

Sounds obvious, or reductively easy, when I put it like that. I mention stuff like this that other writers know intellectually is wrong—but they go ahead and do it anyway. That’s compulsion/addiction territory. There are many ways of writing, and many different paths to success, but those paths are only hampered if not culled by compulsive or addictive behaviour. It’s fundamentally unhelpful.

In my next post, I’ll give some textbook writerly examples of “work theatre.”

Am I doing the right thing? (1/7)

Are you? Often enough? Successfully? Too much?!

In this series of blog posts, I will discuss the complications of defining yourself, measuring your life progress in the age of technology and working out just how much you matter at all—reaching what I hope you’ll see as a number of positive, reassuring conclusions. Please join me over the coming weeks in feeling better about everything!!

(Okay, I don’t know that it ties together as neatly as that, but I hope you enjoy it anyway!)

Since I try to write fiction as often as possible, the blog posts get relegated to the bottom of my priorities. So, if I ever have anything blog-worthy to write, it tends to spill out of me with a sense of urgency. I had no idea, for one, that it would be seven parts?!

Oh well. It’s been clogging my creative pipe (so to speak ahaha), preventing any new fiction from coming out and simply must be expelled from my head before anything new will be made. My subconscious has used my hands to organise my current thoughts on life, and I’m the better for it. Now you’re reading it, and maybe it’ll help you too!

Well, that represents my best self using his abilities to do good in the way he knows how. Which is also why I want the best for you too. Because your best makes the world better!

In my fourth year of process engineering at university, we had a group project to design a plant that would extract the sugar from sugar beets—so, uh, you don’t have to.

We worked as a team of five or so folk, dividing up the tasks at the beginning.

I got done two weeks early. So I stayed home and played videogames.

This kind of behaviour seems sacrilege in today’s social media-facilitated global hyperproductive world. Yet, evidently I haven’t yet been found dead in a ditch. Did I do something terribly wrong?!

During my two weeks of Half Life 2, Trackmania and F.E.A.R. (the least—too scary!), many other people pulled all-nighters and worked up until the last minute of the deadline. They showered in the university gym, drank close-to-lethal quantities of Red Bull and passed out under their computers when the sun came up again. Maybe they had to, in which case, fair play to them and congrats for getting through it—but the more likely cause/epidemic was “work theatre.”

Many people—most, I’d argue—only seem to put loads of hours into something, while accomplishing very little. I know because they’d say to me, “I’ve been here since five a.m. this morning!” while I was nominated the person that they wanted to distract them from doing anything, then fifteen minutes later they’d rotate onto someone else, and it’s all they’d been doing since five a.m.

This is worse for all involved. The pretenders pointlessly steal themselves from friends, family and fun while making less lazy people feel lazier than them by lying about how much work they’re doing. Sending harder workers into a burnout cycle.

I’m grateful that I got to see this example. It was one of the few moments in life when this principle was transparent enough that I could make sense out of it, and learn from it. The lesson is one that I seem to forget when I take up new skills or enter different environments, but I’d bet it’s the same everywhere. Timeless, even.

Most people don’t have their shit together. They’re not doing half as much as they pretend to, and if they have any sense, they’re sure as hell not having fun pretending to do it. So shove that in your highly competitive industries!

Next time I’ll talk about what happens when you take this “work theatre” principle from my example and apply it to the real world.

Preview: it gets way more complicated!

Story Systems, Part 5/5

In this series of posts, I’ve invited the reader to see a story as a “meaning-generating system”, and story-writing akin to a simulation that requires good initial conditions to run properly. Now I have some more thoughts on this analogy, on reading other people’s writing, and some final messages.

Sometimes simulations are chains of smaller simulations. Simulations within simulations!

Example: Franzen said “The Corrections” is “five linked novellas.” So then we can break it down into five components, the input of novella 1 sent to novella 2 and so on. Those novellas have chapters, and those chapters have sections, each sub-systems running different sub-routines for some greater whole, generating meaning and passing it from one simulation to the next.

Dostoyevsky’s tomes are usually split into “Book the First”, “Book the Second” etc, and the same principle applies.

Short story writers attempting novels for the first time often refer to them as a series of short stories. And fair enough.

The analogy holds up no matter how big or small the system is! At one end, the story ideas you don’t pursue are the inert components that don’t do anything in the reactor. At the other end, 1000-page novels are factories, with systems and sub-systems that can be scrutinised and re-run to test the effect on the whole machine. Book series are like systems of factories in a production line.

So we’ve covered that most of writing is re-writing. Similarly, reading is re-reading.

Once you can see other people’s writing as a mixture of different components, you can “uncook the ingredients.” My first dumb analogy, but you get what I mean.

Very few stories don’t reveal their mechanisms on repeat readings. And, much like you read through your own story drafts collecting different errors, you can read through other people’s stories and focus on different aspects of storytelling: plot, setting, characterisation, structure etc.

Once you have the components, in your own writing you can say to yourself, “I think what we need here is to run program(Cormac McCarthy).” In William Gibson’s Paris Review interview, he referred to other authors as “pedals”: “revving Ballard” for example.

This may seem cynical—but applying an author’s style is just choosing a sub-system. The overall system will still be unique if the combination is different. And this combination is just one level on which you are making the decisions. It still represents your style.

When I read my stories back, I can feel in different paragraphs which real-life event, thing someone said, person I was thinking of, film I saw, story I read, thing that was happening to me at the time. All these are just a unique set of launching pads.

Okay, one final thought on the re-iteration process of redrafting: remember that whatever flaws are there are going to be most apparent to you, and that it’s impossible to read your own writing with the freshness of its first reader. You may get this way in the future, but it’s not worth considering. I’d advise focusing on the secondary joy of watching the thing get better, better, better—but never perfect.

Even if you’re less aware of the errors than an objective reader, only so much rigor can be expected of you. If you’ve seen the film “Annihilation”, check out this review of it, replete with error messages!

The complaints are valid, but the film suspended my disbelief enough to sweep me away. I loved it! And yet in many ways it is quite imperfect. Could do better. Who couldn’t?!

I think this is interesting: these errors meant that the film “didn’t work for that viewer.” But it still worked for me, either because I’m denser or more forgiving. I prefer the latter.

With more writing rigor, the film could’ve won over a larger audience. Those errors that I didn’t notice would’ve been corrected. That would hardly have impacted my viewing experience, but would’ve satisfied those more nitpicky folk.

There’s too much emphasis on subjectivity. It’s offered to easily appease people who didn’t do as good a job as they could have, and that review is a good example of what it means when a story “doesn’t work” for someone. Failure to resonate may be a question of rigor.

This also reveals how to interpret rejections. It’s rare that a story is a complete outright failure—but the more prestigious the publisher, the more rigor will be expected. And rigor can be approached systematically, using the method of these blog posts.

Writing is a skill you can learn like any other, and improving at it is tangible.

Finally:

  • You decide what works for you.
  • Rigor is not the same as bullying yourself.
  • Writing is always a light and inviting thing filled with the reward of meaning, requiring trust and curiosity.
  • The easiest way to scare away trust and curiosity is to bully yourself and give up hope.

So believe in yourself, dirtbag!!

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