When the Engine Stalls, Row!

no parking2A long time ago I had friend who owned an old white Subaru hatchback, a four-cylinder hunk of engineering marvel with bald tires and an engine as gutless as Punxsutawney Phil upon seeing his shadow six weeks too soon for an early spring. In the (mostly) flat lands of the Bay Area it was a splendid junker for getting to places not so far away. For longer road trips, such as the one I often made to see my parents in the California Sierras, it was less ideally suited.

A few days before we made the trip, my friend alleged that there was a misfire in the number three cylinder. When it began to act up, he said, all he had to do was unplug the cylinder wire from the offending cylinder and continue on. I thought little of it.

The day we left for the hills it was beautifully sunny. A perfect road trip day. We flew out of the Bay (on all four cylinders) and began the gradual ascent up I-80 toward the distant ridges of northeastern California. The trip was going well. We forgot about any cylinder issues and allowed the road to open before us with the promise of the journey to come.

For those unfamiliar with the I-80 corridor, it’s a long black ribbon of generally hot, flat roadway through a good deal of agricultural valley before lifting into the dry, grassy foothills around places like Auburn, Colfax, and Grass Valley. But once you begin the climb, it is an unrelenting elevation gain that does not peak until cresting at seven thousand feet at Donner Pass (known for the infamous Donner Party) somewhere near the border town of Truckee. We were barely on the pouty lower lip of the Auburn climb when my travel companion decided to stop and check the Subaru’s mighty little engine. Naturally it seemed to him that the number three was acting up. He pulled the wire and off we went.

The special thing about this time of living, two boys, barely twenty, is that we knew nothing about life, about the struggle to survive, or to accomplish things that only become important later. In our naiveté everything was an adventure, a challenge we had already succumbed to but did so without expectation that we would have ever been able to succeed. We were not defeated by spite, we were defeated by blissful ignorance. Life is the greatest pastime when we are young. Things are mostly funny.

When the dogged and belabored engine showed no gusto for climbing the gradual hills outside of Auburn the moment became temporarily embarrassing. Every other car on the road was flying past us. I doubt we were going over thirty mph. Imagine what a wiser adult might think in such a position. Am I going to make it? Am I going to cause an accident? Am I going to get stuck on the pass like the Donners of yore? But with the pedal floored and the car gasping to make the climb we did the only thing we could do. We rolled down our windows and pretended to row.

Other drivers laughed as the passed by. We rowed with all of our might and laughed and waved, making friends with dozens of others for brief moments as they hurtled past, probably grateful they were not in our predicament, but perhaps appreciating that we weren’t worried, that in fact we were going to be all right in the end because we had spirit, and we had enthusiasm, and we were creative . . .

This is what the writing life can be like. Often in the beginning we are running on fewer cylinders, with an engine that seems somehow too tired or is otherwise deficient. More often than not we worry about making the climb, about reaching the destination. We worry about dying on the hill.

But if we roll down the windows and row, if we laugh and wave, come to terms with the process and enjoy that we are living through this journey, we will arrive no worse for wear. At the end of the journey we will have a story to tell.

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Outline Your Book Or Suffer In Revision Hell

25777_366224582299_4542941_nI’m about to do it again.

I don’t know why anyone would bother writing a book-length manuscript when they could write and potentially publish a dozen short stories with the same or less effort. Short stories are quick, and act as evidence that one has the capacity for writing fiction in the first place. If a short story is the single-focused brainchild of a few weeks dedicated work, a book is a commitment to raising the child to adulthood. Yet here I am, about to write my fourth book.

What am I thinking?

I’ll tell you what I’m thinking – I don’t know – except that this story, this book-long tale of my imagination, will not let me focus on anything else. The first book in the series (which may never see the light the of day), has turned out to be backstory. I’m not exactly thrilled that things turned out this way, but these things happen, and at least with the back-story out of the way the real story can now be told.

T.E. Lawrence reminds us that “(a)ll the revision in the world will not save a bad first draft: for the architecture of the thing comes, or fails to come, in the first conception, and revision only affects the detail and ornament, alas!” So with all due respect to Anne Lamott we must consider the risks of a poor drafting in the first place. Following that, one must realize that all the work done on a piece of writing may end up being little more than practice, or perhaps the fleshing out of backstory so that the real story can be told. This realization may occur after more than a year working on a project, and the conclusion can be upsetting. As with any catastrophe it may take some time to come to terms with the aftermath. When I wrote about a million words a few years back I concluded that, upon reaching the million word benchmark, one should write a million more. There are a number of ways to do this. One of them is through revision of a very poor first draft, just be sure to understand the perils of this approach.

One way to avoid writing a poor first draft, and thus having to revise permanently, is to write an outline. An outline does a number of things: it introduces the sequence of events for ease of drafting chapters; it introduces characters and helps identify the proper protagonist; it may inform appropriate point-of-view. By outlining the entire story one knows the end toward which one is writing, how the story impacts the protagonist, approximately how long the story will be, weaknesses in the plot; and is a useful tool for writing the all important synopsis which, whether self-publishing or soliciting agents and editors, is a useful exercise.

An outline takes pressure off of the revision process because it reduces or eliminates errors that can otherwise be made in blind drafting. By knowing where the story is going from the outset the writer is better informed of the story and less likely to create tangents which may end up being cut wholesale in the latter revision process. So while making an outline may seem an unnecessary drag to getting on with the writing, consider it akin to reading the rules before playing a new game. The enjoyment of the activity is greatly enhanced by understanding what you are doing from the outset.

 

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Before Art, Imagination

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Imagination is the innate tool of discovery and invention that our species is reliant on to solve problems, engage meaning, and advance as life forms on our planet. When we speak in terms of the divine, as so often we do in the arts, we are engaging our imagination to see not only god, but all of creation.

As with any tool, imagination can be misused or neglected. To say that one has a “lack of imagination” is not to imply that a person has less quantity of imagination – imagination is not measured in grams nor grains – but it is to say that one has failed to develop or exercise the imagination to any degree of usefulness.

It goes without saying that the artist cannot thrive without imagination, after all in order for art to exist it must first be imagined, but the question might be asked whether each of us nurtures our minds enough to allow imagination to remain fertile.

In the adult world it seems more often than not that we settle into allowing others to imagine for us. Television, the greatest mind-suck invention of all, is filled with stories brought to us by those who work hard using their imaginations to keep the rest of us tuned in. Forget the fact that the act of watching television reduces our intellectual self-determination on many levels and suffice to say that if one is not creating the imaginative experience then likely one is the target of the experience (and in some cases even the victim).

For the writer and artist it is imperative to keep the imagination active at a childlike level; that is, with a newness of perspective and an absence of fear that is similar to a child’s. We must attempt to not know the things we think we know, and consciously choose to see all things anew. The act of practicing this consciousness is naturally political. Our race is wired to compete and to control. We are led by other people who have an agenda, and who want us all to think in certain ways, to accept and believe certain things so that we can be controlled and manipulated for their gain. This is not unlike the goal of the artist, who wishes through her art to influence her audience. We are a species both desirous of having influence and of being influenced. Once the individual becomes aware of this fact the matter is a political one and the conscientious person is naturally drawn to resist authority.

Picasso called the act of painting an “instrument of war.” The declaration of war in this case is against complaisance, tyranny, and sloth, not only of outside individuals and governments, but of the internal laziness and vapidity that our race is at times disposed to.

Without art and meaningful ideas there is only the void. But even the void is merely an excuse to give up. The creative person is tasked with reaffirming life’s aesthetic. In our imagination lies the salvation of our humanity and a connection to our sense of the divine. The artist is not only privileged in his position – he is the messiah.

 

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Another Reason Why We Write

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I am in a wistful mood lately.

I am feeling at once intensely grateful and at the same time full of longing for things that only my heart understands.

Well, maybe.

There are threads and strands of emotion in all of us that seem so intensely personal, so uniquely ours that we are certain we are alone in the experience, that no one else could possibly understand the tumult going on inside, the visions of our core which are so abstract and original that the feelings don’t even have a name.

Perhaps this sentiment is immature. Something best reserved for the diary of a teen, something we surely have worked out in the process of maturing so that we no longer pine, no longer emote, silly to dare feel more than pain, pleasure or anger. Certainly we are not happy though we say “happy.”

So why write if all of this emotion is whimsy? And is this not the message of the cold and practical world? We are distracted by entertainments and technology so that we hardly know how to connect face-to-face with each other. We find it hard to say what we think, what we feel, and we shy from the risk of expressing things boldly, if not honestly, unless masked by the anonymity of cyberspace.

If my experience is anything close to the truth, however, then the writing life  – any creative endeavor really – is an antidote, even if temporarily, for staving off the loneliness of an oversensitive soul.

I cannot begin to defend my position to those who would disagree. In fairness the experience may be entirely different for them. If not for creative endeavors, someone might say, life would have been normal, long, full of ignorant bliss and a fine career in reports and files, meetings, weekends off, and television. Art, they might argue, has destroyed their sense of comfort and stability; failed them in their pursuit of joy and the easy life.

As if life were so easy.

But surely there are a few who would agree with me on this: art saves me from loneliness. I write because I seek to understand life. Through writing I explore the things that do not make sense, give a voice to the things inside that need to speak or else be condemned to haunts in the dark hallways of my claustrophobic mind. Through the process I have a chance to connect with others at the highest level – the emotional level. Through art we all have the opportunity to name the things we feel which cannot otherwise be defined by our known vocabulary.

We write to save ourselves from lies, misunderstanding, and the general malaise of the human condition – which is loneliness. Whether inspired by god or stoned by the existential void, we write to keep away the night, to summon the daylight, to expose deceit and come face-to-face with our collective humanness.

I do anyway. I write to find my way, to be introduced anew to the beauty of living, the surprise of discovery. I write to preserve my health. I write to remain engaged with the living, to partake in their danse macabre - perhaps even to provide the music which backs us, players all, who are otherwise separated by an invisible distance across the milieu of our temporal existence.

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The Update Blog: Just where have I been lately?

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I have to admit, it isn’t always easy keeping up with a blog. It’s not like I’ve been gone a lot (I was gone a little) or that my life had a major change (well, it sort of did) or that I was in the hospital.

I have been around, but . . .

What has kept me from keeping to a regular blog schedule? I blame it on Twitter. In this sea of information that we are all floating in, with the many platforms flooding our lives with information of all sorts, it’s more important than ever to try and say things that really matter. After all it seems everyone is saying something, so why should I be adding one more roaring thought to the information highway unless I think it’s worth being said? Carry that idea one step further and consider what one can (and cannot) do with Twitter. Rather than write four to eight hundred words every day I can write one hundred forty characters and be done. Off it goes, the best bit of wisdom I can muster in the smallest moment, and if it’s worth a damn then someone might notice.

At the risk of sounding jaded by overload I acknowledge that the blog is still a viable source of information. In fact, according to a recent article I read on social media, it seems the longer an article is the more likely it is to be shared. It seems the pain of reading a long essay is so masochistically intense that we all want to share it with those we love.  It makes me wonder whether everyone is really reading, and preferring, longer articles. I am suspicious. The imp on my shoulder tells me some of you are hoping your friends will read the behemoth and then tell you what it was about when you ask for their opinion. It’s a form of cheating on the exam, I suppose, but we humans are prone to taking shortcuts when we think we can get away with it. Still, Twitter has a lot of appeal and it’s where I’ve been spending a lot of my time . . .

One shortcut we cannot take is in reading the tome of a book I am attempting to read. As with eating an elephant (and truly that task might be far easier in the long run, though ultimately not as enjoyable) I am consuming David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The book is elephantine if you don’t already know, full of pages and pages. These pages contain characters, plots, subplots, lots of big words, looping inter-connectivity, and footnotes aplenty. I don’t know that I will honestly finish it, but it isn’t a bad read.  It’s just so hard to physically hold onto for very long.

I have been on a DFW binge lately. I recently read Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace and a book of interviews of him as well. I do this – I become infatuated with a writer every so often and I binge on everything I can get. This is one of the things I have been doing with my time rather than writing blogs. If you like Wallace’s writing, or even if you don’t, his life story is complexly entertaining and tragically sad. I do recommend it.

As it appears we are in the update portion of this blog entry I suppose I should mention that I have a short story coming out in January. I haven’t said much about it yet because January seems like a long, long way off. I’ll make a bigger deal about it in, like, December when things appear almost impossible to fall through.

And, finally, I have been revising the current novel in hopes of getting it to an editor this summer. It’s coming along fine – thank you for asking!

Meanwhile, my writer friends elsewhere are enjoying some successes of their own. J.S. Collyer is debuting her novel Zero this August, and David Michael Williams had his story “Going Viral” honorably mentioned in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest.

So stuff is happening. I hope everyone will keep sifting through the avalanche, keep reading. There is a lot to wade through but once in a while we find what we’re looking for and happiness happens.

See you out there.

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Tuning Fork Tuesdays – Get your groove on.

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If there is one thing that inspires me more than a good piece of writing it’s a great song. Music has been as much a part of my life as eating and breathing, and it is there that I’ve found a great deal of creative impulse over the years. The combination of melody and lyric opens emotions that are harder to achieve in static print, and it has long been my hope to discover some way to transition the feelings generated in music to similar sentiments in my writing.

I have written a few short stories inspired by, or interwoven with, songs, and as a I continue to explore this union I’ve also decided to incorporate music into my social media platform via a feature I’m calling “Tuning Fork Tuesdays.”  Each Tuesday I will post a new music video or link on Facebook and Twitter, either of a big famous band or musician, or of lesser known quality musicians still working to make a name.

It has never been a better time to be indie.

Please enjoy Tuning Fork Tuesdays by following me on Facebook and Twitter, and see where the phenomenon of music and writing intersect in your life.

Feel free to share your comments!

This week, MGMT – Indie Rokkers:

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Winning, Losing and Novelty: Art is not a competition

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When I was eight years old I ran with a pack.

Wolves, bears, bobcats – these were the icons of pack success, and as with the other packs I was subjected to as child, this one was based on a broad scale of achievements, predetermined and established for all members regardless of individual interests, needs, or talents.

The seasonal kite-flying challenge presented itself as yet another opportunity to fall in line with the rights of passage for becoming not just a cub scout, but eventually a full boy scout. But by the time I arrived with my diamond of yellow paper, embossed with the Boy Scouts of America eagle-superimposed-over-a fleur-de-lis, the competition had already begun. I was behind from the get-go.

I watched the other kites dance up vesper ladders dozens of feet overhead and felt immediately hopeless. There was barely a breeze at ground level, and my heart was hardly into the task, but the press of expectation spurred action. I quickly secured my kite to a spool of cotton string and took off running over the sloping grasses of the hillock where everyone was gathered. The stiff, short-sleeves of my blue scout uniform chaffed my arms, and the yellow neckerchief scratched the edges of my neck as the sun’s heat pressed down on the efforts I made to launch my kite.

My effort was embarrassingly futile. While the other kites flew, some reaching half a spool of thread or more in their victorious climb skyward, my kite could barely sustain a meager hover. The contest was over by the time my kite achieved lift off. With their day finished the other scouts peeled off while I remained behind to finish the flight barely begun.

Then something remarkable happened. In the absence of the other kites it was as if a lane suddenly opened. My kite flew. As the wind carried the kite higher the spool of string spun in my hands and the kite became inspired. The sky relinquished its downward force allowing the kite to soar like Icarus rushing to meet the sun’s embrace.

The line ran to the end of the spool, the cardboard tube lurched in my hand. An erotic ting electrified my body as I nearly lost grip on the kite line. In a nearby bag I fished out another spool and, struggling through sweat in the windswept sunshine, I affixed the second line to the first. Once secure the kite twisted and climbed even higher, the friction heat of the second spool spinning in my hands.

I was at first disappointed to see my kite reach such a great distance. All of the other scouts, peers and competitors alike, had left the scene. I had no witness. Then by chance the competition judge passed by.  A middle aged woman with dark hair and a masculine air, she confirmed with a patronly nod and a word that my kite had indeed bested the day. My kite had flown higher, gone farther, than anyone else’s. Thus dawned one of my first epiphanies – I had, in my way and in my time, surpassed everyone. I’d stood out from the pack . . .

As human beings we are taught from the beginning that we should compete against others for prizes designed to elevate the few above the many, in this way to earn the right to be part of the collective whole, and to fill a niche by being a winner, a competitor .  .  .  a loser.

As creatives, however, there is something that exists beyond the pack. When we create in our unique way there are no rules. The birthright of the creative person is the freedom to do things our way and in our time. The message here is simple: when the crowds have exhausted themselves trying to best one another, and the lanes are open, the creative person is then able to work in a limitless environment, and to the extent of their full potential.

As soon as anything becomes a competition it has lost its novelty. The goal of the artist is to create novelty in pursuit of an effect, and in this process each must operate within his or her own sphere. By stepping away from the pack the creative is free to explore the means of their process, and to produce something original, something beyond the scope of a moment.

There may never be awards at the end of this process – no badges or placards or trophies. But at a minimum there will be the satisfaction that a sincere effort can bring great individual freedom from the pack, freedom from the oppressive need to win, freedom to fly to the end of the line.

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