The Work You Do While You’re Waiting

So after getting really excited about Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign (and his plan to give every American a $1,000/month Freedom Dividend, plus Medicare for All) I began picturing the future.

I saw myself going to Yang Gang meetings in Cedar Rapids.

Attending the Iowa Caucus, which I’ve never done before.*

Standing in a room filled with balloons and pizza boxes and all the friends I’d made along the way, watching election returns.

But it’s going to be a long time before any of that happens, if it even ends up happening. The Iowa Caucus isn’t until February 3, 2020. A year from now.

A year from now, I might be sending advance copies of NEXT BOOK to industry reviewers. I’ll be one year closer to my goal of being financially independent by 47.** I’ll have been part of at least three and maybe four Chorale Midwest concerts, including our upcoming performance of the Brahms Requiem with Orchestra Iowa. I’ll have taught more classes and written more articles and connected with more people and done many of the things I’m currently hoping I can accomplish.

And my mind has given me pictures of what all of this could look like, down to what I’m wearing and how long my hair might be.***

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that generating a highly detailed mental image of the future you want for yourself actually eliminates that future from the realm of possibility.

Every conversation you rehearse in your head is a conversation that will never take place as rehearsed

You’ve had those conversations in your head, right? You imagine yourself saying something, and then you imagine someone else saying something, and so on?

At some point — and I don’t know exactly how I put this together — I realized that every conversation I imagined was a conversation that would never take place in the real world.

Because people aren’t ever going to follow the script I wrote in my head.

So every time I imagined a conversation where I set a boundary and then someone else got really angry with me (for example), I reminded myself that by generating the conversation in my brain, I had pretty much guaranteed that it wouldn’t happen in real life.

This isn’t to say that the other person might not be upset or disappointed with the boundary I set. But they probably wouldn’t react at the level I had imagined, and they definitely wouldn’t use the exact words I had written for them.

Likewise, I might in fact end up wearing a Yang 2020 T-shirt to an election party, but the party will never look exactly like the one I’m currently dreaming.

Nor will NEXT BOOK look exactly the way it did when I first thought it up. I can follow the plot structure I outlined for myself, and build an emotional journey for the reader that’s similar to the one I had when I told myself the story I wanted to tell, but it will still be a different book than the one I initially imagined, because exposing something to the world always changes it.

(This is why so many stories include antagonistic forces — parents, governments, societies — that try to prevent people from learning about the world.)

You can’t have the future you imagine, but you can work towards the future you want

So. Creating some mental image of my sitting at a table with a stack of NEXT BOOK next to me, ready to sign copies for a queue of readers, does in fact guarantee that this particular scenario will never happen.

But it doesn’t prevent a similar scenario from happening.

It doesn’t prevent me from doing the part of the work that might someday get me to that table with that stack of books, e.g. spending one hour, Monday through Friday, working on my current draft.

And when that part of the work is done, turning that hour into editing-and-revisions time.

And, because that part of the work isn’t so far in the future that I have to imagine what it might be like, I can decide what it will be like. Right now. When it will happen and where I will sit and whether I’ll turn my phone and email off while I work.

Likewise, I can decide that today I’m going to do my bit for Yang 2020 by sharing the link to Andrew Yang’s Reddit AMA (which will take place at 2:30 Eastern today, go ask him anything), and I’m also going to share a fun article with my mom on Facebook, and tomorrow I’m going to ask my sister and nephew if they want to do a FaceTime call this weekend.****

HERE’S WHERE IT GETS REALLY INTERESTING

This method works for the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. That terrible scenario you imagine happening to your job or your loved ones or your small business? Those hours/days/weeks you spend waiting to hear back from doctors or lawyers or potential employers? Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Whatever horrible thing you just imagined will never happen. Or, at least, not in exactly that way. No, it won’t happen in the slightly different other way you imagined either. It might still be stressful and difficult and complicated and a lot of work, but it won’t be whatever you just visualized. It can’t be.
  • You can still do small things, every day, to get yourself closer to the experiences you want to have right now — the tasks you want to prioritize, the connections you want to strengthen, the time you want to take to care for yourself, etc. — and those experiences will help you deal with the hours/days/weeks ahead.

I’ve found this to be one of the truest things about life I’ve ever learned. The balance of what you can’t control and what you can.

So that’s what I’m thinking about this morning, mostly because last night I was thinking about how long it was between now and next year, and how I didn’t want to have to wait for what I wanted.

Then I reminded myself that I didn’t have to wait to write another 1,000 words of my draft, or pitch another client, or send my mom something nice on Facebook, or any of the stuff that I thought I wanted in the future but actually wanted — and could go after — right now. ❤️

*I grew up in the Midwest (before leaving to bounce from one coastal city to another and then decide to move back), but I did not grow up in Iowa. My hometown is actually in rural Missouri, a two-hour drive from where I live now.

**My current projections indicate it’s more likely I’ll hit financial independence — aka “the point at which I can live off my investments” — by 50, but that’s just incentivizing me to try to beat that target.

***I’m growing out a pixie cut. “How long my hair might be” is a relevant concern.

****Why not do all of this stuff today? Because you can’t do everything today. Nobody can.

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On Drafting and Clearing the Path

The NEXT BOOK draft is currently 2,648 words long, which — since I’ve had three scheduled work sessions so far — is coming out to roughly 883 words an hour.

Since this type of book tends to be around 80,000–90,000 words long, I could be finished with the draft in as soon as 90 hour-long work sessions, or 17 weeks from now.

Late June.

Part of me wants to turn this into a goal, and it may end up being something I achieve simply by virtue of consistent output, but the other part of me is all just find your way through this draft. Don’t force it.

Because I know, three sessions in, that the process of drafting NEXT BOOK will be very different from the process of drafting The Biographies of Ordinary People.

For whatever reason — and I think part of it was because I tried to write Biographies five different times before I actually wrote it — the Biographies draft came out fully-formed. It needed a little revision, of course, but no major restructuring. The writing process felt like walking down a path that I had already cleared for myself.

My current writing process feels like clearing the path.

In both cases I went in with an outline and a bunch of character work, so it’s not like I don’t know where the path leads, or who’s on the path.

It’s more like I’m discovering what the path looks like as I find it, one step at a time.

Which means that the 811 words I wrote this morning gave me new clarity that I need to go apply to the previous 1,837 words, although I don’t want to do too much revising yet because I bet that the next 800 words will also clarify details that should be included in the preceding 2,648 words.

For lack of a better metaphor, it’s kind of like me saying “the path is covered by leaves,” and then 800 words in it’s “the path is covered by red oak leaves,” and then it’s “the path is covered by red oak leaves that have turned brown and started to decay at the edges,” and then “the path is covered by decaying red oak leaves and patches of new grass,” and so on. Add in what it smells like and whether there are any birds and what the sunlight is doing and… you get the idea.

The more time I spend on the path, the more I understand what it’s made of.

So that’s where I am, three writing sessions into NEXT BOOK. I already feel like writing this story is like slipping into another world, which is the best part of writing for me. (I felt that way about Biographies, too.) At this stage, it is play; exploring, creating, describing, experiencing, feeling, seeing. The same immersive experience I used to have with my Barbies and paper dolls, making up stories with my sister and my friends.

But NEXT BOOK isn’t just about me getting to play my way through it. It’s also something I am creating for you, which means I need to go back and add in all the detail I discover as I’m working on it, so you’ll get a similar immersive experience when you read it.

That’s what I’m thinking about, this morning. ❤️

The Morning After

I started writing NEXT BOOK this morning.

I know I’d been hinting that I was going to start writing, and that I was ready to start writing, but once I knew what was going to happen with The Billfold I realized that the best way to transition from “my life as it has been for the past five years” and “everything that might come next” would be to finish up my work with The Billfold and start my novel the following morning.

(Not that The Billfold’s work is finished, precisely. I still have to close out The Billfold LLC, but that’s just shutting down a handful of accounts and filing some paperwork with the state of Iowa. And paying for it, because you can’t open or close a business without paying a bunch of people.)

My most recent tarot reading — which was finally not about death — suggested that I pull back on the WORKING SO HARD ALL THE TIMES and, for the next lunar cycle, focus on my dreams and creating new things and being emotionally open with people.

The reading also suggested that I finish up all of this outstanding business-and-tax stuff and stash any money left over in my SEP IRA, which I was already planning to do.

So, in the name of being emotionally open with people, I’ll share the two pieces of music I had on constant repeat during this whole Billfold shutdown process.

Time is an illusion that helps things make sense
So we are always living in the present tense

It seems unforgiving when a good thing ends
But you and I will always be back then
You and I will always be back then

This one is pretty obvious. I put it in my earbuds and played it on my piano over and over. There’s a back then that will always exist, first as a memory of a place we wish we could return to, then as a memory of something fun we used to do together, and then just a memory.

Here’s the other one.

Everybody knows how this goes so let’s get over it
And let’s get this over with

After all the spelling mistakes
After all the groping in the dark
Can this page of strange gibberish
Get a final punctuation mark?

It shouldn’t be news, per se, that my experience of shutting down The Billfold has been a little different than the Billfolder experience. (And it’s not even completely over yet.) I went through the stages of grief about a month earlier than everyone else — and yes, you can go back through my emails and Slack chats and tick off every individual stage — but what isn’t popularly advertised is that there’s a seventh stage that comes after “acceptance,” and that stage is called “a bunch of administrative work.”

So yeah, I listened to “Let’s Get This Over With” a lot. Even though the thing I was trying to hasten to its end was something I loved.

But the other stage that comes after “acceptance” is “a wide open space that can be filled with dreams,” whether that’s an emotional space or, in my case, a literal space as well.

So I started writing my next book this morning. ❤️

On Being Vulnerable Online

So… I kinda forgot that being vulnerable literally makes you vulnerable.

In the “if you reveal a weakness, people will poke at it” sense.

It’s not all “being honest about your own struggles will help you strengthen your relationships with other people and the world,” even though that’s the message you might take away from the TED Talk.

It’s also understanding (and accepting?) that people are going to refer to you as the personal finance writer who tanked her business due to her own financial ignorance.

And that’s both true and not true.

I’m also the personal finance writer who tried something new, realized she was in over her head, and quit before she lost a bunch of money.

Or the second entity to stop running The Billfold in just over a year.

I could have announced The Billfold’s closure in a way that made it sound like I hadn’t made any mistakes — one of those standard “going to pursue other opportunities” things. You would have known that wasn’t the real reason, because we all know what that particular line of text means, but I would have wrapped myself in boilerplate armor.

I could also have announced The Billfold’s closure in a way that placed the blame far away from me. It wasn’t my fault, I got bad advice! It’s true that I operated for most of the year under a particular set of assumptions and then learned that the majority of those assumptions were wrong, and it’s also true that those assumptions did not come fully-sprung out of my head. In some cases I did get bad advice. In others I didn’t know the questions I was supposed to ask, and so I didn’t get the answers I needed.*

But the two faults at the center of everything — my not talking to a lawyer or CPA before setting up the LLC, and my not bringing in enough money to support myself and the site simultaneously — are mine.

So I’m going to be honest about that, which is vulnerable in both the good way and the bad way.

Because it’s hard to admit to the world that you failed at something.

Some people will say “it’s all right.”

And other people will say “yep, you sure did.”

*I do plan on writing a piece about “the questions you should ask before setting up a business,” because the best thing I can do right now is share what I learned.

On Magic, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves About Magic

When I was in grad school I lived in one of those group houses with a bunch of other students, and one day one of my roommates was describing some of the psychic experiences she’d had in the past, including ghosts she’d seen and interacted with, and another roommate shared a similar encounter, to which the first roommate said “I knew you also had the gift.”

She looked at me. “And you don’t.”

I don’t recall saying anything, because I wasn’t exactly going to disagree with her — I have never spoken to a ghost — but I do remember feeling, at that moment, a sort of thank goodness that’s obvious.

Like I was proud that someone could look at me and tell I was not currently in conversation with the supernatural.

Then I started dreaming up a novel that had supernatural and magical elements, at which point I thought I should do some hands-on research.

Except it really kind of happened the other way around. I got a tarot deck at the end of 2017, started doing personal readings that were less about trying to communicate with an outside force and more about looking at the cards I drew and evaluating how they made me feel and what they made me think of — like, my most recent reading said I should use the Page of Swords as a path to the Nine of Wands, and that has turned out to be exactly what I am currently doing. (Though not in the way I thought I would be, when I did the reading. Tarot is interesting like that.)

So then I read a bunch of books about magic and magick and witchcraft, one of which I reviewed on this-here blog, and from there I grabbed the books on comparative religion and paganism and Wicca, including Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America (an informative and lyrical read, highly recommended), and the only book that felt anything like me was Mya Spalter’s Enchantments: A Modern Witch’s Guide to Self-Possession.

Enchantments framed magic as the rituals you use to set your intention. The lit candle is not what’s magic, the part that’s magic is the part where you carve your intention into the candle and by doing so focus yourself on what you want or what you are looking for or what you are going to do.

I’ve always known intention was a powerful tool, so I started ritualizing my intentions in some of the ways suggested in Enchantments. This is to say I started doing magic spells in my apartment.

(This was also when I started outlining and committing to NEXT BOOK, whether coincidentally or not.)

I quickly figured out what felt like me and what felt like not me, which tied in pretty closely to what that roommate had said, all those years ago — lighting a candle on the new moon and writing out my most important intention for the next lunar cycle felt right; bringing Diana into it felt wrong.* For better or worse, I am not in touch with the supernatural.

But I was worrying a crystal in my hand the other day — because I’ve collected a handful of crystals and have started holding them when I want to focus on and/or absorb the energy with which they are associated — and I thought about how these crystals do in fact do what the piece of paper that came with the set of Scorpio Healing Stones I bought on Etsy claimed they would.**

That is, rubbing my thumb across the citrine stone helps me focus my mind on finding opportunities for abundance (and figuring out how to take action on those opportunities).

And I asked myself whether that was specifically because of the crystal, or whether it came from me.

In other words, whether the magic was in me all along.

It’s what we tell ourselves, when we tell stories about magic; maybe you start out with an invitation to wizard school or a path through a mysterious wardrobe or the dream of finding a dead Welsh king, but the power is in you the whole time. The wands and ruby slippers and all of that are just accessories (many of which get ditched or destroyed by the end of the series, to firmly establish the it’s in your mind/hands/heart, protagonist thing).

Anyway. That’s all I have time for today, so have at it. See you tomorrow. ❤️

*Setting my intention on fire afterwards felt like it could be right, but it created a lot of smoke and I was very lucky to not set off the fire alarm and have to explain to my landlord and/or the fire department that it was because I was doing magic.

**Of course I’m a Scorpio. Capricorn rising, Aquarius moon. This means I am deeply creative and intuitive and emotional but I present to the world as all-business and my hidden self values her independence more than anything. Believe astrology if you want — or don’t — but that explains a lot.

How to Live in a Dying World

Okay.

So on Monday I wrote about Seth Godin’s distinction between problems and boundary conditions (problems have solutions, problems with no solutions are boundary conditions you have to live with) and asked what it implied if certain large-scale global problems were, in fact, boundary conditions.

On Tuesday I wrote about the specific boundary condition of human aging, and whether knowing we might not be able to do our best work in the future should affect the work we try to do now.

Today I want to share what I learned from two books I read last week: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and Roy Scranton’s We’re Doomed. Now What?

Because in addition to researching the human aging process for NEXT BOOK, I’ve also been researching the planet’s aging process, specifically vis a vis the anthropocene and climate change.

And before you’re all “well, the planet wouldn’t have aged if humans hadn’t ruined it,” well, yes and no. It’s clear that humans have drastically affected the planet and are rapidly accelerating the rate at which it might become uninhabitable. It’s also clear that — and I figured this one out in second grade, the very first time we did Earth Day at school — even if every human only created one tiny piece of non-biodegradable trash in their lifetimes, something as large as the palm of your hand, the earth would still eventually be covered in garbage. This was my version of Thomasina’s second-law-of-thermodynamics discovery in Arcadia, aka “the moment I realized the world had been dying since before I was even born.”

If you still aren’t convinced, here’s a song by George Hrab and Phil Plait that explains how our planet’s death is a mathematical inevitability:

So. We’re all older than we’ve ever been and now we’re even older, to quote another group of musicians, and we are all going to die.

Also the whole earth is going to die.

Interestingly, both Atul Gawande and Roy Scranton offer the same advice:

Focus on what makes life worth living. Do that. Avoid activities or interventions that take away from that.

This advice holds up a little better in Gawande’s book than it does in Scranton’s; Gawande is coming from the perspective of a surgeon who has seen many patients through the dying process, and his suggestion that people accept death and create a hospice plan that allows them to remain at home and participate in life for as long as possible, vs. refuse to accept death and endure ever-more-expensive interventions that might postpone the end of life while significantly reducing its quality, makes sense on the individual level.*

Scranton also advises us to accept both our own death and our planet’s death, and to use our remaining time on this earth to “reflect consciously on the ways we make life meaningful — on how we decide what is good, what our goals are, what’s worth living or dying for, and what we do every day, day to day, and how we do it.”

For example: he understands that every plane flight kills the planet a little faster, but he also values building a relationship between his daughter and her grandparents.

To which I respond: this advice is all very well and good right now, if you’re a person who has access to plane flights and daughters and grandparents. It’s going to get a lot trickier as resources become more and more depleted. We’re already in a situation where someone’s good day means someone else’s bad one, and I do not see the entire world joining forces to accept the earth’s death while forging new communities with people who need spaces to live, food to eat, etc. because those people’s former homes were the first parts of the globe to become completely uninhabitable.

Plus there are going to be a lot of people who are going to want to fight for the planet even as other people and corporations work to deplete it, and there’s going to be even more fighting once we realize we lost the fight, everything from wars to last-ditch “what if we blast a hole in the moon to change the earth’s orbit” kind of things, because that’s just how people are.**

Anyway. I have to wrap this up because it’s time to move on to Billfold work, even though there’s no way to wrap this particular discussion up and never has been.

But I highly recommend Being Mortal, if you’re the type of person who asks yourself both what makes a good life and what makes a good death.

Unfortunately, I doubt that the earth’s death process will be “good.”

*I know that the hospice system is not always what it should be, and some people who want hospice are not able to access it.

**Now I’m really curious about whether it would be possible to mitigate the effects of climate change by changing the earth’s orbit, though I don’t think blasting a hole in the moon is the way to do it.

On the Ticking Clock (and How It Affects Our Best Work)

So I keep telling myself that NEXT BOOK doesn’t have to be good.

I mean, obviously, I want it to be good. I’m going to try my hardest for it to be good, which is to say that I’m going to try my hardest to do my best work. *

But NEXT BOOK is also a big experiment for me. I’m approaching it differently than I’ve approached previous writing projects. It feels more exploratory, both in the way I’m building it and in the sense that this could be one of those stories where the characters lead me somewhere I wasn’t expecting.

It feels kind of like play, both in the spontaneous, generative sense and the “there is a difference between playing and performing” sense.**

Which means it could turn out to be good, in the way that these types of experimental from-the-heart projects do occasionally turn out to be good, or it could turn out to be derivative and indulgent and all kinds of things, since our hearts are also often derivative and indulgent.

Which is fine, and some of this could be worked out in revision. The book will become what it is becoming, and if it turns out to be not my best work, in the sense that it isn’t as good as The Biographies of Ordinary People or whatever, I’ll still have had the joy of writing it and I’ll have learned important skills that I can use on the NEXT NEXT BOOK.

Except.

I was doing some reading into the aging process (as part of the NEXT BOOK research process) and I came across this article by oncologist and bioethicist Ezekiel J. Emanuel called “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”

Despite the headline, which I am going to attribute to The Atlantic rather than the author, Emanuel doesn’t actually want to die at 75. Instead, he wants to stop receiving certain types of life-extending healthcare:

Once I have lived to 75, my approach to my health care will completely change. I won’t actively end my life. But I won’t try to prolong it, either. 

[…]

At 75 and beyond, I will need a good reason to even visit the doctor and take any medical test or treatment, no matter how routine and painless. And that good reason is not “It will prolong your life.” I will stop getting any regular preventive tests, screenings, or interventions. I will accept only palliative—not curative—treatments if I am suffering pain or other disability.

I’ve seen this philosophy pop up in a few different places, most recently Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer — but while the books share similar themes, Ehrenreich writes from the perspective of someone trying to avoid both the expense and the discomfort/indignity associated with, say, getting a colonoscopy in your 80s.

Emanuel tells a different story.

American immortals operate on the assumption that they will be precisely such outliers. But the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.

[…]

Dean Keith Simonton, at the University of California at Davis, a luminary among researchers on age and creativity, synthesized numerous studies to demonstrate a typical age-creativity curve: creativity rises rapidly as a career commences, peaks about 20 years into the career, at about age 40 or 45, and then enters a slow, age-related decline. 

There’s even a chart accompanying the article, titled “Productivity of People With High Creative Potential,” and although I’ll make you click through to The Atlantic to see the chart (’cause that’s the right thing to do), I’ll note that according to this research, as a thirty-seven-year-old highly creative and productive person, my next project might in fact be MY BEST WORK.

Simply because of how brains work.

This feels so unfair, like I barely got a chance to start doing my best creative work, and taking a couple years out of my prime creative time to work on this experimental thing that might turn out to be just another derivative fantasy story because I haven’t written enough fantasy to get past the derivative phase yet might be a bad idea because the CLOCK IS TICKING, like, this is not what I wanted out of this project AT ALL.

I mean, obviously, you just have to keep working and doing the best you can with what you have, the way we all do, and then if you want to look back and say “well, I guess my brain started to lose some plasticity right about here,” well, that was going to happen anyway.

Also, the whole “am I at the phase of my life where the world will start leaving me behind” thing was one of the emotional motivators for creating this story in the first place, STUCKNESS vs. POSSIBILITY, so might as well take this feeling and give it to my characters.

We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow. ❤️

*How does one know that they’re doing their best work? Or, more specifically: how does one know that they’re creating the systems/structure in which they can do their best work? Sounds like something I’ll have to explore in another blog post, because I’m not sure I have the answer.

**Yes, I’ll do a separate blog post about that too. For now, keep in mind that playing is a gift you give yourself and performing is a gift you give an audience.

Problems Have Solutions (h/t Seth Godin)

This week is going to be a “things I’m thinking about” week, so let’s start with a recent Seth Godin blog post called Problems and Boundaries:

All problems have solutions.

That’s what makes them problems.

The solution might involve trade-offs or expenses that you don’t want to incur. You might choose not to solve the problem. But there is a solution. Perhaps you haven’t found it yet. Perhaps you need to do more research or make some tradeoffs in what you’re hoping for.

If there is no solution, then it’s not a problem.

It’s a regrettable situation. It’s a boundary condition. It’s something you’ll need to live with.

(I love Seth Godin’s blog, go follow his blog, also his post on what a good personal blog does was one of my inspirations for shaping this current iteration of Nicole Dieker Dot Com.)

So. Problems vs. boundaries is something I’ve been thinking about in my own life and — not at all coincidentally — one of the focuses of NEXT BOOK.

The examples of boundary conditions Seth gives in his blog post are along the lines of choices eliminating other choices: if you have committed your time to event X, you cannot also commit to simultaneous event Y.

I’m fine with that. I LOVE that. Even the part that comes with hard tradeoffs.

But I’m curious about larger-scale problems (climate change, socioeconomic disparity, etc.), the point at which they turn into boundary conditions, and what that implies.

On Reading Nate Staniforth’s ‘Here Is Real Magic’ and Realizing Life As You Live It

I was doing this interview to get a scholarship for college, it was me and something like four or five faculty members in a conference room, and I can’t remember whether they asked me if I had a philosophy of life or if I volunteered it, but I remember quoting Our Town:

Does anyone ever realize life while they live it… every, every minute?

Saints and poets maybe, they do some.

I’d actually learned that quote not from Our Town (though, like most young people interested in theater, I would eventually help stage the play) but from the novelization of My So-Called Life — which I did not mention.

I also don’t remember mentioning that one of the reasons I wanted to work in the arts — or more specifically, make art — was so I could realize life every, every minute. It seemed too much like comparing myself to a saint or a poet, and I was neither.

But I was ambitious, and I was a hard worker, and I was, for lack of a better term, a chaser of dreams.


I bought Nate Staniforth’s Here Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World for three reasons:

  1. I’d recently moved to Cedar Rapids and I wanted to start building a relationship with my new local bookstore.
  2. It had a blurb from Lev Grossman on the cover, and you already know how I feel about The Magicians.
  3. I was curious whether Staniforth’s definition of magic was the same as mine.

Here’s how I defined “magic,” when I wrote about visiting Disneyland:

I don’t believe in magic but I do believe that people can create magic, which is to say they can imbue items or people or experiences with meaning. They can imagine, to borrow what seems to be the theme, something more—and then it exists.

The magic, to me, isn’t in the action; I know enough about how stage magic works that I can look at something like the opening scene of Now You See It and think “they just forced the seven of diamonds.” The magic is in the reaction; in hearing a theater full of people take a quick breath when the seven of diamonds is revealed.

Or, to go back to the Disneyland example: Snow White’s Wishing Well isn’t magic, but the people who believe in magic (or want to create magic) have made it so by the way we respond. Dropping coins, making wishes, saying prayers. Leaving the grotto feeling hopeful or happy — or like we’ve participated in something larger than ourselves.


Here Is Real Magic, as the subtitle suggests, isn’t really about magic. It’s about wonder. Staniforth writes about two different kinds of wonder: the kind that can take hold of an audience, which falls in line with my definition of creating magic, and the kind that can take hold of the self.

As a musician, I am well aware that you can create the type of performance that delights an audience without necessarily feeling that delight yourself, but it’s hard to create a truly captivating moment without also being equally captivated. It’s the balance between what you’ve rehearsed and what you make new; discipline and connection. The moment when you are singing with someone else (or with a choir) and your voices blend to the point where you can’t tell where you end and your partner begins. The moment when you are listening to the audience as intently as they are listening to you.

But even that, as Staniforth knows and as I know and as anyone who does any kind of creative work over a period of time knows, isn’t enough to maintain your own personal sense of wonder. At some point you’re no longer realizing life as you live it, every, every minute, and you have to go find life again.


It took me until this past year to put a name to what “finding life again” felt like, and you’re going to laugh when I tell this story because it’s so obvious, but here we go:

I bought Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven’s Prophecy tarot deck after reading The Raven Cycle, and here’s where you go if you want to read my thoughts on The Raven Cycle, but when I started using the deck I had the same feeling you get when you’re a child and someone gives you a new toy to explore or take apart or turn into stories.

And I hadn’t had a new toy in forever. I’d occasionally try to go back to old toys, like replaying SNES games, but I’d get bored. That wasn’t play anymore, and this was.

Before I get a bunch of comments on how tarot isn’t a toy, I want to say that I agree with you. It isn’t! But it is play. It’s creative interaction. It’s self-directed and generative and it teaches you something new and helps you grow — and, by the definition above, can be magic.

I didn’t fully put together that “finding life again” meant play until I got my bike. I felt that same strong sense memory of getting a new toy — and although bikes aren’t toys either, they are self-directed and generative and they teach you something new and etc. etc. etc.

So I started looking for other ways to play, and it was interesting to learn what did and didn’t qualify. Caring for my succulents is a little too passive to be play. Cooking can sometimes be play, but sometimes it’s just chores. Singing and dancing are often play, but it’s a little more complicated when you get into the performance end of things because then you start switching over into trying to make something specific, which is why writing can also sometimes be play but sometimes it’s more of that goal-oriented, dream-chasing trying to make art, which is equally captivating but not regenerative in the same way that play is — because play isn’t working towards a desired outcome. It’s just seeing what happens.

(This is where I should sidebar and say that yes, sometimes “just seeing what happens” can result in art, but there’s a difference between play and performance — there’s a lot more vulnerability in performance, for starters — and if you want to read more about that, go get a copy of my novel The Biographies of Ordinary People.)

This is why walking or biking a new trail feels like play, which brings me — finally — to the photo at the top of this post. Finding an empty frame placed on the side of a lake felt like a discovery (even though I in no way discovered it) and the fact that the frame was empty made me imagine everything that could go inside it — the lake, of course, but I could also bring friends here and show them the frame and we could take photos of ourselves through the frame, and I could come back in a month and see what the trees looked like with leaves on them — and suddenly I was connected to this piece of art and interacting with it, and it was wonderful. ❤