September 2

Left in Stitches

So, I had a minor procedure on my shoulder recently that left me with eight stitches and a really cool scar. Nothing major. I was in and out of the doctor’s office in less than an hour. But it got me thinking about injuries I’ve had over the years, the bangs and bruises, the breaks and the blood. I’m amazed at how well the body can bounce back and heal from these things. It also makes me wonder about how injuries can change us and how the experiences can be reused.

In most cases, at least for me, the injuries were a result of doing something stupid or not paying attention. For example, I have a scar on my knee from when I was a kid. I was riding my bike on the sidewalk and looking back over my shoulder – instead of stopping to look at whatever it was – and I rode straight into a telephone pole. My knee located a protruding nail on the pole and taught me a valuable lesson: Look where you’re going, dumbass!

As a writer, I tend to use these experiences to help me in my stories, specifically when describing pain, or how it sounds when a bone snaps, or the sensation of being stitched up. I’m not entirely sure how much realism this allows me to add to the stories. Is accuracy here that important to the reader? Is it something they notice?

It reminds me of a story about the filming of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. He was shooting a scene with Christopher Lee where a character gets stabbed. Jackson wanted the victim to cry out and thrash about, but Lee pulled him aside and said that wasn’t realistic. You see, Lee had worked as a spy during World War II and had personal experience with this situation. Although he didn’t come right out and say how he learned it, but he knew how someone would react when stabbed a certain way. Jackson was impressed and went with Lee’s recommendation for the scene.

Which then brings me back to the old adage of “write what you know”. I know what it feels like to be cut by glass and by knives (both sharp and dull); I’ve stepped on nails and fallen off of roofs; I’ve wiped out on motorcycles far too many times; and I’ve had a few broken bones. And yeah, I’ve learned a few tough lessons. Like, taking my time when carrying heavy items on my shoulder when climbing a ladder. And while bushes will break ones fall, the branches will still puncture skin.

Of course, your life experiences may not be quite as adventurous as mine. Probably because you have more common sense than I do. But I do tend to look back on my past injuries with a sort of fondness. Lessons were learned, experience gained, and now I have a small library of real-life experience to pull from when I write.

When I was laying on the examination table in the doctor’s office while the nurse coaxed the stitches out of my shoulder, I thought about a story I’m working on where my protagonist gets drunk and ends up in a fight. I wondered about what injuries he was going to end up with (I haven’t written the full scene yet) and I tried to concentrate on my experience so I could use it. The soft snipping sound, the slight tugging at the skin as the nurse pulled the fibers out, the way it itched later in the day.

Yeah, that’s definitely going to be used.

But don’t take this as encouragement to hurt yourself just so you can write about it later. My point is that we can use life experience, our personal experience, in our writing.

And be careful on ladders.

RB

August 19

Being Different

Growing up, I heard a lot of “why can’t you be more like your brothers”, “why can’t you just act normal”, and “what’s wrong with you.” I was the creative one in a family of athletes. Obviously, I was the odd one out.

For the longest time that bothered me. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to be accepted, to be part of the crowd, to be included. The only sport I was good at was soccer, but unfortunately, when my father was transferred to Texas I discovered they really didn’t have an established program where we were going to live, so that pursuit died with a whimper.

So I continued to be pulled between two opposing forces. On one hand were the people I looked up to who told me that being different was wrong, that I needed to focus on pursuits that would land me a good job, allow me to make money. Writing and drawing were fine hobbies, but they were best kept to myself. I needed to a man. And apparently, men weren’t supposed to be creative.

I tried to kick creativity to the curb. Well, I didn’t try THAT hard, but I made an attempt to be who everyone thought I was supposed to be. There were a few people in my life who privately supported my endeavors. That kept me going. But still, I mostly kept my writing to myself, along with my sketches. A combination of embarrassment and fear, I suppose. So instead of writing in the light of day, I stayed up late at night writing by the light of a desk lamp next to my bed and kept my notebooks safely tucked between the mattress and boxspring.

It took a long time for me to finally shrug off those expectations that were put on me when I was young. It took a lot of work, introspection, and pages and pages of journal writing to sort it out, to figure out who I was, who I wanted to be. In fact, I’m still working on that. I feel I’m closer to who I want to be – a good person, empathetic, compassionate, fearless, unashamed – but there’s still a lot of work to do, quite a few rough edges that still need polishing.

However, I’m proud of the progress I’ve made. I’m not the same person I was five, ten, twenty years ago. We should never step into the same river twice…the water should always be flowing, the shoreline constantly adjusting in response to the current. In other words, we should always be adapting and evolving. We should be changing the things we don’t like about ourselves (it can be done) and building up the good qualities we want to embrace.

I like to say that the past is the reason we are who we are, but it’s not an excuse for us to be the way we are. We are in control of our lives, of our personalities, of our strengths and weaknesses.

At the moment, I’m as closer to contentment than I’ve ever been. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been worth it.

RB

August 7

The Appeal of Silence

One of the interesting parts of my upbringing is that I spent an almost equal amount of time in both urban and rural settings. Because of this, I feel like I’ve always been torn between the two worlds. With an urban setting I have access to so much, like a wide variety of restaurants, movie theaters, plays, concerts, and nothing is very far away. However, with a rural setting I have the ability to commune with nature, to enjoy birdsong uninterrupted by car stereos and loud exhaust pipes. There’s also  less light pollution, so in the countryside I can see the stars in all their glory. I find it both inspiring and calming.

As I’ve gotten older (and arguably wiser), I feel like my preference is leaning more towards rural living, mostly because I find I enjoy the silence. Not necessarily absolute quiet. I don’t want to live in a sensory-deprivation tank. But the lack of noise pollution – the aforementioned car stereos, neighborhood parties, fireworks, lawnmowers, and airplanes – makes me feel more at ease. It’s also good for my creativity.

For example, when my partner goes out – running errands or visiting her parents – I like to enjoy the silence of the house. Not that she’s loud or makes a lot of noise (wink), but when she’s gone I turn off the television, no music, just the soft hum of the aquarium filters and the panting of my dogs. It’s sort of serene.

Unfortunately, opening the windows breaks the atmosphere. Too many cars, lawnmowers, low-flying aircraft (I’m apparently on a flight path).

But in the (mostly) silent house I can sit on the couch and watch the fish swimming in my tanks, read without distraction, or work on a short story in a completely immersive state of mind.

I’ve been tempted to take a retreat to a Buddhist monastery. I had a professor back in college who did that once a year. Spent a week or two in a monastery in Georgia (the state, not the country). He’d live on their schedule and help with chores, but then have a lot of free time to read and write. He said he’d get more accomplished in that week or two than he’d would throughout the rest of the year. I think it’d be an interesting experience. And productive.

One of the main things I miss from childhood is the long walks I’d take by myself in the woods on my uncle’s dairy farm. Four-hundred or so acres of corn fields, hay fields, and virgin forest. I’d wander the rolling hills, climb trees, and let my imagination lead me. The silence was amazing. Mostly birdsong, but occasionally I’d encounter something larger, like those massive Wisconsin deer.

Those days of wandering in silence were where my creativity was molding, tested, experimented with. I’d search for pirate treasure (in Wisconsin?), hide from enemy soldiers, seek ancient ruins, and look for alien landing sites. At night, I’d lay in the back bedroom and listen to the whippoorwills in the apple orchid outside my window, or maybe hear something large (possible a bear) stomping on the leaves and dried twigs on the ground. Plus, we were far enough to the north that I’d occasionally get a glimpse of the northern lights.

I miss those days, but I try to recreate the environment when I can. It’s not quite the same, but I’ll take what I can get.

If you get the opportunity, try to provide yourself with a silent environment for a few hours, a day if you can swing it. No television, no music, no phone. Just you and your thoughts. It’s a unique experience.

RB

 

July 15

Having Fun

Art can be serious business. People who create take their projects seriously. We agonize over them, we cuss at them, we deal with frustration, aggravation, annoyance. We want to produce the best objet d’art we can. It doesn’t matter if it’s the written word, paint on canvas, or audio file. We live and breathe art. It’s our life.

But this doesn’t mean art can’t also be fun. I think that we forget that when we get so caught up in getting the story just right, or when we’re feeling uninspired and blocked, or overwhelmed by having too many project going at once. It’s understandable.

But oftentimes art can be a way to relieve stress, to unburden our minds. Sure, reading a book is a great way to escape reality for a while, but I believe that writing and creating can be just as beneficial.

What I mean is, if we don’t take ourselves or our writing too seriously, we can end up having just as much fun as our readers.

When was the last time you wrote something for fun? I’m not talking about your current work-in-progress, I mean something that you don’t expect to publish or show off. When was the last time you wrote something silly, crazy, something that made you laugh?

Have you ever written a limerick? A silly poem? What about writing down something funny that happened to you or someone you know? We’ve all had funny experiences in our lives and we’ve heard stories from others, so why not write them down and turn it into a piece of creative non-fiction?

For example, a guy at a party once told me about a time years ago when he went to a “gentleman’s club” with his wife (her suggestion), but the place she chose wasn’t exactly top of the line, and the dancer they ended up watching had a wooden leg. That’s one I desperately want to turn into a piece of fiction. So many possibilities…why did the wife want to do this? To prove a point? Why did the dancer have a wooden leg? Did anyone end up with splinters? And yes, you’re welcome to steal it and write your own version.

I think it’s healthy for us to take a break every so often from the seriousness of writing and simply have fun. We can’t allow ourselves to get bogged down in the trenches. We need to stand up, stretch, take a break, do something else for a change. Not only will it help you to relax, but I think fun exercises like this help to keep our minds fresh, help to stimulate new ideas.

There’s no harm in having fun. You deserve it.

RB

June 17

Words and Images

There’s something to be said for the way words and images compliment each other. They’ve been partners for thousands of years. In fact, some of the earliest writing was simply pictures. So, in a way, images gave birth to words.

I think that images can add another level of depth to a story or poem. For most of us, when we read something we immediately form an image in our mind of a character’s appearance, or what a setting looks like. Words are like different colors of paint, and they all come together to form a beautiful picture.

A great example of this comes from one of my inspirations, Shel Silverstein. He was a writer, poetry, songwriter, and illustrator. You may be familiar with some of his more popular works, The Giving Tree or Where the Sidewalk Ends. With both of these books, and most of his other output, Silverstein wrote all the content and drew all the illustrations. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, he illustrated each and every poem. They’re just simple line drawings, but they capture the essence of each poem so perfectly.

I’m always in awe of people with a talent for drawing and painting. I used to draw quite a bit, but I ended up focusing more on writing and let the sketch pad sit on a shelf and collect dust. I wasn’t bad at it, but I wasn’t that great. But that wasn’t why I let is slide. I simply wanted to spend more time with words than images.

Now that I’ve entered the self-publishing arena, I’m finding that my interest in visual arts is being rekindled. For my first short story collection I created the cover and had a blast doing it. I found a great photo with a creative commons license, then manipulated it to compliment the content of the book. I think it turned out to be the perfect cover. And because it was so much fun, I’m going to create the cover for my next collection.

Of course, it’s not just illustrations that compliment words, it’s also photography. One of the best short story collections I’ve read was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler, who was inspired by old photo postcards he found in second-hand stores. He’d read the cryptic messages on the back, examine the photos and images on the front, then write a short story.

I did something similar with an artist friend a year or so back. She and I would find random images, then we’d each have to create something based on that image. She’d draw or paint, I’d write, but we’d do it separately so we didn’t know what the other was creating. It was a fun exercise and we ended up with some fantastic output. In fact, on more than one occasion we both created something similar, where her image would match up with what I’d written. Artistic minds on the same wave length.

Words and images are like salt and pepper, bacon and eggs, beer and pretzels. They can stand alone, but they work much better when together.

RB

 

 

May 9

Review – One-Hundred Years of Solitude

What can I say about this novel that hasn’t already been said? It’s amazing, truly, and funny and sad and full of wonder. Gabriel Garcia Márquez is one of those authors that thrills me. When I read his works I feel giddy, excited, like the world is fresh and new.

I’ve been a fan of Márquez for many years. The first book of his I read was Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which completely blew me away. I hadn’t been exposed to magic-realism at that point, and his writing – even in an English translation – was like reading a painting…if that makes sense.

In fact, whenever I read one of his books or a collection of his short stories, I end up wanting to relearn Spanish just so I can read him in his native language. (Note: I learned Spanish in college, but it’s been so long and I’ve barely used it, so I’d have to start over again.)

But I’m not going to break down the story and try to interpret the themes. I’ll leave that to the academics. However, I will share one passages that stood out to me. (I underlined them in pencil. I’m not a monster.)

“She had just finished saying it when Fernanda felt a delicate wind of light pull the sheets out of her hands and open them up wide. Amaranta felt a mysterious trembling in the lace on her petticoats and she tried to grasp the sheet so that she would not fall down at the instant in which Remedios the Beauty began to rise. Úrsula, almost blind at the time, was the only person who was sufficiently calm to identify the nature of that determined wind and she left the sheets to the mercy of the light as she watched Remedios the Beauty waving good-bye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her, abandoning with her the environment of beetles and dahlias and passing through the air with her as four o’clock in the afternoon came to an end, and they were lost forever with her in the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach her.”

This passage is so beautiful. I think this best encapsulates what I noted above – it’s like reading a painting. I don’t think you can go wrong with a Márquez novel or story collection. I recommend them all. He’s an author I always return to when I need to be reminded of how wonderful storytelling can be.

RB

April 3

Favorite Books

What’s your favorite book? Ugh, I hate being asked that question. Not that it’s too personal or anything like that. I hate it because I can’t name just one book. And even then, it depends on my mood, where I am in my life at any given moment, and if I can remember a specific title off the top of my head.

I’ve read hundreds if not thousands of books over the years. I’ve explored the classics, science fiction, fantasy, poetry, magic-realism, speculative, surreal, mystery, and political. And so on. I also enjoy non-fiction like history and science. I’m not necessarily discriminating when it comes to reading. If I have the faintest interest in something, I’ll read it.

Now I do know people who only read specific genres and nothing else. While I personally find that limiting, I don’t hold it against these readers. They’re still reading and that’s what matters. But I feel like reading in only one or two genres is like getting your news from only one or two sources. You’ll end up with a limited view.

In my opinion, reading a little bit of everything exposes me to so many more ideas and experiences. It’s an education. Fiction can teach us about emotions, relationships, the repercussions of our decisions. It can give us hope, longing, and inspire our dreams. Fiction isn’t just about telling a story. It’s about creating an experience and exploring it. Non-fiction provides us with facts and truths. It’s the rational side of our education. Together, they can help make us more rounded individuals.

With this in mind, I’m sure you can understand the issue I face. Even trying to narrow it down by asking what’s my favorite book in each genre doesn’t help much. There are still so many fantastic books to choose from. Additionally, what I may have considered a favorite book when I was thirty years old isn’t necessarily still going to be a favorite when I hit sixty.

Then there’s the fact that some books require more than one reading. For example, Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse, is a book I reread every decade. Why? Because I get a different perspective of it as I grow older…and arguably wiser. Same with The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ve probably read them all at least a dozen times over the years and for the same reason I reread Hesse’s book on Buddhism, because age gives me a different perspective on the nuances of the story.

So when I get asked to name some of my favorite books, I freeze and mumble and have to explain all this. I also add the disclaimer that there are going to be books I forget to mention…and will inevitably remember an hour later. “Oh crap, I forgot to mention that one. Oh, and there’s this other one I should have brought up…” And so it goes.

Perhaps one of these days I’ll compile a list of my favorites. It’ll be a long one and constantly revised, an evolving work in progress. Until then, if you’re interested, I list all the books I read on the Reading List page here on my blog. And if you feel so inclined, feel free to share some of your favorite titles with me. I’m always looking for new authors to discover.

RB

March 27

Influences – George Carlin

I’m always inspired by people that have a way with words. Carlin was, in my opinion, one of the best wordsmiths, especially in his later years. Books aside, his stand-up routines were amazing to watch. He had a talent for wordplay and for pointing out the insanity that comes with modern life and being human.

A little background about him – He started in comedy as part of a duo back in 1959 with a guy named Jack Burns. They were moderately successful, recorded an album together, but after a couple of years they parted ways on amicable terms. Carlin took a few years to build up his skills, performing on several variety shows in the 1960s before recording his debut in 1967. From there, things took off. He embraced the counter-culture and cast off his button-down appearance. He caught the attention of Johnny Carson and became a regular guest and stand-in on The Tonight Show.

In 1972 he was arrested in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on an obscenity charge for his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” bit. The case was later thrown out, but it marked a victory for the First Amendment as the judge in the case found that, although the routine used obscene language, the First Amendment protected Carlin’s right to say them. Yea for common sense! This also garnered Carlin a lot of free publicity.

It was in the late 1970s that he started doing stand-up specials for HBO and eventually got into acting. It’s interesting to note that he later abandon his acting career. He, like many other celebrities, ended up in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service (the tax agency of the US for my international readers). He felt that the acting path was too uncertain, so he decided to focus on his stand-up comedy. He knew that was the thing he was good at and had a more consistent return that acting. He also said that he felt the tax issues made him a better comedian because he was forced to work and tour relentlessly to pay off his debt to the government.

But the thing I admire most about Carlin is his way with words. That man could weave beautiful tapestries with words. He could make you laugh, make you cringe, make you shake your head in disbelief, and make you emotional. He had a rapid-fire delivery that I found amazing. He could spout off with these seemingly never ending strings of dialogue without taking a breath or pausing to check notes.

The other thing I admired about his was his ability to tell the truth. I won’t claim to agree with everything he said – that would be foolish – but even if I disagreed with his take on something, I could respect his opinion. For example, he wasn’t a believer in voting. His opinion was that the winner was already decided and we the people merely had the illusion of choice. I can see where he was coming from and he wasn’t necessarily wrong, but I believe we should still cast a vote. It’s our right and our duty regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum.

He was also adept at pointing out the weirdness of being a human. For example, in “Stuff” he notes that the only reason we need a house is so we have a place to store our stuff. When you fly in a plane you can look down and see everyone’s pile of stuff. And when you leave your house you have to lock it up so no one steals your stuff. Because they always steal the good stuff. Basically, your house is a place to keep your stuff while you go out and buy more stuff. Makes sense.

But my favorite bit by Carlin was this: Consider how stupid the average person is, then realize that half the population is dumber than that.

As a writer, I can’t help buy admire someone who cherishes words, who works with words like an artisan, a master crafts-person. He could opine on a multitude of topics, from politics and religion to sex and death. Nothing was taboo. Nothing too scathing.

To me, Carlin was the definition of what an artist should strive to be: Fearless, challenging, influential, and relatable. He’s been gone now for over twelve years, but I still go back every so often and listen to his stand up and read his books. Even though he didn’t write fiction, I consider him to be a major influence on my own writing. I try to be like him, pushing boundaries and challenging my readers. And hopefully, inspiring them to think differently.

RB

 

March 12

Doing it Better

Here’s a question for you: Have you ever read a story or watched a movie or show on television and thought to yourself, “I can write a better story than that”?

For me, it happens more often with television and movies than it does with short stories or novels. Too many shortcuts and bad narrative decisions. I know that writers are often having to deal with time restraints and directorial decision – and maybe studio or production house input – but I still get frustrated when an otherwise good story is wasted by sloppy writing.

And no, I’m not in any way claiming that I would do better. I know I’m guilty of poor writing. All of us are capable of overusing cliches or stereotypes. It happens.

But with professional writing I expect more. These folks are getting paid good money. Hell, there are sometimes teams of writers working on scripts, yet the final product turns out to be crap. How does that happen?

There are been many occasions when I’ve watched a show or a movie and afterwards thought about the story, wondering about the missed opportunities and what I would have done differently. Which begs the question: Is it okay to take that idea and make it your own?

Personally, I think it’s okay. As I’ve said before – both on this blog and in my podcast – every story that can be told has been told. As writers, we are tasked with finding new ways to tell them. So I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to watch a movie and want to retell the story in your own way. Of course, the caveat is copyright. You can’t use the same character names or exact settings and narrative. Calling your hero “Spider Guy” is probably going to get you a nice phone call from Marvel’s attorneys. And no, you probably can’t write a space opera entitled, “Star Battles”, set in a galaxy a long, long way off. You need to make these stories your own and not a derivative of the originals.

I think that when it comes to fiction, any type of fiction, ideas are there for the taking. You can see examples of this in the movie industry. For example, back in the early 1990s there were two movies about Wyatt Earp that came out within months of each other. One was titled Wyatt Earp with Kevin Costner, the other was Tombstone with Kurt Russell. There was also Deep Impact and Armageddon, Antz and A Bug’s Life. The list goes on and on.

The point here is that it’s okay to take an existing story and make it your own. In fact, I think it’s a good way to challenge yourself not only as a writer, but in any area of art. You see a painting in a gallery or a sculpture in a museum and you note the flaws, the little things that only you notice. You think to yourself, that’s nice but I think it would be better if…

And then you take that idea, that theme, that plot, and you turn it into something new and amazing. Why not? If you feel that you can do it better, prove it. Even if no one ever sees what you’ve done, you’ll know that you did it yourself and you did it better.

Give it a shot. You may impress yourself.

RB