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:

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

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.