May 31

Music Moment – After the Gold Rush [Music]

One of my favorite singer/songwriters is Neil Young. He first came to prominence in the late 1960s as a member of Buffalo Springfield. Later, in between releasing solo albums, he also was an on again/off again member of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

While his efforts with other musicians has always been fantastic, he really shines in his solo work. Particularly, his 1970 album After the Gold Rush. It’s not a rock album, but more of a country and folk record. Mellow, low-key, and perfect for lazy Sunday mornings.

My favorite cut on the album is the title track. It’s soft, dreamy, and wistful, yet at the same time it’s heartbreaking. Neil sings at the higher-end of his vocal range, which adds an almost childlike quality to the song.

The funny thing is, while the lyrics are incredibly moving, they really don’t make a lot of sense. In fact, when the song way covered by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt for their album, Trio, Dolly called Neil to ask what the song was about.

Neil’s response? According to Emmylou, he said: ‘Hell, I don’t know. I just wrote it. It just depends on what I was taking at the time. I guess every verse has something different I’d taken.’

Regardless, I think the lyrics paint a melancholy and beautiful picture.

Well I dreamed I saw the knights in armor coming
Sayin’ something about a queen
There were peasants singing and drummers drumming
And the archer split the tree

There was a fanfare blowing to the sun
There was floating on the breeze

Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the twentieth century
Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the twentieth century

I was lying in a burned out basement
With the full moon in my eyes
I was hoping for replacement
When the sun burst through the sky

There was a band playing in my head
And I felt like getting high

I was thinking about what a friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie
Thinking about what a friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie

I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships flying
In the yellow haze of the sun
There were children crying and colors flying
All around the chosen ones

All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun

Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed
To a new home in the sun
Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed
To a new home

Lyrics by Neil Young

And to give you a taste of just how lovely the song is, here are two versions. The first is by Neil, the second is the cover version by Dolly, Emmylou, and Linda. Honestly, I can’t say which is better. Both are haunting, beautiful, and stick with me long after the last note fades away.

RB

May 27

Are We Our Characters? [Writing]

When it comes to acting, I’ve read and watched interviews with actors explaining how they inhabit the characters they play. In some cases, a few of them have had a hard time separating themselves from the characters, even going so far as to seek professional help in order to get back into their own psyche.

This got me thinking about writers and the characters we create in our fiction. It’s said that all writers put a little bit of themselves into their stories. I agree with that. I know that once I’ve finished a story I can look back over it and see little pieces of myself in there, like my experiences and my personality.

But with that, can writers experience the same situation as some of those actors, where we end up having trouble separating ourselves from the characters we create? Gears inside of a head

I don’t see it happening with short fiction, although I assume it’s possible. With short fiction, we aren’t interacting with the characters for a long stretch of time. It’s sort of like participating in a one-act play. I don’t think there’s enough time to really immerse oneself into the character for it to become a problem.

With longer fiction, however, I could see that happening. And not just novels, but also longer plays and movie scripts. In these cases, the writer is spending long periods of time with the characters, especially the protagonist. For long-form work, we have to get inside the character’s head, figure out what motivates them, what they want, their background, their personalities, their hopes and fears. In a way, it isn’t too far removed from acting.

What I’m curious about is if any authors have been so wrapped up in a story they were writing that they had a hard time separating themselves from the characters. Think about some of the more intense characters you’ve encountered in fiction, movies, plays. Consider Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, or Humbert Humbert in Lolita, or Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. All very intense, conniving personalities. How could an author not get tangled up in their creations?

For actors, in most cases, they are inhabiting a character that was created by someone else. They look at a script as a blueprint, and from there they piece it together. In the situations where the script was based on a novel, they may even read the book to get more depth. But for a writer, the characters begin and end in their heads. There isn’t any separation, no division between the two. blurred image of woman

Oddly, I don’t think I’ve ever read of an author having the same issues as an actor when it comes to keeping a distance between themselves and the characters. I wonder why that is? Perhaps writers have more control. I mean, we are the ones creating the characters out of thin air. It’s easy enough to kill them off if we want to, or put them through traumatic experiences to teach them a lesson. Hell, we can simply highlight their existence and hit the ‘delete’ key. A snap of the fingers and they never existed.

I’d be interested to see some research into this, especially if it explains how writers can seemingly get away with having characters live in their heads. And no, I don’t think it’s because we’re all a little crazy.

At least, I hope not.

RB

May 25

Banana Bread Two Ways

If you’ve watched my cooking show, you’ll know that my partner loves her some banana bread. She buys a bunch of bananas every month and refuses to eat them in the hopes that they’ll turn brown and I’ll make a loaf. Or two. It’s become a bit of a game with us, with me reminder her about the bananas she bought and that she should eat them before they go bad, and her acknowledging my comment, but leaving them to hang, dejected, on the little hook in the kitchen.

overripe bananasAnd I’ll get ‘the look’ if I eat them. I can usually sneak a couple off the hook when she isn’t looking, but it’s a risky enterprise.

We played it again recently, and I (lucky me) ended up with enough over-ripe bananas to make two loaves. Unfortunately, I didn’t have quite enough all-purpose flour to make two full loaves, so I had to improvise.

And a quick side note here: I am not a fan of baking. There are a few things I’ll make, like bread, but for the most part I shy away from the baking/pastry/sweets aspect of the kitchen. Partly because I really don’t eat sweet stuff, and partly because it doesn’t allow for as much improvisation and creativity as regular cooking. But I digress…

I didn’t realize this at first and mixed up the first batch, poured it into the pan, popped it in the oven. When there was about fifteen minutes left on the timer, I started on the next loaf. And that’s when I realized I was short about a half of a cup of flour.

I cursed the heavens.

Well, not really, but I had to figure out what to do about the situation. I dug around in the pantry for a few minutes and discovered a small bag of coconut flour I had bought a few months ago for some other failed cooking experiment. Would it work? Could it be a fair substitute? I could have look online to see for sure, but at that point I figured I could risk it. At least I had one good loaf almost ready. That would keep her placated until she decided it was time for another round of Ignore the Bananas Until They Are Gross.

Two loaves of banana bread
Loaf with all-purpose and coconut flour (left), and all-purpose flour only (right)

I’ve added shredded, unsweetened coconut flakes in the past in my banana bread, but never flour. I had no idea what to expect. A flat loaf? A brick that could chip teeth? A biohazard?

Luckily, I hit it out of the park. The coconut flour did change the texture of the crust, made it a little crispier, gave it a bit more personality. The interior – the crumb – seemed a little bit denser. Overall, however, it turned out well.

So well, in fact, that I’ve been ordered…I mean, instructed, to use the coconut flour in the next batch.

Hooray for lucky guesses!

RB

May 24

A New Podcast Episode – Acting

I’ve always been fascinating with acting. It’s not just people playing make-believe, it takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and commitment. Listen in as I talk about this amazing, and oftentimes under-appreciated, art form.

The podcast is available at iTunes, GooglePlay, Spotify, Amazon, and PodBean. If you prefer, I also have a YouTube channel.

Or you can simply listen to it right here:

May 22

Changing a Life

We’ve all had someone who touched our lives in a positive way. It might have been a loved one, maybe a stranger. Regardless, they had an impact on you, changed you, hopefully made you a better person.

I was thinking about this recently. In a broad view, almost everyone I encounter has an impact on my life. Someone holds a door open for me and shows a moment of kindness, which brightens my day and makes me smile. Or someone cuts in front of me in traffic and flips me off, which has the opposite effect. In both cases, they changed my life in small ways. Man holding door open.

Then I started thinking about it from another perspective. Specifically, the people who actually changed my life, who had such an impact on it that my personality, my outlook, my morals, were shifted and molded in a new way.

There aren’t many. At least, it’s not a terribly long list. My parents, for instance, helped to mold me. All our parents did, for better or worse, along with family members. Siblings who bullied, others who showed kindness. I had a great-aunt, a nun for over seventy-five years, who taught me about nature, creativity, and being myself. I had an uncle, a dairy farmer, who taught me about treating animals with care and about hard work. I still remember getting up before the crack of dawn to help feed and milk the cows. And clean out the manure troughs. It was educational, to say the least.

Bigger changes came later. In high school I felt out of place, like so many of us did then, and I immersed myself and reading and writing. I spun reams of angst-ridden poetry and lyrics for songs in my head. I also dabbled in fiction, writing Stephen King-inspired short stories. My sophomore year of high school I showed one of my stories to my Language Arts teacher, Mrs. Covert. She diligently read it, marked it up with a red pen (and I thought my story was bloody before then), then gave it back and told me to keep at it. 

She was the first person who ever read one of my stories. Funny, I don’t think she ever said if she liked it or not (I assume the latter), but the simple fact that she read it and gave me tough but fair feedback made a huge impact on my confidence. Teacher's desk in classroom.

A few years later I got up the courage to show some of my poetry to my senior year Language Arts teacher, Miss Wells. Quick confession: I think every guy in the school had a crush on her. She was young, fresh out of college, and sweet and adorable. Walking the halls, you’d think she was just another student. 

She read some of my pieces after class one day, then looked at me with tears in her eyes. That was mind-blowing. My words touched her. She went on to tell me how wonderful it was, how I had a talent for words, and asked to see more. I brought a few more to her later on, which she gave me feedback on and encouraged me to read some specific poets. Again, a huge impact on my early writing years. 

There were a couple of professors in college, too, who changed my life. One, in particular, Dr. Johnson, always pushed me to do better. I ended up having him for a couple of literature classes and most of my humanities classes. Every paper I submitted he’d give back to me and tell me to rewrite it and resubmit it because he knew I could do better. Every. Damn. Paper. But I did what he told me to do. He showed me that I can always do better than what I think I can, and that I should never settle.

The only other person who I think really had an impact on my life, who changed me, would be my partner. Because of her I’m a better person than I was twenty five years ago. It’s not that she personally changed me, but that I changed because of her. I wanted to be better, to be someone worthy of her, who could be proud of and respect. Without her in my life I probably wouldn’t be where I am today, with two published short story collections, a podcast, cooking videos, a house, a car. Without her I probably wouldn’t know the meaning of real love. 

Like I mentioned above, we all have people to impact our lives to some extent on a daily basis, but the ones who really have an impact, the ones who make you see things differently, who make you want to be better, are few. 

Two men hugging.Cherish them while they are in your lives. And if you don’t realize their impact on you until much later, then cherish the memory of them. 

And also keep in mind that YOU might be the one who makes a positive change in someone else’s life. Wouldn’t that be amazing? And the truth is, you may not even realize that you’ve done this for someone. 

Change is good. It’s inevitable. Just make sure it’s positive. 

RB

May 21

My new favorite word: Mythomania

While I was recently working my way through Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, I read a bit of conversation between two characters where one of them uses the word Mythomania. I had to read it a couple of times because I’d never see the word before. So I looked it up.

Turns out that Mythomania is a psychological term for pathological lying. I like that word. Sometimes I hear or read a word I’ve never before encountered and I become mesmerized by it. I know, weird, right? Woman's nose growing

I actually think I’d prefer to use mythomania, rather than pathological lying. It has an ancient feel to it, like something from ancient myth. Pathological feels more deadly, darker, more psychotic. Which, in a way, may be more appropriate depending on the person being labeled.

Mythomania sounds robust, all-encompassing, even a bit like it could be contagious. Wouldn’t that be something? Contagious lying. Might be something to explore in a piece of fiction. Would it be a disease? A viral infection? A devious spell?

Or perhaps it’s more akin to a fictional storyteller. Like, a character who cannot stop telling stories. A manic writer. Creating myths, fictions, imagination run wild. I could see that as a type of psychological disease. So many possibilities.

And maybe that’s another way to describe fiction writers in general. It could be argued that we have a pathological need to make things up, to let our imaginations run wild. In a very broad definition, wouldn’t that make us liars? And if we continue to make up stories, then doesn’t that make us pathological? Group of writers

I know, that’s a stretch, but it’s also an interesting idea. Perhaps I should start a support group for writers. Mythomaniacs Anonymous. Or Unanimous. It’s not something to be ashamed of. We’d support one another, give constructive critiques, and help promote each other’s work.

No, we’re won’t be a cadre of liars. We’re storytellers. Tale spinners. Mythomaniacs!

RB

May 19

A Kind Promotion

I was recently contacted via Twitter by The Writers Lift, a website that promotes indie writers and creatives. They were kind enough to do a spotlight on me this past weekend, and I thought I’d share.

The site is based in the Philippines, but they showcase writers from around the world. I find that incredibly cool.

I know it’s been said millions of times over the past twenty-five years or so, but I love the fact that people from around the world can interact, support one another, encourage, motivate, and become friends…all without actually meeting face to face.

If you have a few free minutes, please give them a visit and check out their post about yours truly.

A Brilliant Writer and Podcast Host: Richard Bist

The Writers Lift Logo

 

 

May 14

Book Review – Norwegian Wood

This is the third book by Haruki Murakami that I’ve read, the first two being The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I thoroughly enjoyed those stories, a mix of reality and existential imagery, very similar to the magic-realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who is also one of my favorite authors).

Norwegian Wood was Murakami’s first novel, apparently semi-autobiographical. I went into it expecting a story like what I’d read in his other two novels, but instead was pulled into a sort of coming-of-age story about a young man who is caught between to loves.

As I made my way through the novel I kept expecting something to happen, something a little odd or a little wondrous. In the other two novels, strange things happened. A man was caught between worlds, there were mysterious characters, intrigue, adventure. I was impatiently waiting for these elements to appear. Norwegian Wood book cover

But they didn’t. The story sort of meandered mid-way through, the protagonist was confused and depressed, seeking answers. I could relate to that, remembering how it was when I was twenty years old and wondering if I’d ever really fall in love. The characters were all relatable, very distinct and three-dimensional. I understood their motivations, their wants, their confusion.

I feel the characters were what kept me interested in the story. I wanted to see how they changed and grew. Sometimes a certain piece of a story can be enough to make it worthwhile. In this case, characterization did the trick.

This wasn’t a great novel. At least, from my Western viewpoint. I know that Norwegian Wood was a bestseller in Japan when initially released back in the late 1980s. I guess it’s a cultural difference, something that younger Japanese readers can relate to and understand. I get that.

I’m not disappointed that I read this, but I was expecting more. If nothing else, it gave me a glimpse into Japanese relationships, the angst of being a young man seeking himself and trying to understand the women in his life. Those things are cross-cultural, in a way.

If you’re interested in an interesting coming-of-age story, then by all means pick up a copy. If you’re looking for a story with elements similar to Murakami’s other books, then I suggest you pass on it.

RB

May 13

Remember to Breathe

There are times when I take a moment to simply pause and think about what I’ve done over the past few days. That’s when I realize just how quickly time passes. Sure, there are days (usually work days) when time seems to slow down, or even stop, but most of the time it blows by like a bullet train.

And what gets me is the fact that we have a finite amount of time. There’s no going back for a do-over, no repeats, no mulligans (for the golf enthusiasts). We have a starting point and an ending point. And no pause button.

Not that I’m lamenting this fact. I think it’s important to remember it because it helps me to appreciate things.

At the same time, however, knowing how quickly time passes makes me feel like I need to hurry up and do the things I want to do. There’s so many ideas and projects-in-progress that I feel like I’ll never accomplish everything. It’s similar to the feeling I get when I think about books. There are so many amazing stories out there in the world and I want to read them all, but I know I can’t Still, I’ll give it my best shot. A frustrated writer with paper on the floor

But rushing through things isn’t a good idea. Sure, I want to write all the stories I have in my head, I want to see them published, I want people to read them, but pushing myself to try and write them all isn’t going to end well. Art can’t be rushed. I’d rather publish a handful of stories I’m proud of than publish a hundred stories I rushed through and are only shadows of what they could be.

That’s why I remind myself to stop, step back, breathe.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to accomplish things, to leave a positive mark on the world around you, but we’re only human and can only accomplish so much in our lifetimes. Better to go for quality than quantity.

Sure, it’s tough to accept that I won’t be able to do all the things I want to do, but at the very least, the creative projects I can finish will be done well and I’ll be proud of them.Illustration of woman breathing

Remember, take your time and do it right the first time. In the end, you’ll be proud of yourself and leave behind something beautiful. That’s all that matters.

RB

May 13

Making the Best of Your Next Project

Over the course of my nearly thirty-year writing career, I’ve been lucky enough to work in a wide variety of areas. I started out freelancing for a regional trade publication titled, Construction Equipment Guide. Not the most noble of beginnings, but it got my foot in the door and helped me build up some clips for my portfolio.

Since then, I’ve written for several regional and local publications. I’ve also worked in communications and marketing, written about employee benefits, did grant writing for several non-profits, and written scripts for training videos. In between all that, I’ve penned quite a few short stories.

We’re all these jobs fun? Not especially. Some were great, some mediocre, and a few were awful. But through them all I always treated my writing projects the same way. As creative exercises.

That’s how I make the best of every project I work on. It’s sort of like making them into games. I have this information I need to pass along to someone else. I always picture an individual as my audience. That’s the person I’m writing for and I need to make sure they understand.

It doesn’t matter if I’m working on a grant, a short story, or an article for a magazine. In each case I write for that one person. I don’t necessarily see them or visualize what they look like. They are the unknown reader. What I do, however, is put myself in their shoes, look at my text through their eyes. I imagine them to be an ordinary person who may not know much about the topic at hand. My challenge is to write in a way that gives them understanding. typewriter on desk

I’ll give you an example. I was working with a national non-profit that focused on improving childhood nutrition. They had a program where they went into elementary and middle schools and taught children about home gardening, making smart food choices, and showed them how fruits and vegetables could be just as fun to eat as junk food.

I was helping this group to get a grant from one of the biggest retailers in the U.S. I assumed that the people reading this grant request probably didn’t know much about these topics. In fact, I figured they were all well off and probably never had to worry whether or not they and their families were eating well.

With that in mind, I knew I needed to get them to see these issues from another viewpoint other than their own.

So that’s how I approached the project. I had to get creative and figure out how best to explain the situation, what they non-profit was proposing, and how important it was for this giant company to help.

Sure, the material was dry. There were a lot of stats, a lot of data, and I had to massage it into something interesting and compelling. I had to flex my creative muscles.

And that’s what I did. I didn’t write the request in a sterile, by-the-numbers way that I’d seen in so similar documents. I told a story. I wrote about children in the inner-city who had never seen a vegetable garden. I wrote about kids in rural areas who were growing up with diabetes and obesity problems from eating so much junk food. I wrote about a future where the health care system is overrun with adults in poor health.

And you know what? They gave the non-profit the grant. Two-hundred thousand dollars. Not bad.

I’ve found that looking at every writing project as an exercise in creativity not only makes it more fun for me, but it also gives me a chance to do something different. Like with requesting a grant. I know the people reviewing these documents are seeing a lot of the same language, the same points, the same arguments. It’s got to be monotonous for them. When I give them something different to read, something that takes them on a journey, then it’s going to stand out from the rest. And in the end, that’s really what matters.

stacks of paper

If you feel like you’re getting into a rut with a project, take a step back and see if you can come at it from a creative angle. I guarantee you’ll end up with something better than expected.

RB