July 29

What if it Sucks? [Creativity]

We all wonder this. Anyone who creates anything has this thought every once in a while. I do, as well. I have an idea that I’m excited about, I work on it, maybe a first draft, maybe two. Then that self-doubt creeps in. Is this any good? Will anyone read it? Like it? Tell their friends? Leave a good review?

It can be a downward spiral from there. What’s the point if no one is going to like this story, or even read it? Am I just writing into a void? Should I give up and do something else?

As creators, this type of thinking can kill our motivation. It leads us down a dark path where we get lost amid all the questions, doubts, and fears. Writer resting head on keyboard

Some of us have it worse than others. It depends on the amount of self-confidence you already have in play, coupled with how much support you receive, and how people have reacted to your previous output. We’re human, we can’t help it. Our brains are both our biggest ally and our greatest enemy.

If you’ve listened to my podcast, you might already know how I feel about this. The problem, in my opinion, is that we put too much emphasis on what other people think of us and our work. We gauge success and failure by other people’s reactions. We base our self worth as artists, even as people, on whether or not something likes our output. We even compare ourselves to our peers. Am I doing better than them? Then I’m successful. Are they doing better than me? Then I’ve failed.

That’s bullshit thinking.

The ONLY persoFingers on laptop keyboardn whose opinion you need to worry about it your own. That’s it.

Is this something you would enjoy reading, viewing, or listening to? If yes, then you’re successful. That’s all there is to it. Don’t worry if other people think it sucks. Whatever they may feel or think about it doesn’t really matter. It’s not a fact, it’s their opinion. Art, like humor, is subjective. I may laugh at something that you don’t find funny, just like you may love a book that I found boring. And remember, opinions are like assholes…everybody has one.

This all stems from a recent online conversation I had with someone about a story they’re working on. They wanted to give up because someone else, a friend of theirs, read an early draft and said it sucked. Based solely on that opinion, this writer was ready to give up, chuck it all away and move on to something else.

Luckily, I was able to talk them off the ledge. I basically told them what I wrote above and I reiterated one of my mantras: Write for yourself. Yes, I know, we all want an audience of faithful readers who hang on our every word. The truth is, that may never happen. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of writers out there writing stories they hope will get noticed. Some will, some won’t, but in the end it doesn’t matter if the writers are doing it for themselves. As long as you’re writing something that appeals to you, that you’d pick up in a bookstore and read, then you’ve won.

Writing is a lonely profession. We do it alone, just us and our imaginations, and sometimes we really need the validation of someone else to motivate and inspire us. I get it. I’m the same way. But you shouldn’t base your worth as a writer, or as a person, on what other people think. Make yourself happy, first. A happy writer is a good writer. A good writer will find an audience. Just be patient.

RB

 

July 16

Book Review – Buddhism Without Beliefs [Books]

I’ve been a follower of Buddhist philosophy for over twenty-five years. Not the religious aspect of it. I can do without that. But the philosophy behind it, the way to look at life, at the people around me, my perception of my world, that all appeals to me. And although I’m far from perfect, I try to adhere to the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path as best I can.Person meditatingI’ve read quite a few books about Buddhism, as well. Of course, they’ve all been written from a religious angle. So when I’ve worked on educating myself, I’ve had to focus on the rational points and read the spiritual more like mythology. What I’ve been looking for is a book that doesn’t denigrate the religion, but would allow me to better understand the real teachings, the words the Buddha taught without filter and interpretation.

Luckily, I stumbled upon Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor. Here I found what I’d been looking for, a simple deconstruction of Buddhism with a focus on the philosophy. Buddhism Without Beliefs book cover.

At a simple 115 pages (plus a few more covering sources), Batchelor argues that the Buddha never set out to create a religion. Instead, he simply wanted to help people better themselves and the world around them through a handful of basic tenets. No gods or goddesses, no spirituality, just a focus on understanding how we can improve ourselves mentally and better adapt to the world around us.

I posted earlier this week about a line from the book that resonated with me, and that was only one of dozens that stuck with me.

Batchelor, a practicing Buddhist, trained in monasteries and has been teaching for decades. I found his insight to be extraordinary. He gently, and without denigration, breaks down the how’s and why’s of Buddhist teachings, stripping away the religious aspects to reveal a simple and easily understood path to understanding ourselves.

Even if you aren’t religious, or are a following of a specific dogma, Buddhism Without Beliefs can still have something for you. Outside of meditation and practice, there is a lot of practical points that can help you to calm your inner turmoil, help you understand your actions and reactions, and maybe even bring you some peace of mind.

Brain and heart on balance scale.I highly recommend this book. Like I mentioned above, it’s a quick read, but even so, there’s a lot to unpack. Give it a try and see what speaks to you. You have nothing to lose, but so much to gain.

“So what are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, consoling, and embellishing in our heads?” – Stephen Batchelor

RB

July 7

Book Review – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch [Books]

Philip K. Dick is one of the founders of modern science fiction. I see him as a writer who straddled the line between the old guard – Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein – and the new school. He, along with writers like Harlan Ellison, ushered in a deeper and more surreal aspect to the genre. Philip K Dick

If you aren’t familiar with his work, Dick focused a lot of attention on the human psyche, the question of what’s real and what’s illusion, as well as the impact of drugs and religion on how we interpret the world.

I’ve read a few of his other works and loved Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. But the thing is, while he was helping to change the landscape of science fiction, he still wrote like his predecessors. What I mean is, he focused more on the ideas than he did on the narrative.

Not that it’s a bad thing. Ideas, good ones, can carry the story. With The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the ideas are so fascinating that I could overlook the storytelling and somewhat dated portrayals of women.

The Three Stigmata Of Palmer EldritchThe basic plot is that in the future, Earth is overheating and the world governing body is drafting ‘volunteers’ to colonize other plants and moons in the solar system. Because the environments are so hostile, most of the colonists are addicted to a drug that lets them inhabit the bodies of some fictional characters as if they were back home. The addicts have turned their experiences into a religion.

Enter Palmer Eldritch, how has returned from a ten year journey to Proxima with a new drug that will replace the old one. This sparks a war with the manufacturer of the current drug. It also starts a debate on whether or not Eldritch is still himself or someone, or something, different.

Mixed into all this is an examination of reality – what is real and how do we know for sure? Religion – how do we determine what to worship and is it really good for us? And the human condition – what are we capable of and how far will we go to achieve our goals?

As I noted above, the narrative is dated and far from poetic, but the ideas themselves are worth the read. Dick was obsessed with reality, identity, and the workings of the mind. If you’ve read any of his other fiction you’ll know what I mean. It’s apparent in just about everything he’s written. 

Also, the story was nominated for a Nebula award in 1965 for Best Novel. 

I feel this novel is on par with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, although not quite as well written. If you enjoy classic science fiction and stories that focus on ideas, then you should pick up a copy of this book. It’ll have you thinking long after the last page. 

RB

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 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 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 8

Saying Goodbye to Dick Robinson [Books]

Just a quick post to say thank you and goodbye to one of the people who helped me develop a love of books and reading. Although you may not know who he is just from his name, Mr. Robinson had a huge impact on getting young people to read here in the U.S. Dick Robinson

For nearly five decades, Mr. Robinson was the CEO of Scholastic Books, Inc. If you aren’t familiar with Scholastic Books, they have been arranging and hosting book fairs in public schools since the 1970s.

Interesting note: The article at Publishers Weekly states that Scholastic starting hosting book fairs in schools in 1981. However, I remember attending the fairs when I was in elementary school in the 1970s. Weird…

To understand how big of an impact Scholastic has had on the book business, consider they are responsible for approximately 120,000 yearly book sale events. That is getting a lot of books into the hands of a lot of kids. And I think that’s amazing.

One of the cool things about Mr. Robinson is that he considered reading a civil right. He was adamantly anti-censorship and incredibly pro-literacy. He also acknowledged that Scholastic played a big part in broadening children’s understanding of the world around them. Scholastic books logo

He once said: “Research says that if children choose and own their books, they are much more likely to finish them.” I can attest to that. Over the years, they have received a great deal of my book money, and I’ve finished every single book I’ve purchased from them. I spent many wonderful hours roaming the shelves at the book fairs they held in the schools I attended, carefully choosing which ones I wanted to read, which adventures I wanted to go on.

Mr. Robinson’s passing is like losing a piece of my childhood. For what it’s worth, thank you, Mr. Robinson. Thank you for educating me, entertaining me, and for showing me the wonders that lie on a bookshelf.

RB

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 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: