Let Us Pretend

When did you stop creating? Was it a series of small events or did it happen with one experience that was so remarkably painful that it stopped you immediately?

Was it a teacher who told you had too much rhythm? Did a coach or mentor tell you to do it their way? Was it an overprotective parent who wanted to shield you from the embarrassment of certain failure at some point even if it was on the path toward your well-deserved success? Find the moment. The sad truth, is that it doesn't take much effort.

Whether it was yesterday or twenty years ago, the voice that broke the sound of our most joyful moment to simply say "no" or "don't do that" can be heard forever. Find the moment...

Now, reactivate your imagination and pretend it never happened. 

What would you do? Who would you be? Where would you live? Who would you love?

Jump! 

Don't Let Life Defer Your Dreams

As an artist it is insanely difficult to prioritize your craft amidst the hectic life of full-time employment at (INSERT COMPANY NAME HERE), where menial tasks take up all of your time and leave your gift unfulfilled.

Working in a dead end job feels foreign to you no matter how many years you do it, and you tell yourself it is worth it for the steady pay, especially in this economy and that you’ll do some writing, painting or sculpting this weekend or next.

I wouldn’t suggest that we all strip off our suits and throw our company ID badges in a river and live in a nudist colony. It’s tempting, but not the most practical solution. I would suggest that you take a moment to breathe and ask yourself if what you’re doing at your job makes you happy?

I have asked myself time and again if inputting data or helping a customer has brought me the kind of satisfaction that resonates at my core, and the answer is an emphatic NO! This has led me to ask not only what makes me happy, but what fulfills me and for me the answer is creative writing.

On a whim one day, I sat in front of my keyboard and found myself weaving a world of my own filled with desperation and insurmountable odds, (not unlike my reality) except that there were zombies in this world. When I finished, I had ten pages that I couldn’t believe I had written. I would later scrutinize my piece to high hell, but the satisfaction of having created something from raw emotion was world shaking.

Discovering what you are meant to be doing is only a small part of the equation. Once you have your passion and purpose in your Oprah embroidered spirit warrior holster, how do you make time to utilize it? The simple answer is anytime you can.

If you are a writer like myself, then write on the train or on your breaks. Get your technology in the mix and jot down any ideas you have in your cellphone notepad. Whatever it takes, don’t allow circumstances to defer your dreams.

I have seen the dreamless eyes of adults who prided themselves on staying with the same company for twenty years, and while being a diligent worker is an admirable endeavor it hardly causes that necessary resonance that reminds you that you’re worthy to experience wonder from within.

You must find the time for the work that your soul is calling you to do. The voice of God, the Void, your Ancestors or perhaps nature is calling you to realize something within yourself!

If you are a parent, practice your craft once the kids are asleep even if only for twenty minutes at a time. If you simply cannot muster sitting and working another hour after life has allowed you to slow down, then write while you are in the thick of existing in your chaos. Own your chaos!

As a writer, I try to take in the details and I keep a notebook and pen on me at all times, so that I can indulge my muse whenever it calls out to me. Inspiration and intuition speak to you all the time, and learning to listen to it with respect to your craft is essential.

Take stock of the energy you are allotting to things that don’t require the emotional investment. Don’t shirk the responsibilities of your employment, because that is a commitment you made, but realize that as an artist, you have a calling and if you neglect it, you are creating a future with regret and unanswered questions about opportunities that have long since slipped past your withered fingers.

Remind yourself daily that you will use your gift, whether it is for five minutes or twelve hours. Remind yourself that you and your gift are worthy of being acknowledged.

Utilizing your talent is an affirmation of your existence and you deserve to be here!

Written by Taj Shareef, 

Contributor and Thought Partner

Mastering Your Craft...

In a world that is so obsessed with social and economic status, it often feels difficult to be comfortable with what you have and where you are. At every turn there are messages telling us to have more and be more. For many of us, these messages are the basis for diseases that form within our minds and hearts, informing the ways in which we view ourselves and our significance in the world. Each and every person has a unique purpose and while a few of us may be led to fame and fortune as a result of pursuing our special assignments in life, most of us will take our final breaths and leave behind a life and legacy that are only celebrated and remembered by a few people who knew us well and loved us for who we were and hopefully despite who we were not.

So if fame and fortune aren't what we're all driving toward we may pause to ask ourselves what is it that ties us all together in our journey toward fulfilling our purpose and finding some level of significance. I am learning and believing that what we should be striving toward is mastering our craft, whatever it may be.

Living a life of joy and fulfillment involves doing your very best and that doesn't necessarily mean doing your best in a particular space, or doing your best with a particular task, but rather striving to do your very best wherever you are.

I spent some time last week listening to speeches and sermons by the great Dr. Martin Luther King and found myself scratching my head when King shared a story of a man who shined his shoes. In his story, Dr. King spoke in detail about this man, another Black man, who was masterful in shoes shining.

Dr. King, talked about the man's focus and the level of thought he seemed to be putting into his work and as I listened I could feel something within me wrestling with an emerging paradox.

What struck me was a tension I felt somewhere in my mind where an image of one of our nation's greatest advocates for equality was passionately praising the work of a service provider in a role that would garner little or no respect whatsoever in our tremendously hierarchical society shaped and informed by social, cultural, educational and economic elitist sentiments.

In my mind, there was something odd about King's excitement over this man's shoe shining skills, a man who likely faced great obstacles in the segregated south and had very limited opportunities to take advantage of the privileges afforded to his white brethren at the time because of the overt systemic racism that ruled this nation.

As I continued listening though, I began to understand the point of Dr. King's message. His reflection wasn't an assessment of the man's worth but rather an observation of this man's focus, intent, drive, passion and brilliance all utilized in his efforts to be his absolute best. The man's title and role may not have had value to those who took advantage of his service, but he was not concerned about status.

His only goal was to determine, for himself, the value and quality of his position by doing what he was called to do as best as he could possibly do it and the truth of his mastery, made me think about the significance we all possess despite what structures we operate in that are determined and sustained by external forces.

Dr. King struck something in me that pulled back the lenses through which I view the world and adjusted my vision in a way that allowed me to think about the potential we all have to simply do our best with whatever the assignment is that we have been given.

Our craft, no matter how big or small, does not determine who we are but it is through mastering our craft that we reveal to ourselves and the world who we are and what we're made of.

No matter what it is that you are positioned to do, don't just do it, but do it as best as you can!

Becoming A Better Writer

As a member of the audience, I found myself laughing at the sheer wit displayed in a conversation with Black queer writers three weeks ago. The discussion was being moderated at the Schomburg Center here in New York and consisted of several NYC based literary artists. True to popular form, the members of the panel, which included Terrance Dean and James Earl Hardy, represented a sarcastic and humorous tone that is commonly seen in popular Black gay culture. While filled with countless moments of laughter, the wisdom of the panel left the audience of burgeoning writers with sobering tokens of wisdom. Between playful pokes at each other, comedic reflections on their journey to professional writing and commentary on industry obstacles, the panelists did not shy away from telling the truth about the craft of writing.

Reluctant to sugar-coat his own views, writer and director Stanley Bennett Clay simply exclaimed "there are just so many books out there these days that are just shit!" While cosigning other hard hitting comments by his fellow panelists, Clay encouraged members of the audience to seek out editors saying that editing your work and going through the process of perfecting your writing are necessary.

I left the venue that evening with many thoughts and one critical question: where does my own writing fall on the scale of quality which begins with awfully shitty and ends with something like beautifully brilliant? I had to really ask myself how serious I was about being a good, if not great writer. I felt great discomfort with the possibility that I may fall into a class of bloggers that some professional, well-trained writers might describe as arrogant. Calling yourself a writer these days seems so damn easy. With all of the resources we have at our fingertips, any one of us, regardless of education, style, voice, or topic can write whatever is on our minds and publish it somewhere. If we're lucky, someone will read it and even declare that they "like" our work; but does that really mean we're good writers?

If someone were to ask me what I think of myself as a writer, I'd say that I do a pretty good job at articulating my thoughts and ideas, but I still have a lot of work to do in perfecting my craft. I get an encouraging note here and there from followers, mentors, family, colleagues and academics who tell me they appreciate my work and want to see more. Though appreciate, I don’t write because I’m searching for such praise. Whenever I decide to write I'm really writing for me. The vast majority of my written work has never been published in any space, but I've learned to share pieces occasionally because what good are ideas and thoughts if they only live in my little head? The truth is that I haven’t consistently sought the guidance of others as a writer. Outside of my academic experiences in high school, college and graduate school, few people have read my writing and returned the work to me with guiding questions and feedback.

My guess is that we’ve all read some article, blog post or short story online that really should have been deleted the moment the last punctuation mark was added in the final line of the work. The moment we realized how terrible the writing was, we closed a window on our screen, or put a book back on the shelf and continued on with our lives.

What if we paused for a moment to actually write the author a quick note with some advice about how to improve their work? Wouldn’t the modern world of writing shift just a bit? Wouldn’t writers who are prone to spilling diarrhea onto a page and hitting “publish” without a second look feel a little more humble? Couldn’t we, as readers, hold authors accountable for the quality of their work? Granted, I just may very well fall within the cohort of writers who should reconsider writing anything aside from their own name (though I personally don’t believe I’m that damn bad). I wouldn’t know it if that were indeed the reality because aside from the occasional messages I receive praising the work I produce, no one tells me how I might create better work and I don’t take the time to seek out such constructive criticism.

In my own reflections over the past few weeks, I have learned of some things I can do to improve the quality of my work. First and foremost, I need to read more. Steven King slapped the shit out of me with this undeniable reality in his incredibly honest and authentic book On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft. I consider myself well-read, but as I’m in the process of writing my first novel, I had to ask myself if I’ve read enough great fictional work. I love music! I listen to music almost twenty-four hours a day and I can speak endlessly about the artists and entertainers in the musical world who’ve influenced my tastes and my ideas about what makes a song great. Why can’t I do the same for literature?  If I want to refine my voice and get a better understanding of great writing, I need to read more work from great writers. Seems commonsensical doesn’t it? Believe it or not, it’s apparently common for writers in our modern fast-paced world to neglect this practice. Perhaps that’s one of the key causes of the wide array of terrible writing available on the market these days.

In addition to reading more, I need to write more. Several years ago, before I discovered that I looked like I was dying (5’10 and only 130 pounds) I was a long distance runner. I ran a few miles every day and trained in the gym. I was careful about what I ate and I’d watch track and field every chance I could get to study the form and strategies of world-class runners. Unlike some of my peers, I didn’t excite spectators when I stepped onto the track, but I improved drastically each year with intentional practice. The first time I ran a 5k I thought I’d die. My chest was tight, my legs were on fire and if sweat could be used as money, I could have hired Bill Gates to be my personal chauffer. I’m not kidding. It was tough, but practice paid off. It’s time I approach writing with the same mentality. If I want to be a better writer, I need to set aside time each day or at least several times a week to just write!

Since it seems this post has turned from being a written reflection to a quasi-advice piece, let me say one other thing I need to do in hopes that at least some of you can benefit from this as well. I need to be more selfish with my time in an effort to give my mind space to breathe. When we are passionate about things, we make them priorities in our lives. Sometimes we let work, family, and friends get in the way but what I’ve learned in my 25th year of life is that the world and its nearly 7 billion inhabitants have few limits on what they may demand of you.

In a world in which we are easily accessible, it can be difficult to find a balance between taking care of your energy and maintaining relationships with others. None of us wants to give the proverbial “fuck you” to the members of our expansive networks by blowing off obligations and ignoring calls, texts and wall posts, but if I don’t get more serious about giving my mind some time to cool off, I know I might be cutting myself off from opportunities to pause and receive the many ideas the universe has to offer. I’ve come to appreciate King’s belief (which he writes about in On Writing) that we don’t have to find ideas but rather “recognize them when they show up.” I need to be ready when they come and I find I’m most ready when I’m not allowing my mind to run at 100 mph being concerned with all of the distractions the world has to offer. It doesn’t mean I have to stop living, but it does mean I need to be more conscious of my life as I’m living it.

I’m committed to being a better writer. I don’t think I’m awful, but I know I have a lot of work to do if I don’t want to spend my days producing work that can only be described as shitty.