Your Story Submission is Just an Audition

Journey III was listening to an interview of actor David Tennant (Dr. Who, Jessica Jones) the other day and he said something I think we’d all benefit in hearing.

Tennant was recapping his successful acting career and mentioned that he’d had to audition for a part recently, which was something he hadn’t done in a long time. Successful actors often get to skip the audition given their status as a known commodity, so an audition is rarely required. Tennant is a very funny man, and his story harbored no malice or jealousy, but he did mention in passing how an audition is very competitive, and that on this day he was bested by someone else who showed up and did a better job.

This made me think about the process of getting published.

As writers most of us are unknown. We send our little envoy along, our speaking part if you will, in hopes of impressing an editor enough to put our story in their publication. When the story comes back rejected, we feel a wash of negative emotion, from despair to disgust to anger, and believe simultaneously that the editor is a fool and we are delusional to think we’d ever succeed at writing in the first place.

But what if we had to audition? What if we had to physically carry our story in hand, down the littered sidewalk and into narrow alleys, up steep stairs into a crowded room with chairs lining the walls, nowhere to sit, the competition staring into our faces with polite contempt while we wait for our name to be called. During the wait, our resolve diminishes. Fatigue sets in as we study the pages in our hands – our best work. How embarrassing. The room is warm, stuffy, the air disgusting as we breathe in the fear and self-loathing of everyone else, just as they breathe in ours. And finally our name is called, and we step behind the door with the frosted glass window, the loose glass rattling once as the door shuts too loudly behind us. Seated at a table in what amounts to a tiny classroom are three strangers, experts, who are about to listen to us read our story, judge us to our faces, letting us know as we finish that they will be in touch.

At home we are sure others must have done better. In excitable moments we rise in the feeling that maybe, this time, we did it right. We remember how we stumbled in our reading, how we misspoke the line when Clara revealed to her mother that she was contemplating a divorce. How could we have botched such an important moment?

When the call comes, sorry, we’ve chosen a different option. Please contact us again for future opportunities. Spurned, we are outwardly grateful for the opportunity. Will try again soon. Have a lovely day. And then for an hour, we completely give up.

Thank God it isn’t quite like that. Writers are spared the physical confrontation with our judges. Our envoy makes the trip for us, and stands in for our audition beside hundreds of others. Once in a while, we get the part.

Every successful actor is no different from every successful writer. Whether by person or pen they showed up, did their best, walked away for a time to return once more and try again. This is you. Many times you will be bested. But show up for each opportunity, again and again. Get better. One day you will get the part. Each chance is only one audition. Whether you failed or succeeded the time before, remember that it’s the next time that matters most.

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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.

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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Lucky Versus Good and the Simple Secret to Success

shadow fixLefty Gomez is credited with saying “I’d rather be lucky than good.” When it comes to success as an artist that sentiment may be even more true than it is in baseball. The secret to success as an artist lies within this idea, a secret that isn’t as mysterious and elusive as it first seems.

Every new project an artist undertakes is approached with the same general drive, inspiration and intent as the one before. When the idea comes to us we go for it with the goal of making the best product we know how. When the work is finished and we are happy enough with it, we send it out into the world and there it is judged, loved, hated, and then eventually becomes replaced by the next thing in a cycle that goes on and on forever. Except that sometimes a thing we do sticks, and the resultant stick makes us stand out, perhaps for the rest of our lives.

Naturally we would like everything we do to have this lasting effect, but it doesn’t and we can’t force it to happen no matter how hard we try. What we must do instead is create the best content we can while also creating as much of it as we can. The secret to success is more often quantity combined with quality. With quantity comes a sort of luck. The odds are that with enough effort something will stand out and get you noticed. Often it takes example after example of a certain style before people “get it,” but once that happens years of toil can come to fruition almost over night.

Not that we rely solely on luck. While it may be better to be lucky than good, the artist must still be good at what they do. A whole library of garbage will always be garbage. But a substantial collection of quality work, and a little luck that some of it gets noticed and celebrated, is the most likely scenario for success for today’s creative person.

So often it seems that a young prodigy comes out of nowhere with a single piece of fiction that suddenly takes off and makes them the new hot thing. To believe that some people wake up one day and pen a single story, as though having an innate store of perfect stories in their minds, one to write following another, is a great illusion in the world. No creative person that I am aware of ever created quality work without practice. For every first fiction there are dozens of stories that never made the cut, usually never made the light of day.

The secret is to work fast and work often. Let the stories inside you come together and slip out of you like tears and gasps and great big laughs. There is nothing gained by trying to create one perfect piece. The goal of perfection is deceptive – to assume that perfection can be achieved and should be the goal is to restrict the pathway to success with the briars of a lie. Simply create, prolifically, and let the results of your work lead the way to whatever success may come. None of us are only as good as one thing we do – we are the sum of all of our parts.

Keep working.

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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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Winning, Losing and Novelty: Art is not a competition

kite5

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

baseball

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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