Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Does thinking about dying help you live?

Nobody really likes to think about death? But what if thinking about it can help you. Then it's worth thinking about.

I'm finishing up listening to Walter Isaacson's biography Steve Jobs. At the point I'm at, Steve has pretty much gone through his storied life and now he has cancer and it's metastasized. He's still living full-tilt (as much he can, as his physical stamina is greatly diminished) but he's also thinking about his legacy, of what he'll leave behind, of his wife and kids.

I can imagine we'll all go through something similar.

But is there a way to use that knowledge of death now? Now, before we get the bad news from the doctor?

They say one of the benefits of owning a dog is that (with the dog's vastly shorter lifespan) it reminds us of our mortality. See, for me, thinking about dying changes my thinking entirely.

I remember this quote from a Buddhist text. It was:

All must one day die. He who knows this fact in him all strife is stilled. 

Isn't it the truth? Even listening to the Jobs bio when I got to the point where he was diagnosed with the terminal cancer I softened toward him. He was vulnerable and sad. Life's fleetingness was once again re-established in my mind.

Thinking about death helps me to focus on what's really important. It makes me kinder. It makes me less self-centered. It's like when there's a natural disaster. (And being from Illinois that usually means a gigantic blizzard.) The neighbors all come out and survey the scene. We might not hardly talk all year but now we're helping shovel each others cars out. We're making sure old Mrs. Hanson has enough groceries and is okay. Because we all suddenly realize our shared vulnerability, life becomes beautiful.

And that's the kind of life I want to live, that's the kind of world I want to live in. If thinking about death is going to help me do that, I'm all for it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Does success always mean more pain?

I'm still trying to find my way with being a writer. Thing is it seems like every new breakthrough I make entails more challenges.

At first I thought all I needed to be successful was to be a great writer.

Then I found I had to learn about formatting ebooks and making ebook covers. A lot of technical stuff that had my stomach churning when I looked at it. But I did it.

Next up it was brought to my attention that I needed a "platform" and social media, and I was like, Hey, I'm an introvert! I don't know about any of this stuff.

But now I have a nice social platform and a good presence on Twitter (not to mention a website and this blog) and it's like, Now you have to learn about advertising!

I'm like, I thought all I needed was the platform and social media.

So now I plod through learning about advertising. This is really pretty scary emotionally because now I have to pay for this (the advertising). But I've plowed through every other challenge, I'll plow through this one as well.

And when I'm done with this challenge, I'm sure there'll be a new one waiting for me. (Life is so fun. Isn't it?)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Is failing part of winning?

I hope so.

My sister gave me a book the other day. It's an old-time book that had me at the title: How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie.

It's a good book but this is no book review. It's just that one of the lines in the book really jumped out at me. It is by the American author, the man who made "Lawrence of Arabia" famous, Lowell Thomas. Mr. Thomas was deeply in debt, utterly down on his luck, dogged by a stretch of prolonged failure and yet:

He knew that if he let his reverses get him down, he would be worthless to everyone, including his creditors. So each morning before he started out, he bought a flower, put it in his buttonhole, and went swinging down Oxford Street with his head high and his step spirited. He thought positive, courageous thoughts and refused to let defeat defeat him. To him, being licked was all a part of the game—the useful training you had to expect if you wanted to get to the top.

Being licked was "all a part of the game" and "useful training." Hmmm.

I'm a golfer. Watching Tiger Woods and the other pros on TV the announcers always talk about how 'you have to learn how to win out here.' And it seems like they mostly say that when a golfer has suffered, perhaps yet another, crushing defeat.

That's what if feels like trying to make it as a writer. Ten disappointments for every encouragement. Sometimes it just feels like facing an endless void of negativity and failure.

But then again, if it's all part of the game and useful training. No one starts out in this business as a best seller. So I will continue to plug along, believing that the failing is building something necessary into me, that it's preparing me for winning.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Is being good worth it?

Come on, goodness is over-rated in this day and age, right? Our parents (our grandparents?) were the 'greatest generation.' Now technology is the name of the game. And attention is the commodity, the prize. Grab what you can while you can. It doesn't matter how. 

Be good? Why? It's counter-productive. What garners all the attention today is trash. What Hollywood star is in rehab this week. What's the latest idiotic meme sweeping the country. Such and such celebrity is wearing a revealing dress.

 Being good doesn't fit in with any of that. It's outdated. It's boring. It doesn't pay.

 This from the Chinese writer Lin Yutang:

Today we are afraid of simple words like goodness and mercy and kindness. We don't believe in the good old words because we don't believe in good old values any more. And that's why the world is sick.

The question is, is this sick world feeding you? Is it feeding your mind, your body, your soul? To me, all the busyness of technology and popular culture is just like junk food to the body. You can eat it and eat it and eat it, but there will come a point where it makes you sick and you long for fresh, real food.

Being good is that fresh, real food. Being good brings real growth, real satisfaction, real happiness.

And while there is an excess of every human character trait, (According to Aristotle no less.) there is no possibility of an excess of goodness. (You can never get sick of being good.)

The cellist Pablo Casals wrote:

Each person has inside a basic decency and goodness. If he listens to it and acts on it, he is giving a great deal of what it is world needs most.

So goodness feeds the person who is good and the world. Tired of the junk food of the world? Listen to the goodness within you. Act on it.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

What's the "just right" amount of description in fiction?

Writing description is perilous. Write too little and it's as if your characters are wandering around in a void. Write too much and the reader puts the book down and goes online to check the weather. What's a writer to do?

No worries. Here's how to know how much description to use.

Trust your characters.

There you have it. Oh, you want a little elaboration? All right then.  :)

When your character enters a scene what does she see? What are her circumstances? Does she have time to fully look around the room? Is there any reason she would notice anything (or perhaps the complete room) in detail? What's her background? What kind of things would a person of her background notice? What about the difference between what a guy and what a woman would notice?

So an art historian wanders into the Louvre's main gallery fulfilling a lifelong dream. Well, she is going to describe a hell of a lot of stuff. She's blown away. The beauty is overwhelming her senses. And being an art expert she is going to notice the nuances of the paintings, the thicker brushstrokes of the Van Gogh or the flawless perspective of the Vermeer. If you gave a short generic description here, your reader would find it hard to believe and question your character's authenticity.

But a French guy, a motorcycle mechanic by trade, dragged to the Louvre for the umpteenth time by his girlfriend, walks in and looks around. "Same boring paintings everywhere," he says, and he checks his cell phone for the soccer scores.

Or how about the time factor? Our art historian has all day to look over those beautiful paintings. How about a crack addict who's coked out and holding up a 7-11? His eyes are glued to the clerk's and the cash register, the eyes in the back of his head looking at the parking lot to see if anybody's pulling in. What if he were to give an in-depth description of the store? "On the floor next to a refrigerated case filled with twelve-packs of beer there was a "Big Gulp" cardboard poster. The air conditioner was running and just about drowned out the Katy Perry song on the overhead speakers. The air smelled faintly of fresh-brewed coffee and doughnuts." Uh, the reader's thinking, is this guy a normal human being?

Remember that to just describe a single scene setting you could write 100,000 words.

And don't forget to use all the senses in your description. That air might be perfectly room temperature in the Louvre. (The art historian would notice this because she knows the air needs to be that to protect the masterpieces.) The crack addict's hand is so sweaty the door handle slips out of his hand when he gets to the 7-11 and he has to open it again.

The temptation, especially if you're writing fast, is to just use visual writing. And writing fast may be a good way for you to go—get your story down. Then when you go through it again you can add non-visual descriptors.

Just don't forget that too much non-visual description is also a mistake. The majority of your description is going to be visual and that's as it should be because that's the majority of how we take in the world. But if your character is constantly feeling things, or smelling stuff, or hearing things, that's going to come off as inauthentic.

I've heard of writers suggesting things like 'Use two non-visual descriptors each page.' Don't do it. Good writing is organic writing. That writer is going to have to stop twice on every page. That manuscript is going to be stilted as hell (and inauthentic). And you may want to use ten non-visual descriptors on a page if it's called for. Think of a character on their first trip to a farm. The freshly cut hay smell. The apple blossoms. The tilled soil. The manure in the stables.

Trust your gut with the non-visual stuff. Again, what would your character notice? If he's a baker he's going to notice a smell every time he walks into a restaurant. A musician will notice music more. Etc. etc.

Be judicious (and limiting) with your use of adverbs and adjectives. The Chilean poet Vincente Huidobro wrote: "The adjective, when it doesn't give life, kills it."

Ditto for adverbs. And don't forget that adverbs modify verbs. Enhancing your verb will often eliminate the need for the adverb.

"I'll be home soon," Jimmy said angrily and he hung up the phone.


"I'll be home soon," Jimmy said and he slammed down the phone.

If he slammed down the phone we know he spoke angrily, right?

And as with all writing, characters are compelling when they are doing something. Jimmy slamming the phone down has us watching him closely. What's he going to do next? And that is exactly where you want your reader.

The one place you might want to use an adverb is where the character's mood is entirely opposite of what they say.

"I love you," Jimmy said angrily.


"I love you," Jimmy said and he slammed down the phone. (That doesn't quite cut it.)

So it's not hard. Trust your characters to tell you the "just right" amount of description you need. Remember who your characters are. The situation they're in. The time frame. The things they would notice. Keep that as your rule of thumb and you can't go wrong.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How rich do you want to be?

A millionaire? A billionaire? Bill Gates rich?

Nothing makes people crazy like money. I still have dreams about finding money and those dreams are exhilarating. I always wanted to be rich. Why not? Rich was symbolic of success, of power. It was cool.

How rich was rich enough?

Nothing! Dynasty. Empire. Those were words I liked.

Somehow through the years things changed, the biggest change being that I didn't get rich. Well, at least bank account rich. And along the way my thinking underwent a change too. Mostly in the notion of—just what is rich anyway?

That's more of a metaphysical question than it appears on the surface.

When my nephew was ten he surprised me in that he had questions about life and death and "big things." I told him about the idea of living forever after we die, and he said: "Why can't we live forever here?"

As you can imagine I didn't have an answer for him. But our conversation got me thinking about "big things" too. In that we don't live forever—at least here. And the question that posed itself to me was—if we do live forever after our physical bodies die, is there anything we're taking with us from this life?

The answer seemed apparent to me—we're taking our souls. Our experiences, our memories, our feelings.

Not money or jewels or CDs or stocks.

And that got me re-thinking what it means to be rich.

Jackson Browne has a song called "The Pretender." One of the lyrics goes: "I'm gonna be a happy idiot and struggle for the legal tender."

I decided I didn't want to be that happy idiot. I wanted to focus on what I could take with me. What mattered. What lasts.

And those things were the riches of the soul. To quote another song. Bob Seger sings in "Travelin' Man": "Those are the memories that made me a wealthy soul."

So now I face the same question about being rich but the question has a new meaning.

How rich do I want to be?

The richest. I want my soul to be chock-full of great memories, experiences and feelings.

How rich do you want to be?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Do we owe God 10%?

Do we owe Him anything? Everything?

Many churches insist that giving God the 10% is mandatory. Tithing. Giving 10% of your income to the church, to be disbursed (or kept) by the church leaders as they see fit.

Of course the church leaders would like you to believe that you're actually giving that 10% to God. I've been in churches where pastors have thundered, 'If you're not tithing, you're ROBBING GOD!' 'Hmm,' I'd think. 'God could use a better security system if somebody like me can rob him.'  One pastor yelled, "That's God's money!" Okay, pal. If you say so.

But this post isn't about tithing per se. It's about the idea of do we owe God? Forget about percentages. Just the general notion—Do we owe God?

I'll admit I used to think we did. Admittedly, growing up I'd heard a lot of things in church about how bad I was, a sinner, and all that, so I suppose it wasn't surprising that I felt I was somehow in God's debt. He created me. He made the earth. Etc. etc. etc.

But through the years my eyes must've been opened wider because the owing God thing seemed to lose its grip on me. Life was hard. It was a struggle to live, to know who I was, to find my way. People I cared about died. I got sick. On and on and on it went and I'd think, "I owe God for this?"

We are born without our knowledge and we die against our will. Seems to me given these circumstances, if anything, God owes us.

The element of choice seems paramount in coming to this conclusion. If God brought us into the world, He owes us.

Perhaps it's not the best analogy, but if I decide to get a puppy and take it into my house, does that puppy owe me? No, I decided I wanted the puppy. I owe him.

And so it is with God and us.

The next logical question would be, 'If God owes us, how much does He owe us?'

I don't know. What do you think?