This poem—penned by a UU minister—has been circulating among my Jewish congregation, and I’m inclined to endorse the advice: Take a page from the Jewish playbook, folks. We know a thing or two about surviving long (quasi-)confinement and social distance.
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love—
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
(This is a version of something I drafted for my local faith community, where I’m active in safety/security. Faith communities offer lots of programs for the very young, very old, and very vulnerable—and we tend to crowd lots of folks into one room; disease transmission is more of a concern than it might be for a workplace full of healthy young adults who can afford and access health care services.)
Folks are worried about Coronavirus (i.e., “COVID-19”)—and this isn’t unfounded (see the “REASONABLE COVID-19 CONCERNS” sub-section for details).
While there are good reasons for concern, there are also very basic steps we can all take to reduce both the risk of infection and the severity of any disruption to our lives should an outbreak hit nearby. Please feel free to share any portion (or all) of the following info with your people. Thanks!
REASONABLE COVID-19 CONCERNS
As of this morning (March 2), there have been two reported Coronavirus (i.e., “COVID-19”) deaths in Washington state. Given
how it’s transmitted (airborne droplets from coughs and sneezes)
and our best guesses at it’s transmission rate (or “R0”; current estimate is that COVID-19 has an R0 of “2”, which means each infected person will infect ~2 others),
this all tends to imply that the disease has been spreading in WA for ~6-8 weeks, and there are hundreds of cases there now (I heard an estimate in the thousands on NPR this morning, but didn’t catch the source, and so take it with a grain of salt).
On the one hand, this is obviously concerning: COVID-19 is ~20x more deadly than the seasonal flu (which kills tens of thousands annually). On the other hand, a 2% mortality rate implies a 98% (or higher) survival rate, and an R0 of 2 isn’t great, but it also isn’t a Stephen King story: COVID-19 is more contagious than seasonal flu (which has an R0 of ~1.3, I think) but much less so than measles (R0 ~15) or whooping cough (R0 ~5). (Incidentally, all of those are also primarily transmitted through airborne droplets).
Usually, diseases like COVID-19 are most dangerous to the very young and very old. Based on limited studies in China, it appears that even the very, very young have no trouble fending off COVID-19. That’s great! But that means the mortality rate for COVID-19 falls hardest on the elderly and those with existing health problems.
REASONABLE COVID-19 MEASURES
ENCOURAGE HAND WASHING! I know it seems silly to say, but that’s the Number One way we can protect ourselves and our community members (especially the infirm and our elders). Make sure to review this with any kids you keep around; they chronically short-change hand washing. The young aren’t at very high risk of dying from COVID-19—but are excellent candidates for spreading it. (Also, as someone who regularly uses public men’s room, I’ll level with you: Maybe also review this with adults you know.)
Soap and water beats hand-sanitizer every time!
Wash hands with soap for at least 20 seconds (i.e., sing “Happy Birthday to Me” twice while washing hands).
Make sure to scrub between fingers, down the backs of the hands, and focus on the finger tips.
Dry vigorously with paper towel—the friction does a lot of the work of removing pathogens.
Wash hands upon returning home from school/work, before and after meals, after you cough or sneeze, and any time you’ve been touching something folks likely coughed on (e.g., shared computers/tablets, ATMs, public handrails, etc.)
Failing all else, hand sanitizer is better than nothing. Proper use us just like soap & water: Cover hands, scrub for 20 seconds, focus on getting between fingers/down backs/and rubbing fingertips.
Cough into the elbow crook: At school my kids were taught that this was called the “vampire cough”; I love that!
Plan for school closures: It’s gonna happen, just like snow days. Be ready—and be ready for your day care to be closed, too. Make advance plans with work to telecommute, have backup helpers in place, and so on. Make sure your Netflix and Disney+ subscriptions are paid up. Invest in a game system.
Take care of yourself: Disease strikes the stressed, tired, and weary. Drink plenty of water, get plenty of exercise (go on a walk before the ice returns!), and get plenty of sleep.
Related:I keep this on a sign hanging above my desk, because while most truths are indeed self-evident, most of us need frequent reminders about obvious things; this is just such a thing.Consider this a #PRO-TIP.
I’m not natively a “New Year’s resolution” person—but as a freelancer, I live and die by forming and keeping good habits. Over the years of not starving to death or losing our home, I’ve learned a few shortcuts to faking a disciplined life. Principal among these:
Do LESS to Earn MORE, Eat MORE to Weigh LESS—a quick-n-easy “happiness hack”
This principal principle is super-duper useful for addressing the two most popular New Year’s resolutions:
do/earnmore (e.g., start this side hustle, take up that hobby, hit the gym, etc.)
New Year’s Resolution #1: Do LESS to do MORE
Stop making “to do” lists; instead make a “Stop Doing” list.
For New Year’s Resolution Type #1 (which require doing more with the same number of free hours that already feel over-packed), the usual approach is to try to cram in one more thing.
That is obviously destined for failure. You aren’t going to suddenly have more free hours or more energy just because you added one more item to your calendar.
Instead sit down for 10 minutes, uninterrupted, in complete silence. This is vital, and insanely hard. For real, lock yourself in the bathroom or sit in your car in the grocery store parking lot or go to the laundry room—whatever it takes to get a solid 10 minutes without distraction.
Take a hard look at what you do on the daily—especially what you do with your phone in your hand—and ask yourself if you really love doing that stuff, or if it is vital to you earning a living.
Now write a quick “Stop Doing” List. This is a bulleted list of things that just really aren’t worth your time or attention. Just an example, if I glance at YouTube, I end up loosing an easy 20 minutes watching video compilations of old Vines or “Wins/Fails.” I don’t even really like those videos; I’m just stressed out, so I glance at YouTube, and YouTube knows what I watch, and there’s a whole endless scrolling list of distractions and . . . and I don’t enjoy it, it’s no good for my family or my business or my bank account. There’s no point to it. It is time squandered.
So, Funny Fails are on my “Stop Doing” List. So are:
Reading news items about celebrities who cannot call in air strikes
Looking at Google News and just reading headline after headline after headline without clicking
Facebook in general
Looking at my Roth IRA more than quarterly
Finishing a book/movie that I’m not eager to finish
Looking at email on Saturday (I’m a freelance writer, not a doctor or cancer researcher—no one lives or dies because I made them wait until business hours)
Fundraising at my kids’ schools (I know that’s controversial, but I’ve get mental health issues that make those sorts of social things literally insanely stressful for me; I earn enough to happily donate double what the PTO suggests if it means skipping shilling gift wrap or popcorn or whatever)
If your resolution is to work in a 20 minute walk every day, trust me, you can find those 20 minutes easily just by cutting out two or three phone-based distractions alone.
New Year’s Resolution #2: Eat MORE to weigh LESS
Don’t cut back on Bad Stuff™; load up on Good Stuff™.
When it comes to things we like but are bad for us (cheap pizza, salty snacks, pricey coffees, etc.), the usual advice is to cut back.We resent this for a variety of deeply ingrained psychological reasons (from loss aversion to just plain perversity).
So don’t cut back; load up on Good Stuff instead:
Need to lose weight?Don’t say “I have to cut out cookies” or “I have to cut calories.”
Instead, say “I have to eat a ton of fruit.”
Any damned fruit you like—sweet n’ juicy berries, melons, bananas, grapes, carrots (veg is fine, too).
But, two important things:
Not fruit juice! Those juices are as sugary as soda pop. You need the fiber of the fruit for this to work (plus, whole fresh fruit is cheaper).
No human EVER got fat gobbling apples, and no pre-diabetic EVER insulin crashed on baby carrots. Every time I mention this strategy, someone warns me about how much sugar is in fruit—which is true—but it doesn’t hit your bloodstream (and pancreas and belly) like refined sugar, because of all of the fiber in the raw whole plant matter. Your body has to work to process it. If you eat real whole fruit and veg you can gorge yourself and be fine.
Buy your chosen fruit or veg by the sackful. Take some with you every time you leave the house. Pack it with every lunch. Every time you’re hungry, start with whatever your chosen fruit/veg is. Have it first thing in the morning, have it last thing for desert.
Sick of your chosen fruit/veg? That’s fine; just means it wasn’t the right one. Pick a different one. Keep trying. There is a fruit or veg out there that you will never, ever get sick of having fresh and whole. That is your special fruit; cherish it.
I am a middle-aged White(ish) American man with a sedentary job. I don’t go to the gym (I do walk a lot, because I like walking and I have a dog). I drink alcohol daily. I drink a ton of coffee. I used to smoke.
My body should be a damned wreck. But I pack away five apples per day, minimum, and am subsequently in good health. ’cause you know what? If you have three apples before lunch, you don’t feel like stuffing your face. And if you’re full of apples and then a bowl of chili (or whatever), you don’t feel bloated and logy. You feel like going for a damn walk.
And you lose weight.
This is one of those bone-simple virtuous circles. Just ride it ’round and ’round and ’round: Do LESS, earn MORE; Eat MORE, weigh LESS.
This video is mostly narrated by Dr. Robert Cialdini, who’s most famous for his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (where he first presented most of the ideas seen here). This is a text book—if not the Bible—on how to talk to people about things that you really care about, and get them to see your perspective.
Cialdini started out as a research psychologist, and my understanding (which fits the tone of the book) is that he began working on the book—which catalogues and examines several categories of sales/influence tricks and techniques—as a sort of warning to lay folks. After its first publication, it became enormously influential among marketers, copywriters, businessfolk, and all manner of modern propogandists. If you write for any purpose (e.g., speechs, op-ed, news, fiction, non-fiction, persuading folks on the fence to vote for this or that) or run any sort of business, you need to read this book. For that matter, even if you don’t seek to persuade anyone of anything, I still strongly recommend every adult in America read this book, in order to better understand how it is you’ve come to believe what you believe, embrace what you embrace, and reject what “just isn’t your thing.”
(While we’re on the topic, you really should also read Darrell Huff’s HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS; the black arts outlined in these two books cover the two major toolsets that the politically and economically motivated are using to manipulate you and your loved ones every single day. Get your hands on Master’s tools; consider their possible applications in tearing down Master’s house*.)
Caveat: Yes, some of the hard data and studies in the original Influence haven’t aged well, but the bold strokes—about how people behave and how our minds get changed without our realizing it—is still rock solid.
BONUS: Check out this analysis of Oprah, and compare it with what Cialdini describes above:
Sorry this took so long to put together.Life happened.Here goes:
“There is a corpse in the barn!!!”X finds a corpse in the barn. S/he needs to go tell Y about this, but doesn’t want Z (who is in the same room) to grok the situation.(Back when I used to teach high school, we’d frame this exercise like so: “You have found a corpse in the barn; alert your sister to this fact.You may not use the words ‘body,’ ‘dead,’ ‘corpse,’ or ‘barn.’Go!”)Who are X, Y, and Z to each other?Why must X inform Y of this situation?Why doesn’t X (or Y or both) want Z to know?What happens if (when?) Z figures it out?
Eschew the VoodooWe all have voodoo around our creative processes: We only work in Scrivener or with this font in Word or using that pen or writing in a Moleskine or before 8am or whatever.For your next project eschew your usually voodoo and replace it with a totally foreign “habit.”Write the story entirely on 3×5 cards, or in the “Stickies” app on your computer, or in emails sent to yourself from your phone, or on a piece of crap 99-cent notebook from the drug store or in Comic Sans or only working before getting out of bed or after brushing your teeth for the night or whatever.Feel how changing tools changes the feel of writing and the piece itself–but also see how little difference it can make, how your good work is still good scrawled on a Post-It note stuck to your kitchen table, and how lazy hackwork is still just that, even when you’ve used your favorite pen in the prettiest journal anyone ever gave you for Xmas.
Write in Freddish: Write your next story in a style that is a. highly constrained and b. very different from your “default” voice—for example, borrow the voice of an autoclave installation manual, or a EMT handbook, or extremely constrained vocabulary (see, for example, any early-reader children’s book, of Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words Hardcover). My absolute favorite recent fiction application of this technique has to be Greg van Eekhout’s “Will You Be an Astronaut?“That story fucking crushes my heart every time.
Rewrite What Vexes You:Take some story that recently annoyed you by not living up to your expectations and rewrite it the right way. (I just found myself doing this the other day via text message with my Mom and sister after we all separately saw, and were annoyed by, Solo—a film that I desperately wanted to love, but could not; it has some good gags, but a thin plot that is massively overburdened by something-for-everyone, “fan service,” and box ticking. Something thats for everyone is for no one, and box ticking us inherently boring.Most annoyingly: You can actually make Solo into a really good movie purely through cuts; it’s a good, lean story buried in flab.)
Write to the Formula:I usually use the 45/45/10 Formula as a tool for revising—I have something roughed out and now it’s time to make it run smooth—but you can use it to build a story from scratch.Outline it in three sections (I. is the Setup, II. is the Tangle, and III. is the Resolution).Flesh out each section, noting that I. and II. need to have about equal amounts of material, while section III. has only about a quarter as much stuff.Draft from there.
At its core, this writer advice is a variation of the One True and Eternal Law:
Always take the path that leads to writing and editing more
This should be painfully obvious—wanna swim faster? swim more! wanna play piano better? play piano more! wanna draw better? draw more!
In truth, the secret isn’t the strategy (“write more!”); that’s self-evident. The tricks are the tactics that folks who excel use to make it a tad easier to get their shoulders to the wheel. Wanna write more? Here’s a tactic…
Advice for Writers: Use Annoyance to Fuel More Scribbling
It is very common for artists to spend a lot of time annoyed: You love a thing so much that you want to create more of that thing, and thus invest a lot of energy in honing skills at creating that thing.Meanwhile, since you love the thing, you keep seeking the thing out. As your skills improve—and noting the immutability of Sturgeon’s Law—you’re bound to come across plenty of examples of imperfect executions of that thing you live.Profound, near-constant annoyance is the natural consequence of this.
You can do two things with that annoyance:
You can kvetch about it (e.g., preaching to your choir on social media)
You can rewrite it the way you would have written it (i.e., the Right Way, Dammit!™)
PRO-TIP: Almost every working artist I’ve asked about this has landed squarely in Group #2.
Advice in Action: Fixing a Broken SNL Skit
Consider this SNL skit—which comes very, very close to being The Best Twilight Zone Episode Never Written:
This piece could be great, but it falls flat and is unsatisfying. Why? What went wrong?
The problem is in the Resolution (that’s the final 10% of the piece — for an overview of my 45/45/10 Formula for narrative, check out this blog post or this one). In any piece the Setup creates series of “open loops“ that need to be closed in the Resolution in order for the piece to feel satisfied. The open loops here include social isolation (which is introduced by Danny almost from go, and keyed to his goofy dream of singing his “I wish” songs with friends), a Twilight Zone leitmotif (evoked by the musical cues, camera work, and acting style, especially with He-Man and Lion-o), and also elements of sexual frustration.This last item is lightly implied by mother’s nap, but really explicitly introduced by He-Man—and this is crucial—at around the 2min10sec mark, when he punches through a wall out of sexual frustration.The 2:10 mark puts this bit of stage business at about 45% of the way through the piece, where it naturally transitions from the Setup to the Tangle (no clue what these terms mean?Check the bulleted 45/45/10 Formula overview here).Given both the timing in the narrative and the drama of having a character punch through wall out of sexual frustration, you’re making this issue seem really, really important.
And then you introduced She-Ra—already a sorta-kinda sexually charged nostalgia callback—being played by Arianna Grande.
So, to recap, here are the unresolved open loops:
And we’ve just brought Arianna Grande onstage: a very gregarious and sexually attractive young woman with a stunning singing voice.The audience is gonna have certain sorta obvious expectations of the basic outline of how these loops should be Resolved.
So let’s look at the Resolution:Sexual frustration is sorta addressed (but not for the primary character, just for side-characters mom, Lion-o, and He-Man). But, social isolation and the Twilight Zone aesthetic go entirely unaddressed. Watch that final scene again: It seems almost like the actor is expressing his frustration at the skit more than Danny is expressing his frustration at the fictional situation.
As an audience member, I’m kinda let down.As a writer, I’m almost fatally annoyed because they were so close to knocking this out of the damned park!
How would I fix it? It’s so simple: First, keep the Setup unchanged (that’s the first two minutes or so).It’s a fine Setup, really. In the Tangle (that’s the next two-ish minutes), I would keep almost everything the same as well, but would strike the birthday hug gag between Danny and She-ra. (Don’t worry; we are still going to use this gag, just later, to close the skit.)
Let’s run through what we’ve got now: Same Setup (with Twilight Zone look-n-feel and Danny’s social isolation). We introduce sexual frustration. He-Man busts through the wall after Sister. He brings back She-ra. The three toys-come-alive all start trashing the joint. Mom comes in, chemistry sparks with her and the hunks. Those three leave for the hot tub. Now Danny asks She-ra for his birthday hug. We keep She-ra’s reply as written—she doesn’t like hugs; she likes to smash!—and Danny announces: “Well, I like singing songs with my friends—even if that means singing by myself!” Unashamed, he begins belting out his “I wish” song. She-ra (who, you’ll recall, is being played by a goddamned operatic pop star) is taken by Danny’s heartfelt song; she’s a warrior princess, and has never before heard the beauty of song. She begins to sing along with him—and then returns to smashing, never flagging in her song. Danny, thrilled to have a friend, keeps singing and he starts smashing the joint up, too.
The camera pulls back, swivels, and reveals a black-&-white Rod Serling impersonator (everything else is still in color). Cue Twilight Zone bongos.Rod Serling looks dead into the camera, puffs cigarette, and delivers a Twilight Zone-style summary outro:
“A lonely young boy.A savage warrior princess.An unlikely birthday wish—and an unlikely duet that could only happen … in mom’s hot tub”—Serling stomps out his cigarette and races out the door to join the hot tub orgy.
Boom.That’s the skit this skit clearly wants to be.
Key takeaway: If the beats on your story outline can only be conjoined with “and then”, you are fucked. They need to be joined by “but” or “and therefore.” By forcing yourself to use “but” and “and therefore,” you force yourself to go into the heads of your characters and actually pin down why they are doing what they do—which is a thing readers want to understand, and will be cranky if they can’t figure out.
Just to clarify, this is exactly what folks are talking about when they talk about character’s “motivations.“ If the characters’ motivations aren’t clear to the audience, it’s either because:
You don’t know what’s motivating your characters to do what they do or
You haven’t put those motivations on the screen/page
Subsequently, all the audience can figure out is “This happened and then that happened and then the other thing happened”—and unless they are willing to work overtime to dowse those motivations by reverse engineering them from the results, they are not going to be able to figure them out (and, even if they do figure out this unnecessary puzzle, they have every right to be pissed at you, because solving plot/motivation riddles isn’t their job; they’ve paid you to entertain them).
This is the Number One problem that I see hobbling (or, more often crippling) otherwise solid storytelling—especially in film (where, for a variety of cultural and economic reasons, a lot of the writers are really just barely cutting their storytelling teeth): the story gets lost because the plot goes slack because characters are just doing stuff for no discernible reason. The result is that the audience gets bored—and subsequently angry, because you have wasted their money and time.
My wife and I were watching a horror movie the other day that perfectly illustrated the value of making sure you’ve got a story held together by “but”/”and therefore”, not “and then”. The movie ended, and we were lost for a second, trying to figure out what had just happend. Then it all clicked together. The story, I realized, fit together really nicely—in fact, it fit together more then nicely, it fit together gratifyingly—but in many individual scenes, the character’s didn’t seem to be motivated to do what they were doing. From the audience’s perspective, the scenes were stitched together by “and then”s, instead of“but”/”and therefore”s. The story was solid, but the plot was muddled because understanding a plot requires understanding the causality at the heart of the story and understanding that necessitates understanding why folks do what they do—i.e., their motivations. (For the canonical bit on story vs. plot, check out E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel or just read this.)
(Incidentally, the horror movie in question was The Gateway, streaming on Hulu [originally titled The Curtain—which is, for a variety of reasons, a much better title]. Despite what I’ve just said, I really did dig this movie; if you like quirky non-Euclidean horror, give it a whirl.)
So, how do you avoid pissing off your audience this way? One trick I know a lot of writers use (I think I first heard it from Jeff Vandermeer, who calls it “reverse outlining”) is to take the offending story and then re-outline it. 9 times out of 10, just writing it out in outline form, beat-by-beat, will surface problems in the logic or pacing of the story (even if you aren’t an outliner usually—I almost never write from an outline, but reverse outlining can often help me see where I’ve messed up, in much the same way as art students used to be taught to critique drawings by first flipping them upside-down). Once you have that outline, step through it and make sure each element can be connected to the next by either a “but” or an “and therefore”. Flag any line items that you can’t almost immediately link in this way, and then go back and look at them. pro-tip: Many of this, you’ll find, can just be cut—turns out they’re meaningless little skin-tags marring the smooth skin of your plot. Others, you’ll need to sort out and rewrite, but even there, you’ll be shocked at how often the “but”/“and therefore” pop out once you clean the crud out of there.
Is this more plausible as a CIA guide for resistors trying to drag down fascists in foreign nations, or as a plot to nudge patriotic Americans into suspecting organized labor and broad progressive social movements of actually being enemy saboteurs?