June 9

Quote the Writer, Not the Character [Writing]

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

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

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

Casablanca movie poster.

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

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

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

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

RB

 

June 7

A Poetry Moment VI – Surf [Poetry]

Hollywood Beach
A photo I took on Hollywood Beach, FL, 2013.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love the ocean. I grew up on and around the water, spending long hours swimming, snorkeling, boating, fishing, and laying on the sand with a good book to read.

I tried to capture the essence of a day at the beach in a poem. Something that expressed how I feel inside when I hear the ceaseless roar of the waves, the smell of salt in the air, the warmth of the sun. I think I ended up with something very close.

Surf

Porcelain white gulls,

shadows crossing me like a dream

as I lay in the gilded rays.

My thoughts adrift

on the audible surf,

gently bobbing

here and there.

The contours of the sand

like a maternal blanket,

holding me fast and secure.

Shadows flit over me,

gentle caresses,

a lover’s touch

and I sigh.

RB

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 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 12

Creativity as Therapy

I’m sure you’ve heard of art therapy and music therapy. In fact, art has been used in therapy for over a century. Initially, it was used as a form of “moral therapy” for psychiatric patients, it’s evolved over time to something that can be utilized in a wide variety of situations, from helping Alzheimers patients with their memory issues to physical therapies where patients are relearning how to use their arms and hands.

But on a more personal level, I’ve found that art therapy, or creativity in general, can be therapeutic for everyday life.

Obviously, I’m not a mental health professional or physician, so take my words as simply personal experience and nothing more. I’m not suggesting you explore this in lieu of seeking professional help. Nowadays, it’s best to clarify before someone gets the wrong idea.

For me, creativity has always been mainstay in my life. From writing and drawing comic books as a kid to writing and self-publishing fiction as an adult, it’s been there for me as a way to express myself. However, it’s also been a sort of companion for me. Those long summers on my uncle’s dairy farm where I was the only kid for miles, my creativity and imagination kept me company. I created all sorts of adventures for myself as I wandered the hay fields and thick Wisconsin forests. That old gnarled tree stump became a troll. The wind whispering through the leaves were sirens trying to trick me into sailing my ship into the rocks. And that old abandon car helped me escape after I robbed the Bist Bank and Trust of all their pinecones.

Boy daydreaming.Trust me, it all made sense when I was a child.

As I grew matured (which is questionable), so did my use of my creativity. The aliens and pirates moved onto the page and became stories, and along with that, so did my hopes and fears. As a teenager I found that writing was a way for me to work through my hormonal angst. I filled spiral notebooks full of poems about unrequited love, dreams of the future, and images from my dreams. I actually still have a few of those notebooks and occasionally take them out to thumb through. It’s interesting to look back and remember how I used to be and how I used to see the world.

Later, in late teens, I began to journal. That’s when I found the outlet I needed, the sympathetic ear, the judgement-free listener. Journaling kept me going through bad relationships, family drama, love and loss. Even now, I still write in my journal almost daily. Sometimes it’s just a page, sometimes it’s several. But regardless, I always walk away from the page feeling a little bit better.

Why is that? Because it’s a way to clear the clutter from the attic. Speaking for myself, it’s easy to get caught up in my own little world, to become self-absorbed and see things from only one perspective. Writing in my journal allows me to work things out, to explore my thoughts, my experiences, and to see them from another perspective. There have been many occasions where I was thinking along one track, only to realize after writing in my journal that I was wrong. And admitting I’m wrong on the page makes it a lot easier to admit it to myself.

Journaling isn’t the only creative therapy I participate in. I also cook. Every day. Most of it is survival cooking, meaning, I cook because it’s time for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner. We need sustenance. But I do like to explore the creative aspect of cooking. I like to try new recipes, or read about different ways to cook something, like a chicken, then come up with my own method.

I find that when I’m in the kitchen, watching something in the sautée pan while deciding what spices to use, the rest of the world falls away. I forget my problems and worries. I lose myself in the motion of manipulating the pan, the smells of garlic and onion, the endless possibilities. Because cooking requires thought, imagination, and attention, it’s a wonderful way for me to unwind in the evenings. Weekends, however, are my prime cooking time. A bottle of wine helps, too.

In my opinion, one of the biggest issues in the world today is mental health care. There’s just not enough of it and there’s often a stigma attached to people to seek it out. That’s why I think encouraging people to use their creativity as a form of therapy could be a partial solution. Just having a way to express ourselves can make a huge difference in how we manage our mental state.

Consider this: You have a terrible coworker or manager. They make your workdays difficult. They make you angry, anxious, frustrated, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Situations like this can take a toll on your mental and emotional state. Some people are lucky enough to have access to decent healthcare and can go see a professional to learn coping mechanisms and ways to deal with these people. Others aren’t so lucky. In fact, I’d wager that most people don’t have that kind of healthcare.

But if you have ‘one of those days’ and arrive home with your head spinning, you can decompress by doing something creative. You can write about it. A journal can be your best friend. Or maybe use fiction instead. Write a story about your nemesis getting their comeuppance. I’ve done that. Or you can immerse yourself in trying out a new recipe in the kitchen, something new and exotic. Or you can pull out some paint brushes and a canvas and lose yourself in a landscape or something abstract. If you’re feeling restless, then put on some music and dance your heart out. No one is watching, so let yourself go.

Woman dancing.
Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

We all have issues we deal with, and some of us handle things better than others. There’s no shame in needing a release, a pressure valve for your head or your heart. Professional therapy is great, but it can also be expensive and far too many people don’t have easy access to it. Creative, however, really doesn’t cost much. A pen and a spiral notebook. A paintbrush, some paint, and something to paint on, like a piece of scrap wood or cardboard. Music and dancing are free.

No, it’s not going to be for everyone, but there’s no harm in trying something new, is there? The next time you’re having a bad day, you’re stressed out, angry, hurt, confused, try doing something creative. It’s not a perfect solution, but it might just be enough.

RB

March 24

Order from Chaos

I’ve finally organized my books. It only took a decade. Maybe two. When we first moved into our current house I had fewer books, bookcases in various rooms, and everything was fine. But you know how it is, there are more books being published, which means more books to read, which means I have to buy them. The way I explained it to my partner is that I’m doing my part to support the economy. So in a way, buying books is patriotic, right?

Story collections.

More to the point, I’ve bought a lot of books over the years and, as noted in a previous post, those babies were stacked two deep on the sagging shelves of some extremely old bookcases. Fun fact: The ones that sagged were ones we got either from stores or from places we worked (surplus office supplies). The one bookcase that didn’t sag was the one I built myself when I was sixteen years old. It’s been my bedside nightstand/bookshelf for, well, many years and it’s still holding up.

A lot of books.

What I needed was a big bookcase, something that would fill an entire wall in my home office. Something sturdy, with glass doors to cut down on the dust and dog hair. And something that would hold all my books.

I considered building it myself, but that would be a major undertaking. I don’t have a wood shop and I don’t have all the tools I would need for the project, like a table saw. And I don’t have a garage, either, so no place to store them. That left me with the option to find something I like online and hope for the best.

I did a lot of searching, comparing materials, prices, colors, designs, but I finally settled on the Billy Bookcase from IKEA (and no, not an endorsement; I paid for them myself) because I liked the design. Of course, these are mass-produced products, so it’s not particle board/pressed wood instead of solid wood, but I can work around that.

My main concern was sagging shelves. The bane of all book collectors. But I have a workaround. Shelf supports. Basically, I can cut some 1 inch x 2 inch pieces of wood, paint them to match the shelves, then basically stack them from bottom to top, adding support to the center of each shelf. And all I lose is one inch of space on each row. A small price to pay. I also need to tweak the way the doors hang. They’re all a little offset, but easy enough to correct.

A collection of poetry books.

Now, of course, comes the fun part: The organization. So far, I have all my books on the shelves, and roughly organized by fiction, poetry, humor, collections, religion/philosophy, and non-fiction. I’ll break those down into sub-genres, then by author. My partner, however, thinks I should organize my books by color. I tried to explain to her that would make it difficult to locate books, but she can be persistent. I’m hoping I can distract her by suggesting she organize her shoe collection by color. I think she has more shoes than I have books, so that should keep her occupied for a while.

My bookcase.

For what it’s worth, I feel a sense of relief now that all my books are in one place, somewhat organized, and will be easier to locate when needed.

Next on my to-do list? My vinyl albums. Wish me luck!

RB

 

March 22

A Poetry Moment – V – The Kiss

I’ve recently been on an OCD-inspired clean up of my home office space. And to be completely honest with you, I’ve been a bit of a hoarder over the years. Mainly books and things I’ve written. I have a couple of filing cabinets filled with scraps of ideas, single paragraphs, maybe a line or two of verse.

While rummaging through these random pieces of paper, I re-discovered a file that had some old poetry I’d written years ago. A few were familiar, a few had been forgotten. One that stuck out to me was one I wrote for my partner not long after we first started dating (twenty-six years ago!). Although I was inspired by our first real kiss, I think anyone who remembers their first kiss with that special someone will relate.

Love and passion have always been a favorite theme for poets. So with that in mind, I present to you…

 

The Kiss

There’s that moment of awkward silence as 

we look one another’s eyes, drawing ever closer.  

I feel a smile tug at my lips and I try not to laugh, knowing 

that it would ruin the moment.  Then I feel the soft flesh 

of your lips as they press against mine and a rush of 

adrenaline and fear, 

nerves and arousal.  

 

I feel your tongue entwine with mine, tender and gently probing.  

I feel the heat and moisture of your breath, your body pressing 

so firmly against mine, and I can’t help but notice how wonderful 

your breasts feel pressed up against me.  

I can feel the beating of your heart.  

 

My hands squeeze your waist, pulling your hips up close while 

your fingers move through my hairs like ten exotic dancers, 

pulling my face down toward you.  

I can feel the warmth of your body as we share our first lover’s kiss, 

revealing our desire with surprising intensity, 

almost brutally, 

stopping just shy of pain.  

 

The kiss abates and we pull apart, 

just barely, 

and look one another 

first in wonder, 

then amusement, 

then with hunger.  

And the kiss begins anew.

"kiss" by Bert Werk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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

November 13

New Podcast Episode – Amateur or Professional

As creators, we all dream of being considered professionals. But where is the line that separates the two? Is it definite or arbitrary? Or are these just labels that don’t mean anything? Join me as I look into what it takes to be a professional artist.

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: