March 30

Stay Motivated

I thought about starting this post by stating that I wanted to write a post about staying motivated, but I didn’t feel like it. That’s it, short and sweet and arguably humorous. But then I realized that it wouldn’t be motivating and probably not as funny as I thought, so here we go…

If you’re like the millions of people around the globe who are stuck at home during this CoronaVirus thing, then you’re probably running out of steam when it comes to doing things. Being stuck in the house is usually fun for a couple of days, maybe a week, but after that you begin to feel trapped. Everything looks the same day after day. You’re not getting any input from face-to-face human interaction. You’re tired and restless and in need of something you can’t quite put your finger on…

I get it. I’m right there with you. But you can work through it. Here are a few things I’ve been doing to stay motivated at home.

First, exercise. Yeah, I know, you don’t feel like it. But you don’t have to go to a gym or have weights and machines and all that crap to work out. There are hundreds of YouTube videos out there that can get you started with basic stretching and yoga. Those are always good to start with. Believe me, basic stretching can make a positive difference in how you feel both physically and mentally.

At far as actually body-changing exercise, again, you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment. I don’t have any of that so I do body weight exercises. If you can’t find a YouTube video you like, then check out some of the exercise apps. Personally, I use FitBod (and no, I’m not getting anything to endorse them). It takes a few minutes to set up, but you can set it for body weight exercises, how often you want to work out, and even how much time you want to spend working out.

Of course, be sure to check with your physician before starting any routines like this, just to be safe.

I find that exercising three days a week has made a big difference in how I feel throughout the day. I’m mentally sharper, more energetic, and after a few weeks I actually crave exercise. Weird, right?

Also, get some outside time. I know, with social distancing, quarantines, and city and state parks being shut down that limits where you can go. However, you can still simply sit outside for thirty minutes. Sit on your patio or balcony. Maybe go for a drive with the windows down in your car. Walk around the block. Do laps in your backyard. The point here is twofold – first, getting some fresh air. Sitting in the house breathing that recycled air for days on end isn’t conducive to mental or physical health. Secondly, it gets you in the sunshine for a bit, and we all need a little vitamin D to stay healthy.

And finally, be creative. I know, I know, you don’t feel like it. You aren’t inspired. You’re bored. You don’t have any ideas. Whatever. Then use that as your inspiration and motivation. Write about how you’re feeling. Draw your frustrations. Paint your fears. Use all that crap building up in your head as the foundation for a creative project. Again, this is good for your mental health and gives your creative muscles some exercise. It’s a win-win!

Please, don’t let cabin fever get into your head. Focus on the good things in your life. Focus on doing something creative. And remember there are people you can talk to (online, of course) to help you manage.

Be safe and stay healthy.

RB

March 27

Influences – George Carlin

I’m always inspired by people that have a way with words. Carlin was, in my opinion, one of the best wordsmiths, especially in his later years. Books aside, his stand-up routines were amazing to watch. He had a talent for wordplay and for pointing out the insanity that comes with modern life and being human.

A little background about him – He started in comedy as part of a duo back in 1959 with a guy named Jack Burns. They were moderately successful, recorded an album together, but after a couple of years they parted ways on amicable terms. Carlin took a few years to build up his skills, performing on several variety shows in the 1960s before recording his debut in 1967. From there, things took off. He embraced the counter-culture and cast off his button-down appearance. He caught the attention of Johnny Carson and became a regular guest and stand-in on The Tonight Show.

In 1972 he was arrested in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on an obscenity charge for his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” bit. The case was later thrown out, but it marked a victory for the First Amendment as the judge in the case found that, although the routine used obscene language, the First Amendment protected Carlin’s right to say them. Yea for common sense! This also garnered Carlin a lot of free publicity.

It was in the late 1970s that he started doing stand-up specials for HBO and eventually got into acting. It’s interesting to note that he later abandon his acting career. He, like many other celebrities, ended up in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service (the tax agency of the US for my international readers). He felt that the acting path was too uncertain, so he decided to focus on his stand-up comedy. He knew that was the thing he was good at and had a more consistent return that acting. He also said that he felt the tax issues made him a better comedian because he was forced to work and tour relentlessly to pay off his debt to the government.

But the thing I admire most about Carlin is his way with words. That man could weave beautiful tapestries with words. He could make you laugh, make you cringe, make you shake your head in disbelief, and make you emotional. He had a rapid-fire delivery that I found amazing. He could spout off with these seemingly never ending strings of dialogue without taking a breath or pausing to check notes.

The other thing I admired about his was his ability to tell the truth. I won’t claim to agree with everything he said – that would be foolish – but even if I disagreed with his take on something, I could respect his opinion. For example, he wasn’t a believer in voting. His opinion was that the winner was already decided and we the people merely had the illusion of choice. I can see where he was coming from and he wasn’t necessarily wrong, but I believe we should still cast a vote. It’s our right and our duty regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum.

He was also adept at pointing out the weirdness of being a human. For example, in “Stuff” he notes that the only reason we need a house is so we have a place to store our stuff. When you fly in a plane you can look down and see everyone’s pile of stuff. And when you leave your house you have to lock it up so no one steals your stuff. Because they always steal the good stuff. Basically, your house is a place to keep your stuff while you go out and buy more stuff. Makes sense.

But my favorite bit by Carlin was this: Consider how stupid the average person is, then realize that half the population is dumber than that.

As a writer, I can’t help buy admire someone who cherishes words, who works with words like an artisan, a master crafts-person. He could opine on a multitude of topics, from politics and religion to sex and death. Nothing was taboo. Nothing too scathing.

To me, Carlin was the definition of what an artist should strive to be: Fearless, challenging, influential, and relatable. He’s been gone now for over twelve years, but I still go back every so often and listen to his stand up and read his books. Even though he didn’t write fiction, I consider him to be a major influence on my own writing. I try to be like him, pushing boundaries and challenging my readers. And hopefully, inspiring them to think differently.

RB

 

March 26

Book Review – A Quiet Rebellion: Guilt

I picked up a copy of A Quiet Rebellion: Guilt (Numoeath Book 1) after reading several of M.H. Thaung’s very short stories (VSS) on her website. For what it’s worth, we follow each other on Twitter. I found her VSS to be well-written and, in some cases, thought provoking. My curiosity got the better of me and I decided to see what she could do when writing in a longer format.

As usual, I went into the book blind. I didn’t read any reviews, I didn’t read the synopses. I prefer it that way. I think that reading little tidbits not only runs the risk of exposing me to spoilers, but it can cause me to form an opinion before I even read the first line.

So here’s the spoiler-free deal with A Quiet Rebellion:

It’s an interesting take on a fantasy story. There’s not really any magic to speak of, but there are beasts who can attack humans and imbue them with almost supernatural powers. This includes powers like starting fires, influencing decision making, or causing pain.

The setting is fantasy-like. There’s a lot of isolation between villages, a central city with a queen and a castle, and transportation consists of either walking or hot air balloons.

One of the more interesting aspects for me is that this society has things like electric lights, hot air balloons, and carts on tracks (sort of like human-powered locomotion), but they still seem to be just coming out of a medieval period. To me, this gives the story an “early steampunk” feel.

The main story follows several characters – an herbalist/healer, a soldier, and a young woman who has recently developed powers after a beast attack. The characters all have unique personalities, which I enjoyed, and they’re all damaged in some way. Not necessarily in a physical sense, but emotionally and mentally. Ms. Thaung did a fantastic job of making them real by giving them internal struggles, self-doubt, and relatable fears.

The story expands as it goes along, introducing more characters and more intrigue. I felt like things were coming to a head towards the end of the book, but it was just a build up before the final page. However, it’s not like the story ends on some terrible cliff-hanger. There are questions that need to be answered, mysteries to unravel, and people who may need to be rescued.

I think the main things I liked about this novel was the slow build up, the unique story line, and the well-developed characters. Also, the author slowly builds the backstory instead of giving it all away at once. I came away from it still not fulling understanding the situation, where these beasts come from, and how their society got to this point. I’m sure more will be revealed in the next book and I’m looking forward to it.

I definitely recommend A Quiet Rebellion: Guilt. Pick up a copy if you’re interested in a unique fantasy.

RB

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March 24

Book Review – The Memory Police

I’ve always believed that Asian literature is sorely underrepresented in western countries. I don’t recall ever reading any books in school from Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Indian, or any other authors from Asia. I’ve been trying to remedy that over the past few years by expanding my horizons with selections from different countries and my latest read is The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa.

The story takes place on an unnamed island, possibly off the coast of Japan, where things occasionally disappear. That is to say, the residents of the island wake up some mornings to find things, like birds, have disappeared. They no longer sit in the trees and sing, they no longer peck in the bird feeders. The few residents that have birds as pets instinctively know to open their cages and set them free. Soon after, the memory of birds begins to fade, the birdsongs, their names, what they look like.

It’s incredibly haunting. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason, no pattern, and there’s no announcement. The population wakes up and soon realizes that a specific thing is fading from their memory.

However, there are a handful of people who don’t forget. They remember all the things their friends and family have forgotten. Unfortunately, remembering is illegal and the Memory Police, ever vigilant, are constantly on patrol and performing raids to find these criminals.

Crazy, right? I found this to be an amazingly original premise. So surreal and haunting, especially the way the story is written. Even though my grasp of Japanese is limited to a few simple phrases, I still feel as if the translator did a wonderful job of capturing the eeriness of the narration. Some day I’d love to learn enough of one of the Asian languages to be able to read a novel in its original form.

But back to the story – It follows the unnamed protagonist, a young female novelist, who is friends with an unnamed old man and her editor, R. The young woman discovers that R is one of the few who can remember things, so she and the old man take it upon themselves to hide and shelter the editor to protect him from the Memory Police.

The story isn’t just about this espionage and subterfuge, however. It’s also about the importance and the fragility of memory, how most of us can only remember bits and pieces of our own past. The rest, the memories that fade away, take a piece of us with them. So in a way, we are all incomplete. Additionally, Ogawa leaves unanswered questions about the situation, the Memory Police, and other bits and pieces. I think this was a perfect accompaniment to a story where the characters themselves have to deal with the same, unanswered questions.

I found this novel to be a beautiful dive into magic-realism. The way Ogawa describes the disappearances and the way the people react to them is seamless. I didn’t question how or why, I just wanted to know what was going to happen to the characters, how they were going to survive this strange purge of things from the island and from their memories.

I have to say, this really is one of the most beautifully written and haunting stories I’ve ever read. It’s slow-moving, melancholy, and deeply touching. Highly-recommended.

RB

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March 21

Book Review – Tiny Righteous Acts

I’m sure you’ve heard that old adage: Write what you know. It’s not necessarily meant to be taken literally, of course, but basically it means to write about things you’re familiar with, that interest you. A perfect example of this can be found in Parker Bauman’s Tiny Righteous Acts.

So here’s the deal – Ms. Bauman is an immigration attorney. It’s her day job. In my opinion, I think it’s a job that balances out a lot of negativity created by other attorneys. You know what I mean, right? The ambulance chasers, the frivolous lawsuits, the patent trolls. Immigration attorneys actually help people. In a way, they rescue them. Knights in shining armor and all that jazz.

Ms. Bauman uses her experience as an immigration attorney as the foundation for this novel. At least, I hope it’s just the foundation. You’ll understand what I mean in a moment.

The story follows “Lottie” Fornea, an immigration attorney based in New Orleans. Without giving too much away, Lottie helps women who have been the victims of abuse (rape, beatings, etc) in other countries get their citizenship in the U.S. However, what eats at her is the fact that the abusers, who are still in their respective homelands, get away with the abuse while the women continue to suffer and carry the scars for the rest of their lives.

With the help of some dedicated friends, she decides to do something about it. Hence, the tiny, righteous acts.

I don’t want to go too far into the narrative or plot because that would spoil some of the surprises, but I will comment on some other aspect of the novel.

For starters, Ms. Bauman absolutely captures New Orleans on the page. I’ve visited the city many times and have fond memories (well, I can remember some of the visits) of the architecture, the people, and that indescribable vibe that can only be found in NOLA. Reading some of the descriptions of the restaurants and neighborhoods took me back in time, and I could feel the wind, smell the crawfish boils, and taste the alcohol all over again.

Additionally, the characters are stereotypically New Orleans. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. NOLA is a colorful city, the residents even more so. The language, the clothing, the attitudes, are all perfectly encapsulated here.

But even beyond that, Ms. Bauman does a fantastic job of describing the other locales visited by our protagonist. I’m not sure if she actually visited these cities, but they all felt very real to me. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was a travel agent on the side.

The story itself is a fun ride. It’s mostly light-hearted and fun, but it does have darker moments. However, Ms. Bauman does a wonderful job of balancing it all. There’s humor, a touch of romance, danger, and sacrifice.

When I finally put the book down I had to sit and think about the story for a bit. If nothing else, the story made me consider things I hadn’t given much thought to, like the perils of women in less-modern countries, the difficulties in them getting out and finding a better life, and the fact that in many places woman are terribly persecuted. I mean, I know this goes on, but it’s not something I consider on a day to day basis.

Tiny Righteous Acts brings this to the forefront, not in a preachy way, but honestly and without flinching.

Overall, a good, though-provoking read. Check it out.

RB

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March 20

Obligatory Coronavirus Post

With every other website posting on the coronavirus, I figured, why not jump on the bandwagon? I’m not poking fun at the seriousness of the pandemic. Believe me, I have family that are susceptible – in the high-risk category – so I’m keeping tabs on the reliable information that’s being released.

However, I’m getting annoyed by all the panicking and hoarding that’s going on. I live in Florida, sometimes referred to as the hurricane bait of the U.S., and I’m familiar with disasters. Hurricane Michael blew threw just west of where I live a few years ago and the area is still recovering and rebuilding. My family was lucky enough to catch just the outer edge. We were without power for two weeks and survived on a lot of canned goods heated up over a charcoal grill.

The weird thing is that when Hurricane Michael was threatening, people didn’t take it very seriously. Sure, they stocked up on some canned goods and water, filled up the gas tanks on their cars, but for the most part they played it cool. You could get into the stores to buy supplies, the lines at the gas stations were longer than usual, but manageable. And for what it’s worth, people were cordial and polite. Or as cordial and polite as usual.

But with this coronavirus panic, people are literally acting as if it’s the end of the world. I went grocery shopping this past Sunday morning and the store shelves were almost picked clean. Not just canned goods, but pasta, pasta sauce, dried beans, rice, toilet paper (which I still don’t understand, and the tissue was untouched), bottled water, and charcoal. It’s like everyone expects the water and electricity to be cut off, food supplies restricted, dogs and cats to start living together.

It’s like the lizard part of our brains reignited and suddenly we’re back living in caves and bashing each other’s heads in with rocks. I made a comment to a friend that it reminds me of all those times we saw characters do really stupid things in horror movies and thought to ourselves, “no one would do that!” Turns out that, yeah, people really are that dumb.

It’s the mob mentality and it’s scary.

Personally, I’m not going to panic. I’m going to live my life like I always do. I’ll go to work, I’ll hang with friends, I’ll write and create. If I show any symptoms of the virus, I’ll self-quarantine. Simple as that. But all this hoarding and panic buying isn’t going to do anyone any good. In fact, it’s causing harm to the less fortunate.

Consider the fact that all the people who are hoarding supplies can afford to do so, even though it isn’t necessary. The result is that the people who can’t afford to hoard aren’t going to have access to any of these things once they’ve been bought up. It’ also going to have a ripple effect. Some of the local food trucks here in my city have had to shutter their businesses because they can’t buy supplies. So people who were depending on them for food won’t get any, and the owners of the trucks can’t make any money because they can’t buy the ingredients.

Please, think rationally, think calmly, don’t panic. The coronavirus is not going to wipe out humanity. There will be economic hardships, but hopefully those who have will share with those who don’t.

Don’t forget your humanity.

RB

March 19

Quarantine Distractions

If you’re stuck at home and need something to stave off the boredom of quarantine, I have a couple of suggestions for you.

First, you can listen to my creativity podcast, The Prometheus Project Podcast. Twenty-six episodes (so far) that cover different facets of creativity, motivation, inspiration, and other odds and ends. The podcast is available at iTunes, GooglePlay, Spotify, and PodBean.

Second, you can pick up a copy of my first short story collection, Dark Journeys. It’s a mix of horror, sci-fi, and speculative fiction. You can purchase an e-book version through Amazon or Barnes & Noble for only ninety-nine cents. A paperback version is also available at Amazon.

And finally, there are so many titles available through your local library. Check out their websites for details. In my city, I registered for a library card online and now I can download books, watch movies, and keep entertained.

And finally, if you can, please donate to some local non-profit organizations. Food banks, services for senior citizens, child care, whatever. Even five or ten dollars can make a difference.

Stay safe, everyone.

RB

March 16

“So, what do you write?”

Whenever I’m talking to someone new and mention that I’m a writer, I’m always asked, “So, what do you write?”. I hate this question. In fact, I think most writers hate it. Why? Because it’s not easy to answer.

What I mean is that it’s difficult to be succinct when answering. I could answer, “fiction”, which then leads to being asked what kind of fiction. If I reply that I write science-fiction or horror, I often get the lip curl and a, “oh, I don’t read that.” Some even take it a step further and respond with, “I don’t read that stuff. Why don’t you write about…?” Ugh. If I tell them I write speculative fiction, then I end up having to define it for them, and even then they often don’t understand and suggest I write about something else.

Lately, my go-to response has been, “Words. I write words.” For some folks, that satisfies them. I mean, it’s the truth, right? And they usually think I’m being funny and politely laugh and move on to another conversation topic. But there’s always that one person who dismisses this as an answer and continues to question me and make suggestions.

I recently had someone stop me in the hallway at work to tell me they had a great idea for my next story, then proceeded to tell me about how they were recently in a big retail store and heard someone say something funny while talking on their phone. I listened politely, nodded a few times, then told them I’d make a note of it. A few days later they stopped by my office and asked if I’d started writing the story yet. I felt like a dog that just heard a weird noise…my ears when up and I cocked my head to the side.

There have been times when I attended a social event and asked my partner to not mention that I’m a writer. Sometimes I don’t want to deal with the questions or the suggestions. And yes, the suggestions are endless.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud to be a writer. I’m proud of the stories I’ve written, the newspaper articles, the grant writing, marketing text, and the scripts. But there are times when I wish people would simply say, “A writer? That’s awesome! Where can I buy your books?” or “Where can I read your stories?” I wish it were more about the final product and less about me. I like to think of myself as the Great and Powerful Oz…I’m the guy behind the curtain pushing the buttons and pulling the levers. Pay no attention to me. Just focus on the stories I’m creating.

But such is the life of a writer. I should get business cards printed up that read, “Richard Bist, Writer. He writes words. Links to his words can be found at www.richardbist.com.” Do you think that’ll work?

RB

March 12

Doing it Better

Here’s a question for you: Have you ever read a story or watched a movie or show on television and thought to yourself, “I can write a better story than that”?

For me, it happens more often with television and movies than it does with short stories or novels. Too many shortcuts and bad narrative decisions. I know that writers are often having to deal with time restraints and directorial decision – and maybe studio or production house input – but I still get frustrated when an otherwise good story is wasted by sloppy writing.

And no, I’m not in any way claiming that I would do better. I know I’m guilty of poor writing. All of us are capable of overusing cliches or stereotypes. It happens.

But with professional writing I expect more. These folks are getting paid good money. Hell, there are sometimes teams of writers working on scripts, yet the final product turns out to be crap. How does that happen?

There are been many occasions when I’ve watched a show or a movie and afterwards thought about the story, wondering about the missed opportunities and what I would have done differently. Which begs the question: Is it okay to take that idea and make it your own?

Personally, I think it’s okay. As I’ve said before – both on this blog and in my podcast – every story that can be told has been told. As writers, we are tasked with finding new ways to tell them. So I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to watch a movie and want to retell the story in your own way. Of course, the caveat is copyright. You can’t use the same character names or exact settings and narrative. Calling your hero “Spider Guy” is probably going to get you a nice phone call from Marvel’s attorneys. And no, you probably can’t write a space opera entitled, “Star Battles”, set in a galaxy a long, long way off. You need to make these stories your own and not a derivative of the originals.

I think that when it comes to fiction, any type of fiction, ideas are there for the taking. You can see examples of this in the movie industry. For example, back in the early 1990s there were two movies about Wyatt Earp that came out within months of each other. One was titled Wyatt Earp with Kevin Costner, the other was Tombstone with Kurt Russell. There was also Deep Impact and Armageddon, Antz and A Bug’s Life. The list goes on and on.

The point here is that it’s okay to take an existing story and make it your own. In fact, I think it’s a good way to challenge yourself not only as a writer, but in any area of art. You see a painting in a gallery or a sculpture in a museum and you note the flaws, the little things that only you notice. You think to yourself, that’s nice but I think it would be better if…

And then you take that idea, that theme, that plot, and you turn it into something new and amazing. Why not? If you feel that you can do it better, prove it. Even if no one ever sees what you’ve done, you’ll know that you did it yourself and you did it better.

Give it a shot. You may impress yourself.

RB