April 29

New Podcast Episode – Creativity and Death

The long-delayed Episode 42 of the Prometheus Project Podcast is now available!

In this episode I look at the topic of death and how we use art to explore it, to find answers, and to come to terms with mortality.

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

Or you can listen to it right here:

April 28

The Magic of Decisions

I was recently reading about the power of our personal decisions and how even the smallest choice we make can change the course of our lives.

For example, a person bought a new pair of shoes and wore them to work in a bar. Halfway through the night, one of the soles came loose. This prevented him from going out with his friends after the bar closed. He could have, but he figured he’d rather not deal with the damaged shoe the rest of the night. He instead went home, went online, and met a young woman in a chat room. Two years later they were married and having their first child.

So if his shoe hadn’t fallen apart and made him decide to go home instead of out partying, he never would have met his future wife.

I read another example about a guy whose best friend was about to move across the country for a new job. The night before his friend left, they went out and got drunk, then later the guy decided to buy a one-way airline ticket and join his buddy. The job ended up not working out, so the friend returned home, but the other guy decided to stay in the new city. Seven years later he was married, had two kids, and a great job.

Again, a simple, spur-of-the-moment decision changed his life forever. shoes with arrows pointing in different directions

It blows my mind when I sit back and consider all the decisions I make on any given day. I decide what to eat for breakfast, what clothes to wear, whether or not I need to shave, what route I drive to work, what I’m going to have for lunch. The decisions are constant and never ending. And each and every one of them changes the course of my day, and potentially my life.

Using myself as an example, when I first moved to Tallahassee I met a guy at a restaurant where I had recently gotten a job. He invited me back to his apartment complex to hang out and meet some people. One of those people was a young woman. She and I would run into each other on and off over the next seven years, until finally one day I asked her out. We’ve now been married for twenty-seven years.

So if I had turned down the offer to go to this apartment complex and meet these people, I probably never would have met my future wife. Amazing, isn’t it?

There’s a theory in theoretical physics that suggests every decision we make creates a new timeline or a new universe. Every single one. That’s an idea that keeps me awake at night considering the possibilities and wondering how my life would be different if I had worn a green shirt today instead of black, or if I’d smiled at that person I passed on the sidewalk instead of staring at my phone screen.

That’s one of the things I think about when working on a piece of fiction. There are so many possibilities to consider – although I try not to overthink when writing fiction, otherwise I may end up in the weeds. We are our choices - Sartre

But still, as I’m writing I’m making decisions with each sentence, even every word, that I type on the page. With my writing style, which is akin to absolute and unplanned chaos, I really don’t know where my stories are going to end up. I usually have an idea of where I want it to go, but the protagonist, or maybe a supporting character, will more than likely make an unforeseen decision and the story takes a left turn into unchartered and unconsidered territory.

Not that it’s a bad thing. I love the unexpected in fiction. I think that makes it more like reality, like life in general. We get up in the morning with plans for the day, but how often does it all work out the way you expect it to?

And from a writing standpoint, I like it when my characters take the lead and show me things I hadn’t thought about or considered. As the saying goes, “No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader.”

RB

April 13

Music Moment – Tangled Up in Blue

I know that Bob Dylan isn’t for everyone, but he’s one of my favorite songwriters. With a career spanning sixty years, he’s made an indelible mark on the music industry. His creativity and originality have also been an inspiration for me. I can’t remember the first time I heard one of his songs, but for what it’s worth, it feels like he’s been part of the soundtrack to my life since the beginning.

And without a doubt, my favorite song of his is “Tangled Up in Blue”. It’s what a consider a ‘story song’, meaning, the words read like a lyrical short story. If you aren’t familiar with it, it tells the story of two lovers who end up finding each other even after years apart. They seem to know they aren’t right for one another, yet fate continues to cross their paths. For what it’s worth, I always assumed the woman’s name is “Blue” and the narrator is so tangled up in her that he can’t ever escape. Here are the lyrics as originally recorded:

Tangled Up In Blue

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough
And I was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues gettin’ through
Tangled up in blueShe was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”
Tangled up in blue

I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I happened to be employed
Workin’ for a while on a fishin’ boat
Right outside of Delacroix
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue

She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”
I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe
Tangled up in blue

She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue

I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs
There was music in the cafés at night
And revolution in the air
Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside
And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue

So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

Copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn Music

The original version of the song appeared on the 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, and it’s been a mainstay of Dylan’s live shows ever since.

What I find interesting, however, is that Dylan never sings it the same way. Every time he plays it live, he changes the lyrics, sometimes adding additional verses, maybe cutting a few, and sometimes almost completely reworking them. An artist’s prerogative, I suppose, but I also think it does that to keep the song fresh and new. Unfortunately, I’ve never had a chance to see him play live, but at least there are live recordings.

Dylan’s lyrics are always sensational, sometimes cryptic, but they always paint a picture in my mind. If you’re interested, listen to the clip below. If you aren’t familiar with the song, I hope you enjoy it. It’s one that continues to inspire me even after countless listening sessions.

April 9

Back in the Saddle

It’s been a few months since I’ve written any fiction. A few scribbles here and there, but nothing of substance. It wasn’t on purpose. My partner and I were caring for some elderly family members and that took up most of my time and effort. Afterwards, there was a lot to sort through. Not just estate-related issues, but also the PTSD of losing family.

But I didn’t completely shy away from the written word. I filled up a 240 page journal during that period, and I continued to post here on my blog. Just not as frequently. Fiction, however, was out of reach. I just wasn’t feeling it.

Until last night. I was laying in bed, half asleep, listening to the soft rain and wind outside my window. I was relaxed and straddling that fine, misty line between consciousness and sleep when a random thought caught my attention. You know how it is when you’re laying there in bed, drifting off. All those random thoughts and memories slip by like smoke in a breeze.

Image of open book.

I saw a guy sitting at a bar in a sleazy pool hall. He was nursing a drink, cheap bourbon, and stealing glances at a redhead sitting in a corner booth with two men. I let is slip away for a moment, but then it returned, like my imagination didn’t want me to miss it.

The scene replayed several times, then began to expand, unfolding like a piece of origami.

I don’t know how much time passed, but the entire story was there behind my eyes. I sat up and grabbed my phone, typing out as much info as I could while half conscious. I’ve lost too many story ideas by being lazy at night and not taking the time to write down some notes before drifting off.

And this morning, when I woke up, the story was still there, ready to go.

It felt good, invigorating. I think a small part of me was worried that I wasn’t going to write again. Not anymore. I have a solid story ready for the page, a return to form. I’m excited.

It goes to show that writers have to trust their imaginations, have to trust in their own personal creative process. I wasn’t done as a fiction writer. I just needed time to heal, to clear my head, to move on.

If you do get in a rut, feel uninspired, used up, don’t give up hope. Just be patient. The muse will return and you’ll be back in the saddle before you know it.

RB

April 1

Writing about Writing

There’s a lot to be said for instruction from professional artists. Their advice can help you to steer clear of issues they encountered on their journeys. They can offer support and encouragement, maybe a little insight and motivation.

Over the years I’ve read many books about writing that were written by writers. Many were insightful, giving me a glimpse into the author’s background, what inspires them, what their process is like, and I’ve often tried following their routines and advice to see what will work for me. Some things have worked, other things haven’t. The point, however, is to try.

Recently, as I was straightening up my book collection, I started thinking about all the advice I’ve read and how much of it has guided me on my writing journey. And with that in mind, I thought it might be useful to other writers to share some of this. So here are some of the books on writing that I’ve read and garnered some useful guidance (in no particular order). I hope you’ll find some insight in them, as well.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. This is my favorite book about the writing process by one of my favorite authors. Bradbury mixes bits of personal history with an overall view on the process of writing, even managing to throw in a few humble brags (like writing a story every week for most of his life). The man was a writing machine, passionate about the craft, and never at a loss for inspiration and ideas. If you only read one book about the writing process, please make it this one. Zen in the Art of Writing cover.

Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. Stern was a beloved creative writing instructor at Florida State University and was incredibly passionate about fiction. In addition to writing essays for National Public Radio and heading the Creative Writing program at FSU, he also founded the World’s Best Short Short Story Contest (250 word limit). He was a proponent of the spontaneity of the writing process, encouraging his students to “not overthink”, but instead let inspiration guide them. A great read for writers who want to break the rules.

From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. An excellent book by the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (which is one of the best short story collections ever written). Butler’s view is that fiction does not come from ideas, but from our dreams, or more precisely, from the same place where our dreams originate. It’s an interesting concept and one I appreciate. Imagination is the starting point, hidden in our unconscious minds. Reading this book got me thinking deeply about where my ideas come from, and it’s the reason I keep a pad and pen next to the bed so I can write down my nocturnal thoughts.

On Writing by Stephen King. I think it’s safe to say that most writers, especially younger ones, have read this book. But if you haven’t, it’s definitely worth your time. King writes about his story-telling journey, interspersed with his thoughts on the process, other writers, and the publishing industry. A must-read.

On Writing by Eudora Welty. Another Pulitzer Prize winner and an interesting, if slightly outdated, look at the writing process and what it takes to be a writer. On Writing is actually an excerpt from a longer work entitled, The Eye of the Story, but this slim volume focuses on the fundamentals of fiction. This is a book that discusses the rules in a concise fashion, and although originally written in 1942, much of the advice is still pertinent. And for what it’s worth, Welty’s book came before King’s.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. This is arguably the most technical book on the list. Gardner, a best-selling author and creative writing instructor, offers a clinical and straight-forward approach to writing fiction, even going so far as to use graphs, geometric charts, and sentence diagrams to illustrate the process of plotting, development, and rhythm. While not necessarily a fun read, The Art of Fiction provides a technical view of the process. I found it educational. The Art of Fiction cover.

I believe there’s a lot to learn from other writers. Everyone has their own personal take on the process, with a little overlap here and there. But still, in my opinion, it’s important to explore the craft, to see what other writers do, to learn new tricks and tips, and maybe even improve your own writing along the way.

Never pass up an opportunity to learn.

RB

 

March 19

My History of Rejection

Rejection has always been a mainstay of the writing life (and in many cases, my personal life). Well, at least it used to be. Nowadays, with the ability to self-publish, the only thing writers have to worry about is selling their stories on the multitude of online platforms.

But it wasn’t always this way. When I started submitting my stories to magazines in the mid-1990s, rejection was the name of the game. The internet was still in its infancy, so the only real options were to submit stories to magazines: formatted, printed, and stuffed into a flat envelope (no folding!) with a cover letter and the right amount of postage. There was a lot of money put down up front in the hopes of possibly getting an acceptance. And there was also the hurdle that many magazines wouldn’t even look at your story if you admitted it had also been submitted to other publications. No simultaneous submissions.

Oh, and if you wanted a response – either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – you had to also include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Ah, the good olde days.

I think I was an aberration. I wasn’t afraid of receiving rejections for my stories. The way I looked at it, I knew the odds were against me. There were thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of writers out there submitting stories. That’s a lot of competition and, realistically, I knew half of them were going to be submitting better stories. It was all about timing, hitting the right market at the right time. Vegas odds, baby.

So the first thing I ever submitted was a poem to The New Yorker, arguably one of the best magazines for amazing writing. I knew I was going to be rejected. I had no experience, no publishing history, and was completely unknown. The way I saw it, if I was going to start down this path, why not get rejected from one of my favorite magazines?

Spoiler alert: I was rejected.

New Yorker Rejection
My first rejection!

Once I got that out of the way, the rest of the rejections (and yes, there were many) didn’t sting. In fact, I collected them. For many years I had a cork board on the wall next to my PC. It had a little card over it that read, “The Wall of Rejection”, and each rejection I received was lovingly thumbtacked to it. Well, until it wouldn’t hold any more. Then they were moved to a file folder.

I was tidying up in my home office last week and stumbled upon that old rejection folder. It wasn’t quite as thick as I remembered it, but there were still a surprising number. As I thumbed through them I was reminded of how varied they were. Of course, there were the straight-up form letters, there were ones with lists of rejection reasons with a checkbox next to each, and then there were my favorites, the personal notes. The simple fact that an editor took the time to read one of my stories – really read it, not scan it – then sit down and write a note explaining why they turned it down, what they liked about it, and what I could do to improve it, meant the world to me and inspired me to keep writing. They still do, even all these years later.

I thought you might find it interesting to see a few of the personal responses in my esteemed collection.

Vampire Dan Rejection
Vampire Dan’s Story Emporium
Pulp Magazine Rejection
Pulp Magazine
Short Stories Magazine Rejection
Short Stories Magazine
Outer Darkness Rejection
Outer Darkness

Now that self-publishing dominates the writing industry, and magazine publishing is fading into a tiny, niche market, I wonder if rejection letters will become a thing of the past. In a way, I hope not. To me, they are a badge of honor for writers. It shows that we tried.

And for what it’s worth, my writing career has lasted longer than most of these publications.

RB

 

March 5

A Poetry Moment – IV

While I adore poetry and enjoy writing verse, I don’t fancy myself a poet. However, there are moments when I feel I’ve actually written something worthwhile, or at least good enough to share.

One of my favorite short story writers is Ernest Hemingway. He’s probably more famous for his novels, but I’ve found that his short stories are more to my liking. Oftentimes, I sit quietly after finishing one of them so I can let it sink in, contemplate the theme, explore the nuance. There aren’t many writers who affect me that way.

Hemingway Writing
‘Papa’ Hemingway working on a story.

Despite his fame and fortune, Hemingway had issues. Alcoholism, a temper, and later in life, severe depression. All that, in turn, took a toll on his writing and led to the end of his career, and his life.

About twenty years ago I was on a Hemingway kick, reading just about everything he wrote and everything that had been written about him. I tend to do that with writers that I admire or who inspire me. After immersing myself in his work, I found I was inspired to write something. Here’s what I ended up with…

Ketchum, Idaho

Papa said goodbye there, 

in the hallway, near the front door.

His body prone on the floor like a discarded book,

the pages now blank.  The words

splattered against the wall with all the viscosity of gray matter.

He probably felt like a book of blank pages,

basically useless.

The words were no longer there, either

Deadened by pills,

Or drown in alcohol,

Or burned out by the electro shock.

So instead of dwelling on once was, he decided to bring

the story to a close

On a fine summer day, on the outskirts of Ketchum.

And standing in that doorway, if only in a dream, I can hear

a church bell ringing in the distance.

 

Not necessarily the happiest of poems, but it encapsulates what I imagine he was feeling when the words wouldn’t come. And in a way, this is my tribute to a writer who, despite his faults, wrote amazing, timeless stories and inspired generations of writers.

RB

February 25

My 2021 Reading List

I’m off to a late start on my 2021 reading due to unforeseen circumstances, but I’m ready to crack some spines and enjoy being swept away into deep space, magical realms, and exposed to new ideas. After the last year or so, I’m in desperate need for a little escape from reality.

I actually have two “to-read” stacks. One is physical books. I keep a stack on the bookshelf next to my side of the bed, and the other exists on my Kindle. One of my simple joys is laying in bed at night and reading for an hour or so. I find it’s great fodder for my dreams, although I don’t necessarily dream about the stories I’m reading. I think that reading before falling asleep stimulates my imagination, stirs up the dust and cobwebs in my mental archives and allows me to have vivid, and occasionally crazy, dreams. My unconscious imagination wanders down all sorts of twisting and turning paths, and oftentimes I wake up with ideas for stories of my own.

And that’s what I need right now – inspiration. I’m a firm believer that creativity is like a muscle in that it needs exercise, to be worked regularly, pushed so that it grows stronger. I had to go for a good two months without working it, and now I’m feeling the pain as I try to get it back in shape. But I’m not giving up. Baby steps, right?

Here are the physical books I have lined up (so far) to read this year:

Stack of books.
Some of my 2021 reads.

The virtual stack on my Kindle includes A Quiet Rebellion: Posterity, The Garden of Stone Houses, and Accusing Mr. Darcy. These are books written by authors in the Twitter #WritingCommunity.

I have a fairly big mountain to conquer this year, especially when getting a late start, but I’m looking forward to the adventure. And I’ll be sure to review them all here on my blog and hopefully inspire you, dear reader, to pick up copies of these books, as well.

RB

February 22

A Favorite Painter

One form of art that’s always inspired me, and one I haven’t yet attempted, is painting. It intimates me, to be honest. When I look closely at the brushstrokes, the finesse, I feel an overwhelming sense of awe. It’s a subtle art form, where the hand and the eye work in concert to create a thing of beauty.

Of course, I love most of the famous painters, and even a few of the lesser known. However, one of my favorite painters is my mother. She’s not the woman who gave birth to me, but she’s the one who raised me, who inspired me to be creative, and who encourages me even when she doesn’t quite understand some of the things I create. Encouragement without judgement. I’m lucky to have that.

Her primary medium has been painting, and I’m lucky enough to have a couple of her unframed canvases in my home. And because her art inspires me, I thought it would be nice to share it with others in the hope that the inspiration carries forward. I wish I had more of her work, but there are other siblings in the family. But if she reads this and feels so inclined, I’m happy to take more (wink, wink).

Flower painting.
Painting by Joni Bist

My mom isn’t professionally trained, although she took a few classes many years ago. Her painting is nature-based and it probably the reason why I like to take photos in nature (since I’m still unsure about trying my hand at painting).

Painting of river running through a forest.
Painting by Joni Bist

Unfortunately, she hasn’t picked up a brush in years. It happens. Life can get complicated, we get older, our priorities change. She now has grandchildren and great-grandchildren to occupy her time. However, a few years ago I bought her a painting kit in the hopes it would inspire her to pick up the brush again. Maybe once she gets settled in a new home and new surroundings she’ll find the time to return to the medium that brought so much joy to her friends and family.

RB

February 18

Capturing Moments

I’ve previously posted about photography, mostly regarding how I find inspiration in old photos, but I’ve also enjoyed taking photos. It started when I was a teenager in high school. I got my hands on a Canon AE1 35mm and fell in love with it. At one point, a friend and I set up our own darkroom in a shed behind his parent’s house. We’d spend hours taking photos around town and then spend several more hours developing the negatives. We mostly worked in black and white because it was easier to process. Occasionally, we’d try our hand at color, but it wasn’t much fun shaking those tubes of paper and chemicals for what seemed like hours. And while I’d love to have another professional camera, I’m content with my iPhone.

Bottles in sunny window.
Bottles in sunny window.

My personal preferences are portrait and nature photos. In fact, I take photos whenever I’m out and about, walking in the park with my partner and our dogs, or motoring down the St. Marks River and out into the Gulf of Mexico on a friend’s boat. I see little moments of beauty that I want to capture and keep with me, and occasionally I’m successful.

Mushrooms in the grass.
Mushrooms in the grass.

The thing about photography is that it’s not just pointing the lens at something and pushing a button. There’s framing, lighting, the Rule of Thirds, shutter speed, formatting, and so many other things to consider. I’m by no means a professional, but I do try to take all the particulars into account when capturing an image.

I also find inspiration in photos. As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy looking through old photos, even when I don’t know anyone in the images. Looking at those captured moments, my mind wanders as I wonder about who these people are, what they were thinking, what were they like, and what happened to them. 

When it comes to photos of relatives, many of the same questions come up, especially with the ones I never had the chance to meet. Great-grandparents, great aunts and uncles, distant cousins…they all become characters in my imagination. I don’t concern myself with how close to the truth I may get with my daydreams. It’s all make-believe. 

Unfortunately, the weather hasn’t been cooperative lately. Almost constant rain temperatures ranging from the low 30s to the mid 70s have not been conducive to spending quality time outdoors. That hasn’t stopped me from taking photos, however, it’s just limited my roaming.

Autumn Leaves.
Autumn leaves on a tree in my backyard.

In fact, my backyard is a great place to take photos, and not just of my dogs. I’ve let a bit of it grow wild to attract birds, and a few years ago I spread mushroom compost (from a local mushroom farm) and now we have all sorts of interesting fungi sprouting up. It’s really a nice mini-nature retreat within the city limits. 

And most of the photos I take are spur of the moment, like when something catches my eye. It might be the way the sunlight is illuminating a batch of flowers, or the way some mushrooms are growing on a rotting log, or maybe the way a bird is perched on a branch. I don’t necessarily look for the shots, I stumble upon them.

Moss on a rotting log.
Moss on a rotting log in my backyard.

Photography, to me, is a unique art form in that it’s used to capture a moment in time, something that would otherwise be lost with the blink of an eye. That’s both special and inspiring. 

RB