An Open Invitation to Hackers, Demigods and Punks

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To those literary hackers bent on uncovering the sacred workings of great novels, the demigods of creativity spreading arrays of pigment over blank and impossible landscapes, and all sophisticated punks, demure in fashion and eloquence, who harbor rebellion and acidic wit cloaked in song, speech, image and sound, I invite you to join in an odyssey.

Follow me on Twitter: @tjamesmoore

There exists a vault of invocations that you are summoned to explore. Part college course, part entertainment, herein lies the chance to slay the demons of falsehood, to take up the cause of artful expression through savage narrative and rapid-fire poetics. We are a community. Will you lend your voice?

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For those unashamed of truth, and in favor of right process, come join the fight and voice your individual war-cry. There is a rush on the wind, the whispering muse, and she carries us to our calling. Bystanders beware – the cliffs are steep, the chasms deep. Here the champion leaps without hesitation.

You play the central role on a stage preset for your performance. This odyssey cannot happen without you.  Will you join me?

Discover more: www.tjamesmoore.com

 

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“You Can Hit Off This Guy!” – On line drives and creative home runs

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The following event is a true story.

It was the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the tying run on first – a typical nail-biter scenario for baseball other than the fact that I was the one next up to bat. The significance of my being at bat was tri-fold: 1) I hadn’t had a base hit all season; 2) therefore my teammates had no confidence in me and; 3) subsequently I had no confidence in myself.

At the plate I faced a kid rumored to have a weak arm. With a little luck maybe I could get a hit, see what happened after that. This was a straw to grasp for. Maybe I would get lucky.

The first pitch zinged over the plate and the umpire shouted out a definitive, “strike!” Familiar, and anyway what did I expect? I hadn’t even swung the bat.

The next pitch flew at me and kind of hovered. This time I did swing, and the metallic echo of the aluminum as it contacted the hard white ball manifested in a shiver down the handle of the bat. The ball careened overhead and out of play. Foul ball, strike two. Things were going as expected.

The third pitch whipped through the air and dove outside the plate as the umpire shouted, “ball!” and the runner at first bolted for second. The ensuing bounce and bobble at home assured a stolen base. Suddenly things grew tense. Everything hung in the balance. Chance was floating above the field, apparently drawn by the cruel irony of my situation. We were halfway home, and halfway finished, and it all depended on how I swung my bat.

From the dugout someone shouted, “You can hit off this guy!”

The bulky plastic batter’s helmet was hot and heavy on my head. My scalp itched and there was sweat running down my face. The sun felt like a spotlight. The crowd was silent but for a few children squealing across the lawn behind the bleachers. The inevitable was about to happen.

The fourth pitch whizzed through the air. To my eyes it was growing bigger, spinning, the white orb of it filling my vision like an asteroid on a collision course with the planet of my head. A sensation appeared and then grew inside my chest. It spread with electric resonance into my shoulders and through my skinny little arms. Reaching, I swung the bat in an awkward arc and knocked the ball straight down the third base line.

Chaos ensued.

The runner at second skittered halfway to third as the baseman scrambled to find the ball. Coaches were shouting and waving. The road to first stretched out before me like purgatory. When had the distance become so great? I quietly contemplated. Who in the world had decided that such a distance was reasonable in the face of these urgent circumstances?

I jammed my foot into the soft dirt and almost stumbled. My legs had become incredibly soft, boneless, barely sustaining the weight of my body, the enormous batting helmet tugging backward on the dome of my head. My feet were spinning but I was going nowhere fast.

After an impossible delay I made my way toward first base. The third baseman had found the ball and sent it across the diamond like a speeding bullet of destiny. Long before I arrived the ball sailed past my vision, off the glove of the first baseman, and out of the field of play. The runner at second was rounding third and I was on my way to second. As the tying run crossed home plate an errant toss to second from first sent the ball to midfield. The coach at third waived me on, and exasperated, because really I wanted to be done for a moment, I bolted for third, glad at least that some feeling had returned to my legs. And upon reaching third I was sent toward home, the impossibility of pulling off this tiniest miracle looming before me like a great cosmic joke. I had nowhere else to go, however, and so I rambled on. The ball, that most egregious device of pain and frustration in my childhood, pursued me like a hornet as I hurtled home.

I don’t recall whether I slid, dove, and ran through upright, but the fact is, if I didn’t beat the ball I tied with it – and the tie goes to the runner.

The elation was surreal. All manner of bouncing, waving, jumping teammates converged on the plate. I was half lifted into the air and carried away. I don’t remember the sounds of the crowd, no flash of bulbs, and no pre-teen girls swooning over my accomplishment. I don’t think I looked back to where I had just been. For all I remember that was the last baseball game I ever had to endure the agony of playing. Probably not, but it was the most memorable.

The creative life is full of strikeouts. No matter how much practice one puts in there are going to be a lot of whiffs. While none of us set out to swing and miss, we also know we can’t hit many homers – even if only in-field homers – without taking swings. Let this be a shout from the dugout for your creative life. “You can hit off this guy!” Once you get that in your head you’ll be fine. Swing away.

Tell me more: is there a childhood experience that influenced your call to creative living?

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Proper Perspective When Your Pet (Project) Dies

gerbilFritz was, in a manner of speaking, a very good friend of mine. He had come into my life after the untimely demise of William Jr., a mouse I had caught in a live trap, relocated to a hamster cage, and befriended before he escaped and later had his neck snapped in a regular trap. So distraught was I over the murder of my friend William Jr. that my parents, no doubt grief-stricken and ashamed, promptly replaced William with a more suitable rodent – Fritz. Fritz the gerbil.

Fritz lived in the same rodent cage that William had occupied, but being a gerbil he was incapable of escaping the narrow bars that William had so deftly Houdinied through and remained safely in my care. In hindsight I can’t say much that’s positive about keeping a rodent for a pet. Maybe rats. Rats are smart. Gerbils, not so much. Perhaps that is why one day, many months after Fritz had joined my pre-pubescent world (a world in which animals were superior to humans in every way), he inexplicably attacked my little brother, scurrying at the finger my brother offered through the narrow bars and biting clean through little toe-head’s fingernail. I’m sure that whatever prompted Fritz to bite my brother was related to the fact that the next day, much to my shock and horror, I found Fritz laid out as if stretching after a great sleep, eyes squinted closed, long rodent teeth exposed in a grimace, legs reaching fore and aft. A stretch he never recovered from. Fritz was dead.

I was a sensitive child. Fritz’s death broke open the flood gates of my lament in a torrent. First William Jr., now Fritz the Gerbil. Sobbing, I carried my deceased rodent out to the edge of the field where William had once lived. A golden field of weeds and mouse holes and dirt stretching a quarter mile to the next neighbor’s house. There I dug a shallow grave in the chalky earth and chunked Fritz in the hole. It was as unceremonious as that. My grief passed relatively quickly. In a few weeks the hot summer days cooled toward fall. The winds picked up. Life returned to normal.

We had dogs. These dogs were only a little wild, being otherwise fairly well-mannered, and it must have been by these manners that they allowed Fritz to rest in peace for a proper amount of time before excavating his remains. I had no idea they had been at the grave until one, wind-swept afternoon I spied the flat, papery corpse of my former friend quivering on the grass tops of the yard. The discovery did not shock me. To see the shell of what I once held in such esteem now little more than a cardboard replica of that ideal was an epiphany of hilarity. Fritz the finger-nibbler had become Fritz the Frisbee . . .

For the next several weeks Fritz circulated the yard like a discarded ad, making the rounds in a swirling wind, at times near the edge of the electric fence that penned in the neighbor’s horses, at other times next to the brick patio where the family often enjoyed its evening dinner. Fritz was no longer what I had hoped he would be – a great friend and lifelong pet – but his presence continued to serve a purpose. His remains became an unexpected source of humor about the nature of life.

A different story: in 2012 I completed a 560 page novel that was going to be my great overture. A masterpiece on the first try. When I brought the printed baby home and laid it heavily on the kitchen counter I felt such a sense of pride. A living masterpiece of such girth and depth that I had no doubt it would live of its own accord and carry me along to experience all the dreams I had eagerly appointed it.

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Alas, this pet project died, too.

Like Fritz the gerbil and William Jr., I put a lot of expectation on a thing that was never going to hold up.  My book was unfinished, and I didn’t have the vision at the time to know how to make it stand up. I was still seeing rodents as the king of the jungle.

Here is an important lesson I’ve learned over time. We must never go into a venture dreading the outcome. Many things we engage in don’t meet our initial expectations. When we create art we are attempting to give real world presence to the things that live inside of us. When at first they don’t succeed, we grieve. And that is fine. But the ghosts of our deceased endeavors still linger, and when we later catch sight of them they usually make us laugh. We laugh because we have changed. This is the purpose of the creative life – change and growth, and once in a while great hilarity.

My book failed because it is not right yet. One day I plan to try that story again. I may never get to it. It will toss around in the yard meanwhile and I will laugh when I see it. And if somehow I never see that book again then, well, it will have gone to the place it was meant to go.

I never owned another rodent. I continue to own a lot of stories, and I expect to have a new book coming out soon. These things, these new pets, are perpetual in the creative life. We can expect some of them to die. With proper attention to what we are supposed to learn about the process, however, I think it’s possible to finally meet some of our expectations.

Maybe you already have.

 

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Giving Up – You have ten minutes to enjoy it

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I play correspondence chess with my son. I have been playing chess for thirty-five years. He has known the game for fourteen years, has been playing in earnest for the better part of the last year. A few weeks ago he beat me clean. That doesn’t happen very often.

My son is a passionate chef. He discovered this passion at the end of his teen years and now is hot on the trail of culinary mastery, making great headway and still in his early twenties. Meanwhile we play chess, and though I win the vast majority of our games he continually comes back for more. We were discussing this fact, and his developing career, and my own efforts at completing my latest novel, and at one point he said in passing, “I’m a strong believer in persistence.” This disclosure was an epiphany. It’s not that I was surprised to realize that persistence is an important aspect of success, but that I hadn’t put the emphasis on persistence in my life that it really deserves.

This revelation was all the more powerful because I realized this young man, my son the chef, had already surpassed me in his understanding of what it takes to be great at what a person does. His persistence has manifested in work schedules that would make most of us faint.  Twelve and fourteen days straight, double shifts. Cooking, cleaning, prepping. Learning. Now, I do not advocate the necessity of long and endless days of work in order to succeed. Each objective requires the time it requires and nothing more. The kitchen takes long hours. If you can’t stand the heat . . . well, you know what they say.

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This brings us to the issue at hand. Many artists spend only a few hours per day working on their craft. Time is only one factor in the equation. It is the regular and continuous engagement with your art, persistence, that yields results. You have ten minutes of giving up after any one failure. After that you have to get back to work. You have to persist.

One needs only to read the endless accounts of artists of various kinds who nearly gave up on their success, but through sheer will stuck with it until things suddenly changed. Story after story, book after book, painting after painting, song after song these people worked and championed themselves endlessly until their day came. If that seems like too much to ask, well, if you can’t stand the heat.

There is a magical equation to finding your success after all. The spell of persistence creates an energy and momentum that brings those who are loyal to it into the result they seek. It is a mindless incantation, a dogged meditation on commitment to attaining the results we seek. Persistence is revision of our art, revision of our selves, revision of our attitude, and of our efforts to do what needs to be done to keep going. Not mindless in the sense of thoughtlessness, but in the sense of not stopping to take account of the effort we are making to reach our goal. We must not think at all about the time we are committing (and if you recall last post we discussed time as a tool to assure we are committing in the first place). Put your mind only to the work at hand, and persist.

Some painters use the same canvas again and again, white-washing the latest image and painting a new one over it. This is done in pursuit of improving technique – a persistence in learning what works and what does not. Similarly, photographers take hundreds, even thousands of pictures to find the handful that the rest of the world sits up to notice. Nothing about the creative life is one-and-done. We need to persist in our persistence. It’s time to get stubborn.

So what is your commitment to success? Do you have a plan for persistence?

One Simple Tool Guaranteed to Improve Your Discipline

It is said that anyone can do something for 20 minutes (thank you WMT – you know who you are) and if that’s true then we’re all in good shape when it comes to finding the discipline for daily creative effort.  But discipline takes more than agreeing we could do something for a short time – it takes doing it.

There is a tool we all have right now that virtually guarantees that each and every one of us can apply ourselves for a solid span of time even in the face of our underwhelming enthusiasm.

Before we reflect on this useful tool, however, it helps to recognize why we resist doing the work our creative lives demand of us in the first place.  One reason we lack discipline is because of the fear of wasted time.  By now we all pretty much agree that art is hard work.  From short stories to poems to painting to song-writing we all fear, at least from time to time, that we’re wasting our lives by kidding ourselves about our creative talent.  And while there is a whole other discussion to be had about why that thinking is wrong-headed, the fact of the matter is that it exists and we have to overcome it.

Probably the second biggest reason we resist sitting down and getting to work is laziness.  Most of us already have jobs that suck up a better portion of our lives, and to add even more focused time and energy onto other projects can feel like one endless pile of chores.  Easy enough, then, to overlook the reward of completing a project when the journey of a thousand miles is still only ten miles in.

What we’re really struggling with, however, is one of the great themes of creative expression – time and the inferred (and impending) end of it.  When we think about time in terms of the finite, as in the end of our lives, it’s easy to forget that the art we create is permanent, as much as anything is permanent, and the associated feelings of isolation and despair don’t help us when our doubts persist.  But the effort of art is worthwhile, and fortunately for us there is a tool we can use to make everything all better.

I was recently introduced to a very simple device that has revolutionized my productivity, and it’s something readily available to us almost anywhere we go: a timer.

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Now hear this – the timer is our friend!  Once the timer is set things begin looking up.  With time counting down we need only bear with our task for long enough to allow the timer to do its thing, for ten minutes, twenty, or an hour.  If you think this sounds silly just try it.  Try anything, but if your idea isn’t working better than mine then do it.  Chances are your twenty minute experiment will double before you actually stop.  Some of you might tune out the timer or, finding yourselves interrupted by the annoying alarm, may even toss the thing across the room and keep going.  In any case I wager you’ll discover, as did I, that the timer is invaluable for getting started, and that’s all we really need.  Once we get past the initial resistance to starting the seas open before us and the sailing can commence.

Try this: set your timer for twenty minutes and get to work.  As soon as you’re done come back here and tell us about the experience.  Did you go longer?  Were you satisfied that it helped get you into your chair and working?  Was it a complete failure?

Let us know!

Three Things You Need to Stay Motivated to Do Anything

According to recent research, there are three key factors to achieving success in nearly anything we do: autonomy, value, and competence.  In an article written by Daisy Yuhas of the magazine Scientific American Mind (“So You Want To Be A Genius”), research has determined that these factors improve a person’s determination to succeed.  They essentially breakdown in this way:

Autonomy - this is the sense we have of control of, and the decision to engage in, an activity in the first place.  By willingly investing effort into the activity we are much more likely to complete it because it is something we want to do rather than something we have to do.  When we want to do something we tend to have much more energy and devotion to doing it, and thus are more likely to complete it.

Value - this is a factor we assign to things that we find important and/or meaningful.  In the creative life, we want to believe in the value of our creation, and in maintaining this value we naturally want to complete the work and share it with others.  Without a sense of value in doing something there is no reason to do it, and thus the work becomes tedious by virtue of it’s pointlessness, and lacking a motivating factor, including the faith that we will find meaning in the end, the project is most likely to fail.

Competence - this is the sense that we, the individual artist, have the skills and ability to do the thing at hand.  Without this sense of competence there is an eventual frustration when we are faced with difficult hurdles in the process.  The adage “whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right” fits here.  If the creative mind does not believe in, or at least have a sense of, its own competence, then the project is likely to fail for a lack of confidence regardless of the potential of the idea, the artist, or both.

For the beginner the challenge of competence is perhaps the most acute.  Competence feeds both autonomy and value because without a sense of competence there can be no faith in the value of the work, and without a sense of value there is little to no sense of autonomy.  We humans cannot control and manage the things we are incompetent in, and because of that we must focus first of all on building our competence, and our confidence, before we can hope to infuse meaning (value) and authority (autonomy) into our work.

And how does one gain competence in a skill?  For the writer there are only two avenues: reading and writing.  When I began composing my current novel I had to return to the old books I knew, the old motivators that led to the creation of the ideas that were in my head. But my current work is science fiction while my genre background was previously fantasy and horror. Even more distant, I have spent the last decade-and-a-half engaged in literary ventures. I had to turn to science fiction as a newbie just to begin to get an idea of what I was trying to write, and how it should be written. My sense of competence was low. Because of an established sense of autonomy, however – a sense garnered through other writing and teaching successes, not to mention the wisdom that comes with age – I had the confidence in my ability that many others lack as they set out to try something new. From there I built competence through reading, and continue to do so through revision of what I hope will be a most excellent piece of adventure fiction that is also meaningful to the reader. If you are struggling with any or perhaps all of the above, I urge you to work first on competence. The rest will follow quite naturally.

So where do you sit in the realm of autonomy, value, and competence? Do you struggle with one or more of these aspect(s)? Sound off here with your thoughts and questions.

Your Resolutions Should Be Daily

There’s a popular tradition this time of year to make resolutions as if the date of January 1 somehow holds significance above any other first day of the rest of your life.  I suppose, in fairness, that for some people the new year provides the opportunity to commit, finally, to getting on with something and hopefully sticking to it.  If this is you, then by all means get on with it already.  Once you cross that threshold, however, you must ask yourself: what is the plan to keep it going from here?

I heard a quote recently which stated that “success is entirely dependent upon consistency of purpose.”  I believe the key word here is “consistency.”  Nothing is more consistent than daily practice, but before our mind slips off into some other distracted thought about how boring daily effort can be, note very quickly that the intent of this effort is success. Diligence, in other words, breeds success.  And whatever your definition of success, it is primarily through a diligent effort that your success will come.  Think about how diligent you may have already been up to this point being utterly inconsistent.  I imagine you’ve been wildly successful at being unsuccessful, am I right? 

The thing about the creative life – that is, living with creative purpose, as an artist of one or many sorts – is that the creative urge is already constantly present.  Even when we do nothing about it there are thoughts, ideas, images, and inspirations coursing through us with their own energy.  Our goal as creatives is to cast our net and collect a few of these things as they pass by, to do this every day, even if only in play, or by making small notes. Part of the creative life is being the conduit for expression of the whims of the subconscious and, depending on your cosmic views, the messages of god, or the visions of the Universe. We give ourselves too much credit to think we are the sole originator of creation, and in realizing that we are more so the stewards of creative eloquence, stewards of the gift of artistic expression which we allow to pass through us, we realize, too, that we have an obligation to continue our work without ceasing.  So god speaks, so we listen and do that bidding.

Our resolutions are not something to make once per year with a weak hope that somehow they will stick to us without effort on our part.  No, we must resolve to commit daily to the creative process, commit to allowing the vespers of creative vision to flow over and through us, in obedience to a higher calling to the life of beauty, of art, and of expression.  This is how we must think of these things.  The artist is blessed by a certain magic, a mystical spirit that is invisible to some, frightening to others.  The greatest grievance the creative person makes is to neglect this spirit and do nothing, to grow bored and dismiss the calling as whimsy.  Of course it is whimsy!  Creation is play, it is discovery and enlightenment.  But creation is also serious, deserving of proper treatment and all of our effort.

Our resolutions should be made daily, with no mind of the years that go by, nor of the hours we spend fulfilling our duty to the creative life.  Rest, play, live – but always, always return to the creative work.  Dabble, pick, start and stop, then go forward.  Persevere and be bold.  Wake committed, in the smallest, most guarded part of your mind, to do something creative this day and the next, and the next beyond that.  Be resolved, as you said you would.  Do not count the cost.