All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Writing Aside: Tom Hernandez

This morning I woke to, among other things, an email telling me that at 1:30 a.m., Tom Hernandez, co-founder of the WriteOn group in Joliet, passed away. In all honesty, I knew this email was coming. Everyone who knew Tom knew this email would show up. We had been preparing for this moment for a while, and yet when it arrived, I feel everyone realized they were never actually ready for it. Maybe we can never be entirely ready. And yet, at 1:30 this morning, Tom passed away.

As mentioned, this came as no surprise. A while ago, Tom notified us that he had a pretty vicious form of cancer. He would be fighting the good fight, but he acknowledged that this kind of cancer wasn't one to give up easily, and more often than not, it won the battle. This was a lot to take in, and the fight would in fact be real-life game of crack-the-whip for all parties involved. Eventually it reached a point of inevitability, and everyone found a way to process what the future would be. I took a slightly different spin on it. I made a decision that I would look at what I had learned from this horrible set of experiences, and that's how I will remember Tom.

We all know the classic action-thriller structure: Unwilling character brought into a struggle of immense proportions and forced to not only fight for their very existence against insurmountable odds, but to eventually rise up and be the hero, saving the world and walking away triumphant. It's pretty standard, and it's always good for some high-adventure fun. The classics, however, stand apart from the everyday action movie for one reason, and it has nothing to do with the outcome. Rather, it's all about how the story was told. Did we go into the Lord of the Rings books wondering if Sauron would ultimately conquer Middle Earth, leaving the civilized world in flames? Nope - we knew that good would prevail somehow. The real grabber, however, was the telling of the story, and how everything developed.

Full disclosure: When Tom first made his announcement, a part of me knew - knew - it wouldn't end well. I was supportive and rallied for his cause, but a part of me started preparing for that day I would get the email. However, a funny thing happened. Even though in my mind I knew how the story would end, I started paying more attention to how Tom lived those moments of his fight. I watched as he put forth goals to reach and different landmarks to achieve, how he took a special appreciation for what life he had, even as his very body tried taking it from him. Suddenly, I wasn't thinking about the end of the story, but rather the story unfolding in front of me. And it was fascinating. I learned about living from Tom's last few years of life, even though the story would soon end.

The final conclusion to me is this: We all have that end coming. Some day our friends and loved ones will get that email about us. Young or old, unexpectedly or foreseen, all of our stories end with that email. However, the part that counts the most, the only part that matters, is the story that comes before that final page. To the people seeing our story, we are the hero facing the insurmountable odds, fighting the good fight, and walking away having done the best we ever could. We inspire others around us to be better writers, better people, or just better. The end of the story will come, but people will remember the adventure, so it's up to us to make it a good one. 

Rest in peace, Tom.                

Friday, April 12, 2024

A Good Thing About Social Media

I will admit this, possibly to the surprise of my many former colleagues in the financial sector, but the writer in me misses my days back in economics. During that time, I would do a lot of writing, though a lot of it was actually reporting - discussing economic indicators, legislation, political shenanigans and so forth. I would report on those, analyze their impact, and then draw conclusions from everything I processed. If this is boring you already, you truly understand the broader world of economics.

Since this was reporting, the writing could be dry. Real dry. Like overdone toast in the Sahara dry. It was very business-like, very research-driven, and finding room for a personal voice was difficult. However, the writing was only half of the job. The other half was knowing what I wrote about so well that I could defend it like a doctoral dissertation, which also meant writing what I knew well enough to explain it to people who could throw questions at me from any and every direction - and often did.

Now, did it make a difference just how I wrote about the correlation between the Spanish peseta and the Portuguese escudo during the late 1980s? Not really. What had the biggest impact was being able to sit there, face senior management, and take fire from everything from currency discussions to whether or not that's the proper spelling of escudo. (My guess is few of you know the spelling for sure and even fewer care.) This was a constant test of my mettle, every question a make-or-break challenge. I assure you that all of those questions made me a better economist, sometimes even when I didn't have an answer because it got me thinking more about the subject.

Now here's where this all ties into social media. I have often extolled the benefits of writing workshops,  in part because it provides that same question-and-discussion format that makes things interesting. Well, one thing in particular that social media offers is about a bajillion pages for beginning writers, aspiring writers, creative writers, and all other kinds of writers. These forums have people posting totally random questions about voice, perspective, PoV shifts, how to structure a story, and so on ad infinitum. More importantly, responses come from everywhere. These aren't just dialogues with one board moderator, but with an entire community of writers, some of whom have the exact same questions, and plenty who can offer their own insights and their experiences. The best part? It's all there for you to jump into. If you have an answer, throw it into the thread. If you have a question, post it and let the answers pour in. And, of course, read the comment threads (though at your own risk - comment threads are notoriously volatile) and find things you like.

Now, the writer pages on Facebook might not be as exciting as the peseta:escudo relationship back when those were real currencies, but that's for you to decide. I've been writing for over twenty years, and I still find questions that challenge me. Furthermore, I often answer peoples' questions in a way that make me really think about my form and process before I open my big mouth. It's just like an interrogation by senior management, except there's less money on the table. 

The advice part of this piece: Hop onto social media and just join a few writing groups. I prefer Aspiring Writers United and Fiction Writers, but a simple group search under "writing" or "creativity" should provide a wealth of groups to work with. (And again, be careful with the comment thread. Seriously.)       

Friday, April 5, 2024

Making It A Special Day

As most people in the continental US have heard, a broad swathe of real estate across the country will be witness to a total solar eclipse (weather permitting). This most impressive of events rarely occurs in this country, and won't happen again in totality here for a few decades. Therefore, people are taking the day off, getting out their road maps (Google Maps at least), and figuring out just how to see this spectacle. Out by my place, we will not have eclipse totality (I think they say 94%), so a lot of people are driving two hours south to get the experience in full. They are making a real day out of it.

This kind of event - a rarity indeed - is one that will provide writers with plenty of inspiration for short stories, poems, essays, and whatever they want to create. I expect the eclipse will be followed by a wave of creativity hitting the feeds (along with a lot of people asking, "Why do my eyes hurt?"), followed by a creative lull. No surprise here. However, being inspired by this celestial event is the low-hanging fruit of creativity. Still just as tasty, but there are plenty to choose from. I would argue that every day can be eclipse day if you know where to look.

A poet friend of mine got the opportunity to kill some time in the Albuquerque airport waiting for her flight. If there is something that is the exact opposite of the wonder and awe of a total eclipse, it is probably the Albuquerque airport. So there she sat with nothing to do but listen to nearby musicians play for passers-by while waiting for her flight. Some people might bury themselves in a book, others might catch a quick nap. She looked around, listened to the music, and had her eclipse moment.

As a creative, she took in what was around her, what she had experienced during her time in New Mexico, and all the little things most people take for granted. She let it sink in, she found the inspiration (or maybe the inspiration found her) and she could not help but to write a poem about Albuquerque. By searching through that moment and all its little elements, it became more than just a day, it became special and unique. Everything came together and *BOOM* a poem happened.

Normally, I would present that poem for all to enjoy, but it's not mine; it's hers. However, I took it upon myself to realize that any given day can have some feature worth writing about - you just need to look. Sometimes you just need to feel what is around you, or see it all from new eyes. I mean, come on - Albuquerque? If that can inspire, anything can inspire. It just needs to be seen, heard, and ultimately felt. The writing is just the end product.

Since Monday will be Eclipse Day for me, my next post will not be until April 12th. Enjoy this natural wonder, use proper eye protection, and after all is said and done, maybe write something about it.            

Monday, April 1, 2024

An April Fool's Day Don't (for writers)

It's April 1st, the day people love to dread, or just dread. People find ways to fool and deceive those around them in interesting, mischievous, and sometimes plain old cruel ways. Maybe it's something as simple as unplugging your co-worker's keyboard while they are away from their desk, or sending out a silly memo that's obviously meant to be a joke. On this day we are all participants somehow - often unwillingly - and hopefully we learn to take things lightly, let the foolishness wash off of us, and go about our business, feeling a little lighter and carefree for the experience.

A warning to writers: Readers do not take pranks so well.

Now, part of writing a clever story involves playing a game with the reader. In the classic-twist-at-the-end story, it is revealed that something the reader assumed was in fact not true, or that something they took for granted was entirely different. In a way, this is playing a joke on the reader by cleverly leading them down a particular path just to say, "Gotcha!" at the end. It requires a certain amount of craft and skill to do this, and it definitely takes practice. However, there are right ways and wrong ways to do it.

If you and I were walking down the street and I suddenly punched you in the shoulder then shouted, "Ha! Gotcha!" that wouldn't be much of a joke. It would be a surprise, and not what anyone expected, but there's no humor there. Along a similar line, you have that thing kids do when they tell you to look over there, the when you do, they say, "Ha! Made you look!" Well, that much is true, and it played upon my expectation of seeing something, but it isn't exactly funny after the age of nine.

Too often, writers fall into the same trap. It can come in many forms, but they all have the equivalent effect of, "Ha! Made you look!" The writer creates a narrative, then it turns out that it was all just a dream, and the character returns to their life. The character pursues something that turns out to be nonexistent, and goes back to their life none the wiser. And the worst one - the character breaks from the story to have some sort of experience, then returns to the story and the experience never comes up again. These are the literary equivalent of failed April Fool's pranks and should be avoided at all costs.

So how do we know we are writing ourselves into a cheap little joke? The proof should be in the results, as in, there should be results or some form of consequences from whatever occurred. Think about the three examples in the previous paragraph. They all conclude with the character being unchanged, having just wasted time doing something that had no real impact on them. If the character isn't affected, why would the reader be affected? We have to approach these stories and think about how the reader will see a change (or a deliberate denial) in the world around them. The story needs to be impactful; it needs to make a difference. It doesn't need to be a profound statement, but the character at the end should be different in some striking manner. Like the example I mentioned at the end of the first paragraph in this post, if we feel a little lighter and carefree for the experience, then it was worth having. 

So, for anything you write, and for any joke you pull, make sure it has some intention, purpose, and casts a new light on some part of the reader's world. That's the difference between a good joke and just saying, "Made you look!"              

Friday, March 29, 2024

A Tribute to All Writers

I will be the first to say it has been a rough week. The most trying part of it has been long bouts of introspection, covering various eras of my life. And as many of you might have guessed, given the events of my last post, I have been thinking a lot about writing: what role it plays in my life, how it has shaped me, and where I am in this long writer's journey. Truth be told, I didn't come up with answers. If anything, I ended up with more questions.

However, it did put me into a mindset about just what writing is all about. What it does to us, what it does for us, and how it can live long beyond our time. I've had these thoughts before, and, as usual, I wrote about them. The result of this reflection was a piece that I read at the most recent writers' meeting - the Tinley Park League of Aspiring Writers. A few people requested copies of my work, then a few people suggested I simply post it on my blog so everyone could appreciate it.

So, without further ado, here is the piece I wrote about a writer's connection to writing, and all of its meaning:

It Continues

I am proud to say I am a crappy writer. Some people may protest and try to build my esteem, but let me offer context. When I say I am a crappy writer, this is because I now know so many adjectives that are far worse than merely crappy, and I have risen above those. In short, I have learned over the years to not chart myself on the goals I want to reach, but rather the milestones I have already passed. In doing that, my journey ahead is not anchored by one specific point, but rather an endless series of amazing paths leading toward a beautiful horizon. I am not tethered in my journey, but rather freed to move forth. And I continue.

If I have learned one thing from this journey of writing, it is that every word we place on paper expands us as people, elevating our existence to something greater, something unimaginable but wonderfully achievable. We start this adventure by learning words. Then, by sheer force of will, we start saying these words. They become the building blocks for greater ideas, and we grow. We create. And if we are wise, we push this process forward. We continue.

Eventually, we learn to write these words, each one leaving a footprint in the sands of time. Our ideas flow out of our bodies, taking hold first in voice, then on paper, then in the minds of others. Our conscience expands outside the boundaries of our heart and mind, and into the world. We reach other people, engage with them, take in their presence, and like the spark of life itself, our words expand into their hearts and minds. Our ideas live in others, taking on their own lives and purposes. They continue.

This is the power of the written word – to be a continuation of everything we are and that we can be. As these words nurture our being, our soul expands beyond the confines of our bodies, casting itself forth and touching others. It reaches other souls, merges with their passions and ideas, radiating out like waves in a pond, but getting stronger with every ripple. Our words become this pulse, this sound, this ever-growing signal of our presence. Those words continue.

With our written words, with our ideas, we can touch the world, we can reach the hearts of everything in existence. Even after my hands stop typing these ideas, the words will carry me through the ether, resonating with everyone they touch. Those thoughts, those ideas never end, carrying themselves through time itself, transmitting our deepest existence into the universe. It feeds into something so vast, so incredible, that our little bodies can’t comprehend its grandiosity. But those words, those ideas, that little part of us that we send out into the world becomes a part of this everlasting presence of the Universe forever. That part of us becomes part of existence’s indelible fingerprint through time.

It always continues.

     

Monday, March 25, 2024

Side Note: Chris Drnaso

I had a pretty busy day leading up to sitting here at my desk, typing up this post. Woke up early, played with the cats, had breakfast, got in some work, walked about 22,000 steps (just over 10 miles with my legs), and enjoyed the lightest of rain on a very pleasant spring day. All the time I was doing these things, I was thinking about different things I wanted to write about this afternoon. Definitely something about just what it takes to be a writer this time around, but I couldn't grab just one idea. By the time I got home from my long walkabout, I had centered around a basic premise and would see where it went. I sat down, fired up the computer, and prepared myself.

That's when I discovered that Chris Drnaso had died.

To understand Chris Drnaso was a bit of a challenge for me - the man was quite the enigma. He headed up our writer's group at the Tinley Park library - the League of Aspiring Writers (LAW, which, coincidentally, is meeting tonight). He's been a writer for a long time, but would be the first to admit he wrote his first novel as a personal "bucket list" challenge. (I did not know this at the time he mentioned his first book, but he had been battling cancer at the time - a fight he kept up for 17 years.) So, what started as a personal challenge to see if he could do it developed into another chronic condition - that of being a writer. He wrote several more books, each one a personal mission to create, to share, to immortalize an idea. He became a writer basically by the sheer action of writing. And from that he became a teacher.

I knew him as a very generous and giving person, but more important than that was his willingness to share. That's an important step for any writer to take - putting your work out there and taking in the feedback that allows you to discover more about what works, what doesn't, and how your own voice sounds. I know plenty of prolific writers who remain stuck in place because they can't muster up the moxie to put themselves out there and run the risk of growth. Chris did this happily, and was always very constructive in lifting others up as well. Even when he would explain how one of my submissions just didn't seem to work for him, he would do it in such a way where I knew exactly what I needed to do to up my writing game just a little bit more. And it always worked.

Now I am preparing to go to tonight's meeting. I have a piece of writing to share, and yet that's not the part that will concern me. The news of Chris's death is just getting around, and I am not sure if the LAW members know about it at this point. This meeting will be different, and even if we have a full house tonight, there will be an empty space that we just won't be able to fill. I think we will still get our acts together so we can read, and critique, and motivate each other to be better writers. I am pretty sure he would've wanted it that way.

Thank you, Chris.        

Friday, March 22, 2024

Stuck In the Corner

In case you are unfamiliar, the picture is Hinkum, one of my two cats. On one curious day, this little kitty jumped onto an unstable stack of crutches I had stored in my office (yes, I do go through more than my fair share of crutches). Hinkum's weight stabilized the pile as he sat on them, but if he made the slightest shift to get off, the collection wobbled, shook, and threatened to collapse. Hinkum was terrified, so all he could do was sit atop the crutches and howl pitifully for someone to come rescue him. I finally did, but not before taking a picture for posterity. (You can tell that Hinkum was not amused that I wanted to take a picture first instead before saving him.)


Poor Hinkum's plight stemming from that one stupid decision - which he has not repeated since - reminded me of what writers will go through constantly. They will write their characters into a corner, leaving them with no means of escape. Either the character is physically trapped, or has to make a decision that is against the character's beliefs, or some other situation where there is no justifiable way out. As much as we plan and plot and structure our stories, this will inevitably happen, and we are left there, howling for someone to rescue us.

Now there are a few ways to get out of this situation, but first let me discuss a couple that you should avoid. The worst one, bar none, is the one that I call, "Papa Smurf knows magic." Yes, I am referring to the cartoon character dating back so far it says something about my own age. Anyway, this is the route where, to escape the situation, the character does something that has not been previously discussed nor is fully explained, as if this little secret had been in their back pocket all along. This is sloppy writing, mostly because it cheats the reader of having all the information the character would have. It is a magical escape, but it comes at the expense of disappointing the reader.

The other one to avoid is often referred to as Deus ex machina, which is a fancy way to say, "Someone else unexpectedly bails them out." Again, this can be a cheat to the reader. When the protagonist is surrounded by the bad guys and he's out of bullets, you can't have the police suddenly show up saying they got a call and came running. This is an empty victory, and leaves the reader feeling the same way.

The way to get out of these corners has actually been in front of you all along. People don't like it, but it's necessary if you want to be fair to the reader. When we have written our character into a corner, when they are stuck in an irreconcilable situation, we need to take the tough medicine and unwrite that situation. If we want to use the Papa Smurf way, we need to write in a few scenes where this secret ability of theirs is demonstrated, preferably in a way that is relevant to the story. Furthermore, we have to check the rest of the major conflict scenes and consider whether they could've/should've used it there as well. Then we need to rewrite the big stuck-in-the-corner scene so it doesn't seem like the big secret is just the obvious way out. Otherwise, the story becomes painfully predictable.

This is similarly used in the Deus ex machina scenario - it's allowable if you include scenes of someone calling 9-1-1 and alerting the police, thus creating a rush against time for them to arrive before it's too late. This is difficult. Depending on the complexity of your story, this might require rewriting several scenes. However, if you respect your reader and want a genuinely solid story, it's a required step.

Or you could just leave the cat on the stack of crutches and go do something else. I do not recommend this option.         

Monday, March 18, 2024

Finding the Pain Point

Any semi-regular reader of these posts will know that often I recommend writing about things to which you are emotionally sensitive. I have mentioned before some of the techniques I use to approach those subjects in my own writing as well. In, "Poking the Painful Places," I introduced everyone to my alter-ego, Tom, who is my stand-in when I want to write about horrible things that I've experienced but just can't talk about directly. Tom's taken a beating in the past, and likely has more beatings coming his way. However, he can handle it - he is literally written to handle it. He feels the pain, and I continue to write.

This time, though, I am going to approach this from a different angle. Instead of writing about the things that hurt us, what happens when we write about things that the reader might be sensitive to? How do we address something so sensitive - other peoples' pain? This kind of writing is difficult, mostly because even if we put poor old Tom through that wringer, it's the reader who could really be shaken. Maybe that's good, maybe that's bad, so let's look at it a little deeper.

Now, any writing about basically any deadly sin or major social taboo is going to be offensive to some people - that's the price of writing about these subjects. American Psycho went very aggressively into the mind of a psychopath, and the ensuing mayhem in that book was quite disturbing to some. Stephen King touches upon many, many horrifying subjects in his works, and in that regard, certain people avoid his writing. However, from a writing point of view (rather than genre perspective), this is strong, effective writing. So is there really a way to be too offensive for the mainstream reader?

Well, let's clear away a few givens. If you read a horror novel, you will likely experience fear. Ghost stories are meant to scare you, stories about atrocities should horrify you. What usually makes this work is when the writer doesn't throw around a bunch of shock events, but rather focuses on points that will discomfort the reader on a personal level. The writer seeks to bring in enough reality and relatability to the character or situation to make the fictitious seems plausible, even a little too possible. The writing should find those little details and shroud the reader with them, leaving them no other alternative but to live in that world.

Think of it this way. Let's look at a typical horror story about a serial killer terrorizing a town. Easy enough - you have suspects, victims, investigation, etc. Now, the easy scare would be to get into vivid, brutal detail about the victims, their torture, and their brutalized bodies. That's gross horror, but does that touch the reader's sensitive spot? Maybe if they're squeamish about blood, but it's probably not too effective for a 300-page book. What strikes closer to the heart could be the kinds of victims. The child-killer is a commonly-used idea because that pokes at a reader's worst fears. For other factors, maybe there is evidence suggesting the killer could be someone well-known in town - a teacher, a beloved crossing guard, or that nice guy down the street who gives out the big candy bars during Halloween. Uncertainty and suspicion become the pressure points there. What if things get really scary because the evidence starts pointing at the character the readers really care about. That fear that the nicest person around could be such a monster - that gets the reader edgy, and an edgy reader will keep on reading.

In well-written scary novels, most of the violence is implied, inferred, or only referenced indirectly, because that vagueness plays upon the imagination of the reader, which is far more imaginative than just a package of words. A writer doesn't have to be excessively violent or graphic if they have control of the reader's fears. They just need to poke the pain points, and the reader does the rest.              

Friday, March 15, 2024

Outside or Inside

One of the most important and often overlooked techniques in writing is determining the best perspective from which to tell the story. This has been experimented with a lot in the Young Adult genre - a particular series about vampires from a vampire's perspective comes to mind - but perspective is more than just who tells the story. It's also important to decide how the story focuses on a particular character. Depending on that vantage point, it can tell an entirely different story.

The other night I watched this movie based on a true story about a young, healthy woman who begins to experience a breakdown in her sense of reality. She starts seeing things that aren't there, hearing sounds when all is quiet, and eventually having full-on delusions. Through the movie we are shown these things - we know the things she is claiming to see and hear aren't there. We are shown her delusions through her increasingly erratic behavior, and we watch her fall apart all while the doctors test her for everything, find nothing, and disagree on what to do next. In this regard, we experience her story as would a family member or close friend watching someone descend into madness.

A gripping and sad story, but what if we saw it from her perspective instead?

When we show someone hearing something that isn't there and arguing with other characters about the thing we know isn't happening, we immediately associate this to the main character's growing problem. However, if it's from her perspective, we hear the background noise and therefore experience her frustration when her friends say they don't hear it. Delusions from her perspective appear real, and when we show them as being a solid part of her reality, we get the audience to experience the confusion, the frustration, the madness. At this point we no longer experience the story from the view of a helpless family member or friend, but from inside our character's head - which becomes a very frightening place to be.

Depending on which perspective is offered, we have two completely different movies. One is a very sympathetic story of one woman's struggle to find out what's wrong before it's too late, but the other is more of a psychological thriller, forcing the viewer to struggle with the boundaries of reality and delusion. Writing is the exact same idea - which story do you want to tell? It's all a matter of whether you explore the experience from inside the character or outside the character.

Unfortunately, I had similar (but far less severe) neurological problems for a brief period about twenty years ago, and the experience left me needing to process it somehow. Now, my roommate at the time helped me through the worst of it, and telling the story from what she experienced could've been a good story, perhaps even done to humorous effect (She insists she wasn't embarrassed in the slightest when she found me wandering naked through my own house, looking for my parents). Instead, I told it from the perspective of being inside the delusion, not giving the reader a clue about where my reality dropped off until the big reveal. Readers found it a little uncomfortable and very engaging, some even reading it a couple of times to realize what they had just experienced. Later I wrote the "outside" story from my roommate's perspective, and in the end I enjoyed that one too.

As a simple writer's exercise, read a short story. After that, think about another character in the story, and think about how things might be different from their perspective. Better yet, rewrite the story from that character's point of view. You might be surprised when you step out of the main character and into the mind of another. And if it excites you as a writer, it will definitely excite your readers.       

Monday, March 11, 2024

One Word at a Time

For those of you who have not been keeping track at home, this is officially my 500th post on this site. Yes -- 500 times where I've logged on, told a little story and tied it in to writing and developing your personal writing process. Over the course of that time I have discussed a pretty wide variety of writing subject, a few not-so-writey topics, and plenty that might've been better off rewritten. However, the tally just hit 500, so it's time to say exactly what that means.

First - for those of you who started reading this blog in 2018, you are very much appreciated. I get comments, IMs, and plenty of spam, but the personal comments mean the most to me. Second, for those who have jumped in at some point after this site's premier launch, well, you have some catching up to do. If you can wait a bit, however, you might be able to get a good overview in the book that will come from all this, "How to Be a Writer in 400 Easy Steps (give or take)." That's a working title, but if I can ever gather all my content, I think it's getting the green light.

However, here's one of the biggest takeaways from this blog, and it's one that you could've very easily overlooked. You see, each one of these posts runs about 500-600 words. Over the course of 500 entries, that amounts to at least a quarter-million words typed through a twice-weekly creative exercise. One-quarter of a million at minimum, mind you. That's a pretty huge amount of writing, all taking place over the course of a couple of hours every week. 

Now think about this: What if you kept a writing journal, and wrote in it 2-3 times a week? Just writing a discussion of your day, reflections about some interaction, or just reflecting about something or another counts as writing. Just a couple of entries every week over a few years builds up a lot of writing experience, and with minimal loss of time. This is how we become writers. It might seem simple, but the key is to set aside a little time... and write! The more you do it, the better you get at it, and the easier it is to do so you do it more. Before you know it, you have a few journals tucked away full of whatever you wanted to write about, and your skills are that much better for having done it.

A number of years ago, I discussed, "Million-Word Theory" in a previous post-Thanksgiving entry. If you don't want to read the whole thing (which you should, since it is good and I need the clicks), it suggests that you need one-million written words under your belt to really have a writing voice. This being said, we don't hit that goal all at once, but rather approach it word by word, making our way toward it through a bunch of little steps. Journal entries, random poems and essays we write, and just the things we create for no other purpose than to stretch out our writing muscles. Chances are, nine out of every ten of those words won't be particularly amazing, but they will develop a certain set of skill so that by the end of the million-word march, You know how to find the special one out of ten that really works. And at that point, you have no other choice but to call yourself a writer.

So, for those of you who have been along for the first 500 posts, I hope you enjoyed the ride. And for all the newcomers, well, hold on tight - the next 500 should be fun.     

Friday, March 8, 2024

Writing Real Fiction

I know a number of writers who have decided ahead of time that they can't write fiction. They offer plenty of reasons: "I'm not that creative," "I don't like making up stories," or "The truth is usually more interesting anyway." Okay, fair enough. I don't force people to write anything they don't want to, but I do offer this one question in response: "What makes something fiction?" The answer is a little more slippery than one might think.

Let me offer you a little story. This morning I was supposed to go to a friend's house to help them set up their computer. It was a last-minute thing, so I just got my stuff together, hopped in the car, and took off. However, I hadn't eaten anything that morning, so I made a quick stop at the gas station to grab a couple of donuts to enjoy on the drive. They were of the same quality and texture you would expect out of gas-station donuts, and I ate them anyway because I needed something to keep the blood sugar up, or I would start getting cranky. So down they went along with a refreshing Diet Coke, and I went to my friend's house. I show up, go inside, and guess what? They have donuts waiting for me because they knew they called me at the last minute and I get cranky on an empty stomach.

Now here's the question - is this fiction? Well, I can tell you this much. All of those events happened in one way or the other. All of the facts and details are true. However, it is fiction because they didn't exactly happen in that order with the same people. I did go to a friend's place today to do computer stuff, but the donut part was from years ago with another friend entirely. And frankly, I rather enjoy gas-station donuts. So it was fiction, but the basic story is derived from a package of various truths, just reorganized to come to a specific ending. And that is all fiction really is.

Now, sometimes people respond with, "But wait - fiction is more than that. It can be robots and dragons and time travel and all that. Simple donut fiction is too simple to be an example." But is it? In the story above, I merely used a frame of reference that I knew everyone could understand. Turning it into sword-and-sorcery fiction of sci-fi fiction merely means changing the shape of various nouns into different ones. Instead of a car, I can hop on my six-legged horse, ride my hoverbike, engage my magical flying carpet, or just fire up the old MT-1000 matter teleporter. Fiction isn't in the nouns, it's in the story.

The difficult part of writing fiction is trying to find a bunch of events and occurrences that lead up to some significant point. That's the thing about reality - when we have a special set of events that adds up to a meaningful conclusion, we remember it. It stands out because usually life doesn't connect all the dots very well. In fiction, those dots have to line up perfectly every time. So when I ask the question, "What makes something fiction?" it isn't the aliens or dragons or zombies at all. It's only about whether or not those events did, in fact, happen in the order you said they did. The rest is just stage dressing. In that regard, writing fiction can be incredibly easy - it's just about putting together a bunch of blocks to make the shape you want.

In short, I always suggest people try writing fiction if only to see how they can take little truths of life, rearrange them into a new and more interesting order, and enjoy the result. It's kind of like writing non-fiction, just with an outrageous amount of creative license. And with some stories the ending might be more satisfying than all the gas-station donuts you can eat (my record is six).            

Monday, March 4, 2024

Writing and Exploring

There has been a lot going on this past weekend, and so much to talk about. With politics being what it is, Caitlin Clark setting the NCAA record for points scored, the whole Middle East thing - the list seems endless. So what am I going to chat about, and how will it relate to writing? Well, I decided to be very controversial this time and write about something very close to my heart: the 1976 AMC Pacer. So, as I often said every time I started my first car, "Let's see if this goes anywhere."

Yes, I admit it. My first car was a ten-year-old silver 1976 AMC Pacer which I bought for $300 and, frankly, felt like I got a deal. Yes, this car was one of the ugliest vehicles made in the 1970s, only rivaled by the distressingly hideous AMC Gremlin. However, this Pacer - also known as The Fishbowl and The Pregnant Rabbit due to its wide build and low center of gravity - was my car, and I took pride in every bit of it. Its doors the size of air locks, the deep bucket seats, the leaking gas tank, that noise the transmission made, these were all part of the sweet love language between me and my first car.

On one foggy December night, I totaled it. Admittedly, totaling a $300 car is not difficult, but I really did a number on it. Long story short, I flipped it. Not rolled it (which would've been a feat unto itself), but flipped it, landing on its roof. I wasn't going too fast, but a combination of misjudging where the road turned, the steep embankment at the road's edge, and my utter lack of driving skills left the car upside-down, roof crushed down to the top of the driver's seat, every piece of glass shattered, and my cut-up self inside the wreck.

No spoiler here - I survived. I actually walked away from the accident, badly cut and a few fractures, but alive. It became a local legend among my friends, and I joked about it just like anyone should. However, I was not okay. I would have flashbacks. Certain sounds and feelings made my heart pound and my breath race. Sure, it was a funny story to tell to my friends as long as I skipped over the parts that quietly terrified me. However, there was an underlying trauma that would not go away. It showed up in all the worst places, and I couldn't connect myself to it.

Eventually, I started writing about that accident to try and process what had happened. My first short story about it, "My Uneventful Death," was a recollection of what happened, how it happened, and the things I saw and felt. It was very workmanlike; my first step into actually exploring that night through the safety of writing, and it uncovered some truths I had not noticed before. It brought some fears to light, which honestly was kind of scary. However, a part of me knew it was a healthy kind of fear, and that if I wrote about it and put these thoughts on paper, they couldn't make trouble for me.

Through the safety of the page, I went deeper into the experience and uncovered some of the deeper trauma I had been holding inside. That's the thing about trauma - it lives outside the light, thriving in darkness. And when those experiences are dragged out and forced to stare into the sun, they wither like vampires at high noon. They lose their power. The more I wrote, the more I exposed them to the outside world, and their hold on me became weaker with every word. And yes, the panic, the phobias, the neuroses, they all lost their power as well.

This is the power of writing - to bring the inside world out and show it for what it really is. Writing defuses the nastiest things and puts them in a safe context. And now, with the use of the written word, I am now able to admit publicly that I once owned a 1976 Pacer. That's a tough thing to admit.           

Friday, March 1, 2024

The Twilight Zone

The other day, I decided to leap into a pretty interesting rabbit hole. I started watching the original episodes of, "The Twilight Zone." Given that many of the original episodes were based on short stories, it felt like a nice way to stir up my creative writer side. Well... before you know it, my creativity was churning in every which way. I even posted a quote from one of the episodes that really resonated with me and the most important purpose behind writing. For those of you who didn't see it, it is as follows:

"I'm a human being. I exist! And if I speak one thought aloud, that thought lives, even after I'm shoveled into my grave"!    - Mr. Wordsworth in "The Obsolete Man"; The Twilight Zone

If you don't know the episode, this statement was by a man defending his right to have books and to their importance in a totalitarian society where the written word was outlawed. Needless to say, it did not go well for him - but there's more to the story than that. Anyway, this post is not about some hypothetical society but rather just what those magical words do when we commit them to the permanent record.

I have a modest collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century books. Nothing spectacular, nothing first-edition (I do have a signed first-edition copy of Coraline by Neil Gaiman, but that's not quite the same genre). There's Shelley's Frankenstein, Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the works of O. Henry and Edgar Allan Poe, stuff like that. However, the one book I find fascinating was one by an unheard-of author who wrote this book on the history of the Scottish kings. The book itself is not a revelation (outside of how it completely dispels the myth that is Braveheart), but there's an inscription on the first page that is priceless to me. This book was given to my great-grandfather back in the 19th century by his teacher as a sort of graduation present. He wrote a note of congratulations and hoped that my great-grandfather would go on to do many great things, and wished him well in life.

You've never met that teacher nor my great-grandfather. I've also never met either of them for that matter. However, with that one inscription, that teacher comes to life again every time I read it, as does my great-grandfather, who passed away almost 100 years ago. The emotions of that moment and the act of giving that gift from teacher to student all travel forward to the present day and live again in my mind, even if just for the briefest of periods. 

Just as Mr. Wordsworth suggested, that thought now lives long after those people are gone. Honestly, that's a spectacular thing when you think about it. And yes, when I think about it, I make a special point to remember that when I write my words, my thoughts, my fanciful stories, they have the power to reach beyond mortality itself and tap the shoulders of descendants I will never meet. In that moment, a part of me will live again, if only in the mind of another reader.

That's a Twilight Zone moment in itself when you think about it. But don't just think about it. Write it down.                

Monday, February 26, 2024

Creativity Outside of Writing

I will be the first to admit it - I got a pretty strong case of spring fever this weekend (a little early, but that's Chicago weather for you). I have been getting my fair share of outdoor time, prepping the bicycle for some riding, and generally doing a lot of things that have everything to do with the weather and very little to do with writing. However, this does not mean I didn't take a little time to flex my creative muscles. I just didn't do it by writing.

I mentioned in a previous post that I have been helping a friend get his poetry and photography published. His work (viewable at www.terrencefoote.com) is very impressive, and I have found myself getting all kinds of creative inspiration merely by reading his works and viewing his photos. My assistance in getting his work into the land of publication is strictly from a technical side, but I draw some creative energy from merely being a participant in this process. In short, I have created absolutely nothing but I am a little stronger for having explored the process of other people.

That being said, another part of this current publication process is that I have been working with the art of another creative type - Lizzie Nelson (you can find her site/stuff here). While she is a dog person and I am drawn more by the passive-aggressive nature of cats, nevertheless I saw some of her work and my mind began rolling around, thinking creative thoughts and comparing styles. Some of her graphics reminded me of old Charles Addams' works, while others were distinctly more Avant Garde, and they drew me to read her blog. Yes - artwork drew me to read her words. This is part of the beauty of creativity - there are plenty of different forms, but they all spring from a common fountain.

Even the very simple things can feed into the entire creative process - possibly even as a cure for writer's block. Take for example artwork. I have sketched a few little things, drawn some others, created graphics, illustrations, design layouts, etc., but I never felt I had the "touch" for turning pen or pencil into magic. Maybe charcoal, but that's another story. But every now and then I get pushed to try something simple and create a little thing. What inspires me? The logo on my blog. It's a simple yet strategically creative piece, created by Rhys Fuller merely because he wanted me to have a logo. I loved it and it became my masthead. However, as Rhys is also a talented writer (and far younger than his talent suggests), that logo reminds me that creativity is not a narrow path but a vast expanse. Writing is just one path to take (or rather, make), just like drawing, photography, music, etc. And for my regular readers - yes, most of the general rules here apply to creativity in general. Your first attempt will suck. Future attempts will each suck a little less. You will learn through sharing and finding things within yourself that you never thought you could do. And on many occasions, you will surprise yourself in hindsight once you realize, "Holy crap, I just did that!" 

It's a wonderful feeling, so never pass up the chance to find it.       

Friday, February 16, 2024

Gratitude

Recently, I got to look at the first draft of the galleys for a book that would contain some of my poetry in it. My part was haiku-structure poetry, with several entries forming a greater story, followed by a tanka (a five-line poem structured similarly to a haiku). As I read over my work and the discussion around it, I started thinking about the broader idea of writing, of creating, and surprisingly, of gratitude. Now, how on Earth does the last one fit in with the other two? Well, glad you asked.

Anyone who has read this blog with any regularity knows that I stress the importance of recognizing the creativity required for any form of writing. Writing and creativity are inexorably intertwined, and it is our job as writers to take advantage of this and bring as much to life as possible. However, once we have created our beautiful monsters that are our stories, our poems, our essays and manifestos, we have an opportunity for one more thing. We need to appreciate what we have done, and take a moment to let that sink in. Sometimes, I quietly tell myself, "I finally wrote that story. I wrote the hell out of it. I created something that cannot be uncreated." That is something incredibly special, and we need to take a moment to give ourselves credit for it.

At that point, this is where the concept of gratitude slips in. Chances are, your journey as a writer has not been alone. Maybe it's been lonely - often times this is exactly the case - but it hasn't been alone. The mere fact that you are reading this means that in some way, I have offered you something to consider, use, or ignore as you develop your own process. Everything you've read was written by someone (or something, nowadays), and they have entered your life for that little shining moment. In that regard, I believe there's reason to be grateful for those writers and the time they took to create their little monsters for you to read, process, and incorporate into your work. Even if their stories were horrible and served as great examples of what not to do, that's still a gift to you and your writing.

If you let yourself take in this feeling, it can be very motivational. If you feel the gratitude toward other people and their writing, you begin to realize that other people feel that way about literally anything you share. You realize that your words influence others and help shape their perspective. This feeling makes you know that you are truly a writer, and that you are a part of that great community of creatives out there, changing the world word-by-word.

I was at my local library, making some preparations for my upcoming twice-monthly writing workshop, and I took a peek at the Local Authors display where they had my and other authors' books on display. I noticed my book in the display was missing. As it turns out, it was checked out - again. On the one hand I thought, "Oh well, there's a royalty payment I'll never get." However, what I mostly felt was grateful that the library had that display, and that someone would now get to enjoy my work (hopefully) and be moved as a person by those words. Maybe I'm getting soft and sentimental, especially since my birthday is tomorrow and I will put another year on my body's odometer, but moments like that, either at the library or at home viewing the galleys of my future published work, was worth more than any royalty check I've ever received.

(So far.)      .   

Monday, February 12, 2024

Digging Through the Past

Don't be alarmed - this will not be another post about how to write about personal experiences, cathartic writing, or anything along those lines. If you do like those kinds of posts, then I am glad to know that (and feel free to tell me), but this is not one of them. This is about the journey we take as a writer, everything we encounter along the way, and the importance of knowing how far we've come.

When I first started my career in the financial world, three things occupied the bulk of my time. They were, in order of importance: Writing research reports, reading immense amounts of analysis, and crunching data. My skills, in order of expertise, were: Crunching data, reading immense amounts of analysis, building models/spreadsheets, Minesweeper, several other things, then writing research reports. I wouldn't say I was horrible at the writing part - I wrote a twenty-page thesis paper on the Poisson distribution that got rave reviews, so I knew something - but my writing skills still needed work. A lot of work. 

As I wrote my reports and such, each one would get the red-pen treatment by one or more of my superiors, and I would discuss the errors with them to understand the problems. I would revise them, eventually they'd get approved, and life would go on. However, I decided that if I really wanted to progress as a creator of research, I needed to turn it up a notch. So, for the next several months, I kept every draft that received the red-pen treatment in a stack by my computer. The pages piled up, easily hundreds of sheets of error-filled paper during my first year of reporting. Eventually, it was a ream of paper sitting by my computer, literally tens of thousands of errors looking back at me. That's when I picked up the pile, went to the first page, and reviewed them, sheet by sheet.

At first it was embarrassing to see so many errors stuffed onto one page. Simple errors - dangling participles, subject/verb conflict, mixed metaphors, a whole Rogues' Gallery of mistakes. I read each page, taking in the errors, letting my ego take a beating, and plowed forth. It was hard to believe one literate person could type up such crap, and worse yet, that person was me. Yet there it was and here I was, digging through it all. And it turns out, this was a great idea.

Two things emerged from that adventure. First, I noticed that as the pages went on, the red marks became fewer and less complex. Extensive rewrites became minor adjustments, and notes in the margins grew smaller, eventually vanishing altogether. This meant only one thing: My writing improved. I had documented evidence that I was developing that research-writing skill, and it was rising up that list of expertise. Maybe even to the level of my Minesweeper skills. Secondly, and I cannot stress this enough, I noticed that even in the early days of my horrible writing, every now and then I turned a good phrase here and there. As crappy as my writing was, there were still some diamonds in the rough (a term often used to describe me when I was first hired by the the Economics Department). It might've required some searching, but even my worst works had something worth salvaging.

So, the takeaway from this is simple. Every now and then, go through your earliest writing. Look at it critically and let yourself think about all the ways you can improve it. Then, look at it and realize that it still had value as writing. Even your first piece still showed a part of you trying to express your part of the real world. It might've been poorly written or structured, but it shows just how far you've come as a writer.

And yes, I still have drafts of some of my earliest research pieces. One part of me thinks they're crap, while another loves them dearly. Both sides are right.           

Friday, February 9, 2024

Big and Little Rewards

Back in my finance days, I often associated with a department in charge of (pardon the professional talk) big things. If a company wanted to buy an oil tanker, or a fleet of train cars, or some other massive endeavor, they went to this department and things happened - things I didn't fully understand. In the end, the client had their oil tanker and that department earned a nice fee. Often, the client would show its appreciation by sending this department a little model of what they just financed. It looked like a toy boat or a model train car, but for the department it was a trophy, a sign of a successful project. They kept a trophy case full of little twenty-dollar trucks, trains, and ships to commemorate their multi-million-dollar deals.

This is one of the fun things we can get when we write, even more so when we share our work, and something we should always think about. Whenever we consider writing a story, poem, essay, or whatever, we are creating something with huge potential. If you ever wonder if you should write something, write it because it could become something utterly glorious. You see, what actually happens is that this process allows you to create something more than just a Word file or a few printed pieces of paper. You create this little pocket world where you bring everything to life (or death). The paper is the proof of this accomplishment, but something really huge has just been made.

I discovered this fun fact at one of the workshops I attend. I was workshopping my first book, The Book of Cain, and getting feedback for each chapter. Once I completed it, everyone congratulated me, offered more suggestions, and gave me emotional pats on the back for having completed a novel. I was also thoroughly chastised for my frequent misspelling of a pivotal word in the novel, "whiskey." (I often interchanged "whiskey" and "whisky" without knowing there is a substantial difference. Plus it was inconsistent.) I did make the corrections, revised the manuscript, and it went to press.

So now I had a book in my hands, with my name on it as the author. Me. James Pressler. Author. And I had this book as my proof. This was my multi-million-dollar tanker I had just created, and I was proud of it. Then, when I was signing books, one of my workshop cohorts came up to me with a little gift bag. She told me how much she loved the work, then proceeded to hand me four little airplane-serving-size bottles of whiskey - so I would never mix up the spelling again. To me, that was my trophy for the case. The book was great, but the little gifts reminded me that one person in particular was moved by my work, and that my words had meaning beyond something I created. I still have the bottles on my shelf.

Nowadays, for anything I write, I think about it beyond just what it means to me. I think about how this might move other people as well. Maybe it'll make them angry, or sad, or just get them thinking, but I hope that it moves them in some direction. In my mind, it always does have an effect on the audience, and when you write, remember that someone out there will be moved by your words, and you will be remembered for them. Let that be your trophy.         

Monday, February 5, 2024

Why Do You Write?

Barring a change in library administration or some scheduling mix-up, I am finally getting my writing workshop restarted after a COVID-induced hiatus that has lasted much longer than I wanted it to. Prior to COVID, my writing workshop had run for about four years, and grew from a workshop that had been in operation by my mentor, Newton Berry, for about eight years. Putting everything on hold was difficult but inevitable, but now everything is coming back into place. And, of course, this means I have to start really getting back to the mindset of facilitator and guide, as well as understanding just what I discuss.

That last bit may sound weird, but I assure you something changes between just talking about a subject like writing and discussing writing with people who really want to learn the craft. At that point, every question has more depth, more meaning, and there's someone staring right at me, looking for an answer they can connect with. This makes me promptly think about just how important that answer will be, and why I need to drop the perfect bit of knowledge on them. So to prepare for this, I ask myself all of those questions that I would expect to be asked and that I would ask others, and really explore how I would answer it.

The most common question I ask workshop members is, of course, "Why do you write?" I usually put this out to new members at the beginning of a meeting after they offer a brief introduction, and there is no wrong answer. Their response offers me a chance to see where they are, what they need from me as a facilitator, and what I can offer them in addition to what they get from participation. So in the spirit of preparing for the upcoming workshop, allow me to share with you just why I write.

My original spur to take writing to the next level was a realization that I had stories to tell, and that I was the only person who could tell them. That motivated me to start writing things down, to process ideas, and to seek help on how to communicate them more effectively. However, it has become much more than that since I took the plunge and typed up my first official writing-like-a-writer short story twenty-odd years ago. (I don't count writing in school because that was writing-for-an-assignment writing.) As I think about it, my motivation now is entirely different than what drove me back then, and it's something I think beginning writers need to know.

Writing, at its core, is about putting yourself into the world. It doesn't matter if the story is about you or someone else, whether it's fiction or real-life, writing is bringing out ideas and feelings that are processed by the very essence of your existence. Writing about events without placing that humanity into them isn't writing, it's journalism. When I write, I place a little part of me into everything that comes out. That story about wild animals converging upon some deadbeat in the woods - my being is in that story, just like it's in the story about a man reliving his life during his dying breath, or the story of a family cat's adventures in the house. My books all have me in them, even if I am not a character and they're total fiction.

Why do I write? Because the more I write, the more I get to understand myself and how I feel about the world around me. When I write, I get in touch with things that might normally fly under the radar. Everything I write teaches me something about myself and how I perceive the world, and that is a priceless gift. It's not the only reason I write, of course, but it's one that I offer other people when they look for a reason to write. It offers them a chance to grow.

Why do you write?   

Friday, February 2, 2024

The Boom, the Bust, and the Binge

I write about this topic periodically, mostly because I also experience it in my life quite often and find it valid. It's about binge writing, and the benefits and the downside of going on hours-long sessions of writing. Indeed, it can be a lot of fun to be so creative for such an extended period of time, but it may come at a price, so consider yourself warned.

Incidentally, I use the word "binge" for a specific reason. You see, the word wasn't even very popular before the 1980s, and then it became associated with drinking and kind of caught on. As one might've guessed, however, when the era of streaming really caught on, the word became a part of everyday life. There's actually a strong correlation between the frequency of the words "binge" and "Netflix" over the past twenty years (in case anyone's interested). And I think of them in similar fashion.

Sometimes, when we get a little inspiration, we start writing a piece that moves us. If we like what we are creating, we can spend an entire afternoon and/or evening flooding the pages with this amazing story that just caught hold of a special part of our mind. These periods of binge-writing are exciting, engaging, and come with all the thrills of watching an entire season of Breaking Bad in one night (except for season two, which was a little weak). We have this sudden boom of creativity where we put together masterful ideas and churn out amazing sentences with little to no effort. But then what happens? The bust part of the cycle hits, and we find ourselves mentally fatigued. Exhausted. We did all this creating, and we just wore ourselves out. Worse yet, we might read what we wrote and get those first-draft blues because it's not as perfect as it felt when we wrote it. That's when the boom really goes bust. This can ruin all the inspiration we had and all the excitement we felt when we were drunk on endorphins.

It's often difficult to tell the difference between inspired writing and standard writing after we've stepped away for a moment. That first draft you wrote all in one night might've felt awesome, but the sobering light of the next morning reveals that there's a lot of passive voice, a bunch of telling rather than showing, and all kind of basic mistakes. So disappointing, but this isn't a bad thing. When we are on a writing binge, it doesn't mean we won't make the same first-draft mistakes again. We might even do some things we would've caught if we weren't so excited to create. However, the part to remember is that it's not the writing that should excite us when we go on a binge. It's the fact that we are creating a broader story and establishing a framework for something that really moves us. Let the grammar Nazis pick on us later, and nobody cares about first-draft mistakes. Find the thing within that writing that really triggered the creativity. Hint: It wasn't just a frenzy of putting one word after another. There's something very valuable there.

Also, if you find yourself in a mad frenzy of binge writing, try to come up for air periodically. Step away from the words for a few minutes, walk around the room, the house or the block even, and catch your breath. It will put a little bit of clarity back into your head, hopefully without breaking the momentum you built up from the excitement of creating. Then get back to writing with a little more energy. 

And please let me know how it went.    

Friday, January 26, 2024

The Pause that Refreshes

No, despite the headline and the picture, Coca-Cola is not sponsoring my page (yet). This post was actually inspired by a comment someone offered me regarding this blog that got me thinking. He is in the process of putting together his own blog about golf. The ideas and a theme are there, but he sees the task as being pretty intimidating. After looking over my blog, he said, "Dude - you have all these posts; it's like they never stop. Don't you ever run out of ideas?"

Without being too smug, I answered, "I ran out of ideas after two months."

This is largely true, but of course there's a catch. Indeed, I started off with a bunch of ideas and a good amount of content, but that energy would only last so long. I knew there would be times where inspiration would be limited, someone's drama sapped my energy, I'm too sick to write, answerable to other obligations, and so forth. The bottom line is that while writing two posts a week does not seem like a huge task, sometimes that energy isn't there. And yet the posts are there, every Monday and Friday with regularity (except for special holidays). What's the magic ingredient? It's no secret - unlike the recipe for a delicious Coca-Cola.

In case the title didn't give it away, sometimes we all need to take a break from writing. Not everyone can write constantly. (Okay, a few people I know can write every day without a break, but they are freaks of nature - and they know who they are) The idea of taking a break from a regular schedule might seem to go against the grain of meeting a deadline, but hear me out. Taking a break doesn't mean stop being a creative person, and going back to writing doesn't mean just writing two posts a week.

I started this blog in April 2018, but I put it together in my head much earlier. For a couple of months I thought about what I wanted to say, topics I wanted to cover, and how I wanted to approach my audience. I started writing content long before opening the site, because I wanted to see if this was just a passing mood or something that would gain traction. I had about twenty posts already prepared before I opened shop.

Writers, just like everyone else, will hit a drought now and then, and I prepared for this. I gave myself permission to not create for a while if I burned out (I will address burning out in another post), but keep my mind open to the creative world. Sometimes that meant going for a walk and just looking around and breathing in the world without searching for the poem or story in the trees - just enjoying the moment while drinking a refreshing Coca-Cola. Other times I go to a museum or art exhibit - not to analyze or critique, but to take in the brilliance of others. (I recommend the American Writers Museum in Chicago as a nice bit of escape.) During these times I am not a writer looking for inspiration, but a person walking through the world, catching my creative breath.

On the flip side, when the creative juices are flowing, I write. Not just my two posts a week, but also a few extra ones if I feel inspired. I wrote a four-post series on turning ideas into a novel in one sitting, which gave me two weeks of content. I posted twice a week, but did not limit myself to writing twice a week. I let the creativity flow like pouring a tall glass of Coca-Cola, and once that died down, I started looking for ways to catch my creative breath.

Being a writer doesn't mean writing constantly (except for the aforementioned freaks of nature), but it does mean being a writer at all times. However, we do ourselves a favor by occasionally putting down the pen and addressing the other parts of our creative self. We take the pause that refreshes.

And now I am going to get a cool, refreshing Diet Coke, and wait for the Coca-Cola sponsorship to arrive. 

Monday, January 22, 2024

Writing, Jail, and Personal Freedom

After writing Friday's post about cathartic writing, I think my mind was tuned into that particular subject because related stories started popping up on the local news, on the radio (yes, I listen to an actual radio), and in my news feeds. While the news feed thing is likely the result of some deep-web algorithm feeding me what it thinks I hunger for, the overall theme was that the subject matter was very much out there. And one particular topic caught my mind that I thought I would share in this post: Programs that get prisoners to become writers.

I am sure we all have our pre-conceived idea of what a prisoner is like. Maybe we have a few different images: the white-collar criminal, the troubled soul, the incorrigible thug. Well, as it turns out, there are a lot of brands of prisoner, and there seems to be a common thread throughout. Getting prisoners to write about their experiences has a cathartic effect on them.

Now, does it really matter if a prisoner sentenced to life without chance of parole for a crime they obviously committed gets a chance to write? In my opinion, that's not the point. The lifer has their own situation that I won't get into. The part that struck me as interesting is that with a lot of these inmate writing programs, the facilitators discovered that these prisoners not only had a lot to say, but experienced an immense benefit from the end result of writing, which is being heard. That is a very overlooked part of the entire writing process, and well worth looking into a little deeper.

When writers create something, be it fiction, a life story, an opinion, or whatever, they are broadcasting a part of their self into the world. Even in writing a fictitious story, a writer is showing the world a piece of their creative self. And when those written words are read and they affect another person, when they are acknowledged and responded to, the writer feels real. They feel heard and understood. And the interesting part with these prison writers is that they seem to have a common desire to be understood. To clarify, this is not the same as the urge to plead innocent to whatever crimes they committed. This is just a chance to be seen as another person with their gifts and flaws, with their uniqueness for better or worse. Many of these inmates never had that experience until they began writing, and it gave them a chance to feel acknowledged by something or someone else other than a jury of their peers.

Of course, a number of these inmates used this opportunity to look back, in some cases with brutal honesty, at their own faults and shortcomings, at where they screwed up or took a wrong turn, or just listened to their darker angels one too many times. Obviously, nothing like writing can undo whatever crimes they committed, but if this exercise can bring a little clarity to their lives, then maybe some of them can break the cycle of being a habitual criminal. 

When creative types have no outlet to communicate who they are; to be seen and heard, then the whole world is very much a jail. However, that first act of creative expression, that statement to the world provides a creative freedom, even for those who never knew they were in prison.           

Friday, January 19, 2024

Cathartic Writing: Home is Where the Hatred Is

Don't be alarmed. I promise this post will not get as dark as the title might suggest. The main point I want to get at is writing about those things that we might not want to face up to; those things we consciously step around but under the surface they live rent-free in our souls. This might have similar tones to a post from last September, "Tough Writing," and this is not a coincidence. I believe that part of the power of writing is not just sharing a story or experience, but freeing yourself from the intrusiveness of some thoughts and memories. And I also believe that avoiding things can lead down a bad road. As Gil Scott-Heron wrote: 

Home is where the hatred is

Home is filled with pain and it

Might not be such a bad idea

If I never, never went home again

Stand as far away from me as you can

And ask me why

Hang on to your rosary beads

Close your eyes to watch me die

-- Gil Scott-Heron, "Home Is Where the Hatred Is"

One of the best pieces of writing I ever encountered in a workshop was from an author (who requested anonymity for this particular case) who wanted to share a story from her childhood in the Deep South. The story, "The Taste of Milk," was a wonderfully innocent, very immersive story of a six-year-old girl and her love of the fresh milk brought to the house every week. It very much gave a feel of her life back in the Fifties, the kind of home she lived in, and the way her family operated.

Then things got dark. Fast.

As I said, this post is not going to be dark, so let's just say that her story was quite shocking. More to the point, she had carried it around with her for sixty-plus years and it had weighed on her in many ways. And yes, it made the simple act of drinking milk a PTSD trigger. Then, when she turned seventy-something (one never says a lady's age), she finally gathered the courage to commit this story to paper then read it to the workshop. It was amazing, and part of what made it great is that she wrote it from the most honest and sincere place possible. She wrote it as a way of purging all the hatred and trauma from her system, and neutralizing it as a toxic memory. No longer would it live rent-free in her head, but rather she could process it into a helpful reminder of the things she's overcome during the many years since.

Most every writer I know (and most every person for that matter) has some unresolved issues lingering inside them. Some people manage them, some ignore them, some try to bury them alive under mounds of denial. However, writing offers that free-therapy process of confrontation in the safe space of a blank page. We can write down our darkest nightmare, look at it, then crumple it up and burn it if we so choose, or we can edit it, rewrite it, examine it, or whatever we want. When we turn a memory into something concrete like words, it loses some of its power, and we gain some control over it.

It's a scary game to play; writing out the stories that give us so much trouble. However, if you try it just once, you might feel just how power you have over them. And I hope it is for the better.   

 

Friday, January 12, 2024

Asking Ourselves About Our Writing

In a post I wrote some time ago, Caring About Our Stories, I mentioned how we need to ask ourselves “Why am I writing this?” As we develop the mechanics of the Process, we need to ask a more refined part of this question: “What is the purpose of this?”

With anything we write, that question should apply to every part. For any essay, screenplay, novel, or short story, we should be able to ask that question about something as broad as the entire work itself, or as narrow as a particular word we choose. The answer doesn’t have to be perfect, brilliant, or even insightful, but if the answer isn’t obvious, we need to ask ourselves if that part is necessary.

In an earlier post, And So Begins the Process, I offered the example of my working manuscript called Easier than the Truth. In that post I demonstrated how to take a one-line idea and turn it into the bones of a story. Now we can follow through with that technique and apply our question of purpose to make sure this story focuses on what is necessary and leaves out what isn’t.

There’s the story in front of me, and I ask, “What is the purpose of this story?” This should be a very simple, concise answer, at least in the author’s mind. For this novel, it is, “To show how someone broke away from a life of denial and faced the harsh realities of their life.” One sentence; simple and to-the-point. As we start asking this about smaller and smaller pieces, the answers might be a little more elaborate, but they are just as important.

Now we narrow the focus from the story to a particular section. In Chapter 12, our protagonist, Tom, is driving to work early, with his friend, Phil, who is trying to catch some sleep in the passenger seat. “What is the purpose of this chapter?” This is where Tom explains his plan to bring together his out-of-control life. Simple and to-the-point, but we can still narrow this question further.

The next question would be, “What is the purpose of Phil in the scene?” Phil is skeptical of Tom’s plan and doesn’t think it’s a good idea. “What is the purpose of Phil trying to sleep instead of being wide awake?” It allows Phil to be dismissive rather than confrontational, thus allowing Tom’s plan to continue (plus Phil was up late). Again, it is… simple and to-the-point.

This can continue down to the individual words, but we won’t take it that far in this particular example. The point is that when we ask the right questions about our writing, the answers make our writing better. Then we can tell elaborate stories and explain complex ideas, yet our writing will be strong because it is simple and to-the-point.