The two worst years of my life were junior high school. (More than the years in which close relatives died; more than the year I found out a brain tumor blew up in my head and was bleeding into itself and making me go blind in my right eye.)
Those two years in junior high school were the years I was bullied more than others. I was still young enough that each week seemed like a lifetime.
One particularly rough day, my history teacher, Mr. Michaels, defended me from the usual group that always seemed ready to make my life hell. After he stopped things, he pulled me aside and said something to this effect:
What I am about to say does not justify what they do to you in any way. I want you to understand that. The problem is them, not you. But I also want you to understand something else: there will be a day your life gets better and their lives will likely continue to be miserable.
When you go home, I know you see neighborhood friends and do things you all want to do. They, however, never escape this. Being popular takes a strange effort. While you’re writing and juggling and having fun, they are on the phone with each other, being miserable, and struggling to keep their standing. Even on weekends, all they do is talk about other people.
Talking About the Things We Love
Mister Michaels was right, of course: it did get better. When I wasn’t at school (or thinking about school), those two years were in other ways wonderful. They were the years I began seriously pursuing creative endeavors. And I was lucky to have friends who were far more interested in talking about the things we loved, rather than about the people we didn’t.
While I moved away from the area where I was raised when I was fifteen, I quickly found the same kinds of friends in Texas. And as a young adult, the friends I had all wanted similar things in life. That’s not to say we never talked negatively about others, but most of what we discussed was about the things we loved doing.
It didn’t hit me, then, how important that is today.
The Way We Talk Matters
I’m about to make a generalization based on personal experience, but it’s one I think holds up to some degree of scrutiny: people who talk about others tend to not stick with the things they want to do. And people who spend time talking about the things they love doing [at least more than about other people in a snarky manner] tend to do those things.
If I’m talking about others, it’s usually about something cool they are doing. I share with others the ways they inspire me, and they do the same. And because we talk about those things, we’re surrounded by what we love.
I can’t stomach too much time around people who focus on negative talk: ripping on other people; knocking themselves; musing about the things they’d do if only they could find the time. I feel for those people, but given the choice I fortunately have, I gravitate toward those who talk about the things they are actually doing.
This isn’t to say I believe if you put something out there, the universe answers. I know too many skilled people who work harder and smarter than most who never see their dreams become their reality. (It is possible to do everything “right” and still not have things work out. Addressing this reality is not being negative — it’s just a fact.) Still, even the people I know who have not “made it,” are happy doing the things they love.
I’m also fortunate to have more than a handful of friends who have made the things they’ve talked about all their lives their livings. (Some at the top of the industries in which they work.) They are there because they did the work — not because they mused about it. They are there because they surrounded themselves with others whose talk about the things they love becomes infectious, sure…but they also hold each other accountable.
Sometimes the things we talk about are not easy. The first and only time I went to California, I was able to get away from work and spend an evening with a good friend who writes and directs independent movies. Over coffee, I mentioned I was close to finishing a big writing project that already had interest.
When this friend heard that I sat on the project longer than I should have, he tore into me [in the friendliest of ways]. When I mentioned my day job getting in the way and presented other excuses, he reminded me how he works longer hours than I do and is helping raise three young daughters. He was right in telling me to get off my ass and respond to the opportunity before it went away.
I’m lucky to have this friend for many reasons, but one of them is — unlike many other people — he wasn’t about to let me get away with excuses.
Social media makes it easy talk about how you want to write (or do other things you want to do) and then find more than a handful of people who will tell you that’s okay. Some days that’s great, but there seems to be pockets of the online world in which people talk about not doing the thing they desire…and finding support in never doing that thing.
I have to imagine that feels good: “I want to do the thing, but I’m just so tired today…” and people have your back. Soon, though, talking about not being able to do the thing becomes your dopamine hit. (Why do the thing that takes effort when you can talk about how hard it is to do and be excused?)
My advice: find someone like the friend I mentioned who refused to tell me it was okay to not keep moving, especially when someone was interested in what I was working on.
I talk to myself. When driving alone, I talk out loud. When I’m not driving, I have conversations in my head.
Sometimes it’s having characters from stories talk to each other until something good comes up. Other times, I might imagine a scenario and how I would deal with it…or how others might, until a good idea presents itself.
I don’t talk down to myself. Even if something doesn’t work out, I learn from the moment and strive to get better, rather than tell myself I “messed up.” I know too many people who rip themselves apart, and it does them no favors.
This isn’t to say I am my own hype man…I know what I’m good at and what I’m not as good at — I don’t tell myself I’m equally good at all things.
With the exception of one long weekend a year when a friend and I go to East Texas for our annual writing retreat, I do not talk at length about works in progress. For others, talking about works in progress is how they get things done.
The Sound of Our Voices
You can hear an artist when looking at her paintings. You can imagine the conversations a band had while working on their songs. Through hundreds of pages, you come to know a writer’s voice.
I’m not sure we can know all the talk behind a great work, but I feel certain in saying people who create something bigger than themselves have passionately talked about those things more than talking ugly about others. (And they’ve likely talked about those things for most of their lives.)
How do you talk about the world around you? (It’s never too late to start talking right.)
How will your voice be remembered when your time is done?
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Lorikeets Photo: Damon Hall.
Puffins Photo: Wynand van Poortvliet.
Microphone Photo: Matt Botsford.