What Happened After The Beetle in the Bathtub

Earlier this week, I posted a short tongue-in-cheek story about a beetle in a bathtub. It was meant to be a little inspirational, and a little humorous. The idea was that if you keep trying, someone might feel sorry for you and help you out. Not long after I posted the story, it actually came true for me.

While struggling up the slippery wall of my own goals, I reached out to someone for information. The information turned into an exchange which got me something I need for much less than it was worth, or than I could remotely afford to pay. I won’t go into details, because I made a promise. Suffice it to say that someone reached down and gave me a boost to the next stage of my climb. I will be forever grateful to this person. But there’s something I’m even more grateful for.

This person’s kindness reminded me to be kinder myself—to reach out and help someone up when I get the chance. It reminded me that I need to look for those opportunities to “pay it forward” even when it means losing an hour or so of my precious work time.  So then the question is, what skills do I have that I could use to help people? I’ve thought about writing a book and donating the profits, as J. K. Rowling has done. I’ve thought about the skills I currently have, and the knowledge I’m trying to collect, and whether any of it is useful enough to  help new writers, or entrepreneurs trying to start a new business.  And I don’t know.

How do you pay it forward? How have people helped you in the past? What kind of help do you wish you could find?

Maybe I’m More Right-Brained Than I Thought

I just realized that maybe I’m more right-brained than I thought.

First, a bit of background. I am right-handed, but my high school English teacher once asked me if I’d been forced to use my right hand rather than my left. Apparently, she used to give us exercises where the right-handers tended to choose one side, and the left-handers the other. Except that I nearly always sided with the lefties. But the only thing I remember about that is that I used to be very proud of being nearly ambidextrous.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and I joined the Navy and spent nine months in a grueling training program that was very logical. By the time I finished, I had a hard time thinking creatively at all. Then in college, I took a (self-administered) test that showed I was nearly equally balanced between right and left brain.

Now, years later, I’ve been trying to write and feeling frustrated because I just can’t seem to put things together quite right. I’ve been trying to get in touch with the right side of my brain, and feeling like it just wasn’t working. Then I realized something. When I try to do the worksheets and the lessons in my writing course and put things together, I want to put it off…by playing. I want to play the Sims, where I can create characters with their wardrobes and their houses. (I get bored when it’s time for them to go to work, or have kids.) I want to read a novel or watch a movie or check Facebook to see if anyone posted anything interesting in the last two hours. And that’s when it struck me that maybe it’s my left-brain, my “Me” (as Holly puts it) that keeps going on vacation without me.

I have tons of ideas…for characters, for plots, for interesting little tidbits to put in my stories. I get them all the time, from the tiniest, most mundane things. What I struggle with the most is putting things together in a logical way. It’s much harder for me to figure out which scenes need to go where to create the story arc, and whether I have the right types and amount of conflict in the right places. And aren’t these the logical parts of writing, rather than the creative parts?

I love outlines; I am drawn to detailed outlines. And then I follow them carefully as I write. Unlike my brother, I can’t hold all that structure inside my head and then get it out when I need it. I need it to be written down, concrete, where I can’t ignore it. I’m starting to think that fits in with the right-brained thing, too. I NEED that structure, but I have to work to get it. It’s like putting up a fence around the yard, so the kids know they can do almost anything within that area.

Yes, I like fences. They keep people in their proper places. And I like rules. I like knowing what I can and cannot do, because that frees me up to do anything else that falls within those guidelines. I always thought of that as being a left-brained preference, but maybe it’s not. Maybe that’s my right brain wanting to know the rules so it doesn’t have to worry about figuring out what’s right and wrong each time.

What do you think? Does the right brain care about rules? Does it always want absolute freedom, as many of my creative friends suggest? And whether it’s the right brain that won’t come out and play with the left brain, or the left brain that doesn’t want to work with the right brain, how do I get the two to cooperate?

Do Writers Need College?

I’ve been working on many things in the last month, including a few writing courses by Holly Lisle. In “Mugging the Muse,” she asks if college is really necessary to become a writer. Then she asks us to write about the real life experiences that we can draw on for our writing.

I have a great deal of respect for Holly, and I agree with her; college is not necessary to make a good writer. However, I know that I learned a great deal from college, including lessons that are helping me today. No, I didn’t learn how to write novels in college, or even good short stories. But I still learned real life lessons that help me to be a better writer and a better person.

First, some background. I first attended a college class in 1996, while stationed in Okinawa with the U.S. Navy. It would take fourteen years and five different colleges before I would receive a bachelor’s degree. I never intended to go to college. I graduated from high school shortly after my seventeenth birthday, certain that I hated school enough to condense my final two years into one, convinced that I never wanted to go to school again. So I joined the Navy, because in the small town in which I grew up, there was nothing else for a high school graduate except a fast food or store clerk job.

Ironically, I spent nine grueling months in a Navy school, learning electronics. This was probably the hardest thing I’d done at that point, because I was naturally a creative type, and I had inadvertently chosen an extremely logical profession. But I made it through, with honors, thank you very much. And then I went to Okinawa, where there was nothing to do after work except go to bars or go to the beach. I don’t drink and I don’t tan, and I was dating a guy who was busy with college classes. So first I bought myself a sewing machine and finished learning how to sew. Then I bought my first computer and dipped my toes into the waters of further education.

One of my first classes was an English course, where I had to find my atrophied creative side again. It was hard for me! I had spent so long learning to be logical that I spent hours just trying to think of a topic for my first essay. Once I began, however, I began writing again, or at least to start stories I couldn’t finish. I took a few more classes, accumulating the equivalent of one semester’s credits, before I processed out of the Navy and went home to Maine.

I moved to Utah a few months later, because I had chosen a college in Salt Lake, where I intended to study information technology. A year later, after two different jobs and three apartments, I began studying for an Associate of Science, with a certificate in Accounting. I took another year off to work as a bookkeeper before I went to a four-year college and completed one semester as an Accounting major, transferred to a different school for two additional semesters, and had to drop out to get a job. I didn’t go back (to college number five) for another seven years, when I was working as a tax preparer, and realized that 2009 and 2010 were the perfect years to use tax incentives to help pay for my bachelor’s degree. I switched my major to Communications Studies and earned the remaining credits through an internet-based distance education program. (It’s a real school, I promise. It has a campus in Iowa.) Except for that first English class, none of those schools, none of those professors taught me how to write a novel. So Holly is right, in that regard. However, I learned a whole lot more than that.

I learned that I could be creative again. I learned that school could be enjoyable, once I left behind the idiots from high school. I learned how to speak a bit of Japanese and German, how to do my own bookkeeping, and that other people appreciated my writing. I learned that if I wanted to succeed, I needed to show up every day and do the work to the best of my ability. In two successive semesters, I learned how to study, and how not to. I learned that getting lazy and skipping days could have dire consequences. I learned not to hate my body, that being overweight is not all bad if a person ends up in a freezing mountain lake. I learned not to procrastinate the things that mattered, and that problems need to be confronted, not ignored. I learned how to use my strengths (like writing) to compensate for my weaknesses (like math). I learned that I was smart enough to do difficult things, like teaching myself calculus because I couldn’t understand the professor’s accent. I learned that I can’t respect myself if I put in less than my best effort, even if I still get credit for doing my best. I also learned that evening and weekend classes tend to have more mature and focused students.

Did I need college to become a writer? No. I probably could have learned those lessons from life. Or maybe I wouldn’t have learned them at all. So college didn’t hurt, as long as I didn’t expect it to teach me everything I would need to know. College isn’t a magic bullet, or a fast track to a writing career. What we get out of college (or anything else) depends on what we put into it. And the best thing I think college has to teach us, particularly those students who go back to college after a few years in the workplace, is that we’re never too old to keep learning, and it’s never too late to pursue our dreams.

What dreams are you pursuing? How important is college education in reaching your goals?