Archive for the ‘achievement’ Category

Possibly the greatest writing lesson I ever received happened one afternoon when I was at my work-study job at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, OR. I was a research assistant for a young Assistant Professsor in the Medical Psychology department. He was fierce in his devotion to research, and especially to writing about it. He was also having a very good start to his career. He would take on a subject about which he know little, like, say, pregnancy and smoking, and study it hard and long, and then write about it and get published in good journals. THAT is hard work, let me tell you!

So this particular afternoon, I come in at about 1PM, and he’s sitting his desk, with a single sheet of paper in front him, and a yellow legal pad. The desktop is bare, otherwise. He gives me my instructions for the day, and I ask him what he’s doing. He tells me “This is the introduction to my new article I’m about to submit. I’m trying to get it right”. That single sheet of paper contained what looked like 3 paragraphs.

I go off to the computer center (I have distinct statistical analysis skills and have had them for a long time, and that was my focus on this day). At 4 PM, three hours later, I return to his office. He’s still there, sitting, staring at what is now a legal pad with notes on it. “Having problems with the writing?” I asked helpfully. “Oh no,” he says. “What most people don’t realize is that writing isn’t easy. I have graduate students ask me ‘how do you do it – what’s the trick?’” (He wrote like an angel – it was clear and effortless to read. Simply gorgeous – and that’s not easy to do in a psychological research report!)

“There is no trick,” he explained. “It’s just hard, so you work at it.” I left him there, sitting at the desk. I’m sure his piece got published. It seemed they always did, and he did about 3 a year.

I’ve written a great deal since then, including a 300+ page Master’s thesis. It’s all proven him right, although if you keep at it, you do acquire a certain grace relative to simply starting, and to more or less getting things decent in the first draft. Beyond that…hard work.

So, there you are. “Blood, sweat, toil, and tears.” It could be worse. The silence of a blank sheet of paper is worse.

One last thought: I have observed over the years that serious writers all seem to share a common trait: We write out of necessity. We cannot not do it. It’s how we pull form out of our own chaotic minds, not to mention the collective chaos of those around us. It just has to happen. Resistance is futile. I do not object.

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I wrote recently (A unique and shining moment…) of observing something very encouraging and informative – the positive effect on persons of color of the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States. Of course it’s had a positive effect of many of the rest of us as well, and I honestly believe that this effect will grow, over time. This is a man who exemplifies what can be accomplished when one marries vision, persistence, focus, and intelligence. This is a life from which we can all learn.

But how is that? How is that the life of another person can teach US something? In psychology, there has been considerable research and writing on something called Social Learning Theory. The research has largely supported the theory, and it all reduces to this: We learn from observing the actions of other people, and this effect is increased to the degree that we can see ourselves in them.

So, when a child, adolescent, or adult sees a human being with whom they can identify do something remarkable, it becomes easy to fantasize (the beginning of belief) that they also could do something remarkable.

Put differently, when we have models of functional normalacy, it becomes significantly easier for US to become functionally normal. Life really isn’t about the remarkable. Most of us will never be “remarkable”, and we don’t really need to be. We just need to have enough, do enough, be enough. This is hard to do when the most visible people in your culture clearly are NOT like you. There are many minority groups in our country who are negatively impacted by this problem. It injures them, and to that degree injures all of us.

I’m absolutely amazed and thrilled to observe, at this very moment, CNN reporters interviewing very ordinary kids walking on the Capital Mall today, the day before the Presidential Inauguaral, kids who are simply glowing with pride. I truly believe that for many of them it has never been easier to feel good about themselves, about their possibilities, and about the world in general. This is a very very good thing.

We all need vision, in our lives, and our minds. Some of us can provide vision for others of us, by what we do, especially in the public arena. Such role models most include ALL the people who comprise our remarkable nation, and world. President-Elect Obama’s remarkable achievement has given ALL of us a great gift, and its value is only beginning to manifest.

When I was eleven years old, I can recall seeing an article in the Reader’s Digest – a lead article at that – which went to great lengths to attempt to tie Martin Luther King and his associates to the International Communist movement. This was an idea actively promoted by the long term despotic Director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, Herbert Hoover, as has since been well documented.

My own parents, both raised in Texas, had always taken a clear position that persons of color (not the term in common use at that time) were as good as anyone else. They certainly didn’t see themselves as part of any movement, however, and nothing was said about that absurd article in the Reader’s Digest. And I can vividly recall going to Texas as a child and seeing “Black only” water fountains out in back of the service stations. It just looked strange. Still does, in  my mind’s eye – strange and frightening.

But today, and tomorrow, all of us – ALL of us – who wish to, can feel proud about how far we’ve come. And we need to remember that there are still very significant groups of people in our country who have great difficulty feeling proud about who they are. They need all the encouragement, and positive, affirmative, action, we can produce in our society. I’m thinking particularly at this moment of Native Americans and people in minority sexual/gender identities. But there are many other groups about whom we should be equally concerned. This is a social health issue, and most certainly a mental health issue.

Diversity is one fundamental aspect of humanity. People whose only distinction is that they are “different” are a fundamental asset for us all, and we need to cherish them, and help them to cherish themselves, so that they can achieve and maintain the essential pride which is the birthright of us all.

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Everybody wants to be somebody; nobody wants to grow. ~ Goethe

I love being a novelist. It’s the writing I can’t stand. ~ 19th century novelist


Time and effort are two of the biggest blocks to what we want, it seems. I’m thinking of the envy people often have for the skills of others. We see a figure skater, a piano player, someone in a comfortable and rewarding marriage. We want these things, these skills, but then… Nothing happens. These things rarely just bloom like irises in the spring.

More usually they take work – lots of it. More than you might easily believe. I once saw a man I worked for sit at his desk for three hours, facing a single paragraph on a single sheet of paper. He’d rewrite it, stare at it some more, then rewrite it again, and he kept at it until he was satisfied. It was the lead paragraph of an article he expected to publish in a medical research journal.

This man made his living doing research and writing about it, and his writing had a grace about it which was both wonderful and rare. It was easy to read, and easy to comprehend, and he worked very hard to get it that way, which is why he got things published.

He told me that afternoon “I get asked by graduate students about how to write better. I tell them there are no secrets. It’s simply hard. You have work at it until you get it right. There’s no other way.” I’m a writer. I know that he’s right. I wrote an important email this afternoon – a few paragraphs, and it cost me one and a half hours.


So…many people want to be able to do it – playing the piano, or whatever. Only some – a few – ever get what they want. Does this remind you of anything else? Here’s what it reminds me of….psychotherapy. Sometimes we have magic things happen in therapy. A lot happens, fast. That’s wonderful. Just as often, though, it’s a long slow march in the rain. Like learning to play the piano. If you want to get it right, you have to be willing to invest yourself. To say otherwise would be dishonest.

I discussed this idea with a client of mine this evening. He agreed that too many people are like a piano player who refuses to practice, then whines about how hard it is to play well. And then, he suggested, they schedule a concert! He’s got it right. Too many people believe that marriage is about of “falling in love” with the right person, or that success in life is about being born into the right family. Sure. Dream on. And if that doesn’t work out, go to work figuring how reality really works.

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