Hiatus in Review

Hi friends,

It has been a fast and frenetic summer and I have been thoroughly consumed by the events of the many dog days passed. My sincere apologies for being absent.

This morning I submitted a story for publication for the first time in a long time, and let me tell you, it felt good.

Taking this step, to submit my story, reminded me that it’s important to come back to the work even if you’ve been away a while. So if you’ve been away, too, come on back. There’s no time like the present and it feels great.

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The Third Guarantee – Death, Taxes, and . . .

Change.

Whoever said there were only two guarantees in life forgot the critical third. Transition is the fundamental state of our existence.

It has been one month since my last blog entry and the delay has been directly related to the reality of transition. I’ve moved yet again, and have thrown open the doors on my life to the whimsy of the unknown.

At the end of summer I will leave my post at the lighthouse and head in the direction of new things, some defined, others obscured by indetermination. I am on the path of freedom, continuing my hero’s journey, the fantastical tale of my own life.

Writing will remain part of this journey and some of the details will be tracked here, through this blog. My projects are delayed for the moment, but they are not forgotten. My goals remain the same in the writing process.

Transition is everything in a creative life. I leave with you this, a post I wrote as a guest blogger in 2013 for Writer’s Relief wherein the aspect of transition is discussed at the microcosmic level. If you have not read this I hope you enjoy it. If you’ve read it before may you be reminded again of the value of transition. Either way, thank you for continuing with me.

http://writersrelief.com/blog/2013/05/psyched-to-write-overcoming-the-transition-barrier/

I’ll be back soon!

T.J.

Fish Tales and Other Stories

fish 4I once knew a boy who was swallowed by a fish.

I was in the wasteland of my tween years, every day like every other day, blended into semi-eternal summer months where the terror of school was a distant nightmare waiting at the entrance of a long, dark tunnel called winter. I was an experienced outdoorsman, having learned to fish and shoot and camp as a toddler. I needed no help baiting a hook or landing my own catch on the banks of any river or stream. So confidant a fisherman was I that I usually only baited my hook once at camp before spending up to half an hour teasing the pools and currents with only that first worm until snagging and landing one of the silvery mountain trout I so often fished for in my youth.

My family and I were deep in the middle of a summer camping trip somewhere in the Sawtooth Mountains of southern Idaho, parked beside an ambiguous river whose banks varied in width by narrow inches and broad feet, the same for its depths, and it was shocking for us all earlier in the weekend to chance upon an occasional spawning salmon or two in the narrow lanes of the waterway, their great scarlet bodies slithering up stream – yards of fish so gigantic in the narrow river they seemed to be mythological. The sight of the creatures created in me a fisherman’s lust so strong that I planned to spend the next day casting my line at any wild thing that would take the bait.

It was late morning as I prepared to set off alone, down river from camp, to try a new hole I had found the evening before. I stood under a shady pine and baited my hook with one half of an earthworm before heading for the water.

The pathway to the fishing spot tailed along the water’s edge over smooth stones that made the footing uneven. To add to the challenge there were branches everywhere, cloying mountain brush that I had to navigate through and around while trying to avoid catching my line. When I finally arrived at my destination I squatted low at the edge of a wide and shallow spot on the river where a small, black waterfall dropped into a deeper pool. I steadied my baited hook over the water, then swung it like pendulum several times, releasing the bail so the line fell at the top of the fall, and watched as the patch of fleshy worm disappeared into the current, my line swirling into the deep.

It didn’t take long before I felt the strong tug of success, and in victory I yanked my pole skyward in an attempt to set the hook. Instead of the familiar resistance of the fierce weight and struggle of a fish on the other end, my hook came flying up out of the water, and immediately sailed weightlessly through the air until momentum spun it repeatedly around the tip of my pole, tangling it into an almost hopeless mess. That clever fish had stolen the worm and left the hook.

I had been bested before and though somewhat frustrated I made the delicate journey back to camp, retrieved another dying worm half from the bait box, and returned many minutes later to try again. I swung the line, dropped the bait, and watched it fall satisfactorily into place. In moments I felt another strong tug, which I answered with a setting motion, and again my hook flew gleaming and bare up out of the water to wrap itself without further ceremony around the tip of my fishing pole.

I felt a granite cloud of anger in my gut, and I scowled. Once again I returned to camp, baited the hook with a fresh worm, and made the treacherous journey back to the magical spot. I was determined to catch that fish, more determined than I had ever been before about catching any fish. Deftly I sent the line flying into the fall, and expertly I set the bail. The line jumped, the hook flew out of the water, and once again it danced around the tip of my pole.

I raged under my breath. I could feel the hot seizure of fury creep over me like a rapidly rising sun, a heat so consuming it was sinful. And as the heat rose my mind turned inward, to the dark center found in every man. I was so mad at the fish, the river, the worm, at everything in all of creation that I turned my anger explosively toward heaven – I got angry at God Almighty Himself. Back up river I turned, every step and stumble a curse. I mumbled under my breath, uttering swears I had only heard on television. I began to chastise God. “Stupid fish . . .” I said. “Might as well have stayed home . . .” I muttered. “All Your fault . . .” and then, as I broke from the brush, my fury at its crazed peak, seeing red everywhere, I glanced skyward and said loudly, “You might as well throw me in the river!” Instantly I pivoted, my arms flying into the air, my fishing pole sailing to the left, back toward the cursed fish as I stumbled forward and fell, spread eagle, only a moment to cry out in terrible desperation for my mother before landing with a great wet splash in the unrelenting river.

I had the bizarre sensation of floating, arms and legs still spread, like a big, pale water bug on the surface of the water. My voice went hoarse, and I kept calling out, “mom, mom, mom” but it was a gruff, chest deep croak, not even loud enough to carry over the gentle trickling sound of the river, and I imagined floating there for the rest of my life, unable to drown, unable to get out, my suggestion taken wholly to heart by Great God Almighty and His accomplice, the Devilfish of that smooth dark pool at the base of a glistening waterfall.

But my cry in the air had made its way up river. Through the forest my mother came wending, the look of fear on her young face, and there she found me, drifting in a foot of water like a paralyzed floaty thing. She scurried to the river’s edge and helped me stand. She held my arm as, sobbing, I retrieved my fishing pole from the below the water’s surface.

Back at camp I lay trembling in the tent, naked and terrified and ashamed, stunned by God’s audacity. I shivered on the floor of the tent, wrapped in a bath towel, with no dignity remaining.

“He almost drowned,” my mother said.

“Probably he didn’t,” my father said, and looked in on me with a soft humor in his eyes. “You all right, tiger?” he asked. I supposed I was even though I wasn’t sure. I spent the rest of the weekend close to camp, and God and I did not talk for the rest of the trip.

I never did catch that fish. Never returned to that spot again. I wouldn’t call it “the one that got away” because I doubt that Devilfish was half as big as it was clever. It swallowed me, though, or part of me. My pride most likely. But I got a story in exchange, and one I’ll never forget. For a writer there’s no better catch than that.

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Why Writing Banned Books Should Be Our Goal

pic1It is my sincere desire to write a “banned book.”

This isn’t about sex and drugs, violence, and other taboos of our social conscience. I don’t wish to write a book that’s going to be controversial just because it’s stocked with profanity and behavioral license – everyone does that, and frankly it’s cliché. My idea is to tell stories that contain ideas that are shocking, original, unnerving and uncomfortable, regardless of any depictions of sex and violence and the romantic notion that self-destruction is a desirable outcome. We all seek original ideas, but centering our stories on self-abuse and perversion isn’t very original. There’s got to be something more, something that is controversial, maybe inflammatory, but is at the same time uncommon – and maybe just the thing that needs to be said.

Stories are where our species discovers truths that are both individual and universal, and because of story we’re able to identify things about ourselves that raise our self-awareness and help us evolve as a species. Many great scientific and technological discoveries have been made through story, and it is therefore a guarded and oppressive psychology that seeks to ban these discoveries, denying that our minds go to the places they do, ask the questions they ask. We pretend to protect ourselves from ourselves by rejecting controversy and fringe ideas, failing to see that we should only fear the misuse of our ideas, and not the ideas themselves.

A banned book, by my definition, should be a book of fresh ideas, and it would be the great honor of every writer to write at least one work considered too shocking to print, too fringe to expose to the delicate sensibilities of our better nature. There’s no denying some responsibility in creating such a work – the writer is not encouraged to be crass or unsophisticated. A book of dangerous ideas should be created and treated with reverence, the ideas evaluated ultimately for their edifying characteristics and not their diminishing ones. As with great technologies of healing and social welfare, all things can be used for war – but war for the sake of war is a sin against us all.

We should seek to write books worthy of being banned because these are the only books deserving of a place within any literary canon. A book worthy of being banned is one worthy of being immortalized. The taboos we adorn our works with, sexual, violent, blasphemous, and shocking, should be vehicles of greater ideas only, and not the ideas themselves. At the heart of controversy should be the question, “is this where we are headed?” and if so “is it where we want to go?”

And so we must write to find the idea that is beyond the pale of the initial inspiration. From titillation we seek connection; from anger we seek to eliminate pain. Our taboos mask our need for love; they are substitutions for the healthy thing we need most. If by expressing taboo we manage to achieve understanding and meaning and perhaps unveil an insight that is ahead of our current time, then, like it or not, we are advancing as a species. This is so often what great literature strives to do. When the watchdogs of our parental society are rattled we must look to see what has flustered them so, and therein find the fire that continues to yield the greater virtue of our proud and unusual species.

 

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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.

Novel

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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Creativity Beyond the One Thing (or, lifestyle versus hobby)

I was raised by creative parents. I don’t know if they realize this fact, nor how much it influenced my creative life. Even to this day my parents are creative. My mother is a quilter-extraordinaire. My father has done everything from stained glass and wrought iron, to photography, to knife-making. Award-winning, quality work. I’m very proud of their creative skills and grateful for the influence. I have often wished for both of them that they would have had the confidence in their craft to make it less of a hobby, and more of a lifestyle.

Living creatively means more than giving art a shot. Trying new things is important, and dabbling in creative pursuits is fulfilling in itself because the experience of learning new skills and then making something with our own hands is satisfying, even if the product isn’t exactly the quality thing we wish to make. When we dabble and fail, because as novices that’s what happens, we tend to give up and say the effort was an experiment. If we do it a few times, every now and then, we call it a hobby. Often we abandon the endeavor and move on to something else. Meanwhile, though we may harbor a little piece of creative notion about ourselves, we largely live our lives as though the arts are meant for someone else. We don’t think of ourselves as artists, we don’t act like artists, and we don’t create like artists.

Creative people have an attitude. I’ve probably said this before. And that attitude is one of defiance, and license, and of pride. For those who cannot abate this attitude the creative sensibility becomes a lifestyle. Creatives often look, talk and behave differently from “normal” people. Some of this dandyism comes from pride and ego and some of it comes from a lack of confidence that they are trying to overcome by being different. When a creative person moves from dabbling curiosity to daily living in the creative zone, their entire lifestyle becomes a resource for the creative effort. Through this evolution the true artist is manifested. In Campbell’s terms the mythology of the artist results in the real-world outcome of an artistic life. Artists create art, and there’s no stopping it once the persona is established.

A creative lifestyle is composed of many things that other lifestyles shy away from. Travel, idea and discussion, debate, creation, destruction, rebirth, change. These things take effort. They require an engaged mind and a level of energy. The will must be fully present and applied. All of creative effort is a matter of will. The work can be tedious and frustrating. Hopes can be dashed. Failure, once again, is ever-present. Few, if any, creative people who have gone on to have great success have never experienced failure. But they did not quit, because their will would not let them, nor would the calling.

Sean Penn has been credited with saying that he has written many things, and most of them haven’t gone anywhere. But by doing a lot of work he finds things that do take hold, and are successful. None of us is any different in that regard. But in order to have the energy to do all of that work, and to have a shot at that kind of result, the creative process has to be part of an entire lifestyle.

My offering today is encouragement to embrace the inner dandy. All of a person’s individual success ultimately comes down to their own effort and the will to make it happen. Theodor Herzl said “If you will it, it is no dream” (Old, New Land, 1902). The will thrives in an environment that promotes it.

So what will it be? Lifestyle or hobby? The urge to create a single story requires the will to make it happen. If one has the will to do even that much, then there is the will to create the lifestyle to support it.

Doing the Actual – A blogger returns from self-imposed exile

I’ve been away – maybe you noticed, maybe not. I haven’t gone far, I’ve just been doing the actual.

What I mean is, with a lot of things going on I decided in the midst of all of my grand ideas to spend all of my writing time working on actual writing – which is, for me, creative. The stuff I want to be most successful at. This has taken the form of ongoing revisions of my novel. I didn’t abandon writing, is my point. In fact, I also wrote almost an entire newsletter for work, which I had to, and thus, well, I neglected this blog for a bit.

For all of the chatter about finding time to write – no, about making time to write – it’s a bit of a different thing to actually be able to do it. As some of you know I had the luxury of not having a day-job for two years, and then I found a great new job and have been working again for almost three months. Before I went back to work I was really really adamant that everyone could find even fifteen minutes a day for writing if the soul was willing.

Now I know it’s true.

Not that I never wrote when I was employed before. I’ve written quite a bit while gainfully employed. When I wasn’t working I got to write all the time instead of a little each day. I’m happy to say, at this juncture in my writing life, I am still writing, er, call it “regularly,” despite the demands of job and social and all of the things insistent on talking up my time. But instead of blogging and sending email, and writing ad hoc grants, and the myriad other writing projects I had at the same time, I now find myself narrowing focus, committing to one writing project at a time. All I have time for is my best project.

At our most confident we writers feel invincible, capable of mastering all forms and of generating copious work, volumes of writing for the edification of the masses. We forget we are human, susceptible to distraction, fatigue, and the laws of Murphy (damn the Irish!).

In some ways, though, having time enough only to work on one project feels like the most sincere form of the writing life there is. I have no time, therefore I write, and I write only this one thing because without it there would be no writing at all, and no writer, and no dream. Yet, I persevere.

So if you are feeling downtrodden, underachieving, and on the brink of failure because you’ve decided that fifteen minutes per day on just one project is not what being a writer means, I assure you that if you return to just that much effort you are still a writer.

Besides, the truth is that there are more than fifteen minutes available to us if we want them. Half an hour is twice the time and twice the productivity! An hour – four times! There were writers in history who wrote while standing among friends and family in the parlor, women who had to hide their work under the cushion of a chair for fear that someone would find out that they were writing at all.

No, if we have the time then all we must do is use it, and write from the gut, and just keep going. As novices we are out to sea with only our wits to keep us from the sharks, the elements, and the threat of drowning. But if we keep swimming, a little bit at a time, and never give up, we will reach the shore.

This belief is something every one of us must keep inside. No one else can give it to us and they cannot take it away. Reserve your golden fifteen, imagine them on the clock in shining gold numbers, imagine the sheen spreading to thirty minutes, an hour. This is a sacred time to do sacred work, and once you’re in it, steeped in the depths of your creativity, you will find the energy again, and the muse. All you have to do is try.

Keep on task and soon the miles will pass behind you. Your destination is just ahead.