Monday, March 7, 2016

So, I owe someone a post about 'control'...

...and boy, has this post been kicking my ass...

I've never spent so much time writing and re-writing a single blog post before... On-and-off I've been working on this since the middle of January, and this is the 5th time I've completely deleted/re-written everything because there are a lot of angles I could come at this from, and none of them really worked.

BUT, I promised someone I'd write this and I don't like breaking promises, so here it is.

In the end, I think this is the best I can do, and I'm also going to apologize in advance because I switch between 'voices' in this post, from my 'casual voice' to my 'nerdy post voice', which is going to make it feel choppy, but I hope the thought process flows in a logical-enough way that it's easy to follow.

This isn't intended to be just a writing-related post, this is more of a lifestyle thing, a state of mind I continually work towards, and that's one of the reasons I found this so difficult to write... combining how I see/understand the world with the world of writing.

And, as always, this is 100% opinion, right? And yes, I believe in the fluidity of growing/changing opinions. This is what I believe today, while writing this, but tomorrow or next week, these thoughts may evolve in a new direction.

So, what's my deal with control? I'm kindof obsessed with it, especially when writing characters. One of the first thing I figure out is, what they have control over, what they don't, how they deal with both sides, and what coping mechanisms they might have.

Strangely enough, thinking about control so much doesn't make me a control-freak...

It's actually the opposite. Understanding control is why I joke about being so 'zen' and how I'm always looking for the silver-lining, because the thing with control is, we have way less of it than we think, and by accepting that, it's easier to focus on the 1% we do have control over and not stress about the other 99%.

And, think about it. As a writer, what do we have control over?

Words on the page.

And very little else.

A while ago I posted a somewhat nerdy series about the difference between risk and uncertainty which, at its heart, is really about how little control we actually have because our lives are filled with uncertainty, even though we want to pretend that uncertainly doesn't exist.

You don't need to re-read that linked post (or the entire series of posts that follows it), but I'm assuming you remember the difference between risk & uncertainty, so here's the jumping off point:

By definition, you can't plan/manage/expect uncertainty, so rationalizing and blaming others isn't helpful. They are both self-comforting mechanisms to convince yourself that you have more control than you really do. Being out of control is scary, and usually that makes people panic and get angry.

The idea I want to start with is that we get scared when things are out of our control, but I also think part of that is because there's this false idea floating around telling us that, to be successful, we must have active control over as much as possible. We tell ourselves and we tell others that, if we failed, it's because we didn't work hard enough, or we weren't talented enough. We're so completely terrified of things being out of control that we pretend that uncertainty doesn't exist, so if something goes wrong, it must be someone's fault.

But that's a load of BS.

If we can first recognize that uncertainty is a reality, accept that much of what affects us is completely out of our control, and that there's an innate impulse to blame others or rationalize when we feel out of control/scared, we can try to stop this bad behaviour before it starts.

Because blaming someone else for something they have no control over is just as bad.

It's only when we stop reacting that we have the ability to learn, to transform 'uncertainty' into 'risk', and if it's a 'risk', that means we can act rather than react.

So, what started me on this obsession with control that zenned-me-out?

Haha. Yup, dyslexia.

A learning disorder doesn't necessarily make you blame others, but it can make you blame yourself, which is probably more damaging in the long term. When I was younger I didn't know what dyslexia was, so when I couldn't keep up with my classmates or made absurd mistakes, I was afraid because, no matter how hard I worked, I couldn't gain control and stop making those mistakes. When given a test that didn't "work" for my brain, my teachers thought I was lazy or rebellious because I would score perfectly on other tests and because I have a pretty high IQ.

(seriously, you do not want to look at my high-school Math or French grades... and I started, and transferred out of, Chemistry 11 three times)

I think if I did poorly on every test, in every subject, it would have been easier. I would have just accepted I was stupid and quit trying so hard.

...but it was those success-highs interspersed with the failure-lows that drove me crazy because it made that simple, easy answer illogical, and therefore impossible to accept... how could I be both stupid and smart at the same time?

And because I never actually got a proper answer, I don't think I ever stopped trying to figure it out, and I think that's kinda what saved me.

Somewhere within the suffocating frustration, despite the crippling and relentless kicks to my fragile ego, I got really bad at giving up and really good at testing/pushing my limits, and from there, I learned to give myself permission to fail when I recognized something was out of my control.

(like Math, Chemistry, and French...)

The hardest thing for me to accept was the fact that hard work doesn't equate success because that's always the lesson we get from the time we're children. We're told to work harder and our failures are usually blamed on us not working hard enough. From a young age, we have it pounded into our heads that we should have control over our successes and failures. We are taught that uncertainty doesn't exist just as several hundred years ago we were taught that the earth is flat.

So, first I had to un-learn that load of BS.

Then I had to learn that someone else's perception of my successes & failures didn't mean squat. I was the only one who could (somewhat) objectively determine whether I was being lazy or whether I was trying my hardest.

And I had to accept this:

If we can’t tell the difference between risk and uncertainty, we aren’t able to adapt or make choices that will position us to adapt in the future. In other words, we are more likely to rationalize/blame others instead of accepting that uncertainly is a reality which happens to everyone.

If we believe it's someone else's fault, it'll remain an 'uncertainty' for us instead of a 'risk' we could manage better in the future. So we're less likely to learn from it and less likely to anticipate a similar situation happening in the future. History repeats itself, yes?

(from this post)

Really, we have very little control over what happens in the world, even what happens to us directly, but another thing we do have control over is our attitude. If we refuse to accept that uncertainty exists, we'll continue to get angry, frustrated, blame others, or rationalize. That's the same as hitting a wall, falling over, getting back up and doing it all over again. We are not learning from our mistakes, we are not looking to better position ourselves for the future so we don't hit the same wall and fall down again in the exact same way. If we only focus on what went wrong, we don't look for what could go right if we made a few adjustments to our strategy.

For me, adapting meant creating a lot of work-arounds and accepting that I had to ask for help when, for example, I couldn't read a teacher's handwriting on the board. I think this probably makes it easier for me to accept criticism of my work because I know all too well that I'm fallible, I understand there's no such thing as perfection, and I've learned to put aside my ego and ask for help when I need it.

And that's a really hard thing to do... be honest about our failures.

(but I already wrote a post about that :p)

I try to keep this in mind with every aspect of my life, but let's keep to the particular example I've been using: my dyslexia. I'm 'zen' about it because I accept that the larger issue, the learning disability, is firmly out of my control. Just like I can't control the weather, I can't control gravity, heck, half the time I can't even control my beagle!

So, what am I going do, worry about it all the time? What does that accomplish? All that would do is stress me out and make me feel like a failure over something I logically have no control over.

(so, exactly like being back in elementary/high school again...)

Should I also feel like a failure because I can't control gravity?

Another thing I learned was, when you're stressed about everything that is out of your control, that's when you get overwhelmed with negative thoughts/feelings and flounder. That's when it's easy to blame someone else or rationalize the situation, to try to push a little responsibility onto someone else's shoulders.

...but that goes back to the 'reacting' vs 'acting' thing again. Unless we first accept that uncertainty is a reality that happens to everyone, we can't let it go. We can't look at a situation, step back and ask, "can I realistically do something about this or not?" ...and 'if not', let it go.

So, I'm not worried anymore about gravity or about being dyslexic. Well, not most of the time at least. I endeavour to only worry about the things I can actually control and focus my energy there. Of course, this is not a fixed decision. It's easy to say, but in practice it's about asking myself every day, about a million large and small things, "can I actually do something about this or not?" ...and if it's a big/complicated thing, ask: "if I break this into smaller pieces, can I do something about one single piece?"

...and when I can't, it's about doing my best not to hang onto it and the frustration I might feel at not being able to fix/change whatever it might be. It's about reminding myself that there's only 1% that I have control over, so I shouldn't waste my energy on the other 99%.

It's a state of mind that you have to 'actively' choose until it becomes second nature.

(like driving stick shift)

I think a healthy life is about managing your own expectations for yourself, learning and testing your own limits, and being honest about those expectations and limits, both with yourself, and with the people you live and work with.

And winding back around to the whole writing thing, yes we have control over our words, but we have absolutely no control over what other people think when they read our words.

We write our first draft, but we have no control over what our beta readers/critique partners think about it. If we don't accept it's out of our control, it would be easy to get angry, it would be easy to blame those readers and say, "you just don't understand".

But is that helpful? Is it really the reader's fault if they don't get what we're trying to say?

No. When you blame someone else, you push the responsibility onto them. You willfully give up a fraction of that 1% you DO have control over.

(seriously, why does anyone drive automatic when they could drive stick?)

So what we can do is step back and try to ask intelligent questions like, "what didn't you understand and why?" We have to take the attitude that, if something isn't coming across on the page, it's because our words aren't clear enough. And then we have to re-write, re-write, and re-write again until our readers understand what we're trying to say. That's on us, as writers. That's all we have control over: the words on the page.

And I think the same is probably true at all levels of publishing.

We have no control whether an agent will like/connect to our query letters, but we can re-write our words until they are as clean and clear as possible, get others to read them and ask, "what didn't you understand and why?" The same with editors, and again, with readers if our books ever hit the shelves. We have no control over what they think. That's the 99%. Our 1% is the next book we write.

And in the end, we have to accept that hard work doesn't equate success. Not everyone is going to understand what we tried to put on the page and not everyone is going to love it.

(...and I don't know about you, but I certainly wouldn't want to be one of those authors who feels the need to 'explain' to readers who 'didn't get it'...)

So, part of the reason I re-wrote this post so many times is because this is a really hard topic for me to talk about seriously. It's much easier to joke about the dyslexia thing, but in all honesty, it's something that I'm still learning to be okay with, still learning to accept that some people are going to assume I'm lazy or stupid if I make mistakes that appear silly, and yeah, that assumption still hurts.

Knowing that people are going to wander onto my blog, or into my twitter feed, and leap to that conclusion without all the facts, yeah, that's an ongoing struggle.

But that's one of the main reasons I started blogging in the first place and why I (finally) got a twitter account, because the more I'm honest about it, the more mistakes I make, and the more eyes that see those mistakes, the less stressed I'm going to be. It's going to be less 'uncertainty' and more 'risk', because with experience, I can learn to manage my reactions and adapt.

One of my online writing buddies recently told me that I always sound so calm in my emails and blog posts, that it seems like nothing really bothers me, and I kinda laughed... because yeah, I have the ability to edit blog posts and emails. I can go back and correct my wording, clean up my sentences, and erase as many mistakes as I can before sending it out into the world.

And maybe there's something inherently dishonest about that... editing words so that I give the impression of being calmer and more in control than I really am.

But there's something honest about it too. First drafts are known to be messy and ugly, but editing is about finding that core of beauty, the heart of the story, and pruning away the excess.

I am okay with admitting my words need pruning, perhaps a little more than others, because that's where my control ends -> with the words I put out there, so I should take the time to try to make them as clean, as clear, and as honest as possible.

Your impression of them, and of me, is your own.

And I'll admit that some of these blog posts are a way of taking a storm of thoughts and trying to distill them into a teacup, to make an idea more manageable for myself. Even though I think about control a lot, in writing and in my daily life, I still found it a struggle to turn those thoughts into a coherent blog post, and I don't think I entirely succeeded today...

BUT, I did my best. I kept my promise.

Sorry if it's messy & ugly, but that's just the way I am ;)


  1. Yes, so much this: 'We write our first draft, but we have no control over what our beta readers/critique partners think about it.' I know one person who was trying to write a story, hung up on making the reader feel this and that, and I kept trying to explain that you CAN'T and the reader is always going to take things from a story you never intend - some good, some bad. Some just weird.

    There's a famous (apocryphal) story of Asimov attending a lecture on one of his own works and afterwards challenging the lecturer's conclusions. Lecturer's reply: What the hell makes you think you know what you're writing about?

    1. Thanks :) It took me so long to write this, I'm glad it came across.

  2. I loved hearing all your thoughts about control, in relation to life and writing!

    What you said about being scared when things are out of our control is funny because I think about OCD as being about control in a lot of ways.

    I have days/weeks/rare blissful months when I forget I have OCD because the symptoms are so minor, and then I have days/weeks/incredibly frustrating months when getting out of bed is a challenge because of the cracks in the floor.

    But the times when the OCD gets really bad coincide with other stressors in my life, and the biggest stressors in my life are usually situations I describe as “feeling trapped”… which, after reading your post, I think could also be described as situations over which I have little control.

    I think OCD is sometimes like a “coping mechanism” for those times when I feel out of control, because it gives me a sense of control over an environment I don’t really have much control over. Like, I tap my feet on the ground a certain number of times, and that’s something I have control over, and it has to be very precise—it’s almost ritualistic. And I like to make both sides of my body feel equally tired, which is another way of asserting control. But the tapping and the evening-out get worse when I’m dealing with something where I feel out of control.

    So what you said about focusing on the 1% we do have control over… it’s like by having these compulsions, I’m sort of “creating” more things I have control over. Which is strange to say because there’s also something very out-of-control about compulsions, because you feel so much like you have to do it. But I really do think of OCD as a way of trying to create order/control. Not consciously, but maybe that’s part of why the compulsions are so self-reinforcing… if I feel like I’m lacking control, and then I do something in a very specific way that I do have control over…

    Now I am rambling and not putting my thoughts across. The point is, your thoughts on control are very interesting and thank you for sharing them!

    And! What you said about accepting that hard work doesn’t equate success, and needing to accept that because of dyslexia—I went through the same thing with my arm injury in high school. Because all the sudden I was doing poorly on exams because I was having a hard time physically writing, and taking notes was difficult. I was so used to the idea that working hard = success, or rather working hard = success (like on exams) = learning, then I had to figure out how to deal with the idea that even without the external measure of success in the equation, I could still learn, which was the more valuable part.

    I’ve just never heard anyone else talk about that before! Thank you! I don’t know why I’m so excited about it but I am!

    Also, I love the description of editing as being about finding the core of beauty in the story and pruning away the excess. Makes me want to edit.

    Thank you so much for writing this post!

    1. Oh my goodness, YES!!! OCD is absolutely about trying to get control over small things when everything in the world is overwhelming!

      Thank you so much for this amazing comment, Janelle. You were not rambling at all, this was fabulous and thank you so much for sharing this with me. You gave me a ton to think about :)

      When I was stressed out to the point of throwing up in the bathroom before spelling tests (oh yeah, Grade 3, I remember you well), I had my own set of coping mechanisms... actually, throwing up was one of my coping mechanisms to wrestle some small measure of control over what felt so overwhelming... but I still have a few that carry over into adulthood. I fold origami when I'm nervous (I'm serious). I used to keep an origami book in my desk at school and the physical act of folding, focusing on making each perfect, was somehow very comforting.

      ...probably a similar idea to what you said, the precision of rituals. I wonder if the physicality of it has some significance? my origami folding, your foot tapping...?

      Haha, I make you want to edit? excellent...

      Thank you so much for responding, I'm so glad you enjoyed this post and connected with it :)

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Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)