Lady professor by day. Reader by night. Sometimes I write books.
I'm a fan of taking long walks on sunny days, browsing through the library on Saturday afternoons, and eating popcorn for lunch. I am a native North Dakotan, a professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, and author of some books. I'm represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group. When I'm not writing or teaching writing, I'm an avid reader and an enthusiastic listener of podcasts (especially podcasts about books). I hate golf, avalanches, and bees.
Earlier this month, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, blamed Leonardo DiCaprio for setting forest fires in the Amazon rain forest. “Leonardo DiCaprio is a great guy, isn’t he?” President Bolsonaro said facetiously. Bolsonaro went on to say that DiCaprio “donat[ed] money to set the Amazon on fire” for his own personal gain.
DiCaprio responded on Instagram by reiterating his support for the people of Brazil and for the continued protection of the rain forest.
But the whole incident got me thinking: What if we could just blame everything on Leonardo DiCaprio? What if all the bad things in the world—real or imagined— could just be attributed to him? Wouldn’t that be cathartic?
So in no particular order, here are the things—real or imagined—I intend to blame on Leonardo from here on out:
He handwrites letters to children telling them there is no Santa Claus.
I have a secret vice: It’s productivity self-help literature. I read everything about it because I secretly believe that there’s some elusive–but ultimately accessible–method for producing more and more and more and more.
I’m here to say there is definitely a method for producing more. In fact, there are many methods. It turns out they aren’t so elusive, nor are they particularly hard to implement. Many of them work very well.
But I recently realized I’m asking the wrong question. Yes, I can be more productive, but the bigger question is should I be more productive? And if so, at what? All work isn’t good work.
When we talk about productivity, we lack the language to even interrogate the concept because we’ve built virtuousness right into the definition. We can’t examine, critique, or even question productivity without accidentally endorsing laziness, a cardinal sin in our culture. Questioning productivity is like trying to make an argument against generosity or kindness.
Anti-productivity is all about questioning what we are doing so that we can ensure we’re doing the right things.
In my zeal to be old, I often forget how instructive it can be to listen to kids. Sure, they are generally little sociopaths with broken moral compasses–and they smell like hamsters– but they often have excellent ideas about how to live.
Here are some things children have recently taught me:
Don’t Waste Your Time with Dumb Stuff
My niece patiently explained to me that showering is optional. If she can sleep for an extra half hour, she isn’t stepping into a waterflow of any kind. “It just seems pointless,” she told me. She’s not wrong. Personal hygiene is totally the thief of joy. Greasy hair isn’t a crime. “It just looks like gel,” she insisted. She’ll bathe when she “gets to it.” Here’s a kid with priorities.
She also doesn’t muddy her memory with useless details. When I asked her what time she goes to school, she had no idea. It could be eight a.m., it could be seven a.m., it could be hamburger. She simply doesn’t know! “I just go in when the bell rings,” she explained (with a fair amount disdain, as if she just had to inform me that rain comes from the sky).
Her ingenious approach to life ensures she doesn’t have a head full of useless knowledge. She uses all that free brain space, she explained, to think about more important things, like whether or not she wants pizza.
Do Take a Reasonable Approach to Problem-Solving
My nephew is only twelve, but he has the common sense of an eighty-year-old. He goes to bed early, does his homework as soon as he gets home from school, disapproves of Tik Tok, and gets to class early to “center” himself. He’s also a keen pragmatist.
“Would you be willing to eat people?” he recently asked me.
“Why are you asking me that?” I asked. I was suspicious because he was handing me a taco at the same time.
“Just curious. I myself wouldn’t do it.”
“No,” I answered, “I’ll definitely pass on eating people.”
“What if they wanted to be eaten?”
“How would we know that?”
He thought for a moment. “They could tell people. Like sign something that says it’s okay to eat them.” He went on to craft a complicated system that was sort of a cross between organ donation and The Hunger Games. Then he left to watch YouTube, satisfied that he’d essentially solved global hunger and cemetery overcrowding in about twenty minutes.
The whole conversation left me wondering why I can’t easily come up with reasonable solutions to even the smallest recurring problems. Yet he has enough reason to create a plan for responsible cannibalism.
Don’t Lie, Even If the Truth Hurts
My ten-year-old niece is pathologically honest. If you give her a gift she doesn’t like, she’ll give you a sour expression, utter a perfunctory thank you, and then give the gift back. I once handed her a picnic basket to hold. She mistakenly thought it was a gift. “No thank you,” she told me. “I prefer not to picnic.” She’s basically a tween Bartleby.
Once you become an adult, you start to rely on little lies to lubricate social situations. It doesn’t take long before you’ve told your coworker that you love his singing, reassured your neighbors that you don’t mind in the least if their cat eats everything in your garden, and donated to your brother-in-law’s multi-level marketing business that sells leggings for goldfish.
Not my niece. She puts it out there. And as a result, you are never in doubt where you stand with her, and she never feels compelled to be someone other than herself. Not long ago, she met her older brother’s new girlfriend. She took one look at the girlfriend, turned to her brother and said, “This will never last. She’s going to dump you.” That’s radical honesty.
Be Better, But Still Be You
I was once asked to give a speech about how to change the world. I agreed to do it, but the truth was that I don’t have a clue how to change the world. I only recently learned how to change the furnace filter. (That’s a lie. I have no idea how to do that either.)
So I asked my friends with kids to advise me. How do you change the world? The kids’ answers were delightful. They advised more love, more smiles, more puppies, more kindness, less bullying, less greed, and less jealously.
They also gave me some bonkers answers that I still think about:
“I go under the tables.”
“After lunch I take a nap.
“If I play in the front room.”
“I like lollipops.”
What I took from their answers is that we can all agree that kindness and generosity are never bad ways to approach life. At the same time, it’s okay to be you. Get under the table and fart! Take a nap after lunch! Have a lollipop!
Life is hard. Find joy.
Above all, listen to the kids. They know what’s up.
I get that checking luggage is a giant pain. It takes longer upon arrival, not to mention that the airlines charge an arm and leg for our privilege of traveling with clean underwear.
In the past, I have traveled with just a carry-on bag, but I usually check my bag because I enjoy being able to shut the door in the tiny airport bathroom stalls that aren’t meant to accommodate luggage.
Now that everyone brings the largest carry-on possible, it takes three days to board the plane while people stow their steamer trunks. Upon landing, you have enough time to knit your own suitcase while you wait for everyone to find their overhead compartment and pull out their luggage filled with gold bricks.
I fully admit to being irrationally (and quietly) annoyed with people pretty much 132% of the time, so my latest rant about carry-on luggage should probably be filed along with my other public policy proposals to legally enforce silence in grocery stores and pass laws making small talk on planes punishable by immediate ejection.
Nevertheless, I propose that anyone who doesn’t have a carry-on should be allowed to exit the plane first. Anyone with a giant carry-on should be strategically placed in some kind of labeled area that we checked-bag-people can file past with superior smirks on our faces.
I know, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t been consulted by the airlines yet to discuss my amazing ideas. It’s probably because some fat cat airline CEO is flying on his private jet, fully funded by my checked bagged fees.
If I ever get a hold of that guy, though, I have some flowcharts I’d like to share with him.
Let’s talk about your bedroom for a minute. Do you use phones or other screens in yours? If you do, does using technology in your bedroom affect your sleep? Your focus? Do you know for sure?
I have a Kindle, but I leave my phone in another room. I know if I have a screen nearby, and I’m trying to sleep, I’ll end up thinking about work. For me, the mere presence of a screen puts in me in work mode.
Recently, I read some research about what happens when kids/tweens have screens in their rooms. It turns out that using screens in the bedroom is far worse (in terms of cognitive effects) than using screens elsewhere. So I wrote an article about that research for Your Teen Magazine, a leading source of trusted advice for parents raising tweens and teens.
Let me know what your household practices are for digital devices. In a world of digital distraction, we’re all trying to find ways to balance the addictive pull of technology and the need for silence. What’s your last refuge for silence?
Haters gonna hate, hate, hate. I know that. If Taylor Swift has taught me anything, it’s that somebody always hates you. Heck, I hate Taylor Swift for reasons I can’t even articulate. And who am I? Nobody. She should never listen to a thing I say. What do I know? My singing is so bad that I mouth the words to “Happy Birthday” so that I don’t ruin anyone’s big day.
Bad reviews, even just tepid reviews, of my published writing used to kill me. After reading one meh review, I would spend at least a day seriously considering never writing again.
Being a professional writer, though, means you absolutely have to get used to bad reviews. It’s just part of the job.
So here’s what I did to get comfortable with the idea that some people–maybe many people–hate what my work (and/or me):
Recognize that everyone is entitled to an opinion.
Some people have read my books and articles and come to radically different conclusions than I intended. Or they just flat-out disagreed with me. It’s inevitable. And it’s okay. I too have opinions. What’s that old saying? Opinions are like buttholes: They all stink. No wait, it’s that we all have them. Most of the time, writers should stay out of conversations among readers. It’s just not our place to try to change someone’s mind about our work. But don’t assume that just because someone hated your book that that means it’s a bad book. It just means you agree to disagree.
Take constructive criticism with grace; ignore the other stuff.
When someone challenges your research, content, conclusions, facts, etc., it’s best to take an honest look at whether or not they have a point. I’m a better writing because I’ve listened to the criticism, especially criticism that comes from avid readers and writers.Some criticism isn’t valid. For example, I’ve had readers write to “correct” facts that were not wrong. Don’t sweat it when some yahoo writes to tell you that, well, actually, the American Revolution was fought in Poland in 1998. You will never change their mind.
I’ve had readers make wild and unsupported assumptions about what I’ve written. One reader accused me of arguing that teens should be having way more sex. I swear, I’ve never, ever argued that.
And some readers will always correct you for not covering subject x in a book/article about subject y. They’ll say, Your book on project management for squirrels is terrible. I didn’t find a single chapter in there about latch hook rugs. You can ignore it, or you can thank them for their thoughts. Either way, just move along.
Separate the valid from the invalid, and then apply what you learned.
Just accept nobody cares how much time, energy, and effort went into your writing. Writing is really hard and really time-consuming, but almost nobody takes that into consideration (and maybe they shouldn’t). Readers will like or dislike your work regardless of how many times you revised or how many things you gave up to sit in front of a computer for hours at a time.
People who have published before tend to be kinder and gentler readers because they know how brutal the process is. They’ll grade on a curve. But most readers simply don’t know what the publishing process entails and they are just responding to the product in front of them. That’s okay! Just embrace that you will (almost) never get credit for effort.
Ignore the weirdos, the malcontents, and the unpleasant people.
It is true that when you publish, critics will come out of the woodwork and tell you bizarre things, some of which will be extremely rude.
Some of the strangest feedback I’ve received came from people making weirdly specific assumptions about me, like the commenter on one of my magazine pieces who said my husband hated me and I didn’t know how to use a coffeemaker. When you get feedback like that, just consider the source. And take solace in the fact that you struck a nerve. That’s what we hope to do as writers.
Readers will often make wild assumptions about you personally. You will get comments on your appearance, even when that has nothing to do with your writing. People will draw huge conclusions about you based on limited information: You are a selfish person. You spend too much money. You eat too much toast. You are a lumberjack. Seriously, people will come up with all kinds of ideas about you.You know who you are. That’s all that matters.
To be a successful writer, you have to learn how to care about your own voice–regardless of who likes it or who doesn’t.
Being a writer means embracing the reality that writing is meant to make people feel something…even if that feeling is that you suck.