Last Cab

When my dear friend Linda sent me this wonderful anonymous online story, it touched me deeply and I couldn’t help wonder this: What if it had never been written?

I arrived at the address and honked the horn. After waiting a few minutes I honked again. Since this was going to be my last ride of my shift I thought about just driving away, but instead I put the car in park and walked up to the door and knocked.

‘Just a minute’, answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 90’s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940’s movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.

‘Would you carry my bag out to the car?’ she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness.
‘It’s nothing’, I told her. ‘I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother to be treated.’ ‘Oh, you’re such a good boy, she said.

When we got in the cab, she gave me an address and then asked, ‘Could you drive through downtown?’ ‘It’s not the shortest way,’ I answered quickly.. ‘Oh, I don’t mind,’ she said. ‘I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice’. I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. ‘I don’t have any family left,’ she continued in a soft voice…’The doctor says I don’t have very long.’

I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. ‘What route would you like me to take?’ I asked. For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, ‘I’m tired. Let’s go now’. We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her. I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door.

The woman was already seated in a wheelchair. ‘How much do I owe you?’ she asked, reaching into her purse. ‘Nothing,’ I answered. ‘You have to make a living,’ she said. ‘There are other passengers,’ I responded. Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly. ‘You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’ I squeezed her hand, and then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.

For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away? On a quick review, I don’t think that I have done anything more important in my life. We’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments. But great moments often catch us unaware – beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.

What a beautiful story! Stories like this enrich us all. Let’s give the world more of them. Write on!

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Read on!

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”   Cicero

Bookworms, take heart! Not only is there evidence that reading books makes people more empathetic and mentally agile, but recent research published in “Social Science and Health” has found a significant link between reading books and living longer. About 23 months longer, in fact.*

Here’s the scoop: Yale University health researchers studied data gathered between 1992 and 2012 from Americans 50 years old and over. When controlled for age, sex, race, level of education, wealth, marital status, and depression, books emerged as a key factor determining lifespan. It’s worth noting here that magazines and newspapers did not produce the same result.

After 12 years of follow-up study, researchers found that people who read books were 20 percent less likely to die than poor benighted, non-reading schlubs. As noted above, readers lived about two years longer.

What’s at work here? The study’s leader Avri Bavishi speculates that the inherently challenging nature of books — their absorbing narratives, complex characters, and sustained length — all contribute to people’s ability to develop enhanced cognitive skills, such as recalling information.

It is these cognitive abilities, boosted by book reading, that show a positive correlation with increased lifespan. That’s correlation — not direct causation — but hey, all this is still good news for scriveners.

OK, reading makes you more empathetic. And sharper. It provides role models. It satisfies the need for mythic heroes and heroines. It improves the ability to puzzle out complex relationships. It helps you visualize. It ignites your imagination.

What more do we need to convince us that words matter, writing matters, writers matter? So energized and emboldened, let’s all write on!

* This good news comes to us by way of the snappy site Intellectual Takeout, which my book-loving brother Peter introduced me to. Thanks, Pete!

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Motion Potion

“Action seems to seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together, and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”
William James

“The quality of writing I do on the days I don’t feel like it is just as good as the quality of the writing I do on the days I do feel like it.”
John Kenneth Galbraith

Action changes attitude: In a nutshell, this is the message that legendary psychologist William James is conveying — and recent studies confirm its accuracy. What a priceless nugget of wisdom for us as writers! It frees us to separate how we’re feeling from how well we work — something many successful authors have discovered, including Galbraith.

How does this translate into getting words down on the page? It means that if we put ourselves in motion, then our feelings will follow our lead. Instead of being captive to them and letting them dictate the quality of our work, we can enlist them and make them march to the beat of our drummer.

Writing can be a joyful activity, but it’s also hard work: it’s easy to feel like Sisyphus endlessly pushing a rock up a hill only to have it fall down again on our heads. When the “I don’t feel like it” distraction rears its soul-sapping head, here are a few ways I’ve found helpful for acting your way out of it and onto the page.

Act as if you’re enthusiastic: When you act as if you’re excited about what you’re doing with gusto, you free up your energy and you actually become enthusiastic. Smiling, sitting up straight, and even pacing back and forth are all physical signals to your body and mind that you are ready for action.

Envision a successful day: Imagery is one of the most powerful tools we have at our command. If you spend a few moments in a relaxed state and use all your senses to conjure up the emotional benefits of a happy, successful day, you can put yourself in a frame of mind that makes working easier and more productive.

Get moving: If you hit a knotty problem on the page, and you find yourself wrestling with it to the point of frustration, get physical: do some stretching or better yet, take a walk outside. Getting out into nature is restorative — it can reignite your energy.

What’s your “motion potion” for jump-starting your day? Are there any special “action steps” you’ve found especially helpful in overcoming the “I don’t feel like it” blues? I’d love to hear them. Write on!

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Game Plan

“The secret of becoming a writer is to write, write, and keep on writing.”
Ken MacLeod

“Nothing will work unless you do.”
Maya Angelou

William Styron called writing “my tortoise-like art” and pursued a strict writing pattern: He rose at 12, then had a leisurely lunch or brunch until 2, when he took a long walk with his dogs and mentally organized his afternoon bout of writing. Once his walk was over, he’d disappear into a barn where he’d coax a No. 2 pencil across yellow legal paper, each sentence painfully polished until he went onto the next. at 7:30 in the evening he’d emerge with “my painful 600 words,” which he played with over a drink and then gave to his wife to type. His daily output? About two and a half pages. Once finished, he tinkered very little. “This guy does not revise heavily and start all over again,” noted Robert Loomis, his longtime editor. “Bill’s first draft was essentially his final draft.”

Few of us have the luxury of rising at noon, plying our craft in a writing barn, or passing our pages onto a wife to type. But Styron’s story here isn’t about the perks of being a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, it’s about the benefits of establishing a  writing regimen.

Aspiring writers tend to obsess about “the writing process,” but many quickly discover that there’s no one-size-fits-all pattern to cling to. Styron wrote in the late afternoon, Eudora Welty was at her desk from 9 to 12 in the morning, Michael Chabon is a committed night owl. Roald Dahl wrote in two-hour sessions, working from 10 to 12 and then knocking off for a few hours and picking up his pencil again from 4 to 6. William Styron wrote 650 words on a good day; Stephen King doesn’t get quit until he’s written 2500 words. Styron wasn’t a reviser; Nabokov once said that his pencils outlasted his erasers because he rewrote so obsessively.

The message? At its heart, finding your own writing process isn’t about how or when you write, it’s about discovering a writing pattern that works for you — that plays to your strengths and circumstances — and then pursuing it consistently. professional writers like Styron, Welty, Hemingway, King each learned the secret to productivity: develop a personal game plan for tackling the page and then stick with it through thick and thin. Something to ponder as we all write on.

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Lightning Strikes

“Less thunder in the mouth, more lightning in the hand.”
Apache adage

When a pithy saying takes you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you — figuratively speaking, of course — it’s time to sit up and pay attention. That’s exactly how I felt about these Apache words of wisdom. They instantly led me to ponder the ways in which too much “thunder in the mouth” and too little “lightning” in the hand can undermine writing progress. Here’s what I came up with:

“Thunder in the mouth” can short-circuit our writing:

When we promise ourselves that we’ll achieve a goal or stick to a writing schedule and then slack off or let circumstances get in the way of honoring our commitment.

When we talk too much to friends or family about what we’re going to do instead of just doing it. Dissipating our drive and creativity by throwing words out into the ether instead of on the page is one of the fastest ways to sabotage ourselves (see Twice-told Tales).

When we spend more time venting about what we don’t have — enough time, enough contacts, enough talent — than we do developing the strengths we do have — and bolstering them with a can-do attitude, curiosity, and grit.

“Lightning in the hand” carries us forward:

When we quietly and confidently gather our energy and ideas, letting them percolate and build steam — and then focus them where they belong: on the page. As Faulkner once said, “Don’t ‘be a writer’ — be writing.”

When we honor our decision to write by adopting a “butt in the chair” mentality and pushing through rough patches and dry spells until the muse sees we’ve shown up and favors us. This is when we enter the “zone” and lightning strikes.

When we bring playfulness and gratitude to the page — boldly and cheerfully channel whatever we’ve got out of our head and through our hand and then play around with it like a kid with a lump of Play Doh until we love what we’ve come up with.

Let’s choose “lightning” over “thunder” today — and write on!

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Something Wonderful

The Joy of Work

Give us, oh, give us, the man who sings at his work!
He will do more in the same time — he will do it
better — he will persevere longer. One is scarcely
sensible of fatigue whilst he marches to music.
The very stars are said to make harmony as they
revolve in their spheres. Wondrous is the strength
of cheerfulness, altogether past calculating in its
powers of endurance. Efforts, to be permanently
useful, must be uniformly joyous, a spirit all
sunshine, graceful from very gladness, beautiful
because bright.

Thomas Carlyle

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Sparky Sparkles

“There is more in us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives, we will be unwilling to settle for less.”   Kurt Hahn, Founder of Outward Bound

 

A story: Sparky was a loner and a loser. As a kid, school was all but impossible for him to handle. In the eighth grade, he failed every subject he took. He flunked physics in high school with a zero. He also failed Latin, algebra and English. Sports weren’t much better. He managed to make a school team one season, but lost a key  match.

He was awkward socially. At school, other kids didn’t really dislike him, but no one paid much attention to him. He was amazed if a classmate said hello.He never once asked a girl out on a date in high school — he was too afraid of being turned down.

A some point in school, Sparky accepted his fate. He made up his mind early in life that if things were meant to work out, they would. If not, he’d just accept it.

But one thing was important to Sparky — drawing. He was proud of his artwork. In his senior year of high school, he submitted some cartoons o the editors of the yearbook. They were rejected. After high school, he wrote a letter to Walt Disney Studios. He was sent the subject of a cartoon and asked to submit samples. He poured himself into the his drawings and submitted them. Finally, the reply came from Disney Studios. When he opened it, he found another rejection.

Sparky responded by writing his own sadsack story in cartoons. He captured his childhood self — a little boy loser and a chronic underachiever. He captured his feelings and his failings with heart and humor.

The cartoon character he created as his alter ego became famous worldwide. Sparky, the boy who failed miserably in school and was rejected over and over again was Charles Schulz. He created the “Peanuts” comic strip about a boy whose kite would never fly and who never succeeded in kicking a football — Charlie Brown.

As my friend and mentor Dr. Rob Gilbert says on his Success Hotline (973.743.4690), you can count the number of seeds in an apple, but you can’t count the number of apples in a seed. There’s stardust in all of us — let it shine! Write on.

 

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