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Yesterday, I hadn’t. But today…I have.

After nearly four years, lots of struggle, pain, heartache, and perseverance…

I just finished my first novel.

A draft anyway—but a damn solid one in my novice opinion. And with a full day to spare before my Christmas deadline.

Sure I’ve got some cleanup to go back and do, resulting from the plot-surgery I did over the summer. But I’ve got my list ready and none of it intimidates me.

I’ve wanted to know what this feels like for a long, long time. Sure, almost four years on this story alone, but it was a full 20 years ago that I truly dove in to my first novel (later abandoning it).

For the record (and for all you aspiring novelists out there), it feels really incredible. Inspiring. Liberating. Powerful.

Today, I am (technically) a novelist.

Can’t wait to start the next one.

Write on! And on, and on, and on…

We hear about the work-life balance. Dedicating enough time and energy to your job without giving up too much of the time and energy you want to spend actually living.

Most people just have to balance the two. Working too much? Your life suffers. Living too much? Your work suffers. Live to work? Or work to live? It’s a tough balance for anyone to maintain, of course.

As wannabe published writers, we have it much, much worse.

We writers have another chunk in there: our writing. It’s not quite life, because it often feels like work, and it’s not quite work, because (at first) we’re not getting paid for it. And if it’s fiction we’re writing, there’s a painfully good chance we never will.

So somewhere between work and life, we have to carve out what moments we can for our writing, adding another variable to the balance equation, another master we hope to serve.

We want to be writing. Our hearts and our minds drive us to. We feel best after a good session, a finished work, and that only contributes to our enjoyment of life.

We also want happy, fulfilling lives, because we can use them to fuel our writing, to give us the positive and creative boost we need to keep going. Plus it just feels good to be happy. Mmmm…happy.

We also need to survive: food, shelter, clothing, and all the things Maslow said come right after that. Unfortunately, that’s why we work.

Very few of the writers I know find much fulfillment from their job-type jobs, even if it involves writing. Yet not one of us has figured out a way to avoid it, short of a trust fund, a sugar mama/daddy, or a winning lottery ticket.

Work is a necessary obstacle, and a rigid one at that, demanding a majority of your time and typically the best hours of it. Which generally leaves us only “life” to cut from to make time for writing.

That makes it twice as hard to do. Harder.

So hard, in fact, that our writing often gets shifted, or shafted, or flat-out trumped when life’s demands simply won’t let go. For every great story idea, or turn of phrase that comes to us, there are blizzards, and taxes, and flooded basements, and car repairs, and illness, and stubbed toes conspiring against us.

Our writing suffers; our spirit suffers; our lives suffer; eventually our work suffers.

It’s not fair, I know. But we’ve got to suck it up. Make time to write. It’s the only way we’ll ever find that true satisfaction.

Work is work, and it always will be. We’ve got bigger plans than the bloated egos, shortened deadlines, lame policies, and office politics that surround us there. Work-Life? That’s not the balance we need to be focused on.

To hell with the cliché; for us, it’s write to live, live to write.

Write on.

I just spent an incredible week at a fiction writer’s workshop and I’m exhausted.Pen

See, I’ve been having some trouble plotting lately. No, not my nefarious plans for world domination, my novel. It’s not that I don’t have ideas for my plot; I have plenty. It’s that I don’t typically have a lot of confidence when to comes to those ideas. I get all caught up in my own head worrying that what I’ve laid out is uninteresting, or cliché, or weak, or inconsequential, or mundane, or lacks sufficient buoyancy to sustain an entire novel.

Yes, the age-old writer’s curse—self doubt—seems to have grabbed hold of my former amateurish confidence and choked it out like Royce Gracie on a championship night. I’ve been stuck. Floundering in a lack of self-confidence, I would stare blankly at my noble and approachable characters, unable to craft any tasks and challenges that I deemed worthy of them, or worse, of my potential readers.

So on a whim, I trekked to Iowa City for some writer’s respite and much-needed instruction from the “sages of the Foxhead.”

I went hoping that I would acquire some methods and tactics to eventually formulate a plot that could sustain a novel. Instead, I left with an actual sustained plot for my novel!

Granted, it’s a rough one, but when my incredible instructor helped me drop the last significant piece into place, the floodgates opened and a newfound clarity caused the rest of the story to flow out of me so quickly my fingers could barely keep up.

What started as a half-dozen key plot points quickly became a comprehensive outline, which then evolved into a full scene index with several dozen installments. By the end of the week I had all of my milestones laid out before me (well, most of them) and I couldn’t wait to start writing my way down that winding road.

Yes, it was a very rewarding, invigorating experience and for any writers out there, I highly recommend it. Much can be said about just the opportunity and environment: taking a week off to be away from work, home, life, and its responsibilities and dedicating that time instead to writing, thinking about writing, and surrounding yourself with writers who are doing the same. Cliché though it may be, it’s magical.

So with this renewed sense of purpose, and a wee bit of validation to bolster my confidence, I’ve got a roadmap for my newest literary project and frankly, I’m stoked about it.

Why am I telling you? The reasons are twofold. Read the rest of this entry »

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Just before the turn of the century, I created an extraordinary opportunity for myself.

Taking full advantage of the privileges of youth, I decided to use my new home in the Tetons as the launching pad for what I would later call my “last great adventure of the 20th Century”.

GNP-GttSr-McDonaldCreekFor eight months I planned, prepped, scrimped, and saved, working a second and sometimes third job to sock away enough dough to take six weeks off (unpaid, mind you) to travel the western US and parts of Canada, free as a leaf on the wind. Well, as free as a leaf could be if, wanting to get the most out of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it had a well-planned route and a fairly rigid schedule to see everything it wanted to in the time it had.

Despite my best efforts, every time I tried to route a shorter trip the main attraction at the apogee was always just a few hours from another “always wanted to see” place. After half a dozen extensions, I had a grand loop around the western third of the US and I knew I couldn’t do it any other way. So in the late summer of 1999, maps and sleeping bag in hand, I hit the road with one close friend and one acquaintance to tackle the amazing and mostly unseen-by-me western US, an undiscovered land that held so much to see that I just couldn’t do it half-heartedly.

A testament to my organized and preparatory nature, I am proud to say that in those six weeks we travelled over 6000 miles, visiting 9 states/provinces, 17 National Parks or Monuments, and 16 cities, almost all of which I had never seen before (nor since). Read the rest of this entry »

PrintUsually, I try to concentrate on new writing projects. But every now and again, I am compelled to crack open my musty folders full of unpublished stories of auld lang syne and pore over them once again, full of reminiscence and longing.

In many ways they have withstood the test of time. They are still relevant, for the most part; I still like them and believe in them. I typically still like the characters too. And in feeling as much, I find I experience some regret, if not sorrow at their never having been published. And once that starts, I get sucked in.

“Why didn’t it get published?” I wonder. “Can I do anything to it to make it better?” After all, some of these tales are 10 or 15 years old and I freely admit that I’m a better writer now, by leaps and bounds. That being said, what if the story was great, but my talents were simply not up to the task at the time it sprang forth? Sure, I gave it my best, but now that the older and more experienced me has applied his scrutinizing eye, I can see scores upon scores of editorial notes that I know would make it read better. So out comes the red pen and the markups begin. Since they’ve never been published, what’s the harm in touching them up a little? No one would know but me.

But here’s the quandary, these stories have a certain sentimental value in their original state. As their creator, it is now somewhat painful to read them and hear the voice that I once had, laden with crudeness and amateur phrasings. Yet they are still reflections of who and where I was at the time they were written. And certainly they serve as a literary photo album, offering glimpses of past milestones on the road of my maturation as a writer. It occurs to me that, though they might not have been good enough to be published, they still have value, if none other than a stepping stone to the next story, and the next, and so on.

I don’t try to sell my short stories anymore; there just isn’t much of a market for them it seems. And what market does exist is inundated with submissions, slow to respond (if at all), and often governed by ridiculously low word counts. So in the end I suppose my time is better spent on other projects, but the question remains: is it wrong, a betrayal of sorts, to revisit old, unpublished writings from the past and try to remold them with the words from my inner voice of the present? Do an unsold story and its crafted characters deserve the finest presentation I can give them, the best shot possible at ever seeing pages of print? Or is it nobler to preserve the scribblings of my past persona, errors, clichés, and homespun howlings all included, and retain them as souvenirs of the writer I once was?

Perhaps someday I’ll publish a collection of my short stories and an editor will finally help me decide what to fix and what to forget. But until then, I fear I shall be tempted again and again by calls from my past yarns, yearning to be re-spun with the shinier tools I have today.

What’s your persuasion? Should I shine them up or shove them aside?

Recently, I talked with a friend about behaving responsibly.

As the years have piled on, I continue to focus on responsible behavior. I readily see the link between making “poor” choices (perhaps “immediate” is better) and the extension of those choices delaying, prohibiting, or outright negating the possibility of me attaining certain goals: health, financial independence, physical fitness, harmony with nature, and so on.

Each year, each month, each day, I consider and eventually enact changes in my behaviors that propel me towards these simple-yet-lofty goals. After all, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” and I’ll even add, “in yourself.”

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You see I really love cookies. I mean, LOVE them. To emphasize, my first word in this life was “cookie.” Previously, my personal performance of the bedtime routine opened with a few (sometimes more) cookies and a glass of milk, followed by a fervent tooth brushing and the inevitable slumber. I firmly believe that warm cookies and cold milk are good for the soul. So much pleasure and joy is contained within those crude little discs of love, how can they not be?

But recognizing their empty-caloric nature and my languishing metabolism as I age, I’ve been actively suppressing my desires, breaking with my evening custom, and oft replacing my beloved baked goods with less-than-sufficient celery and peanut butter, or worse, nothing. Read the rest of this entry »

Stunning admission: I’m not on Facebook and never was.

Mostly, I just don’t have a lot of time for it. I also don’t have a lot of interest in broadcasting random bits about myself, even if it is just to friends.

On the up side, by staying away from Facebook (and Twitter) I have a lot more time to do the things I want to do. As captivating as it may be to survey the latest pics, postings, and posits from 4200 of my “closest friends,” I have a lot I want to accomplish in life and limited time to do it in.

I also have the benefit of getting more honest-to-God personal contact with my friends than those who tweet or FB. Granted it takes more planning and time to stay connected, be it through phone calls, emails, or (God forbid!) visits, but the benefits of actual personal communication is shown in the strength of the friendships that have endured.

On the down side, the number of those friendships has been and is dwindling, and I attribute no small part of the blame to Facebook.

Yes, I fully realize the irony of a blog post that demonizes social media. Hear me out. Read the rest of this entry »

Sunday is the 42nd anniversary of the creation of Earth Day, a remarkable movement founded in Madison, WI by then US Senator and former Governor, Gaylord Nelson.

Earth Day has one central purpose: to encourage people to consider humanity’s impact on the environment and act in ways that reduce the negative effects on all ecosystems and species.

It is a simple goal, but has far-reaching implications and can be summed up in their most-recognized slogan, “Think Globally. Act Locally.” It was Senator Nelson who coined this idea, insisting that local action and education be the central method of Earth Day rather than protests and sit-ins.

“Act Locally” does not just mean in counties or municipalities, it means in our homes and businesses, and most importantly, our lives. Sure it means big things like urging local, state, and federal governments to pass laws that protect our environment, but it also means smaller things like being realistic about what we need to consume, Read the rest of this entry »

Here I am, roughly 20 years into my working life. Throughout that time I’ve been lucky enough to never be unemployed, with the exception of a couple of spread out months following the occasional change of venue.

In terms of work, I have had mostly successes, though no big ones. A few failures too. I’ve been lucky in terms of finding jobs, keeping them, and leaving them at the right time. I’ve been “responsible” with my paychecks (for the most part) and used them to build a decent lifestyle, I suppose.

Professionally, I don’t have a whole lot to show for that time though. No awards. No postgraduate degrees. Certainly no saved lives or groundbreaking accomplishments. No impressive body of work. No significant title, power, or salary to speak of. No influence at my current position, really. Half of the companies that I used to work for, the smaller ones, are now defunct  (no, not because I left) which means I can’t even get a reference out of them.

In my formative years, I always envisioned myself being more successful, accomplished, or even satisfied at this age. At a minimum, I expected that my time spent working (for pay, I mean) would be important, engaging, or fulfilling, or that my peers, friends, community, or even some self-aggrandizing organization that doles out shallow but plaque-able recognition might come to respect the fruits of my labors. But it seems that 20 years in, I’m not, it isn’t, and they haven’t. Read the rest of this entry »

Here’s a stunning admission: I have no qualifications to be a writer.

That thought alone is enough to paralyze me; is reason enough to make me want to throw in the towel. I mean, why would anyone want to read what I have written? I’ve never taken a creative writing class, or a class on writing commentary, nor blogging. In fact, aside from a one-day course to brush up on business writing and grammar, it’s been almost 20 years since I took a class that was centered on writing. That was “Freshman Writing” in college; hardly advanced training.

I’m not saying that I necessarily require more training. After all, how much training does a writer need? How much did Vonnegut have before he sold his first short story? What about Eco, or Steinbeck, or Twain? More importantly, how much training would it take for me to feel better about what I write? I have a feeling that if I re-entered academia to obtain more letters behind my name I may get caught up in that world again and possibly never leave. I could lose years (I’ve lost enough already) making myself feel better about how qualified I am to write and still be no closer to finishing a major work.

I’ve read a lot of advice to writers from other writers, tips on how to stay fresh, keep in the game, not give up and so on. It’s all very inspiring, of course. But inspiration isn’t the shortfall. I have lots of inspiration, but in its shadow Read the rest of this entry »

I have a lot of very smart friends. I don’t just mean educated, or witty, or well-read either. I mean they speak well, think critically, make good choices, can challenge themselves, are curious and self-motivated…I’m talking all-around S-M-A-R-T.

I’m not bragging either; I mean, who brags about how smart their friends are? As if that is some sort of accomplishment. That’s just dumb. No, this isn’t bragging; it’s actually a confession.

Yes, compared to my friends I am, in fact, an idiot. And that’s how I want it.

I choose to surround myself with smart people. Always have. No, not so I could feel important or copy their homework (even though it was occasionally relieving to have that option). I do it because A) it keeps me humble, B) it introduces me to new ideas, and C) it challenges me.

The anti-intellectualism that seems to be gripping a large swath of our society, propelled by mainstream media, conservative ideologues, and a growing un- and under-educated populace, is more than disturbing. It is downright offensive. As though dismissing – nay – refusing to even be exposed to facts and educated opinions, is somehow going to improve things. As though ignoring or attacking intelligent people, especially those that challenge or contradict what you believe, will magically make the truth disappear.

Face it, if you only hang out with dweebs, losers, and jerk-offs, what are you really doing to yourself? Congratulations! You’ve now crowned yourself King of the Crackpots, Despot of the Doomed, Monarch of the Mediocre. No doubt your reign will be lackluster and depreciating.

But when you are beset on all sides by minds and personalities who know more, think better, and have different experiences than you it does your psyche a world of good. It makes you think before you speak, because if what you say is weak, they’ll call you on it. It makes you listen more, because whether you admit it or not, while they speak you know that they are imparting knowledge to which you have not been exposed. If it’s a good in-depth conversation, it can propel you and sustain you on a train of thought long after you’ve parted ways. It can drive you to extend yourself, seeking information about topics you had no idea about, opinions you’ve never considered, facts you’ve never been exposed to. All with hopeful spirit (futile though it may be) that the next time the two of you converse, you’ll at least be able to speak intelligently about that topic, and perhaps something more.

Surround yourself with smart people, especially ones that challenge you, that think differently than you, that can (and will) disagree with you. Immerse yourself in a sea of  intimidating IQs, exceptional egos, and admirable acumen. Grow yourself through the minds and experiences of others you respect. Get yourself a smart blanket and wrap up tight! You’ll be better off for it. We all will.

I like to talk about public policy. I like examining an issue from multiple angles. I like reading the results of other’s research and seeing what sort of solutions and ideas stem from it. I like considering the numerous viewpoints on any issue, as well as people’s informed personal opinions. After all, that is what good policy is based on: research, data, reason, truth, weighing outcomes, compromise, dialog, all tempered and driven by an intent to produce a sound policy that will benefit the largest group of people over the longest term.

Unfortunately, most of the time, when I try to get a policy discussion going with a given group of people, the response I get from someone (or all of them) is, “Do you really want to talk about politics?”

***NEWSFLASH: Policy is not politics.***

Public policy involves a search for truth, the common good, sound research, careful examination, and yes, action by our government.

Politics, on the other hand, pretty much stands in the way of all of that.

I’m not sure when these two very different nouns became so closely enjoined in people’s minds, but it seems you can’t simply have a discussion about the right thing to do to address an issue of the people’s interest without somebody either clinging to a political ideology, blindly defending a political party’s standpoint, or pointing fingers at a presumed political adversary.

Politics is everything that seems to inhibit, hinder, deflect, regress, repeal, water down, suppress, or detract attention from sound public policy. Read the rest of this entry »

Many people are full of shit. To define the colloquialism I’ll restate in more literary terms: they talk out of their ass. They make stuff up, state it emphatically, and expect you to believe it. And if it’s done well enough, it works. After all, that’s how wives tales, urban legends, and cultural myths get started.

This is even true with people who are typically honest, forthright, and trustworthy, which is what makes it all the more difficult to detect. Close friends, whom I know and trust, have used this very tactic in the heat of a discussion and I have acquiesced in the face of their sureness and confidence. Then later I do a little research and find out…it was their ass talking. And that’s fine, because in the end it didn’t really matter what the two of us were arguing about anyway. Nonetheless, I love…LOVE…that instead of having to go to the library, and pore over periodicals and reference materials in hopes of finding something to disprove the BS, I can sit down at my computer, in my PJs if I want, and do the same-if not more-research on any issue and detect the BS from the comfort of my own home, and in less time!

It’s even better when discussions like the one mentioned above happen within range of an internet-connected device! There they are, spewing fecal rhetoric with no regard for the fact that their own shame is only a couple of feet and a few short keystrokes away. It’s like they are daring you to reach over and prove them wrong, only they already know that you will. I’ve seen their faces droop the second I open a web browser. They shuffle their feet, they backtrack and say things like, “That’s what I heard,” or “I think that’s right,” or “so-and-so told me” to shift the blame. Really? You know, 10 seconds ago you wanted to bet $1000 on it, hoping I would yield, and now you “might be wrong?”

Mind you, this isn’t about proving someone wrong. It’s about holding someone accountable for their actions. If they heard it elsewhere, did they verify it before they repeated it? If they’re willing to get all huffy about something they only heard from someone else, why don’t they do a little research first to make sure it’s worth all of the vim and vigor? Read the rest of this entry »

I work with a lot of self-proclaimed “liberals.”

I use quotation marks because, as I have gotten to know these specific people over the years, I have found that to them, “liberal” apparently means simply voting for democrats and bitching about whatever the republicans are doing. I, being an avoider of adhering to labels, am perplexed by this because if that’s really all it takes to be what they claim, then perhaps they should identify themselves as “anti-Republicans.”

To me, claiming to be a liberal suggests perhaps embracing some life habits that coincide with your liberal ideology. You know, walking the walk while talking the talk. In other words, putting your money where your mouth is. Read the rest of this entry »

I recently started writing more for myself.

Made some sacrifices in order to be able to do so. I’ve had so many ideas for so long and I’ve dedicated little to no time to them for the past decade.

I started my first novel about 17 years ago. About 12 years ago, and 250 pages in, I put it down and started another. Then I decided I should probably try to get a short story published first, so I worked really hard on a dozen or so and started marketing them. That took a lot of my time and yielded no success. Not much of a market for short stories anymore. How I longed for Vonnegut’s glory days writing short fiction for a magazine market that couldn’t get enough of them!

I reread some of those stories recently; I still like them. But trying to sell short fiction took more time than writing did, and so I became a little disheartened with rejections and the whole business in general.

Then another Bush snuck into the white house, and Sept.11th hit, and things just sort of flew off the rails ever since. I started spending a lot of my time researching public policy and communicating with lawmakers. I found work writing technical documentation, and then I found that after a day in front of the computer at work, and with life’s responsibilities before and after, I couldn’t find time to get back to those more creative endeavors. Read the rest of this entry »

As the population expands, I am disturbed by the ever-growing number of choices we all have access to.

What news to read, what cereal to buy, what motion pictures to attend, what version of religion to hide behind. It seems our desire – demand, even – for options simply cannot be satiated.  Magically, out of nowhere, there are providers of options laying in wait. Hopeful, enthusiastic, entrepreneurial minds boasting the lowest price, or the newest fad, or the best colon cleanse. And we as consumers eat it up (and I don’t just mean “buyers” – I’m talking about all forms of consumption: of goods, or services, of thought and memes, of opinion and entertainment, and so on). Of course we want more options! That is the benefit of being a free consumer, endless options.

However, in the production of so many options, it seems we are witnessing a dilution of quality, reliability, accountability, and especially confidence in anything. More importantly, with countless options that constantly drive us to exercise our right to consumption we find we have more “stuff” to consume (and store, and care for, and clean) and yet less time to actually use/think about/enjoy it.

This problems gets even more complicated when we focus on some of the more rapidly changing/rejuvenating areas of consumption like technology, science, news, opinion, or social networking. With these ever-changing, ever-maturing, ever-re-branding sectors, consumption on any given day is likely outmoded or outdated by the time we’ve finally incorporated it into our lives and minds. Read the rest of this entry »

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