The oak beyond the garden is brilliant orange. Acorns play percussion on the roof. Meteorological and astronomical calendars agree that autumn is upon us: pumpkins by the roadside, ragweed-induced sneezes, falling leaves, early nightfall.
Long ago I spent a year in Eritrea, where the seasons scarcely changed. We enjoyed sunshine with highs of 70° to 75° year round. I loved it! Here in Wisconsin, which has the same continental climate as Siberia (tropical summers and arctic winters), I’ve learned to delight in the fresh beauty of each season with only a passing regret for its losses and challenges.
Changing seasons of life are as inevitable as those of nature in Wisconsin. Would you stay one age if you could? I recall thinking 37 was just about perfect: fully a grown-up, not yet on the downslope. I don’t know if I’d want to have stayed 37, given the option. Since we don’t get to choose, I might as well relish the gifts of the season I’m in.
Events long ago may be harder to document than current events, but they can be easier to write about. My term papers, seminar papers, and theses were mostly set in Europe between 1400 and 1700. Later non-academic projects pulled me into more recent settings.
How different could it be to write history as it happens? I loved the new kinds of sources, such as eyewitness interviews and aerial photographs, but the basic process of gathering, synthesizing, and interpreting information had to be the same. As I got into it, other differences became apparent.
• Tone. Writing about private individuals still living or fondly remembered posed a new challenge: to be respectful as well as honest. It made me aware how much I relished the freedom to be snarky about people who died 300 years ago.
• Perspective. In the middle of a situation, it’s hard to distinguish major turning points from blips. Today’s headline may be forgotten in a month, or it may start a new chapter in future history books. You make your best guess, use convoluted wordings like “Discussions began with a target date of implementation by XXX,” and hope you’ll get a shot at revision.
How hard to push oneself? As a writer who largely sets my own schedule, I ponder this often, with no consistent result. Asking "how important is it?" offers only limited guidance for self-assigned tasks and timetables.
A more subtle criterion is, on which side do you tend to err? Writers who stress the need for external accountability and a regular writing schedule, I suspect, are trying to offset a tendency to creative disorder. Since I tend to self-discipline, my creativity benefits when I attend to the mood of the moment and allow a certain amount of free flow.
I wonder if this relates to recent research about rigidity and chaos in neural networks. A sparse pattern of connections between brain cells goes with rigidity, literalism, left-brain involvement, and difficulty reading facial expressions. A chaotic overabundance of neural connections is associated with figurative language, right-brain involvement, and reading too much into other people’s faces: They’re watching me; they’re judging me.
Asperger’s syndrome lies at one extreme, paranoid psychosis at the other. Ideally we avoid the extremes and integrate these tendencies flexibly to fit the occasion. That can be easier said than done.
What do you mean, don’t take it personally? Putting yourself out there is a personal risk. Actors try out, singers audition, writers query, job hunters apply, politicians run for office. Where do you get the resilience to persist through rejections, defeats, and bad reviews for the sake of the risk that pans out?
“Maybe it won’t work out. But maybe seeing if it does will be the best adventure ever.” This quote’s been showing up anonymously on social media, and I love it. One source of resilience for me is a sense of curiosity, exploration, and growth. I can learn through every encounter, so none of it goes to waste.
Paradoxically, another source of resilience is to get over myself—to remember I’m one of many and none of us is perfect. As I wrote last October, belief in oneself can mean belief in one’s ability to improve, to keep honing one’s craft. Rejection can serve as a sharpening tool.
How do you bounce back from rejection? Please comment to share what works for you.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.