June 30

What I Learned From Comic Books [Creativity]

When I was a kid I adored comic books. I was (and still am) a fan of Marvel titles, especially Spider Man, The Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, The Silver Surfer, and The Uncanny X-Men. I’d run down to the local convenience store the first of every month and pick up my favorites, along with a few others if I had the extra money. Marvel Comics superheroes.

I would lose myself in those stories. I even dreamt about them at night, imagining myself getting bit by a radioactive spider or turning green and mean if I got angry. Unfortunately, I’d read through them so quickly that I’d grow impatient waiting for the next issues to come out, so I took it upon myself to come up with my own characters.

My childhood superhero creations.
Yes, these are my lame superhero creations!

Yeah, my creations were lame. My excuse is that I was only seven or eight years old and my aspirations were much higher than my skills could reach.

I still read comics every now and then. I especially like to find storylines from when I was a kid so I can relive them, recapture a bit of that childhood wonder. Funny thing is, those comics still speak to me. I can still find storylines and plots that are as poignant today as they were back in the 1970s.

Marvel was good at that. The late, great Stan Lee was ahead of his time, in a way. His stories focused on things like racism, feminism, and equal rights. Marvel’s characters tended to be ordinary people who acquired powers, and even though they were suddenly super strong or fast or magical, they still had to deal with everyday problems. I think that’s why I related to them so much. They were gods acting like humans. They were humans who acquired god-like powers and had to deal with the repercussions.

To me, comics are the perfect conglomeration of words and images. Not only did the writers tell amazing stories, but the artists (pencilers, inkers, letterers) helped to illustrate and illuminate the words. It was inspiring. I wanted to tell stories like that, draw pictures like that, have people read my work and be carried away by it.

Funny thing is, I learned a lot from those comic books. Take the X-Men, for example. These were men and women who were born with genetic mutations that made them different than the rest of the population. Because of this, they were shunned and persecuted, despite the fact they were saving humanity every month. But it made me think about tolerance.

People can’t help who they are. They can’t pick what color their skin is, or their eye color, or that they have a malformed arm or speak with a lisp. We can’t help who we’re attracted to or who we fall in love with. But regardless, people are persecuted and marginalized because of these things and more.

Stan Lee taught me that was wrong. He showed me that everyone is special in their own way, and just because someone is different doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. Our differences make us unique and that’s a good thing.

I think that’s carried over into my own writing. I don’t purposely try to put ‘teaching moments’ into my stories, or preach, or push an agenda. But I often find that there’s some subtext in my stories that hits on some of the things I believe in, like equality and tolerance, empathy and kindness. It’s not always in there, but it slips into a few of them.

Young man reading a comic book.And that’s really what fiction does, it shows us alternative ideas, different perspectives, and it can help us understand ourselves. No, not every piece of fiction does this, but I feel most of it does. We just have to look below the surface to see it.

Comic books often get a lot of grief for being ‘for kids’, or for the costumes the characters wear. I agree that it can’t be easy for a super-heroine to fight villains while wearing a skimpy bikini, but maybe that’s part of her powers…super distraction!

There’s a lot to be said for storytelling in comic books. They may seem simple on the surface, but if you give them a chance I think you’ll find there’s a lot of truth found on those colorful pages.

RB

 

June 30

Complacency and Change [Creativity]

It’s good to have routines, like writing every day, exercising regularly, doing positive things on a schedule. Routines help us to get things done, stay healthy, keep us on task. The more often we do things the easier they become (usually) and the better we get at doing them. For example, writing every day keeps my skills sharp and helps me to develop as a storyteller.

The thing is, routines can also make us complacent. We know what to expect so we may not try as hard. Like exercising. If we do the same routine three days a week, week after week, we’ll eventually stop trying as hard. Same with writing. Sticking with what’s comfortable, what we’re good at, isn’t going to help us improve.

Woman writing in journalUsing myself as an example, I write in my journal every day – or most every day – but I don’t always write at the same time of day and I don’t always write about the same topics. I used to write in it on a schedule. Every morning at five a.m. I was sitting at the dining room table writing about writing. In other words, I’d write about stories I was working on, ideas for new ones, problems I’d run into with a plot or an ending. After a while I found it harder to write. I went from scribbling out four pages down to two, then found I was struggling to even write one page.

So I started writing about other things, like my state of mind, things I was dealing with at the office, my relationships with my partner and my friends. That seemed to help and my entries grew longer. Then I tried writing at different times of day. Occasionally in the mornings, sometimes in the early afternoon, even right before going to bed. I found this gave me different perspectives on the events of the days and on other topics. In the mornings I was recalling the day before after a good night of sleep so my writing was more restrained and conservative. However, when writing in the afternoons the subject matter was fresher and my writing more colorful.

I’ve been trying that with my fiction, as well. I used to always write at specific times because, well, it seemed like the right thing to do. And it worked. I’ve been productive and written a fair number of short stories. But then I wondered if I could be more productive, and possibly more creative, if I started mixing up my routine and changing the times when I wrote.

Lo and Behold! It did make a difference. A good one. I’ve discovered that a little change in routine – time of day, location, state of mind – makes a big difference in how I write and what I write. I’m becoming more productive and working on multiple stories. Writing seeing stars rise from typewriter

I won’t claim that this is the right thing for every writer, but it might be worth trying. Remember, routine is good. Writing, journaling, being creative every day keeps you sharp and will make you a better writer. But still, mix things up a bit with those routines. Don’t get so bogged down in doing the same things at the same times every day. Maybe write at a different time or different place. Sit on the patio, in another room, listen to a different playlist or drink a different type of tea.

A little change will do you good.

RB

June 28

New Beginnings [Mental Health]

I never realized just how much influence our jobs have on our mental health. I mean, sure, we can get stressed at work, occasionally have to deal with toxic people, clean up mistakes, things like that. It’s a job and it comes with the territory.

I recently read this article that explains how a toxic workplace can increase an employee’s risk of depression by 300%. Wow. Man in gas mask standing in office.

I’ve been working in office environments for nearly thirty years and I’ve had my fair share of toxic workplaces. Not all of them started out that way. Some jobs were great for a while, but then a change in ownership or turnover in management changed everything from the top down. Then there were a couple of places that convinced me things were great, but once I started I realized my mistake and got out. Quick. Looking back, there were warning signs, but I was too trusting.

The thing is, you may not necessarily realize how your job is affecting your state of mind. It can be subtle, insidious. Maybe you have a passive-aggressive boss, or a co-worker who steadily undermines you. Or maybe it’s a slowly increasing workload being dumped on you.

Woman feeling stressed.Eventually, you find yourself struggling both on and off the clock. Not only will it affect your performance at the office, but it will also affect your relationships and your physical health. High blood pressure, migraines, stomach problems. It all ties together.

The two things that helped me in these situations were writing in my journal and meditating. Journaling allowed me to vent and get those toxic thoughts out of my head. Meditating helped me to calm down, relax, lower my blood pressure and heart rate.

There are tons of online resources for meditating. Or if you prefer, you can also find apps that offer guided meditations. Personally, I like using the Headspace app. Look around and try a few different options to see what works best for you. All you need is ten minutes and a bit of quiet to get started. Person meditating on beach at sunrise.

But those are only temporary measures. The only real solution is to find another job, something that’s better suited for you. Will it be easy? Maybe, maybe not. But what I’ve found is that sometimes you have to take a step or two backwards in order to move forward. I’ve done it before and I’m doing it again now.

I’m starting a new job this week. A fully-remote writing job with a company that went virtual last year. They don’t have an office and every employee works from home. It’s much different from what I’ve been doing the past eight years, but I’m glad to be getting back to writing. All the people I’ve met at my new employer have been wonderful and I’m excited to be starting something new, a new path, a new adventure. And I did it for me and my well being.

No job is going to be perfect, but that doesn’t mean you should settle for one that makes you unhappy. It’s not good for you. Look around, take a chance, and maybe you’ll find something that will make you feel good again.

You deserve it.

RB

June 25

Playing Exquisite Corpse [Creativity]

Human skullsI’m sure the title got your attention, but this isn’t a post about horror or forensics. Exquisite Corpse is actually a game focused on creativity. Think of it as a creative exercise that can be done with either words or images. It’s actually quite fun to play and the outcomes can range from amazing to hilarious to occasionally awful. The point, though, is to have fun and see what you can come up with.

First, a little background on the game to provide context. It was originally invented by surrealists (big surprise) as a parlor game, but later evolved into something more enriching. There’s some debate on when it was actually invented. Some claim it was in 1925, but others argue that it was played as early as 1918.

So how does one play?

Basically, a player writes on a portion of a piece of paper – maybe a word or a sentence – then folds the paper over so the text is either completely hidden or only a few words are visible. They then pass it to the next person who adds their Hands folding a piece of paper.contribution, covering their text, then passing it to the next. This can go on for as long as the players want, or until they run out of paper, but once finished the entire page is revealed.

It doesn’t have to be on a single piece of paper. Each player can have their own page and take turns writing something, write at the same time, or even work in a collaborative manner where each player writes one word after the other. Another alternative is to take an already written page of text, cut it up into individual words, phrases, or sentences, then piece it together in a new way. Like a jigsaw puzzle of words.

There aren’t really any hard rules, other than to piece something creative together from bits and pieces of input.

In a way, it’s sort of a precursor to Mad Libs, which is another fun word game. When playing Exquisite Corpse the participants can begin with a topic or subject in mind so everyone stays on the same general path or they can leave it open to whatever comes to mind.

I’ve played it both ways and I sort of prefer having a topic to begin with and allow for the next player to see the last few words I wrote. I find that often ends with something more tangible, a short-short story or vignette. You can also assign each player a certain type of sentence, so one person would be in charge of writing dialogue, another action, another a bit of narrative, and so on.

However, playing without any topic or idea of what the other players are writing can be fun, as well. The results are often surreal (which fits the original idea of the inventors) and occasionally hilarious. For what it’s worth, a bottle or two of wine can help to spark the creativity of the players.

There’s also an alternative version of the game, often referred to as Picture Consequences, that relies solely on drawing. Like Exquisite Corpse, there are different ways to play. Players can follow the basic rules outlined in the Corpse version, or for a more collaborative effort, they can all draw on the same piece of paper at the same time. For example, they could agree to draw a person, then each player focuses on one portion of the anatomy. One does the left arm, another does the right leg, and another works on the head, and so on.

Drawing from a game of exquisite corpse.
By DIYLILCNC – Exquisite Corpse, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47844576

In the illustration shown here, the players started with a prompt, the word “sparse”. It’s interesting to see how different people interpret the word, how it sparks specific images in their imaginations.

If you really want to see how creative your group is, you can combine both games. One group works on a story with the exquisite corpse method, then once finished, hands it off to another group who illustrates the story. Imagine the possibilities.

Regardless of how the final product turns out, it’s a fun exercise and something anyone of any age can play. Next time you’re stuck inside on a rainy day, play it with your partner, your kids, a group of friends. You only need two people to play, but the more the merrier.

If you want to give it a try, check out the online version at LanguageIsAVirus.com.

RB

June 23

Book Review – Testing the Ties That Bind [Books]

I always enjoy reading stories by writers I’m unfamiliar with, especially when they exceed my expectations. Mackenzie Littledale’s Testing the Ties That Bind: A Mini Collection of Short Stories is one of those rare collections that does just that.

There are only five stories here, but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in content. What I like is that Littledale is a strong writer. She takes the reader by the hand and leads them into the lives of these characters. I felt less like an outside observer and more like I was sitting in the room with them, almost as if I could reach out and touch them or participate in the conversations. Testing the Ties That Bind Bookcover

The stories are snippets of real life, real people and real situations. There’s nothing out of the ordinary here, but that’s not a bad thing. What I mean is, the characters were relatable, believable, like your next door neighbors or the family you run into every week at the grocery store. They aren’t heroes or victims. They’re simply real people.

I think that creating authentic characters can be difficult. It’s too easy to slip into stereotypes. Littledale’s cast is diverse, with a range of personalities, fears, phobias, and challenges. Even though the stories were short, I felt connected to the people in them, felt their happiness and their pain.

The stories themselves were also well written. Two of them got to me, made me tear up  – both in sadness and in joy – and put the book aside for a while so I could process what I had just read. The others were just as good, although not quite the emotional gut-punch.

I highly recommend Testing the Ties That Bind. It’s a great companion for a rainy afternoon in bed or a sunny morning on the patio. I think Littledale has a great future as a writer. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

RB

June 21

Be Like Water [Writing]

There’s a great quote by martial artist, actor, and philosopher Bruce Lee that always resonated with me.

Bruce Lee reading.“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

To me, this quote can be interpreted in different ways. From the perspective of a warrior, being like water means adjusting to your opponent’s attack. From a metaphysical standpoint it can be seen as a way to adjust to the chaotic universe around us. And from a creative view it can be taken to mean that we shouldn’t force art, but instead let it lead us to where it wants to go.

When writing fiction I’ve occasionally found myself trying to make a story go in a certain direction. I have a specific path in mind, I want to have a specific arc, have my character grow or change in a specific way, but the story has other plans. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t make it work the way I want it to, so I have to retreat a few steps, take a breath, and let the story lead me like a meandering creek.

I’ll admit, it can be difficult to let go. Writing a story imbues the me with a certain amount of power. God-like, in a way. I can create characters and kill them off. I can build worlds, even a universe, then snuff it out with a single click of the ‘delete’ key. So when the story resists my direction, I feel annoyed and frustrated.

That’s when I remember Lee’s words. Be like water. Waterfall.

If my story is resisting my attempts to steer it, then I need to stop being assertive and let the story guide me. There have been many occasions when I followed his advice with my fiction and suddenly discovered an entirely new direction I’d never considered. A better direction. As the poet, Robert Frost, once wrote – no surprised for the writer, no surprises for the reader. When the story takes me in a new direction and shows me new possibilities, I get excited. And when that happens I know the reader will feel the same way.

The next time you sit down to write, be like water. Be relaxed, fluid, allow the story to lead you on a new and winding path. You’ll be surprised and where you end up.

RB

June 18

Finding Your Writing Voice [Writing]

An author’s writing voice is much like a fingerprint, or even their actual speaking voice. It’s special, unique, and identifies them as an individual. When I pick up a book and start reading, the author’s writing voice identifies them, much like if they had called me on the phone. Fingerprint pattern.

When I was in my teens and learning how to write fiction, I was also trying to find my own writing voice. The thing is, I found myself copying the writers I admired at the time – Tolkien, King, Silverstein, Bradbury, Asimov, to name a few. In fact, I would literally sit down with a copy of one of their books, along with a pad of paper and a pencil, and copy the text from the book to the page. Why? Because I was trying to BE them. I wanted to write like the people I admired and I figured if I copied enough of their work I’d somehow absorb their voices.

Alas, that wasn’t the case.

It did, however, teach me a lot about writing. I learned about flow, sentence structure, how narrative ideas tied together. And yes, I think it did eventually help me to find my own writing voice.

The thing is, your writing voice isn’t the one you start out with. It’s like learning to speak. You hear the people around you speak and you pick up their vocalizations, the way they enunciate, the regional dialect. Also, the speaking voice you start out with changes as you mature and the more you use it. When I was a child I had a speech impediment and had a higher tone. As I matured and went to speech therapy, my voice changed. It deepened (thanks, puberty!), I found more confidence with it, and eventually it developed into what I have today. Fingers on keyboard.

My writing voice went through a similar evolution. I started out mimicking those that I admired and who inspired me. When I re-read some of the stuff I wrote back then I think the writing is immature. There’s no consistency to the narrative voice. Sometimes it reads like a cheap Stephen King knockoff or a bad Tolkien impersonator. Occasionally, there are glimpses of what would come later, but mostly it was bad imitation.

Unfortunately, there’s no quick and easy way to develop your writing voice. For me, I wrote. A lot. And then I wrote more. The one thing I can suggest is to not pay attention to it when you’re writing. You’ll become self-conscious and the writing will suffer. You’ll try to force it and that never works.

Spiral notebook and books on desk.Just write. It doesn’t hurt to try the practice I mentioned above, copying passages or pages from writers you admire. If you’re a young or inexperienced writer, I recommend it. Don’t stick with just one writer, do this with several of them so you can get a better feel for the uniqueness of their styles. By doing this you can also learn things about how these authors constructed their stories. It’s like looking at a blueprint to see how a building was put together. It gives you a different perspective. 

And most importantly, be patient. Some writers can develop their own style quickly, while with others it may take a while. Once you get there, though, you’ll know it. Also, remember that your writing voice will continue to evolve as time passes. Think of it as a fine bottle of wine that just gets better as we age.

RB

June 15

Beet-Pickled Turnips! [Recipe]

Yeah, I know, you’re asking yourself “why did he do this?” It was an experiment. I was making a batch of roasted root vegetables and ended up with a few extra beets and turnips. I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I didn’t want to stick them back in the veggie drawer in the fridge because I knew I’d end up forgetting about them. So I decided to experiment.

Of course, I didn’t think to document every step. Regardless, I can give you a quick rundown of the recipe and the process.Beet-picked turnips in mason jar.

  • 1 pound of turnips, peeled and sliced into roughly ½ inch batons
  • 1 small beet (I used red), cut into ½ inch thick baton
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 ½ cups of water
  • 3 TB of Kosher salt
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ cup of vinegar (I used white, but apple cider would be good, too)
  • 1 TSP of whole coriander seed
  • 1 TSP black peppercorn

After you’ve cut up the veggies, stuff them into a Mason or Ball jar. In a non-reactive pot, heat the water, vinegar, salt, bay leaf, and the other spices to boil, then remove from the heat and let cool for a few minutes. Once it’s not incredibly scalding, carefully pour the liquid into the jar (you can discard the bay leaf at this point).

Pop the top on and let it cool a bit more on the countertop. You can stick it in the refrigerator for five days or so, then it ready to eat.Close-up of beet pickled turnip slice.

And yes, these turned out amazing. They’re as tasty as they are beautiful. Hope you try it.

RB

June 11

Russian Literature [Books]

I’m not sure when my affinity for Russian literature initially took hold. The first Russian author I read was Nikolai Gogol. I picked up a short story collection of his, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories in a book store in the mall. It wasn’t an official volume, but rather a collection of his short stories put together by some publisher. And to be completely honest, I knew nothing about Gogol or his work at the time. I bought the book based solely on the title. Cover of The Nose by Babel.

Needless to say, I loved his stories. “The Nose” is one of my favorites, a surreal tale of a mid-level administrator’s nose detaching itself from his face and beginning a life of its own. The Nose then begins to rise in the civil service and eventually outranks its previous owner. On the surface the story is absurd and surreal, but beneath the surface it was a scathing commentary on social rank and bureaucracy.

Gogol’s great – albeit unfinished – novel, Dead Souls, is also wonderful. He had imagined it as a Russian retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but instead focusing on satirizing Russia’s social system at the time, and again pointing out the ridiculous bureaucracy of the government. Sadly, Gogol was declining mentally at the time and in a manic fit he burned most of the manuscript in his fireplace. What we’re left with is the first third of the story, which will forever end mid-sentence.

I later discovered Leo Tolstoy and spent an entire summer reading War and Peace. An amazing volume, but a reader needs the stamina of an Olympic athlete to make it all the way through. Having a character sheet to keep track of everyone is also helpful.

Photo of DostoevskyBesides Gogol, I also developed an affinity for Fyodor Dostoevsky. In my humble opinion, Crime and Punishment is one of the greatest novels ever written. It’s one of those stories that I find myself returning to every few years for a re-read. The theme of dealing with the repercussions of our actions struck a chord with me. It felt like an accompaniment to my interest in Buddhist philosophy and the western definition of karma (we get what’s coming to us).

Of course, I can’t omit one of the greatest short story writers of any nationality – Anton Chekhov. The man was a master of short form writing and reading his work is like a master class in fiction. No, I don’t have a favorite short story of his. They are all incredible. If you want to learn how to tell an amazing story, read Chekhov.

Besides these heavy-hitters, I’ve also enjoyed The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. This novel was written during Stalin’s regime and, sadly, the author never saw it published. Nearly thirty years after his death, a censored version was published in 1967. In 1973, an uncensored version was published, but it wasn’t until 1989 that the canonical edition was published, based on all available manuscripts that still existed.

The story is, well, definitely different from most mainstream Russian literature of the time and is reminiscent of Gogol’s work. The story takes place in two settings – Moscow in the 1930s as Satan and several of his entourage arrive for a bit of fun, and Jerusalem during the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a dark satire that weaves together a mix of commentary on society, religion, corruption, and government bureaucracy. Are you sensing a theme with these Russian writers?

Red Cavalry book coverOne final Russian author I want to mention is Isaac Babel. His short story collection, Red Calvary, is a brilliant collection of stories that all take place during the Polish-Soviet War (1919 – 1921) and are based on a diary Babel maintained while working as a journalist during the conflict. I’d almost liken these stories to creative non-fiction since many come from actual events and situations he witnessed. It’s a powerful read, much like All Quiet on the Western Front. Stark, brutal, but also well-written and thought-provoking.

I realize that Russian literature isn’t for everyone. It’s often bleak, dreary, and bitter. Their country has gone through a lot of changes over the past couple of centuries, both politically and socially, but those dark times have influenced and inspired a stable of amazing writers and a library of stories that could only be told by people who have lived through them.

If you haven’t yet, please check out some of these writers and their stories. Many of the older authors – Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky – can be found on Project Gutenberg since they are in public domain. Project Gutenberg logo

I think there’s a lot to be learned from reading stories from other cultures, especially ones we aren’t familiar with. Not only does it expose us to new ideas and storytelling styles, but it also gives us a glimpse into those cultures. Art can help us to understand each other, why we are the way we are, and maybe help us to be more empathetic to what others have gone through.

RB

June 9

Quote the Writer, Not the Character [Writing]

Okay, I know this will sound strange, but it annoys me when someone quotes a character from a work of fiction instead of the writer. I should let it go, I know, but I think it comes from my belief that writers are under appreciated in general. 

It happens often enough in fiction. I mean, I can understand it to a certain point. People are probably more familiar with the character than the faceless writer. For example, if someone quotes a line from a Sherlock Holmes story, it’s usually attributed to Holmes and not the author, Sir Author Conan Doyle. Elementary, my dear Watson. Sherlock Holmes and Watson illustration.

But I think it’s even more prevalent in television and film. How often do you hear someone quote a line from, say, Casablanca (“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”) or The Terminator (“I’ll be back”) and attribute it to the character or the actor? Happens all the time.

Casablanca movie poster.

As a writer, I find it annoying. I mean, after I’ve spent time and effort to write a great story I would prefer to be the one credited with a memorable line. That came out of my head, from my imagination. I feel like it’s only fair.

And, full disclosure, I’m guilty of it, as well. I figured I should own up before someone goes back through my old posts and highlights every instance where I quoted a character. I’m sure there are more than a handful.

My partner has tried to help. After telling me to get over it – repeatedly – she’ll then suggest I try looking at it from another perspective. Writers want to be read, and as long as people are reading my stories, why should I care if they quote me or one of my characters? The character came from my head, as well, so if they get the credit, I sort of get it, too. 

She’s right, of course. You can quote me on that.

RB