Friday, March 25, 2011

The first story

Well, I finally finished the first of my stories. This one was about 5,000 words. I'm honestly a lot better then I thought I would be - I haven't written fiction in over 8 years. The story coheres pretty well, and the main character isn't flat. I do feel as though I didn't put very much of myself in the secondary characters, and so they're a lot more flat than I would've liked. True, it's tough to provide much characterization in a short story. However, characterization can be expressed in tiny gestures, quirks of clothing, odd word choices, and so forth, and I didn't really put many of those into this story. They would've given the two secondary characters a bit more life.

I'm happy with how the action scenes went, but I honestly don't know why I know how to write action at all. I never wrote any in middle school. My best guess is that I absorbed good action from writers like Robert Jordan and RA Salvatore. That explains why I know what good action looks like... but it doesn't really explain why good action would flow from my fingertips. I might just be deluding myself. Who knows.

I have a friend named Emily who's a technical writer, and right now, she's my hero. She brought up a number of things that I honestly didn't even think of - logical consistency to the story, foreshadowing, identifying the main conflicts, and so forth. One thing that also came to mind when I was reading her comments was that short stories are short enough to be expressed in a roughly three-act structure, and I didn't do any of that in this story. I need to.

I had a pretty good image of the world of the story in my mind, but I didn't flesh it out as fully as I should have. I think that's ultimately what's missing from this story in general - a lack of vivid imagination. I feel like I was so caught up in the difficulty of writing my first story that I was a little too cerebral about it - that, and I didn't write the first draft with a lack of self-consciousness, as I was taught. I tried, but the words just didn't flow. It came much easier in the action scenes and in the final scene, but not as easy as, say, it's coming right now.

Overall, I'm pretty happy.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Following your dreams

As anyone who reads this blog is aware, I recently quit my job to follow my dreams. I have no regrets about quitting my job - it was abundantly clear that it was making me miserable and stressing me out to no end. I have no regrets about choosing to follow my dreams, either. I finally did realize that there was something I've wanted to do from a young age, and that if I didn't take the chance when it presented itself, I would always wonder what might have happened. However, one question did trouble me for a long time - is following your dreams inherently selfish?

One of my many idle lines of thought about following my dreams has been whether or not this is a uniquely Western idea. Certainly, the ideal of the American Dream seems to be Western. It smacks of an entrepreneurial attitude that traces all the way back to the first voyages of the Puritans, sailing off into the sunset in hopes of building a new life, a city on a hill, an ideal which should be aspired to by all. It's this attitude that draws a constant stream of immigrants, as well. Americans by and large seem to hold the opinion that with enough hard work, you can be whatever you want to be. When you don't feel trapped in your position, you are free to dream of something greater, and to hope that one day, your dreams may come true.

However, in other countries, this would be seen as indolent, a shirking of one's duty. The Confucian ideals which drive modern Communist thought in China involve a strict adherence to the duty entailed by one's particular place in society. In India, as well, exists what was until recently an institutionalized class system. Aspiring above one's class was simply unthinkable. By quitting my job, I am failing to live up to both of these ideals - if my parents needed support from me, I might very well fail to provide it for lack of the funds I would've gotten from staying at Google.

Until recently, this was the end of my inquiry - following your dreams is an odd American idea that other cultures disdain. On pondering this idea, however, recently it struck me that it's very similar to another concept present in so many cultures throughout the history of humanity - the idea of Destiny. This thread runs throughout many religions, and one could also argue that by being a programmer despite my lack of interest, I am ignoring my true calling. Thus, if you believe that God has a plan for me, then you could argue that by ignoring my gut telling me to write fantasy novels, I'm ignoring the word of God. Since one's first duty is to God in so many religions, one could reasonably argue that refusing to follow your dreams shirks your duty to God.

Really, though, I ultimately decided my own answer to this question based on none of these traditions. Instead, I decided it based on my own attitude. My resentment toward my job was starting to bleed over into all areas of my life - I could feel my temper getting shorter, my motivation getting weaker, and my thoughts growing duller. Allowing myself to remain this way does no service at all to my friends and family, and makes me much less pleasant to be around. I had to ask myself: Would they really want me to be miserable if it meant I could help them make their mortgage payments? I never asked them directly, but I would have to assume the answer would be no.

Of course, there's no inherent link between following your dreams and improving your attitude, though I would argue that it's pretty clearly a big help. I could theoretically have stayed at my job and devoted a lot of effort to changing my attitude in other ways - seeing a counselor, exercising more, trying to change my thought patterns on my own, and so forth. I could also have given making my work at Google more fulfilling the old college try. However, I felt like I had devoted enough mental energy into trying to make my job at Google work. At some point, you have to admit that nothing you can do is going to change the fact that you hate your job.

Still, my plight is a hell of a lot less complicated and severe than that faced by most people. While I do have family I could support, it's a far cry from, say, supporting a wife and children. In that case, I think most people would agree that quitting a well-paying job to follow my dream of working at a bowling alley seems horribly self-centered. As well, if I had no money saved at all, but I had loving parents who couldn't possibly stand seeing me destitute, it would seem pretty selfish to quit my job knowing that I would soon have to go to my parents for help, and that they would be unable to refuse. In these cases, the answers seems to me to be far less clear-cut, and I'd have to think long and hard before passing judgment.

Ultimately, the answer to whether or not following your dreams is selfish isn't easily come by. I guess I just decided that it was worth being a little bit selfish if I had a chance to make myself much happier. One day, if I get married or my family is facing, say, some costly medical bills they are in no position to pay, I might revisit this question.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The time has come.

A significant chapter of my life is coming to an end. As with all such events, I feel it's appropriate to write a rambling blog post wherein I attempt to deduce why I made this decision, and to describe how I feel about it. As with all things, I'll start at the beginning - or at least, close to it.

I've never had a well-developed sense of purpose. For most of my early years of school, I simply drifted along, getting fairly mediocre grades and never caring all that much. I flaunted the rules at every opportunity, assuming that my wit and intelligence would get me out of any scrapes I got myself into. Up until high school, this proved to be true - despite getting kicked out of class a lot and getting mostly C's, I scraped by.

When I hit high school, I was on a trajectory that very clearly led toward failure. Because of my rampant misbehavior and bad grades in middle school, I was put in a special class with the other reprobates called the "Autonomous Learner Class". However, midway through my first semester, I abruptly changed course, and ended high school with a 3.96, captaincy of multiple academic teams, and a Stanford acceptance letter. The teacher of the aforementioned class for misfits became my mentor, and had a lot to do with my redemption, but the one most responsible for my about-face was my brother. Seeing what he accomplished inspired me. However, my rather ignoble goal was to "beat" him - whatever that meant. Admittedly, the impetus for changing my ways and getting to Stanford didn't come from a particularly well thought-out place.

At Stanford, I again fell into a purposeless malaise. I got pretty crappy grades during my freshman year, and I wanted to leave. I even went so far as to fill out the transfer application to the University of Colorado at Boulder, a far easier school where my girlfriend waited for me. I'm sure my application would have been accepted. However, again, my brother came to my rescue, daring me to take the hard path yet again. I rose to the challenge and picked up my GPA - not very much, but enough to boost me above the 3.0 level.

When it came time to choose a major, I had no clue what to do, and bounced between disparate specialties. Off the top of my head, I was seriously considering philosophy, geophysics, statistics, math, and "management science and engineering", whatever the hell that is. I ultimately ended up choosing Computer Science. I had watched the movie Hackers a few times as a kid, and had an unrealistic notion of what a programmer was. This informed my choice a bit. However, I think it mostly came from wanting to emulate my peers in my sophomore dorm.

Towards the end of my senior year, I was at a crossroads familiar to everyone in modern society - how should I make a living? I figured that since I had a Computer Science degree, it should probably be a programming job. I'm honestly not sure how my peers chose their companies, but it was likely based on pay, where their friends went to work, culture fit, and where they did their internships. I, however, based it on none of these. I had no internships to draw from, and had no real knowledge of the culture of any company recruiting at my school. However, I did know Google's reputation for being a place for the intellectual elite, and more significantly, I knew that it was almost impossible to get hired there. Because of my arrogance (and, correspondingly, insecurity), I based my decision on these two factors alone. I figured that working at such a lofty company would help to reassure me of my own intelligence. Sure enough, I landed the job.

For the past 5 and a half years, I've been drifting through Google in much the same way I drifted through school. I have chosen which team to work on based solely on where I thought I could prove my intelligence. After my first project went south, I chose a team with a bunch of smart people. After that team moved to Pittsburgh, I chose the team that was supposedly the hardest to transfer to. After I got burnt out on that project, I went back to my previous focus area for no good reason other than my friend worked there.

By now, it will be terribly obvious to the reader that at no time did I even consider what I really wanted. I had no clear vision of where I wanted to end up, and I had no idea what would make me happiest. All I knew was that I wanted to prove to the world that I was smart. Over time, I gradually realized that being smart isn't terribly important. Interacting with so many smart people also helped me get over my arrogance and insecurity. Once I took that away, I had to do some serious soul-searching. What kind of job would fit my natural capabilities, and in what job could I really envision myself spending a happy lifetime?

After a lot of thought, I realized that ever since I was a kid, I had been obsessed with fantasy novels. I've re-read some of the longest fantasy series multiple times over, and I'm often at my happiest rapt by the climax of a great book. In middle school, me and my friends would often spend our time in class surreptitiously passing a spiral notebook back and forth, communally writing a fantasy story involving all of us and several of our classmates (who didn't know they were starring in our little serials). My favorite class in middle school was our creative writing class, where I got starts on a few fantasy stories. I often talked with my mentor in high school about fantasy novels, and he sent me a rough draft of the first chapter in the trilogy he very recently completed.

It might seem like writing a fantasy novel is a natural fit for me. However, I left out one significant factor in my life which influenced every major decision I've made - depression.

Throughout middle school and high school I have always suffered through bouts of malaise. I would disconnect from everyone around me and try my damndest to escape my situation. Escapism is a classic symptom of depression, and the impulse is terribly unhealthy. What's more, if the depressed person gives into their desire to escape, they usually end up in a worse place than the one from which they ran. Though I do enjoy fantasy on its own merits, my desire to escape into a fantastical world had its roots in depression. My desire to escape from Stanford to CU Boulder came from my illness, as well as my constant switching teams at Google. You could also make a reasonable argument that my tendency to quit hobbies as soon as they become difficult is a symptom of mental illness as well, though it could also stem from my fear of failure.

I mention this because when I realized that I wanted to leave Google in order to become a writer, I had serious reservations. By now, I was very familiar with my escapist tendencies. There was a real possibility this desire didn't come from a healthy place, but was rather my depressed mind attempting to escape a difficult job. As a compromise, I made myself this promise - if I had any doubts at all about leaving Google, I wouldn't do it. If I ever got to the point where I had no doubts about leaving Google and writing a novel, I would wait an entire month and re-examine my feelings. If I still felt the same way, I would then give serious thought to leaving.

Well... it's been a month.

I can now say to myself with absolute confidence that my desire to leave Google is not escapist in any way. The vision of myself as a writer I had a month ago is, if anything, clearer in my mind now. I think I have a knack for writing - I checked out a few of the short stories I wrote a couple of years ago, and they're pretty good. I know the fantasy genre well, having read almost every significant fantasy author from the past 20 years. I know which cliches to bend to my purposes, and which cliches to avoid. I know what kinds of stories I find most compelling, and what kinds of stories make me yawn. Most importantly, I know what it is that I want to say about the world. It's something big and abstract that defies being looked at directly, but it's something I have to say about the nature of belief that I think I can illustrate through magic.

I've spent a number of years wandering through life with no path and no purpose. However, I don't feel that any of my travels were without meaning. I've drawn lessons from every challenge I've overcome. From high school, I've learned how to overcome my own impulses and power through boredom. From college, I've learned how to adapt to unfamiliar situations. I've learned what love is, and by the same token, I've learned how to cope with loss. From Google, I've learned just how far I can push myself. I've seen the impossible accomplished enough to suspend my own judgment of what's possible. I've learned how to divide a massive task into miniature goals, and how to derive a great deal of satisfaction from meeting those goals. I've made a few friends along the way, as well.

I'm not sure if there's an overarching moral to this story, but regardless, this phase of my life is over, and it's time to move on.

Goodbye, Google.