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No matter what our plans or best intentions, life somehow always has a knack for getting in the way.

It was a tough summer. A lot of stuff went wrong. A lot of sh-stuff got in the way. Life’s been handing me a lot of lemons lately, and I’m rather sick of drinking lemonade.

Nevertheless, I managed to make some good progress on the story and work my way through a number of difficult chapters that I’d been avoiding.

I’d be lying if I said that all of the life challenges this summer hadn’t influenced the story. Amazing how that happens. I always figured I’d dream up a story and write about it. I never realized how much the course of life, or love, or hopes and dreams would play into the crafting of said story.

Just as this blog is chronicling my process of writing this novel, so has the novel become a private chronicle of what transpired throughout the course of writing it.

No, it’s not becoming autobiographical. But there are enough reflections of the happenings of my life throughout the telling (at least in this draft) that I think it will almost serve as a sort of chronology for the time I spent writing it. Just to me, of course. I’ll be the only one who knows which bits were pulled from reality and which ones sprang from my mind.

I think I like knowing that.

My workflow has been sporadic. Some of my writing days were spent actually writing. Some were organizational, retracing the scenes of my outline and restructuring where necessary. Some days were just spent editing, when the words weren’t flowing but the story was still captivating. I’ve been told I shouldn’t do that. But hey, it’s better than ignoring the story completely and feeling like a failure at the end of a “writing” day where I didn’t write anything really.

This, however, I found most interesting. In the thick of the lifeload of crap that was being thrown my way this summer, where things had completely hurtled out of my control and I was cast adrift in a perfect storm of happenstance, misfortune, and bad timing, I found respite in an unlikely place.

At times, it seemed the only sense of control I could conjure up came from when I was writing.

It never really occurred to me how empowering the crafting of a story is. After all, it’s mine. Really, truly, wholly mine. I drive the story, I drive the dialog, I drive the action. MINE!

The next time things go south in my life, I’ve got to remember that. When I’m feeling out of control, I should spend more time at my keyboard: more time in control. Win-win.

When life hands you lemons, write.

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“So it goes.”

It’s a simple phrase.

Three words. A catchphrase, of sorts. Almost insignificant. And yet it perfectly demonstrates the magnificence of Vonnegut’s exceptional “writer’s voice.”

I’m still forging ahead. I took a little time off around the holidays (couldn’t you tell?). And I reluctantly embraced some long-avoided but necessary technological advances—namely a smartphone and a new(er) computer— which brought with them some setbacks to my workflow and productivity. But I’m back.

Story is coming along. Cranked out a long avoided chapter today that wasn’t easy to write. Probably still need lots of work, but it’s written.

Generally speaking, characters are coming along nicely. They are developing in ways that I like and, in turn, they’re starting to carry the story. I’ve had several 5-10 page days and when I do, they happen sort of effortlessly. So I’ll count my blessings.

But then I start thinking about that pesky “voice.” As in, I’m afraid I don’t have one. Or that it’s inconsistent, or undefined. Or that it just plain sucks. Read the rest of this entry »

Forty.

40. 4-D. Two score. Four dimes. Over-the-hill. The mid-point. Intermission. Halftime. On the flip side. The start of Act II. The third quarter. Entering my fifth decade. Coasting downhill. Past my prime. The dawn of middle age. The beginning of the end.

Yes, it’s true. I recently passed the arbitrary milestone that carries with it enough gravitas and gloom to bring even the most spry and vigorous traveler to at least a brief period of introspection, if not melancholy.

Truthfully, becoming a quadragenarian did weigh on me some. Not so much for the age or the number itself (such trivialities as round numbers do not impress me), but rather in examination of my life and how, on the surface at least, I largely am right where I was a decade ago.

I entered my thirties living in the same house in the same city in the same job with the same company in which I find myself now. I had an unfinished novel at the time, and I still have one (albeit, a different one). And while I have much to show for that same decade—in knowledge, and love, and friendship, and maturity, and wisdom, and experience, and even writing—it is also a stone cold reminder how fleeting time can be and, when our daily schedules and surroundings remain unchanged, how quickly we can lose awareness of its passing.

In addition to that realization, it also was just over a year ago that, creatively charged after my trip to the Writer’s Workshop, I boldly purposed to have this novel drafted as a 40th birthday present to myself.

Well, the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men… Read the rest of this entry »

My apologies for leaving you hanging, I’ve been away for a while and I owe you an explanation.

Just to put it right out there, I haven’t been writing much. Not here, not on the novel, not on anything (except my day job of course). I’ve got 20 pages since my last post, which is something at least. And no, it didn’t take me four months just to get those 20 pages.

I wish I could say I’ve been “taking a break,” but that would imply a summer spent relaxing. Far from it. I’ve not been idle, mind you; been plenty busy in that time. But admittedly I’ve been away from my story for too long and it’s time to start regrouping.

Truth is, I’m stuck. I’ve been stumbling on one of my main characters and how the story relates to him. One primary character’s arc and story have come into focus nicely. I can see his path points well and was using them to pull myself along for a while. But my second character is just as, if not more, important and his development and plot points have remained blurry and elusive.

As a result, the relationship I worked so hard to establish leading up to the 1/3 mark (back in January, ugh!) lacks half of its density. It feels one-sided, perhaps even unrealistic now. Until I can better clarify the one character, his story, and arc, I fear the relationship and the other character appears hollow, unengaging. So I’ve been stuck; been there for months now, which makes it really hard to move forward.

Adding to my pusillanimity, I’ve had so many other worthy, important tasks in the queue (homeowner stuff, friend and family visits, travel) that I’ve been all too happy to let them distract me from writing, thereby facing my obstacles, for much of the summer.

My sticking points are big enough that I want to avoid them and concentrate on the pile of other tasks, responsibilities, pleasures, and obligations that invariably spring up. The pile of other stuff is so available, rewarding, and seemingly important, it is all too easy to use it to avoid concentrating on those sticking points.

It’s a vicious cycle for sure, and it’s time to acknowledge that and start working on the story again, problems or no.

A year ago, charged and empowered after my visit to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I had set an aggressive-yet-confident goal to have a draft in time for my 40th birthday, which by the way arrives, warranted-or-not, next week. Obviously, that’s not going to happen, not without a Rocky-like* comeback and an intravenous feed of espresso for the next six days.

I’ll just have to let that arbitrary, perhaps unrealistic deadline pass by and appreciate this process for what it is…a journey, and not a destination. At least I’ll keep telling myself that in hopes of one day believing it.

Climbing back on this horse is going to take some heaving. But I’ll get up there again.

Write on.

 

* Stallone wrote “Rocky” in two and a half days. Surely a Pulitzer-worthy novel can be cranked out in a week, right?

I’ll admit, it has been a rough winter. I’ve only had a few productive days since the turn of the year as I’ve been ensnared in my own web of hesitation, second-guessing, and the urge to go back and fix stuff.

Last week I took off to watch basketball (a once-a-year guilty pleasure) and the week before my writing time was like chewing on tin foil. The words weren’t coming, my phrasing was crude and disjointed, and after struggling for six hours on two pages, I deleted most of what I had written and then switched to a different project just so I could salvage a little taste of feeling productive for the day.

It was deflating, demoralizing, and depressing and I had more than one thought of throwing in the towel.

I’m happy to say that today I broke the logjam. I worked out a significant kink and it feels like I’ve got my story back on track. It took a while to get going, and I deleted entire paragraphs, even pages, more than once. It was nearly 2:00 in the afternoon when I finally felt I had a hold of something good. Six hours later and I’ve got eight solid pages to show for it and several good hooks to latch on to in my next session.

I really want to hit the next milestone by the end of spring. Here’s hoping that the tap stays open for a while.

Write 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’ve had a couple of really productive weeks now, making huge gains on both of my writing days. Once I set things in motion, scenes are flowing out of me rather smoothly and I have a lot of confidence that what is getting down on the page is pretty good, for a first draft at least.

As the story evolves, however, I find myself starting to recognize that some things I’ve written will have to change, move, or even be deleted entirely.  I’ll be working on a chapter and remember that something I had written much earlier might conflict with what I had just put on the page. Then, once I knew about it, it would needle me, popping up again and again in my head, nagging me to go back and change it.

I’ll admit, I did a little of that, the going back and changing. Just a touch. One big conflicting piece that simply had to be moved and edited. I had to in order to keep moving the story forward. But beyond that one instance, I decided to make a few notes and leave the rest be for now.

Mistake? We’ll see. But my logic was based on the fact that I am SO close to reaching a major milestone—basically the end of the set-up and exposition—that to turn back now would be almost entirely self-defeating.  Indeed there is something to be said for the motivating power of momentum.

Here’s the deal: the ten chapters I’ve written thus far all lead up to two significant scenes, likely told in two chapters, one of which I’m ¾ of the way through. These scenes are tough; they involve a lot of careful wording and, since the story is written as a 3rd person narrative with limited omniscience, a high degree of fairness and introspection from the two main characters involved. In other words, I’ve got to adequately and realistically portray both characters’ thoughts, emotions, and inclinations, while still bringing them together in what would otherwise be a relatively unrealistic scenario. But hey, I can do that; I’m the author and that’s what fiction is all about.

In any case, knowing how good it will feel when I’ve finished these scenes and reached the milestone, I want to keep trudging toward that. Then perhaps I’ll take a little break, circle back and see what pieces I’ve left out-of-place or no longer need.

Until then, write on.

I’ve had some really productive days in the last six weeks, despite not typing a single word of my story for the past two.

Life stuff happens, you know? Good or bad (in this case, very, very good), every now and again, something bubbles up that just can’t be pushed aside. Life is a shifting sea. Sometimes you find yourself in calm, peaceful waters; sometimes you’re twisting under gargantuan waves and clinging to the oars as tightly as you can.

So despite my best intentions, turbulent tides have forced my attentions away from my novel for two weeks. Yes, I feel denied. Yes, I feel guilty. But I don’t feel the least bit lazy since I’ve hardly had a moment’s rest in ten days and I’ve got plenty to show for my time. But of course, none of it gets me closer to finishing a novel. Which brings me to my point.

In past years, I would have felt bad putting it off, thinking I couldn’t do it. But because the preceding four writing days had been so productive, I’m not that down on myself.

Hoping not to jinx it, the truth is I’ve been quite successful lately at making the most use of the time that I do spend working on my story. Knowing that life can, and will, get in the way, that sometimes I will not be able to spend as much time as I hoped writing, the secret is not to beat myself up over it. Because when we do sit down to pound the keys, it’s just not going to help if we’re black and blue with self-defeat and frustration.

You’ve got to make the most of the time you have. So when I get there, when I’ve cleared out the obstacles, reined in the perceived responsibilities, drowned out the distractions, and I sit down to actually work, I clear my head deliberately, look at where I left off, step into the zone, and start cranking. It wasn’t easy at first, but after three weeks, it started to almost feel like ability, even skill. Inch by inch, yard by yard, I can tell I’m getting better at it.

It feels good honing myself, finding that state of calm, creative alertness. Hopefully, it will still be there next Friday.

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?

I practice a sort of thievery.

Not a malicious one mind you, or illegal, at least not yet. And as far as I know my crimes are victimless, and if I do well, often embraced and appreciated. I never plan my heists and never know what tiny observance may spawn one as it may be years down the road that I eventually recognize my plunder. My spoils are random, and often worthless by themselves, and they’re impossible to reunite with their original owners, but nonetheless I stole them.

Yes, in truth, I’m a bit of a thief. You may even be my next victim, and there’s nothing you can do about it; I have immunity. After all, I’m writer.

One of the arcane and villainous joys of creative writing is the license it gives me to draw upon just about anything I’ve ever encountered and use it unabashedly for my own selfish purposes. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

It seems either I have the wrong skill set, or I was born in the wrong time.

I’m a writer. I like writing. I think I’m pretty good at it. It’s what I create; it’s what I am proud of; it’s what I have to give to the world.

Unfortunately, it seems that visual representations are becoming more and more central to the art of communication, if not its very foundation. If a picture was once worth a thousand words, its value has no doubt appreciated of late.

To be totally honest, I’m a visual appreciator myself. I love motion pictures and spend a small but dedicated amount of my time enjoying them. Great photographs catch my eye easily. I admire visual art and am often awed by the talent and ability that such creations require. Talent and ability, mind you, which I neither possess nor desire. Believe me, I know. I’ve tried.

Even in technical writing I recognize the value and importance of visual aids. I use them as much as possible (for me), especially when words just can’t accurately describe a particular procedure. But it is a challenge and without the help of gifted manipulators of SolidWorks, I’d be lost.

No, for me, what talents I possess lie either in public performance (acting, comedy, or improv) or in the manipulation of grammatical criteria to convey thoughts, concepts, and emotions (also known as writing). Whether I’m very good at it I’ll leave to your preference. Nonetheless, it’s what I do. 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 »

Ten years ago this month I was going through a rough patch. By “rough patch” what I mean is emotional stress. Alienation. Feelings of hopelessness and despair. I treaded dangerously close to what some might call a “nervous breakdown.”

9/11 had just happened; the country was still reeling from a fast and furious attack. Vengeance, hatred, and fear were becoming the recurring thoughts on talk radio, in op-ed columns, from Washington, and in everyday conversation. Sikhs were being attacked on the street by ignorant Americans (this trend has continued 10 years later). Racial profiling of Arabs and religious profiling of Muslims suddenly seemed not just acceptable, but was being demanded.

The United States had just started bombing the hell out of Afghanistan, a remarkably poor country that had been consistently war-torn for over 20 years. The first echoes of the eventual invasion of Iraq (TOTALLY unrelated to 9/11) were rolling out of a power-drunk administration. The country’s thirst for blood was conquering all logic, reason, and restraint.

Even people’s attitudes were angry, and fearful, and vengeful. I found I couldn’t relate to or talk with anyone. Old friends, with whom I had long been in line in terms of policy, I now found myself at polar opposites with. Newer relationships, already tenuous, seemed in danger of fracturing at even the slightest mention of current events. My older brother was talking about dropping out of his lucrative and long-studied-for career to instead enter the military.

We (the country) had been cold-cocked. We were dazed, confused, stumbling, and looking anywhere for someone to hit back.

Up was down. Black was white. Nothing was comfortable, no one was familiar and, in short, I couldn’t find anything to believe in. One day at work, while trying to pen a response to a racist and upsetting email from an old friend, I suddenly broke down in tears. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t type, I couldn’t think. My coworkers were very understanding. They listened, but it didn’t make me feel any better.

Ten years later, I find myself in a similar spot. And it hasn’t been an easy ten years either. 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.

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