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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Just do it (what you can)

I was really stuck in my life at one time. Oh, on the surface I wasn't doing so badly. I was married, had a lot of friends, a college degree. But on the inside I was a mess. Thing is I thought I should be able to do the things a married college graduate with lots of friends should do. But the fact of the matter was that the mess I was on the inside wasn't going along with that plan. So yeah, I was stuck, big-time.

So I wasn't out there getting a big job and hauling in big bucks. I wasn't going to be winning any fancy awards. I didn't have what it took to be a hero. About all I knew at that point in my life was that I was going nowhere, and I couldn't see any way out of it.

Then I discovered one single bit of information that changed my life.

Somebody told me that if I couldn't do all the high-falutin' things I wanted to, I should just do what I could. It seems so obvious now, but at the time it was absolutely revolutionary to me.

So if I couldn't get that big job, I could still do the best I could at my crappy little job. If I couldn't be a superstar, I could at least say a kind word to the mailman or smile at the old man waiting for the bus. Everything counted. Even if it was just effort and not results. I started counting days that only had one line in my journal—"Tried hard and failed."—as successes.

Doing what I could has been my motto ever since. It's freeing. It works. Don't worry about what you can't do (and feel you should be able to). Just do what you can.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Are you seeing stars?

No, not in that way. :) In the way of looking up into the sky.

If stars appeared only one night every thousand years, how we would marvel and adore them. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life is magical. We're given such a gift and yet 99% of our lives we don't appreciate it. To be born. To live. To experience this earth. Its joys. Its sorrow. Its majesty and squalor. It's all a gift, a magnificent gift. Yet we don't see it.

Perhaps some people see it when they near the end of their lives (or if the end is thrust upon them). Then suddenly they have a keen appreciation of life, of how very precious and magical it is. Otherwise, it's hurry hurry hurry. Hamsters on a hamster wheel.

Sometimes I think about life in terms of technology. Everything man-made requires a power source. It needs to be plugged in or needs a battery. And yet, we don't. We walk around untethered. Yes, life is magical. Want proof there's a God?

Think about your life. Life is God manifested.

And the Emerson quote. How utterly true is that?

I think of people who fly on airplanes. So many of them pull the window shade and play video games on their phones or watch a movie. I wonder what Gallileo or DaVinci or Isaac Newton would've given to go up in a jet, soaring above the clouds, the mountains. They would've been breathless with excitement, with sheer wonder.

And we can be too. If we slow down enough to appreciate this wonderful, magical thing we are so privileged to experience, this thing called life.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Is there justice in the world?

Such a heavy topic. Here it is Christmas Eve and I'm thinking about justice. But that's what the holidays do to me—they make me think about things that matter.

Everybody wants fairness. You see it everywhere. People will endure all kinds of problems uncomplainingly but when something happens that violates their sense of fairness they explode. "That's unfair!" And they'll go to the ends of the earth to pursue getting justice as "a matter of principle."

So just like when your favorite basketball player sinks a game-winning shot at the buzzer and you jump up and throw your arms in the air, you also recoil when something is unfair. It's just hard wired into us.

So is there fairness? Is there justice in the world?

Yes. Only it's often not very apparent. Justice according to what standard? That's a key question. For many people the standard is worldly success—a beautiful spouse, children, wealth. That's as legitimate a standard as any, but it doesn't reflect justice in a deeper sense.

Justice in a deeper sense involves deeper things. Things like integrity to others and one's self. Like how you feel about how you've lived your life. It's about love and respect.

In that deeper sense there's perfect justice in the world. We may not all be equal but in one fundamental aspect we're all the same—we start out in life a certain way and we develop by how we live until we end up who we are. In that sense, justice is in our own hands. How have I lived? Have I done my best? Have I loved? Contributed to the world?

When you get done answering questions like that, you will see that where you're at in your life is perfectly just.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Big god, small problems. Small god, big problems.


All faith is not the same.

There are a million variables that influence it and the effects it has on our lives.

Big god, small problems.

If your god is the omnipotent omnipresent eternal creator of the universe. Well, then it can handle anything you're going through. In fact, anything you're going through is chump change.

Small god, big problems.

Who's your god? Is your god an afterthought? Somebody you pray to when you get around to it? A god who is undependable and only comes through some of the time? I wouldn't pray to a god like that personally. That sounds like a very small god. With that god my problems would seem gigantic.

Of course your problems are the same whether you have a big or small god. It's a question of  what kind of power does your god have to clear them up. And there's a lot of peace knowing you have a big god.

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.

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.

-or-

"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.

-or-

"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.























Sunday, September 21, 2014

Does God play favorites?


It's the classic example. Near the very end of a tie baseball game, the batter praying for a hit, the pitcher praying for a strike-out. Whose prayer does God answer? It seems silly even as I write this. But that sort of stuff happens all the time.

Or what about people groups feeling like they're 'God's people' or 'chosen' or 'elect'? Has God somehow set these people aside for preferential treatment and favor?

Or take a more commonplace example. The person born to wealthy, beautiful, intelligent parents, and who is accordingly set for a life of ease and pleasure.

And then there's the flipside. Someone  born into poverty to dumb parents who perhaps sexually or physically abuse the kid. The kid's maybe fat or has a limp or is ugly.

Is God making those decisions? Is he setting some up for a life of ease and others for a life of suffering?

No one can completely know the answers to these questions, but I think it unlikely that God is pulling all these strings. The way I look at it, he wouldn't be much of a God if he did.

Same goes for the 'chosen' or 'elect.' I'm sure it's comforting to think that way, but what kind of God would show such unmerited favoritism. Again, he wouldn't be much of a God if he did.

We play favorites. God doesn't.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Are believers better than atheists?




I think most people would say believers are better than atheists. There's something comforting about a person who believes in God. It's certainly a must for all presidential candidates. But are believers better people than atheists?

This is where I think most believers would say 'yes' and most atheists would say 'no.' Human nature really. Everyone thinks they're a good person—believer or atheist.

But does believing in God set a person on some kind of higher, better, moral plane? Doesn't believing give them a higher moral authority than atheists since they have the connection with the Divine? And doesn't that Divine connection transform them into better people, if only by osmosis?

Or maybe atheists are better. They see the world for what it is. Eyes wide open. Not following the comforting myths and fairy tales of belief.

Atheists often look at believers as deluded, as people looking to get something for nothing, people with blinders on to the reality of the world.

Believers often see atheists as cold and hard-hearted.

So who's right? Who's better?

To me, there's no easy answer but I know one thing—the most important thing is what people do. Good intentions are fine. A wonderful, perhaps even mystical, connection with God is great. A clear-headed open-minded rationalism is fantastic. But what are those people doing? That's the question.

And you'd be surprised sometimes by who does what.

I've seen "holy" people do some amazingly heartless things, and I've seen atheists do some amazingly caring things. But...I have also seen holy people do some amazingly caring things and atheists do some amazingly heartless things.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the truism—people are what people do.

Like the guy who beats his wife. The wife says, "Oh, it's terrible what my husband's doing but I know he really loves me."

No. He doesn't love you. People who love someone don't beat them.

And that logic goes across the board. It applies to everyone.

Want to know what someone's like? Watch not what they say, think, intend, or promise. Watch what they do.

So who's better, believers or atheists?

Neither. Whoever is better is whoever is doing better things.














Monday, September 15, 2014

Is there no hope for an end to the violence?





2014. The world stands at the apex of stunning technological achievement. And yet, the world is more brutal and out of control than ever. Wars are everywhere. Groups hating groups. Impossible hatreds. Revenge leading to counter revenge. The killing never stops and worse yet, it looks like the killing will never stop.

It's scary, yes. It's infuriating. The stupidity of it all. It's deeply saddening that people on this beautiful planet of ours are killing each other when it doesn't need to be.

There is a first step that no one seems willing to take. The step that says, 'You have hurt me or mine and although you deserve payback I will not retaliate.' Not like that's an easy step to take. I do not say it glibly. But that is the step that needs to be taken.

Will it?

I don't think so.

Look at the entire world. Squirrels fight. Monkeys form "armies" just for killing rival tribes. Geese squawking and threatening other geese. The world is violent. The world will continue to be violent.

And yet there's hope nonetheless. Because despite all the violence, there will still be love in the world. Despite all the killing. Despite all the hatred. Despite all the revenge and brutality. Despite all of that, there will be some people who refuse to let their love die. There will be some more radical in their belief in love, than those are radical in their pursuit of hatred.

The power of love will not die. No one can kill it.

Violence, killing and brutality have existed in every generation since man first drew breath. Do not let those who perpetrate it kill your soul. Your love is the one thing they can not touch. It is more powerful than they are and they know it.

So fight to keep your love alive. For love is truly the one thing worth fighting for.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Is God sending the solar storm? (Does He send natural disasters?)



Many people think God sends natural disasters. Most recently it was talked about with hurricane Katrina that struck the New Orleans area with a vengeance. The logic of those who felt the storm was God sent said that the inhabitants of New Orleans and their visitors were being judged for their raunchy, sexually permissive lifestyle. Perhaps the Biblical justification for such thinking would be the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. God didn't like what they were doing there so He wiped them out.

Thankfully, the solar storm is not that devastating, but the question lingers—does God cause natural disasters?

In the Bible again, it says that 'God sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.' (Gospel of Matthew)

Hmm. Pretty ambiguous. And interesting. In this sense rain is referred to as a blessing. Which makes me wonder about when there's too much rain, and it becomes a flood that is a natural disaster. So how does that play out? God wields nature to bless or punish?

That would be my take on the Bible's interpretation.

But I can't see things working out that way in reality. On December 26, 2004, a 9.3 magnitude (the third largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph) earthquake rocked the Indian Ocean floor spawning a massive tsunami that killed over 230,000 people, mostly poor villagers and fishermen from third world countries.

So okay, God had a lot against the sleazy people in New Orleans and sent Katrina. Did He have even more against the poor villagers and fisherman of Indonesia and Thailand and other countries devastated by the tsunami?

And if God sent the tsunami, what about the sweep of it? 230,000 people! Were they all bad?

No. God doesn't send natural disasters. That sort of thinking's crazy.




Image used in this blogpost is CC-BY-SA-2.0



Thursday, September 11, 2014

Is religion (not spirituality) the problem in the world today?



Jews vs. Muslims. Catholics vs. Protestants. Buddhists vs. Muslims. Mormons vs. Evangelicals. The list is endless. And the religious are supposed to be the good guys. The ones who are supposed to help us all get along. Where did everything go so wrong?

Fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism is at the heart of the problem. Sure, race, culture, skin color, language, anything that makes people groups seem different from one another adds to the problem. Politics adds to it, too, but the biggest offender by far is fundamentalism.

For fundamentalism has no give. With fundamentalism, and its attendant sacred text, there is absolutely no wiggle room, no inlet for accommodation. With fundamentalism it stops becoming people dealing with people and becomes my sacred book vs. your sacred book. My way or the highway.

Fundamentalism has tremendous allures. Believe in this sacred book and all doubt and uncertainty as to how to live your life vanishes. Believe in this book and join countless millions who believe the same thing. People who will welcome you, reinforce your faith, give you social connection and perhaps even economic benefit.

But with fundamentalism comes death-grip rigidity. When a problem comes up, your only option is to consult your sacred text. That's how you deal with it—there's no debate, no questioning, no changing your response based on circumstances, based on the welfare of your fellow human beings.

Oh, fundamentalists mock 'situational ethics' and lament non-fundamentalists' lack of 'absolute values,' but no human being needs a book to tell them that murder and theft and every other bad thing human beings do to each other is wrong.

So the fundamentalist dilemma boils down to 'my book vs. your book.'

Which is a mess.

People worry about the devil and maybe rightfully so. They ascribe all kinds of evil qualities to him. He's deceitful and a mocker. He's a tempter, an enemy of all that's good. But if there is a devil, his biggest weapon is none of those things. Because by far and away his biggest weapon is getting human beings to believe that they are fundamentally different from one another.

Picture a spaceship with aliens eyeballing the Earth from outer space. Guess what they see as the Earth's inhabitants?

Human beings! The same beings! Two arms, two legs, eyes, ears, nose, brain and heart!

But through fundamentalism we become convinced that we are all different.

What a needless tragedy.


Image used in this blogpost is CC-BY-SA-2.0.







Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What does God think of Ray Rice?

Image By U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Hughes/Released [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARay_Rice_smiling_100817-F-8678H-031.JPG

It's funny. When I set out to research this blogpost I started to type Ray Rice's name in a search engine, and I inadvertently typed in Ray Rat. Freudian slip? Perhaps. Whatever it was, it was an indication of how I personally feel about him (I was going to say how I feel about the man but couldn't bring myself to). I couldn't even watch the video of him punching his fiancee. So much brutality in the world. I don't need to see any more.

To get back on topic—this post isn't about what I think. It's about what God thinks of Ray Rice. Of course I don't know what God thinks. But from my subjective experience of spirituality this is what I think God might think.

He would be outraged at what Rice did. That a highly conditioned and muscled (look at the size of his bicep) would punch in the face a woman, his fiancee no less, would be abhorrent to Him, as would all violence. (Maybe God wouldn't watch the video either.) God would probably have a momentary twinge of wanting to knock the crap out of Rice. Again, like most of us. And God would certainly see that justice was served (which amazingly many are saying Rice is being scapegoated by being fired from his team and banned from football). Yes, there would be no escaping justice in God's eyes.

But any similarities to what God thought and I thought would end there. Because I think God would still love Rice—and I wouldn't. First of all, being God (granted, that is an assumption and belief that many of you don't maintain) He wouldn't be surprised by what happened. First of all because He's all-knowing, but secondly because He knows of the hardness in people's hearts. Which maybe, despite my earlier claim that God's and my opinions would separate, I would recognize in Rice too. I would recognize it because there have been times in my life that I have done abhorrent things too. Things I'm ashamed of to this day, even though they happened decades ago.

Which doesn't justify Rice's or my behavior. It just makes Rice's behavior understandable. To me anyway.

No, Rice is God's creation just as you and I are. God wouldn't be turning his back on His own. Punishment, yes. (And I think Rice will pay—as I have for my abhorrent behavior—and I don't just mean getting booted from his team and losing his salary.) Heartache, yes—God would feel heartache for what happened. But withdrawing His love, no.

Where would any of us be if God withdrew His love when we did what was abhorrent to Him? And I'm not toning down my personal repulsion to what Rice did. I'm just saying God's quite a bit different from me.

And that's a good thing. For Ray Rice—and all of us.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Have we become a nation of humiliators?


Image by Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AP%C3%A8re-Lachaise_-_Division_2_-_Pascal_04.jpg

Movie star's private nude photos exposed on-line. Politician caught on secret video smoking crack. Celebrity DUI photos on-line. News reporter's comments when they thought they were off-the-air broadcast. The list goes on and on.

On the opposite side of the coin from all this is a saying: a friend hides a friend's shame.

Whatever happened to that? Today, people want to see people humiliated, ridiculed, defeated, at their worst. Like motorists forming a "gaper's block" we eye the tangled mess of humanity with our mouths hanging open.

Can't we do better than this?

Life is too short to be drawn into such base pursuits as glorying in others' shame and misfortune. All the major websites offer the latest salacious, lurid, titillating stories they can find, begging your attention to click to drive up their advertising revenue. They'll do anything for more. More of your attention. More of your money. More of, ultimately, your life.

Don't give it to them. There's a higher plane to be lived on. Like the saying 'Take the high road—there's very few people traveling on it.' Protect people from shame, rather than taking part in exploiting it. Resist the siren-like, magnetic pull of the media. Realize that these people are consciously, calmly, cold-heartedly setting out to control you, to suck you in.

Humanity is a great thing. A noble thing. Do human beings fail? Do they fall? Of course, but we need not participate in celebrating it. Celebrate instead people's nobler actions. There are good people everywhere doing good things. Find them. Be edified by them.

And do good things yourself. People are either building into this world or taking from it. Be a builder. Contribute. Claim your part in a grand vision of just how wonderful humanity can be—and ignore the gutter.

You're better than that. We're all better than that.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Is it fair to dump on celebrities when they die?


Image By Eva Rinaldi [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARobin_Williams_2011a_(2).jpg


Robin Williams was recently trashed on an airing of TV evangelist Pat Robertson's "The 700 Club." Robertson claimed Williams' life was lost because he was a "heathen" trapped by the Hollywood "idols" of money, power, fame and drugs. Williams suffered from severe depression and the early stages of Parkinson's disease. He was sober at the time of his death.

Robinson ended his trashing by calling for people to accept Jesus.

Now undoubtedly some people succumb to the Hollywood lifestyle and clearly could use something to pull them out of it, but that's not the point here. The question here is, Is it fair to use a celebrity's death as a soapbox to comment, and let's face it, trash a deceased person?

A second question would be, Is it effective?

Would people really accept Robertson's call to accept Jesus because of what he said about Williams?

To me that seems unlikely. And although perhaps I'll give Robertson credit for wanting to help people mired in drugs etc., what about Robin Williams' memory and the feelings of his family? Don't they deserve respect and compassion in their time of loss?

You see it all the time. John Lennon. Freddie Mercury. Kurt Cobain. A celebrity dies and a preacher (or their ilk) jumps on a soapbox and attempts to make hay of their tragedies.

Personally, I think it's pathetic. What do you think?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Guaranteed writing success!

Everybody wants to be successful—why not you too? Well, you can. And it's guaranteed. Just send me five bucks (kidding). It really is guaranteed, and I think you'll agree that it will work too. The first question you need to ask yourself is, 'Why are you writing?' After that it all falls into place.

For some people, making book sales is everything. A long time ago a high school friend told me there were two kinds of doctors in the world—the ones that really cared about people and wanted to heal them, and the ones that would switch to selling kiddie porn if they thought they could make more money that way. I leave it to you to surmise the analogy to writing.

Writing is such an opportunity for everything. To think of it in only terms of making money is a waste. Is that all your life is about—making money? Don't get me wrong. I know to live requires money. And I know that all writers (including me) want to sell and be read. But to focus exclusively on that is to miss so much of all that writing offers.

Writing is a way to live life. It is a way to discover yourself, who you really are. It is a way to impact the world. It is a way to stretch yourself, a way to open up new worlds in your mind.

I believe there are basically two kinds of writers. The writers that are writing only to make money and the writers that are writing to live a full life.

Here's an example. A long time ago I took a writing class with a writer who is now wildly successful in the indie world. I was submitting query letters for a novel, and I asked him what happens if a literary agent requests a three month exclusive to read my entire novel? What should I tell other agents?

He said simply, "Lie."

I was really pretty surprised by his answer and not very surprised at all. The guy writes schlock mysteries, full of torturing psychopaths, written to market. All he thinks about is making money.

That wasn't the road I wanted to go down.

Hemingway was obsessed with writing success. He drew a 'writers as prizefighters' analogy and considered himself a "contender." Now Hemingway wrote a lot of great books, and I know his personal history was exceptionally complicated and he suffered various physical ailments and from depression, but the fact of the matter also was that he was distraught that his creativity had dried up and allegedly his final words before he put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger were, "It won't come."

Then there's the writers that once they find a touch of success become slaves to following that same path. They're into "branding." If you write one successful book, make sure to stay in the same genre. "Give them what they want/expect."

Well, you can learn about yourself writing a series, but you can learn much more writing different kinds of books. The latter type of writers really are more artists, always stretching themselves and delighting in discovering new creative outlets. The truly great writers are not satisfied with repeating themselves or copying others.

How do you want your writing to affect the world? What sort of writing "footprint" do you want to leave? Does it even matter to you?

It does to me. I'll admit I've been inconsistent about it. I've tried to write to market. I've tried to cash in. But ultimately it wore on me, and I had to admit to myself that that just wasn't me. It wasn't the message I wanted to send to the universe. I want to make the world a better place through my writing. Sure, my contribution to doing so might be slight, but it will nevertheless be my contribution. Not my subtraction.

I still seek success, but I seek it on my terms, and according to my definition of success. I want the rich full life that the writing life promises. I want to discover who I am, to discover the new worlds of creativity that lie within me. And I want my writing to make the world a better place.

The great thing about all those desires is that I am guaranteed of achieving them.

But what if no one reads what I write? The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson answers this question elegantly:

'Work,' it saith to man, 'in every hour, paid or unpaid, see only that thou work, and thou canst not escape the reward: whether thy work be fine or coarse, planting corn, or writing epics, so only it be honest work, done to thine own approbation, it shall earn a reward to the senses as well as to the thought: no matter, how often defeated, you are born to victory. The reward of a thing well done, is to have done it.'






Monday, May 26, 2014

Are you writing your autobiography? No? Yes, you are.

We've all heard it before: all writing is autobiography. It's the notion that who you are comes through in your writing no matter what you're writing. I think it's true. So the next question in the logical progression of things would be: who are you?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Remember When Writing Was Fun?

Let's face it. There's so many pressures now when it comes to the writing proposition. A writer twenty years ago: a writer. A writer today: a writer, an editor, a marketer, an online technology expert... Through it all, the thing that's easiest to get lost in the shuffle is that you started out writing because it was fun!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Writers: Take a longer view of success

Who isn't hurrying to get some traction with their book sales. I know I am. But for me the hustle simply hasn't worked. Something's been missing. I've done all the suggestions from the "how to" books. What's wrong? I think I have an idea.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Experiencing Writing Failure? Milk It For All It's Worth.

Writing failure got you down? No matter how hard you try, you can't sell any books? You're depressed. Thinking of quitting. Getting a real job. (You must be really depressed if you're that low!)

Well, I'll have to say to you is, 'You're in a good place.'

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Is going Indie worth it?

That’s a question I’ve often asked myself in the last year or so since I’ve “gone it alone” as an ebook author. My answer (if you want the really short version) is yes.

The longer version follows. Like many of my Indie comrades I started down the traditional path of submitting short stories to magazines. I met with a fair amount of success, even getting published in a highbrow literary magazine like “Washington Square” (with the likes of Billy Collins no less). It was great. I was on my way. I also knew I wanted to write novels though and so rather eagerly abandoned the short story quest and began my first novel.

Well, I could sense that my first novel wasn’t very good and made no effort at attempting to get an agent to represent it. I wrote if off (no pun intended) to being part of the learning curve. My second novel was better, but again, I knew it wasn’t quite there. Same with the third. But my fourth…

My fourth novel was high art (LOL). I was sure the masses were just waiting to devour it. It was so distinctively different, so bold, so moving. (Yes, I’m kidding now, but back then I believed it.) So I fished around for agents and sent out query letters. I met with what I would call a “fair” response. I got a few partial requests, but then a big New York agent requested the complete manuscript.

Really on my way now, right? I remember calling my girlfriend and telling her the news, and she practically sang “Gregg!” into the phone, extending my name, her voice thrilling.

Well. That was four novels ago. And I slugged through the agent-seeking process with all of them. Again, the short version here: no luck.

I have no chip on my shoulder against agents, but it was hard. One agent really liked one of the novels but suggested a point-of-view change, which I made (a lot of work, mind you). When I got the novel back to her she wrote: “Sorry. Not handling fiction any more. Too hard to get it sold.”

Well all right then.

Now Indie. What’s going Indie been like? Short version: shockingly hard.

The longer version follows. Going Indie has been a whole world of things. I remember when I first started checking around for ebook formatters, Book Baby and places like that, they seemed so expensive, and I planned on writing a lot of books so I looked for alternatives. I found that I could format my own ebooks, do my own covers, etc. Hmm. Maybe I could do that, I thought.

My enthusiasm met with a harsh wake-up call when I looked at what was entailed with formatting for Kindle. It was this gigantic step-by-step procedural with different versions (in no particular order), any misstep sending me directly back to square one. I got chest pains looking at it.

But I stayed after it. (No heart attacks, thank you very much.) And even got to enjoy it after a while.

Hey, wait a minute, I thought this guy said it was “shockingly hard”? Oh yeah.

It was and is shockingly hard. I’ve put out four novels as ebooks, designed three of the covers, formatted them all, poured my heart and soul into these books and sold just a handful of them in over a year. And I know that many of my fellow Indie authors are going through the same heartache. Really, it’s not so much about the money. Anybody who goes Indie isn’t in it for the money. If you’re Indie, though, you do want to be read. Desperately.

So yeah, it is shockingly hard to go Indie…but it is also so rewarding. Why? The short version: control.

The longer version follows. As a writer trying to get an agent and a publishing contract you are constantly jumping through somebody’s hoops. It starts out in your writers’ group maybe. Then proceeds to the agent, then the editor, then the marketing team, then the cover maker, then the bookseller, then…

As an Indie, your art is your art. And that means everything to me. Go the mainstream route and when you’re done you look at your book and say, “There’s my book. Well, actually it’s really a conglomeration of people’s ideas. The agent told me I needed to drop a character (that I loved). The editor told me I had to cut ten percent (which ruined the tone of the book, not to mention making the ending make no sense). The cover guy made me use a cover I despise and doesn’t fit my book at all, and they made me change the title. But yeah, here’s my book.”

Go the Indie route and the book is yours.

And I have met so many great people going Indie. I have learned so much about technology. I have come to value all the people who are so generously giving heart and soul to people’s lives via the Internet (all the “open source” free software is just one example). And I am truly proud to be a part of this tribe of independent outsiders called “Indie.”


Maybe I’ll never have my book in a hardcover or in the window of Barnes and Noble, but I have so much, so much more.