That Excruciating Joy

I’ve been chopping down trees again. I should be using an ax — but instead, I’m using my head. Ouch. There’s this popular myth about the creative process that goes something like this: In the throes of creation, the artist becomes a blissful, empty vessel through which flows the sweet nectar of inspiration from on high, words spilling out onto the page in a heady stream of exhilarating prose… Yeah, well. Maybe that’s how it is for someone else. It sure isn’t how it is for me. For me, writing is tough work, often uncomfortable, at times downright excruciating. Times like this. I’m working on that book, the one I started in the middle of April. I’ve assembled two months’ worth of raw material, much of it vague and either redundant or incomplete, and a rough outline that keeps shifting under my feet. Okay. That’s as much prep as we’re gonna get. Now I have to actually write the thing. There are parts of the process that are easier than others. For example, editing and polishing something I’ve already rough-drafted. Piece of cake! Earlier this year I spent a month revising the manuscript for the next Navy SEAL memoir Brandon and I just wrote together. Rewriting is a blast. But the original writing part? The part where you start with a blank sheet of paper (or blank computer screen) and try, by dint of sheer mental focus, to make something magically appear there that feels seriously worthwhile? Sheer murder. And I’m not the only one who feels it. Writers are famous for their angst over facing a blank page....

To Bills, With Love

My bank account offers a feature, common these days, that lets me set up automatic payments for all my bills. They started offering it ages ago. But month after month, year after year, I somehow never got around to signing up for it. Friends who used “billpay” told me it was great, a major convenience, a huge timesaver, an ingenious alleviator of sundry headaches. Still I avoided it. Finally I asked myself why. And immediately realized the answer: It wasn’t a Luddite thing, and it wasn’t that I was paranoid it would go Hal 5000 on me and spend all my money when I wasn’t looking. The truth was simpler and, you might say, weirder. I liked writing out those checks. When I was young, paying every month’s bills was a source of great stress. Typically I had more bills than cash (typically well more), so paying those bills was a constant and sometimes terrifying juggling act: weighing how to prioritize the available dollars and parse out the minimums, calculating which payables I could safely hold off, and for how long, and which I could pay part now and part later, and which I just had to pay in full right now. (As you already know from my repossessed Lexus story, I didn’t always get that right.) I often went whole months with those nagging questions tugging at my psyche thirty days out of thirty. Then one day, as I sat at my desk feeling the acid clench in my solar plexus, it suddenly occurred to me: I was angry. Angry that I didn’t have enough, angry that I...

Love and Work

One fine day as I idled at a red light in Allston, Massachusetts, two hopped up guys stepped into my cab, trained a gun on me, told me to turn off my dispatch radio and drive up Summit Avenue to the top of Corey Hill, where they were going to shoot me dead. (Note to self: lock door at red lights.) Something in me said it would be a good idea to keep the vehicle moving and not stop. So instead, I drove my passengers up to and over Corey Hill and right into Brookline, where I pulled into the curb outside the Brookline police station. They disembarked and slithered away without a word. They did not tip me. They did not even pay their fare. I did not complain. I was in my early twenties, learning something about the world by driving taxicab, which I did for about six months. At the time I thought I was doing it purely for the much-needed income, but four decades of hindsight tells me I also needed to do something that would stretch me and force me to grow up a little. Driving taxicab outside Boston certainly did that. I stretched and grew in that job — but I also hated it. I hated it not so much for the danger, but because it felt like taking a long walk in a pair of shoes that didn’t fit. The job didn’t really use any of my strengths. Some people have a naturally outgoing, chatty nature and love spending time striking up conversation after conversation. I am not that person. I had...

You Are Not What You Do

You’ve probably read this quote before: “You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Wise words from the sage Aristotle. Except for two problems. One, Aristotle never said them. And two, they’re not true. Thank heavens! Because if they were, you and I might be in big trouble. What Aristotle actually said was this: “These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions … As it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” The entire “You are what you do” quote that everyone knows comes not from Aristotle but from the great historian Will Durant, in his summarizing of the Aristotle passage. I get what both quotes (the original and the add-on) are driving at: 1) Actions you take over and over tend to become things you do automatically, without thinking … and 2) Like rivulets of water from steady rains wearing grooves in rock, your habitual actions over time will carve riverbeds of behavior into the landscape of your days. So true, and there is something powerfully positive about that. For example: If you start going out of your way to thank people, even for little things, and notice things you are grateful for, and you do this every day, you’ll start carving streambeds of gratitude in your psyche, and in time become a habitually grateful person. (The same goes, like a photonegative, for the habit of complaining and criticizing: you get malign riverbeds of unhappy silt...