The Christmas Corps: A journal from the front lines.

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” – Napoleon Bonaparte 

Welcome to the Christmas Corps.  Some of you volunteered for this mission, some were drafted by fate or dumb luck.  But here we are, joined by our solitary missions to bring Christmas to our loved ones.  There was stress, there may have been tears.  After all, you are given only a month to do what a jolly fat man can only pull off with a crack team of elves and a herd of reindeer in a year.  But on the morning of December 25th, you, the true Yuletide heroes, reaped the glories of the Jingle Bells battle.  You were mercantile marines, shopping soldiers and you performed bravely.

Being a father, I have found Christmas to be a sometimes complicated, sometimes demanding duty.  I started early this year, picking up toys out of clearance end caps in October, breaking the normal industry standard of no shopping before Black Friday, yet somehow, still found myself shopping in the waning days before I would eat all the cookies and blame in on a fat man in a red suit.

In the preparatory week prior to Christmas, I struggled with ribbon and paper, trying to figure out how to wrap packages that had no apparent adherence to any geometrical figure I ever learned in my public school education.  Maybe they teach you what shape a Happy Napper dragon is to packaged in during private school, but in my world, I slap a bow on it and set it under the tree.

I wondered to myself how I would explain to the emergency room doctor that I managed to severe my index finger with a pair of kitchen shears, the only cutting instrument I could find, and wondered it once again as I attempted to cut Snoopy wrapping paper with a rusty pocket knife.  Instead, I threw caution to the wind, avoiding sharp blades and tetanus by suffering a cut from a cardboard box.

After the cursing calmed, I found myself shocked by the amount of blood that can come from a finger and wondered if anyone had ever had a paper cut that required stitches.  I forgo the indignity of switching the wrapping paper that I had just bled on and tape it up.  That particular Lego set has plastic wrapping, screw it.

As a former art major, I was shocked and dismayed to find that the hands that could sculpt a face out of clay couldn’t figure out how to wrap a pirate hat with Transformer paper and make it look like anything but a festively paper mached pirate hat.

The morning of the grand opening, so to speak, I am excited by the light in my son’s eyes as he begins tearing paper from packages revealing the childhood treasures contained within.  I am certain I am the best father in the history of fathers, right up until he gives me the Hot Wheels semi-truck and wants it opened.  I send him off to tear apart more of my hours of literal blood and sweat, while I search for a screwdriver.

Pandora’s box is not as secure as a Hot Wheels semi.  I try to make sense of the diagrams telling me I need to break tab A, then turn the screw left while the pile of toys to be opened grows beside me.  I eventually defeat the security measures taken by the Matel Corporation and then move on to the next gift.

I’m not sure when a Construction Management degree became necessary to follow the blueprint instructions for putting a Pirates of the Caribbean play set together, but I quickly realized my English-based education has left me unprepared for following the instructional drawings.  I fell back on winging it, shoving pieces together that seem to match until I made something that closely resembles what I saw in the picture on the box.

In my brilliance, I had decided what my four year-old really needed was Lego blocks.   We could build things together.  He could learn creativity and the joy of making something yourself.  It would be awesome.  It turns out, the downside of Legos is that my son would like me to build everything the right way first.  There I sat with a grand total of nearly three thousand pieces of Legos from seven different sets, spending hour upon hour building, knowing that as soon as they are finished, he will tear them apart and mix the pieces together inside his Lego box.  But still, I do it with a smile.

It was already bed time.  Light turned to night and bed time was fast approaching.  I looked at the pile of packaging.  I felt sorry for the guys on the sanitation crew this week.  I was somewhat annoyed how large the pile of trash was compared to the pile of toys.  What a waste.  It was enough to make Green Peace cry.  It would be a hell of a mess to clean up.

I sat back on the couch and watched my son.  He wore the Jack Sparrow hat, and searched for buried treasure with a Happy Napper dragon and a plush Yoda.  The Lego Hero Factory characters scaled the side of Queen Anne’s Revenge, and battled a robot from Mars for control.  My son’s little voice was hoarse from an entire day of excitement, always talking, always full of love for everything.

There was a light in his eyes, pure and radiant that had stayed sparking since the first gift was opened.

I rejoiced in this year’s victory.  The Christmas mission had been completed, and was a resounding success.  It could not have been more worth it.

A Fisher of Hearts

“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” – Matthew 4:19

My grandfather had died, quietly, in his sleep.  I sat in a wooden pew, awaiting the beginning of his funeral.  There was no organ, only the constant drone of the crowd.  My family had arrived early.  As I sat impatiently, my hands shaking with sadness, the crowd had filtered in behind me.

The constant drone of their speech rang in my ears as people shared their memories of my Grandpa Joe.  He had been many things to many people.  We all dealt with his death in our own way.  I was introspective, like the lake, my calm surface denied a world busting below with biological activity.

Memories swam through my head in a constant blur.  I would sometimes get a nibble, catching a memory for a moment before losing it again.  Sometimes, I would set the hook and reel it in, embracing it fully.

I could describe the memories, but they would be meaningless to you.  These were not world-shattering moments you brag about, but small memories of little things.  It was the little things that my Grandpa Joe had done so well, the little things that added up to the sum-total of a great life.

This was the real funeral.  Removed from the pageantry and procedure was the real coping mechanism, story and memory.  So much of small town life is defined by storytelling.  You can see it all around you, from gossip rising from a café table along with rich coffee steam, to two pick-up trucks parked side-by-side, shooting smiles, laughter and bullshit through rolled-down windows.

The funeral dirge of dialogue played on, lifting my grandfather’s soul to the afterlife, as his body lay in the casket before me.  His shape was barely recognizable, stripped of the soulful smile that brought hundreds to this small church in the middle of a town of less than a hundred.  They drove past the sign post designating Grandpa Joe’s station, a historic landmark of the people.

They arrived at the church, one of two he attended every Sunday, walking the half a block from one to the other for a second sermon.  They walked up the ramp feeling the weight of the living, the survivor’s guilt of the masses, mournful for the time they would have to spend without a constant fixture of their lives.

The church was standing room only, the church basement, which had 130 chairs for overflow, was filled.  People sat on the floor in between the rows.  The funeral procession for family and dear friends, was miles long, stretching in each direction as far as you could see.  Leading the procession was Grandpa Joe’s car, a beat-up white Dodge Shadow with a large fishing bobber mounted on the top, just as it had been for years.

He lay in the casket, wearing bib coveralls, a cross, pocket watch, and dreamcatcher lying on his chest, held to the coveralls by a gold chain.  Beside him lay an ancient Native American medicine bag, his good luck charm, worn leather fastened by a bone button.  The contents were in many ways a mystery.  I knew only second hand of a fishing bobber and Native American figure held within.  My guess is that they would be the simple items of a man who enjoyed the simplicities life offered.

We cried, oh how we cried, tears of shared sadness.  We shared sobs with people who we did not know, who we had never seen, but had somehow been touched by Grandpa Joe’s life.

Person after person at the funeral spoke about how they had gone to comfort him in hospice, only to receive comfort from him instead.  Now, we only had his memory to hold us the way his smile once had.

My tears were tears of missed opportunity.  For several years, I had planned on taking a couple of weeks to spend with Grandpa Joe, to go fishing and hear about his life.  I pictured it as the biography of the average man, and of what he can be capable of becoming.  Thousands have benefited from inspirational books about thousands of people.  Surely, they could learn something from the life of Joe Brammer.

Sadly, on Thanksgiving, I realized that opportunity had passed.  His voice was a weak whisper, and even our short conversation, seemed to exhaust him.  I feel ashamed I did not write that book, the book of a man who loved intensely, and died the same.  I hope that in some way, these two blogs will atone for my procrastination.

It is the day after the funeral.  I stand alone in my parent’s living room, looking out a large window.  The house is silent save for my thoughts.  The snow begins to fall, large angel feather flakes floating from heaven, the Iowa sky weeping gently

I hope wherever he is, there is still a calm lake, a line, and a bobber floating gently in the water.  Jesus always had a fondness for fishermen.  He took the best we had, but not before he captured us all with his heart.

Joe Creese Brammer – October 31st, 1925 to December 16th, 2011

A Train Ride to an Unknown Stop

“A great man is always willing to be little.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The curse of living is not age, but the aging of those around you.  One by one, the flowers of your life, those who brought you the greatest color and beauty, whither and return to the Earth.

You move on, not because you want to, but because you must.  Life’s locomotion chugs always forward, the Little Engine that Could Not Help Itself.  You carry on the memory of those you passed along the way, those who got off the train at one stop or another.

Your ticket is one with no destination.  You ride the rail, ignorant of its path, never knowing what mountain or plain that will next grace the view.  From your window seat, you watch the storms, quivering with a child’s fear, then soak in the glory of the breaking sun, relieved to have survived.

In the confined quarters of the passenger car, you meet fellow travelers.  Some ride for only short, barely noticed spurts.  Others have ridden for as long as you remember, seeming to have as steady a presence as the train itself.

One of the greatest passengers I have known, my Grandpa Joe, is likely nearing the end of his travel.  I fear his departure may leave me missing one of my great influences, one of the few people I’ve known who can transcend the scenery, never affected by snow or storm, he speaks with everyone, yelling affectionate greetings of “Hey little sister!” or “Hey little brother!” to all the children, promising to take them fishing, the way he did their mothers and fathers, the way he did me.

On his worst days, his mood has rarely been darkened.  Sitting and chatting in his overalls, with a crucifix dangling lightly from the front pocket, he always has the appearance of comfort, despite all the pain his body has given him, especially of late.

He is a man who has read the bible cover to cover multiple times.  His relationship with God is personal and strong, and his loyalty to his family as absolute and concrete as his faith.

People speak of self-actualization, those who obtained it, defining it by example.  My example is him.  His is the happiness I most admire, not fueled by possessions and titles, but by love.

The world has changed around him.  The small-town gas station he owned, often leaving the pumps unattended, the door unlocked, trusting even strangers to leave money for the gas they took, is gone.  Nothing of it remains.  The home he owned, the one in which he raised his children and his raccoon hounds, is more in need of bulldozing than restoration.  But his mark on the world, his little section of rural Iowa, is permanent and absolute.

If a man’s worth is gauged by love, then he is rich beyond any I have met.  Where others aspire for the riches of Bill Gates, or the looks of Holly Berry, I aspire only for the happiness of Joe Brammer.

I know we are nearing his stop.  As he lays in hospice, surrounded by his living legacy, God stands with him, smiling at the work he has done.  The train is slowing, the brakes shrieking sparks, as we approach the depot.  I am sad, not just for myself, but for all of us.  My Grandpa Joe will soon be leaving the train.  The ride will never be the same without him.  I have no doubt that deep in your heart, whether you know him or not, you will miss him, as well.

The horizon darkens.  The winter night will be bitter cold.   But daybreak always comes again, smiling warmly like Grandpa Joe.

Writing from a parallel universe.

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.” – Walt Whitman

I was mentioning to another writer this week how much I enjoy the use of parallels in fiction, particularly speculative fiction.  By parallel, I mean something that the reader can relate to their modern life, or the way the world currently works.

Humans haven’t changed much.  We love the same, hate the same, lust the same, fear the same.  Nothing has changed except for the targets of our love, hate, lust, and fear.

You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.  In fact, the great works of horror were often based on real life parallels.  Dracula, Frankenstein, Godzilla, and zombies were all born out of real fears.  Parallel to the strange, you found the realities of nuclear war, science, and disease.

You don’t have to see someone run from a zombie to know how their mind is going to work when faced with the zombie plague.  You only have to look to the worldwide reactions to bird flu, mad cow disease, and similar epidemics.  You distill experiences, yours and others, down into an emotional base on which to build your story.

Your characters aren’t that much different from you or your friends.  Chances are, somewhere in the rich tapestry that is your life, there was a scene that can be related to the emotional state of the scene you are writing.  There, in that memory, find how you felt, the way your pulse seemed to radiate, racing from your heart.  Feel the tingle of your skin, as if every molecule in your body was threatening to pull apart.  Watch as your vision becomes cloudy and narrow, your mind seeming to disconnect from physical flesh.

Then, you write it.

At some point in your life, on some level, you have felt ever emotion your characters will ever feel.  Find it.  Amplify it.  Use it.  Write your pain.  Write your hate.  Write your lust.  Write your joy, your pride, your sorrow, your doubts, your stubbornness.  Write it all.

This is nothing new.  Actors have done it for decades.  They have used their real-life feelings and experiences to crawl inside the skins of people who never existed.  They have made characters real because they felt what the characters felt.

Real life runs parallel to fiction, crossing over for brief moments that anchor our stories to reality.  Our stories are real, not in the sense that they happened or that they take place in real settings, but in that they feel real.  If your story feels real, if the characters feel real, then your reader will believe you.

Show your reader real, relate-able emotion in the fantastic, the wonderful, and the horrible.   They will love you for it, and your writing will be a lot more fun.

 

Never let education get in the way of your kid’s learning.

The only thing interfering with my learning is my education. – Albert Einstein.

There is a fundamental different between teaching and learning that we seem to be missing in our society.  We have become statistic-driven.  Our children, both yours and mine, are statistics in the war of education.  Unfortunately, true learning has never been about education.  While education is meant to facilitate it, more than ever it is interfering with it.

Education should be about learning.  But it isn’t.  We have become a country that cares more about teaching than learning.  Tests are no longer an educational tool, but a means to gauge teacher performance.  The problem is that teacher performance, true educational performance, cannot be measured by testing a bunch of kids.

When I look back on the teachers I had in my life and those whom I valued most, it comes down to a simple trait, easily observable.  Those teachers who learned the most from, where the ones that taught me to learn, rather than just teaching me facts.

Facts are relatively pointless when it comes down to it.  I know that the sky is blue because that is what they tell me.  But, more interesting that that is the fact that the sky is blue because of the way the air molecules scatter light from the sun.  I know my shapes, yet more interesting is the way that certain shapes combined are more universally aesthetic than others.  Facts, while testable, are fairly useless.

Yet, as a result of the way our system is structured, we encourage teachers to teach to pass the tests, when our teachers should be teaching our children to love to learn.

Regurgitation of facts will get a student their diploma, maybe even a degree or two, but true love of learning lasts a person for their entire life.  Love of learning is what gets you up in the morning.  It gets you on the internet researching things you see on television.  It makes you want to learn to play harmonica, speak Italian, read books, and a million other things.

We have endangered that love on learning for the next generation because we have placed to hard an emphasis on teaching.  Rather than learning to learn, students have been taught how to know what the teacher wants to hear.

Unfortunately, what made or country great was not desire to tell people what they wanted to hear, but to go further.  We are a country built on the backs of pioneers who wanted to know more and wanted to do more.  They pushed their knowledge to the limits, always wondering what they could do next.

Where will that come from from this point on?  I wish I knew.

I have taken great pains with my on son to teach him about thing in which he is interested.  He loves dinosaurs, and so we read a lot of books about dinosaurs, we excavate model dinosaur skeletons, we talk about what different dinosaurs ate and how fossils are found.  It’s important to note that my son is four, so I keep all of this relatively simple.  All dinosaurs with plates on their backs are Stegosauruses, because that is what they are, but they are also “Spike-tails” because that is what they are on Land Before Time.

Recently, he found a book on anatomy that he loves because you take a body apart in layers.  We have spent a lot of time since then going over names of body parts, where they are inside him, and what they do, yet at the same time, we chuckle when he calls the lungs “people backpacks.”

My hope, more than anything else, is that my son will learn to love learning.  I want him to know that when he thinks something is interesting, there is nothing wrong with learning more.  I want him to take the things he loves and explore them, finding out what makes them tick.

Teachers will be telling him what facts to regurgitate for his entire life, but I hope when all of that is done, he still feels the need to go to the internet, go to the library, and more than anything else, never stop learning.

Along with that, will come an added bonus, for me, a fellow lover of knowledge.  I explore all of these interests with him.  His interest in dinosaurs meant I needed to learn more about dinosaurs.  His interest in anatomy means I will learn more about anatomy.  Whether it be astronomy, robots, or trains, I will happily learn along with him.

The old saying went that if you give a man a fish you will feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish, you will feed him for a lifetime.  Our schools have gotten comfortable with giving our children nuggets of information, shoving factoids down their throats, then declaring them satisfied.  Don’t allow it.  Teach them to love learning, and give them a lifetime of knowledge.

P.S.  In an update from the NaNoWriMo front, the first draft of my novel was finished on the 16th.  Way ahead of schedule.  I am spending the rest of the month going back through and developing the setting a bit better.  I found it was like driving a hundred miles an hour through the countryside.  I got where I was going, but I never really got to stop and admire the scenery.  I look forward to the rest of the month and the rest of the first pass through, so I can see where it was I went without having to worry about getting there.

Until next time, keep reading, keep writing, and for the sake of humanity, keep learning.

-Jack

Our Lost Humanity

NOTE: I normally blog about writing and how it relates to life. However, I was so disgusted by what happened at Penn State this week that I could not help but blog my feelings. After all, in many ways that is what writing is about. In writing, we take life and distill it through words, expressing human nature. But, sometimes, our nature as humans is more important than the art that reflects it. This is one of those times.

There are things more important than our passions. Sometimes, we need to stand back and realize that. There are things, values, more important than any writing or book. There are morals more important than any film or art. There are justices more important than any sport.

People tend to forget that. They get wrapped up in the things they’ve used to define themselves, at the cost of universal humanity. We are writers, readers, athletes, liberals conservatives, artists, scientists…and as such, we forget that we are primarily human.

This week, a bunch of people at Penn State were reminded of the responsibility that we share as humans. It is our duty to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. These people are the young, the old, the infirmed, the otherwise unable to self-protect.

Children, especially, are in our charge. Why? Because we, as adults, take so much authority over them. We command them as teachers, as coaches, as parents, as leaders. Our children are told from an early age that they must listen and obey adults. We send them to other adults, whom we entrust with their safety.

Violations of that trust must be met immediately, and with severity. Those who stand by and allow it are as guilty as those who committed the atrocities in the first place.

People may disagree with me, but in my experience, there is no rehabilitating a pedophile. You cannot tell them to stop and expect it to happen. You most certainly cannot look the other way.

Last night, a bunch of students rioted because a beloved football coach got fired. I am ashamed of them, supposedly educated adults who were unwilling to hold a man accountable for acts that happened under his watch, simply because he won football games.

Football is not important in the grand scheme. Compared to the safety of our children, nothing is important. My son had been born for about a half a second before I realized that I would die for him. My greatest daily wish is for a single smile, a hug, an “I love you, Daddy.” I would defend him with my life, without hesitation.

But, I know my duty is much more than just the protection of my child. If I witness the abuse of another child, I must take action. This is what the athletic and academic administration of Penn State forgot. Pedophilia is not an internal employment matter. It is a public matter of justice. You do not call your boss when a co-worker is molesting children. You call the police. This is your duty, not just because some of you fall under the role of mandatory reporter, but because you ALL fall under the role of human being.

If you haven’t read the grand jury presentment, I urge you to. I warn you, it is a very hard thing to read through, but it is important. It is important to understand what it represents. It represents the destruction of nine young people who grew up to be most likely damaged adults.

Sexual abuse changes children for their entire lives. For most, there is no moving on. There is no getting over it. The abuse will haunt them for all time.

Victims of sexual abuse are victims of power abuse. It isn’t about sex, it is about power and control. Imagine, having lost all power and control over your own life, to have it all ripped away.

Regaining that control is a hard thing. Some people never manage it.

That is the real crime of sexual abuse, the destruction of humanity, of the victims, of the offenders, and of the witnesses. Joe Paterno and Penn State’s administration lost their humanity when they chose not to call the police.

They took away his keys and told him not to bring kids to the locker room anymore, essentially “don’t do it here.” That disgusts me. Out of sight is not out of mind, not for this. There is no forgiveness.

Every person who knew anything about it should be fired. Any who can be prosecuted for failure to report need prosecuted, and all of those who were victimized need to come forward and make sure that the man who stole their innocence stays in prison for the rest of his life. It is a chance for them to regain some control, the control he took from them.

There are things more important than football. It’s a shame so many people forgot that this week. I pray that none of them forget it again. I pray for the survivors who will have to relive the abuse they experienced, and I feel sorry that they have to watch while so many support a man who failed to support children when they needed him the most.

Joe Paterno may have been a good football coach, but he failed as a man. That cannot be forgiven. No more than the victims can will themselves to forget.

The Need for Criticism

To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing. – Elbert Hubbard

There are a few things that every writer should have.  When you get down to it, that is a pretty substantial comment.  Writing is largely individual and like many arts, is at least partially subjective.  That being said, there are things we should all have in common.

First off is a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.  If you don’t have it, get it.  There are few books that address writing mechanics as efficiently as this one.

Second is something to write on.

Third is a good attention span.  Writing is hard and takes up lots of time.  Even when you aren’t writing, that attention span will allow you to go about the business of collecting.  A writer is a sponge that soaks up the world around him.  Phrases that are interesting, mannerisms, appearances, settings.  Everything is stored for later use.

The fourth, is arguably the most important, and that is thick skin towards criticism.  Do not shun criticism, welcome it.  Nothing will make you a better writer than criticism.  You are too close to your own writing.  You infer things from its sentences that cannot be inferred.  You understand things that cannot be understood.  Things make sense that shouldn’t because your brain fills in the gaps.  You need other people to tear apart your stuff.

Does it hurt?  Of course it does.  It hurts no less than a stranger saying your children are ugly.  But it is important.  You are going to get rejections.  You are going to get criticized.  With luck, you will be judged by thousands of people.  Now is the time to get used to it.  Lack of criticism in writing is lack of movement forward.

I was reminded this just recently after reading a self-published first novel by a writer new to fiction.  I was excited to read the book because of several glowing reviews on Amazon calling it the next big thing.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t.  The book wasn’t bad, by any means.  The concept was good, but the writing had a lot of technical issues and the story wasn’t consistent.  This type of thing can only be caught by having your work read ahead of time by people who are willing to hurt your feelings and who worry about more than just your spelling.

Inconsistency to the rules of your story world cannot be allowed.  Your characters must be true to themselves.  Inefficient sentence structure is an easy fix.  None of those things are necessary, nor should they make it to a final draft.  Unfortunately, if you don’t know better, and no one is willing to tell you, how would you know?  All of the five-star reviews are doing nothing for this writer, especially whereas the book is to be the first of a series.  This is one of the dangers of self-publishing.  If you don’t have the appropriate support group to read your work, you risk putting out bad fiction.

Unfortunately, my own review of this book was not appreciated.  So it goes.  I feel bad for the writer.  I don’t feel bad that I said the writing was loose and needed an experienced editor or novelist to guide the writer’s next endeavor.  I feel bad that the writer may not learn anything from it.

I’ve learned so much from those who have criticized my writing.  I don’t mean insulted, but genuinely said what was wrong with it.  I recently wrote a first draft that didn’t work.  I knew it didn’t work and showed it to someone.  They tore it apart.  The re-write resulted in a focused, tighter piece that worked much better.  If I had not had someone who was willing to be critical, the project could have been lost.  Instead, I was able to submit it to an anthology.

Embrace other writers who are willing to be critical of you.  Love them.  If you don’t agree with what they say, don’t use it.  But never downplay their usefulness.  It might be the most important thing in your development as a writer.

 

 

 

 

Just In Case You Need a Reason to Write

NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month for those who don’t do acronyms, is fast upon us.  This will be my first year taking part, but it appears to be an excuse for writers to spend inordinate amounts of time at their keyboards writing bad fiction as quickly as possible.  The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

This comes out to right around 1,667 words a day.  That really doesn’t sound like much in the grand scheme of things.  Stephen King apparently does around 4,000 a day.  At that rate, he would be done in under two weeks, leaving the rest of the month for college football and Thanksgiving turkey.  50,000 probably isn’t that much for any full-time writer, provided they weren’t going to take time to polish every page prior to proceeding.

But, for the rest of us, those who spend 30, 4o, 50, or more hours a week plugging away at a day job, then trying to find time to plug away at a keyboard in our spare time, 50,000 can be a bit of an obstacle.

1,667 isn’t much on its own.  The real difficulty is doing it every day for 30 days.  What is the last thing you did every day, without fail, for thirty days?  There are few things that you are truly able to find time for every day, especially in a month that includes a major holiday that for a lot of people requires travel.

My own goal will be 2,000 words a day.  Chances are, due to my job, if nothing else, there will be a couple of days during which I don’t have time to write.  Should that happen, I want to be on pace to be well over 50,000.

It isn’t that I need motivation to write.  I don’t.  I have completed and submitted nine stories in the last two months.  Productivity hasn’t been much of an issue.  What I really need is support in writing a novel.  I’ve never written a piece of fiction longer than 8,000 words.  Finishing a novel would be the realization of a dream, of sorts.

November will be my excuse to put all my other stories aside and work only on my novel.  I think I have a good concept.  I have found some interesting characters.  My prep work has been going well.  I think I am ready.   So, let’s get to it.  I’ll try to keep you all updated on how it is going.

Best of luck to all of those who are going to take part.  Keep punching that keyboard and I’ll see you at 50,000 on the 3oth.

Here we go.

 

Beneath the Avalanche of Previously Read Pages

I  have a very good memory for images and phrases.  I have largely relied upon that memory when it comes to one of my favorite hobbies, used book stores.

I will find a book by an author I like, or simply something sitting in the $1.00 bin that looks interesting.  I will then mentally compare it to images in my head, deciding whether or not I already it.  Is it one of the hundred books I own that I have yet to read?  I buy books at nearly the same rate I read them, if not more quickly, meaning the gap between read and owned just keeps getting larger.  Thus, I found myself returning a copy of The Resurrection by John Gardner, of which I found an older edition already upon my shelves.

It’s not my fault, really.  I am a book addict.  I walk in to a used bookstore and I breathe in the pages.  The bookstore is a comforting smell and a comforting sound.  Despite being a mercantile establishment, the bookstore is quiet and serene as a  library.  I walk the aisles and find books with worn spines.  These books were once read passionately.  If I listened closely, I could probably hear the dreams of its past readers.

I open the book and flip through the pages.  Sometimes I am lucky and find artifacts of the book’s past life.  Here, an inscription to John, from his mother, who gave him the book.  John, in turn, apparently sold it to the bookstore.  I  found entire papers on literary theory written in the margins and blank pages of As I Lay Dying.  My favorite recent find was a postcard used as a bookmark within Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  Someone visited a place they loved enough to buy a postcard.  Finding it inside a book on the writing life was like finding seeing another person’s life in object form.

A friend suggested I try tracking the books I owned on Goodreads.com.  Last night, I logged them.  I own around 350 books.  If you add the collection on my Kindle, that puts me well over 500.  It’s amazing how quickly the count snuck up on me.  It didn’t seem like I had that many books, even though the wall of my bedroom is lined with shelves, straining from being overfilled by paperbacks.  Most of them are in their second life, having been purchased used.

As a writer, I find them comforting.  They represent a successful writing project for the author, as in successfully published.  Some of the books aren’t exactly successful, if you know what I mean.  They also represent a past reader.  Within the bookshelves exists hundreds of examples of the writer-reader relationship.  It is a reminder that people still care about books, and what is written in them.

I can’t imagine trying to move again.  Books are heavy and the last time was a real pain.  Ironically, for a used book lover, I have a very hard time selling books.  Although before long, space might force my hand, or risk dying under a heap of collapsed oxidized-yellow pages.

Next time you are in a used book store, don’t shun the books with writing in the margins, or names written inside the covers.  Realize they were loved once, and you may love them again.  Be suspicious of perfection in a bookstore.   Books without cracked spines and dog-eared pages can’t be trusted.

Happy hunting.  You may find yourself lost for hours, or at the very least, with a very space-consuming habit.  Just don’t blame me for the weight of the UHaul boxes the next time you move.

You Are Not a Beautiful and Unique Snowflake

Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. – Tyler Durden in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club

Writer’s are a fragile bunch.  We are primarily solitary creatures, except when we are gathering with other writers to talk about writing.  We spend most of our lives dancing to music that exists only in our heads, talking to characters no one else can hear, and trying to effectively communicate what they say to everyone else.

That can be a lot of pressure.  Sometimes it can be overwhelming.  In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes about the delicate psyche of the writer and the oppressive gravity a blank page can place upon them.  I think sometimes we let ourselves get frightened by the gravity and scope of what we are trying to do.  There are so many things to worry about.  There is plot, characters, theme, setting, dialogue, grammar, spelling.  We may invest hundreds of hours in a work of fiction that sucks and no one will ever read.  We want to write something special, something that means something.  We want to write the great American novel.

Anne Lamott deals with this by telling herself she only has to write what she can see through a one inch window.  What I do is far less romantic, and likely the by-product of a blue-collar upbringing.  I remind myself that I am not special.  I cannot sit and watch a beautiful masterpiece flow from my fingertips.  I am working.  That requires practice, attention to detail, stubbornness, and the little bit of skill I possess.

I am not special.  Thousands of writers are facing that same blank page at this moment.   Hundreds of thousands of writers have faced millions of blank pages, and amazingly they have managed to be filled.  The Library of Congress has 33 million books, not even a small percentage of all the writing done when you include magazines, screenwriting, playwriting, etc.

I am facing the same problem as everyone else.  My answer will be the only thing different.  When I stopped writing for awhile, a lot of it was about pressure.  Some people around me who had read my stuff said I had talent.  I felt pressure to perform and to do so immediately.  Write a best-seller, my ex-wife used to say, so we can live on the money.  She was trying to be supportive and encouraging, but a few rejection letters later, I stopped submitting.  It was one thing for Ray Bradbury and Stephen King to say to persevere through rejections, they could literally crap on a sheet of paper and a publisher would buy it.  But I am not either one of them.

Lately, I’ve been going to writer’s groups, and that has made the difference.  I realized that I am not special.  I am not the only writer struggling to start a literary career.  I’m not even the only writer in my sub-genre in this city.  Hell, for all I know, I’m not the only writer on my block.  Somehow, that all makes me feel better.  It calms my agoraphobic social phobia enough to get to work.

You don’t worry about mowing your lawn correctly because everyone does it.  You don’t worry about shoveling snow the right way.  You just shovel it.  If you are working on a car, you know other people have done the same repair before and you just go do it.

When I approached writing this way, suddenly the blank page wasn’t near as offensive.  Writing is just another thing I do.  I love doing it, but in the end, it’s just another project.  A blank page is nothing.  I’ve filled them before.  My colleagues are out there filling them right now.  My fellow writers of the Dead Horse Society, the Writers of the Weird, and the Lawrence Writer’s Group are out there punching keys along with me.  Some of our stuff will be good, some of it great, some of it God awful, but it will be there.

I’m not a beautiful and unique snowflake, and that is fine by me.