November 23

Banned Books in California

I’m a proponent of freedom of expression, that authors should be able to write about any topic they please. Partly because I believe in self-expression, but also because I feel that writing about all topics – especially sensitive ones – is a good way to explore them and see them from different angles. I’ll admit, not every controversial book is well-written and I can’t state that all authors have the best intentions. However, at the very least, the controversies spark conversations, and the conversations can lead to education and understanding.

So I was annoyed to see that schools in Burbank, California have decided to ban five books due to concerns over racism. The titles in question are:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Of Mice and Men
  • The Cay
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

The problem, from what I understand, stems from several white students making racists remarks to their black classmates, and when confronted about it claimed they said these things because they’d read them in these books. Understandably, the parents of the black children were upset about this and appealed to the school board to pull these titles from the required reading list.

Okay, I completely get where the parents are coming from on this. They want to protect their children. However, I feel that the problem here doesn’t lie with the content of the books, but in how the books are being taught.

To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, is a story about how a town deals with racism. No, it doesn’t have a happy ending, but it works as a teachable moment. Not all innocent men go free, and the guilty aren’t always punished. In this case, an innocent young black man is convicted of a horrible crime by an all-white jury in a small southern town. It’s not encouraging racism, it’s showing the terrible results of it. Huckleberry Finn is similar in that it shows a period of history where racism was normal and accepted, and how a young man experiences it while having adventures with his friend Jim, a slave. If nothing else, this story is a satire of the attitudes of the time period and a interesting piece of history.

With this situation in the Burbank school district, it appears these messages were lost on the students or possibly not conveyed in a meaningful way. This isn’t the fault of the stories. The anti-racism messages are there. I’ll admit, I’ve only read the first three books on the list, but I did look up the other two in order to have some perspective. To me, it seems like the schools need to reassess how these books are taught. It’s obvious that the students – or at least some of them – came away from these stories with the completely wrong idea.

But even so, instead of banning the books, the schools and parents need to use this as a tool to help their children understand racism, the root causes of it, the history of it, and how we can move beyond it. As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, I believe that racism stems from fear – fear of ‘the other’, fear of the unknown, fear of things that are different. Exposure to different ideas, different cultures, different ideas, and the ability to think critically, are some of the remedies. I know that there are other causes, but I feel these stories can be used as windows to the past, so show children how things used to be and how we can be better than we were.

I’m always anti-censorship, especially when it comes to fiction. I hope the schools in Burbank can reconsider their decision, reinstate these books, and teach them properly. Our future depends on it.

RB

 

 

 

November 20

A Dream to the Rescue

There’s a story idea I’ve been brooding over for quite some time. It’s a science-fiction piece, set on a colony world that’s not terribly dissimilar to the early settlers in the American Old West. Not the cowboy era, but more like the homesteaders, eking out a living from the land around them.

But I’ve been stuck on it. I’ve made four solid attempts to write the story, but each time I end up dissatisfied by the first draft. And each successive draft has been very different from the previous one. So I filed it away out of frustration, but every so often it would pop into my head and I’ll think about it for a while…then move on to something else.

The thing is, the premise of the story is good, solid. I’m good with it. Where I’m running into problems is with the narrative. I can see the basic arc in my head, but I haven’t been able to find the right narrative to fit it, if that makes sense.

However, the other night I was laying in bed, drifting off to sleep, and I started thinking about the story again. I love that half-awake/half-asleep time, where reality and dream mingle and my mind drifts back and forth across the divide. That’s when I have some of my best story ideas, work out problems, inhabit my characters and see through their eyes. And once again, it came through for me. I could see my protagonist working in a  tilled field, planting seeds and wiping the sweat from his forehead with a bandanna. He hears the clang of the church bell in town, about a quarter of a mile away, and he sees a young boy running down the dirt road next to the field. The boy stops, breathless, and says, “Did you hear? The angel is coming back! Reverend Kyle saw it in the sky last night!” And something in my imagination clicked. I had it.

It turns out I’ve been overcomplicating the damn thing, overthinking it. That’s one of the curses of being a writer. Ray Bradbury, one of my writing idols, used to keep a note tacked over his typewriter that read, “Don’t Think!”. That’s good advice. Overthinking it instead of letting the story tell itself is usually what trips me up. And again, Bradbury was right. I miss that man.

Now I have a plan, I can see the story more clearly now what I need to do. It’s a weird feeling – part excitement to finally have a clear path; part anxiety from so many failed attempts. But I feel more confident, ready to tackle this little monster and get it all down on paper. Or on my hard drive. This is one of the last couple of stories I’m working on for my next collection. The end is in sight. Way in the distance, but  I now know I can make it.

My take away from this is to constantly remind myself: Don’t Think. I need to follow Bradbury’s lead and get that printed up in big, bold letters and tack it to the wall over my writing space. And maybe get it tattooed on my forehead. Backward, of course, so I can read it in a mirror.

Now..gotta get back to it. I have a story to write. Thanks, Mr. Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury

RB

November 18

Songwriting

Music has always been a big part of my life. In fact, I’d much rather listen to music than watch television or a movie. It’s background noise when I’m doing chores around the house or writing, it motivates me when I get up in the morning, and it lulls me to sleep at night. I don’t know what I’d do without it.

Recently, I decided to pick up the guitar again after far too many years away from it. Partly because I’ve missed it, but also because I’ve felt this urge to play and to create music. Back when I used to play fairly regularly, I was always learning songs that other people wrote. It was fun to learn something familiar that I could play to keep myself entertained, or to play for a couple of friends while we had drinks and conversation.

But lately I’ve had this urge to try my hand at writing my own song. I was sitting in the living room the last week with my guitar in my lap, mindlessly picking notes while something forgettable was on the television, when I realized I was playing something nice, fingerpicking a soft, melodic handful of notes. I grabbed my phone and recorded it so I wouldn’t forget it. I’ve had that issue with writing where I’m laying in bed at night and have a great idea but don’t write it down, then by morning it’s forgotten.

So now I have this bit of music and I want to do something with it. A couple of months back I recorded a podcast episode about making music and I had decided then that I wanted to explore this part of my creativity, but of course, other projects and responsibilities got in the way. But now, right now, seems like a good time to wander down that path. I plan for it to be instrumental – no lyrics – but I’ll see how it goes. I’m not sure if I want to add too many ingredients to the mix. I’m likening it to writing a story. It’s going to need a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I’m going into this as a complete amateur and I’m sure I’m going to bumble and stumble about trying to understand the nuances of the craft, but I’m excited to try it. I’m not expecting to write a hit, or anything very memorable, but that’s not the point. All I want to do is see if I can do it. It’s all about the creativity, right? And for what it’s worth, I’m not as concerned about the music I play as much as I am the editing portion. It looks like I’ll be getting a crash-course in splicing and editing and mixing over the next few weeks. And yes, I’ll share the final product regardless of how it turns out.

If anyone has any suggestions or advice, I’m open to all input.

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:

November 11

A Rainy Day

Rainy days always make me feel like doing something creative. I mean, it’s not like I can go fiddle about in the yard or play outside with the dogs. If it’s more than a sprinkle, they won’t do much more than stick their heads out the dog door. I can almost hear them say, “Nope!”.

Of course, I can always watch something on television. I subscribe a coupe of streaming services, plus I own a fair amount of movies and shows from back when people actually purchased physical media. In fact, I still have a handful of VHS tapes. One of these days I’ll have to reconnect the VHS player to the TV and see if they’ll still play.

There’s also the option to read. That’s a nice rainy-day pastime. But for me, the problem is having the sound of falling raindrops and the soft rumble of thunder in the distance makes me sleepy. Oftentimes, my rainy-day reading lasts for about thirty minutes or so before my eyelids grow too heavy. Three hours later I’m woken by a cold dog nose alerting me that either the water bowl is empty or it’s time for dinner.

I usually end up writing, which is good. I’m always up for putting words on the page. Rainy days are perfect for sitting in a room lit only by natural light (the dim gray from outside) with the sound of rain acting as my background noise. It’s almost meditative and helps me get into the zone…meaning, the world slips away and it’s just me and my MacBook and the words appearing on the screen.

I like that scenario. It’s transcendental, trance-like. And don’t get me wrong. Most of my writing sessions are good and I can get into that zone – or something akin to it – when I have just the right setting and time to myself. But those rainy-day sessions, well, there’s nothing quite like them.

The thing is, it’s not like I’m more productive or more creative. Stories written when it’s raining aren’t any better or worse than on dry days, or hot days, or cold days. It’s more about how I feel, how it makes me feel. After writing during a good drenching rain, I feel refreshed, rejuvenated, like I’ve been cleansed. It’s almost as if I stood in the rain myself and let the water wash over me.

If you haven’t guessed, today is one of those days. A tropical depression is passing nearby in the Gulf of Mexico and it’s supposed to rain here most of the day. In fact, it’s also going to rain all day tomorrow. Coincidently, I’m also taking leave from work this week, so things are working out quite nicely for me.

And for what it’s worth, it’s raining right now as I write this.

RB

November 9

National Novel Writing Month

Yep, it’s that time of year, the time when writers from all over take part in the madness that is National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo (as it’s affectionately referred to) has been around for years and I’ve participated a couple of times. The first time I did I ended up with a 75k rough draft – a VERY rough draft – of a science fiction novel. I had the idea spinning in my head for a few months leading up to November 1st, so I had a decent idea of what I wanted to do with the story. But I played by the rules, so I didn’t outline or make any notes. I went into this challenge with a blank page.

It went well for the first two weeks, but then I got stuck. It was just after a big action scene where my protagonist escapes from some government ships that were tracking him near an asteroid belt. My hero was able to kill power and hide inside a crevasse on one of the spinning boulders. The government ships tried to find him, but no luck, so they sailed off. That’s when I sat and stared at the screen on my laptop, my fingers idly tapping on the keyboard, while I wondered what to do next.

After nearly a day of cluelessness, I decided I’d keep writing but instead focus on some backstory and character development, hoping that it would kick start my imagination and get me back on track. Yeah, that didn’t happen. I spent the next two weeks describing some of the planets in my story, along with some of the ships, where my protagonist grew up, and how he ended up with his ship. None of it was that pertinent to the story.

By the end of the month I had hit the word count goal, but the story wasn’t there. Just random ideas and thoughts about the story. So I sort of completed the challenge because I hit the word count, but I never got a complete story out of the process.

I tried again a few years later, but my job at the time had me working some odd and long hours, so I couldn’t spare enough time to really focus on writing a certain amount every day. I ended up tapping out after a week or so.

I haven’t tried again, although it is enticing. I like to be challenged when I write. I set certain goals for myself, some of them normal – like 500 words in a sitting – and some of them odd – like not allowing myself to use “he said” or “she said” when writing dialogue. A full month of marathon writing is appealing. There’s just the matter of time and whether or not I’m willing to set aside other projects so I can focus on just one.

I’m sitting on the sidelines again this year and enjoying the view as a spectator. I have some writing friends who are participating and it’s fun to see how they’re handling it. Of course, I’m being encouraging and trying to keep them motivated as best I can.

But next year, well, I just may have to dive back in again. I think it’ll be fun to see what I can accomplish. Until then, best of luck to all the writers who are participating this year.

RB

October 28

Setting the Spooky Mood

With Halloween just around the corner, I thought it’d be a good time to recommend a couple of things to get you in the mood.

First, you can grab a copy of my dark fiction collection, Dark Journeys. It’s a mix of horror, sci-fi, and speculative fiction. Perfect for reading alone in a darkened room (if you’re using an e-reader) or by candlelight (if you grab the paperback version). The stories include seductive demons, patchwork lovers, marooned astronauts, and an assortment of creepy things to haunt your dreams.

If you’re looking for something auditory, then you can listen to a couple of my podcast episodes. Last year I read one of my short stories, Consumed, for my Halloween episode. More recently, I recorded an episode about the Art of Fear. The first one will give you a few chills, while the second one will inspire.

There’s no shortage of horror-related stuff out there for the discriminating fear aficionado, and nowadays you don’t need books or movies, just read the news and you’ll be horrified.

Man reading burning newspaper
Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

Stay safe, everyone!

RB

October 27

The Art of Fear

Why are horror and fear popular subjects in the art world? For centuries, we’ve continued to seek out ways to scare ourselves and we keep coming back for more. Join me as I explore the reasons behind our obsession with fear and how we explore it in our artistic output.

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:

October 26

A Little Creativity

I find myself constantly amazed at the creativity shown by people during this pandemic. Yesterday I watched a segment on CBS Sunday Morning about how people are changing their Halloween plans to make them safer. Some of the adaptations included a long-distance candy dispenser for the trick-or-treaters and drive-through haunted houses.

I think it’s fantastic that people are willing to put in a little effort – and imagination – to keep spirits high in a time when we’re all feeling the pressure.

But the creativity doesn’t stop there. I was talking (online) to a friend who told me that over the past weekend he not only learned how to play bingo via Zoom, but also attended a Zoom-based murder mystery party. I didn’t have a chance to get all the logistics behind it, but I can’t imagine how they set that up. Regardless, it’s still an incredibly creative way to bring people together and interact while still remaining relatively safe.

I know, we hear a lot about people complaining about the lock downs, the social distancing, the mask wearing, but I look at this all as an opportunity. Think about it – we can look at all this as some massive pain in the ass that has turned our lives upside down and created chaos, or we can look at this as an opportunity to try new things, to do things in a different way, and to see just how creative we can be.

Don’t let the situation sour your perspective. Sure, things sort of suck at the moment, but you can still make the best of it. Improve yourself, help others, and most of all, be creative. You may have some hidden talents you didn’t know you had. All you have to do it try something new and see what happens.

RB

October 23

Tough Choices

Choices are a part of our lives, so deeply ingrained that we usually don’t even realize that we’re making them constantly, every day, without hesitation. Most of these are simple choices, like when to pull the eggs out of the pan, or if the water in the kettle is warm enough for tea. We don’t give it much thought, we just let our instinct guide us.

And if you think about it, you probably don’t spend too much time wondering about what you’re having for dinner. Leftovers in the refrigerator or swing by a fast-food place to pick up something? If it’s the latter, then you look at the drive-thru menu for a couple of moments to decide which combo looks interesting, pay your money, then back home.

But there are other decisions to be made. I know that, when writing, I deal with hundreds, maybe thousands, of decisions in each story I create. A lot of them are quick and mindless, like some of the ones I mentioned above. What color car is my protagonist driving? Or is going to drink his coffee black or add creamer? Others will make me pause for a few moments while I consider the possibilities. If my character goes down this path, what happens? Would it be better if they went this other way? Usually, I let the character decide and move on.

Then there are the tough decisions.

The toughest ones are when you know it’s going to change the entire course of your story. I had that happen to me on a yet-to-be-published short story I’ve been working on. I had a basic idea in mind and about three quarters of the way through the story I could see the ending develop. I was excited because I could see the path ahead leading to a solid conclusion.

But then I hesitated. Why? Because my stupid imagination piped up and asked, “what if you killed off this one character?” At first I dismissed the thought. Why try to change anything now when I’m so close to finishing the draft? That would be madness, right? Probably, but I couldn’t help myself.

So I took a few days off from the story so I could give this idea some additional thought. “What if?” is such a powerful question to ask oneself when writing. In fact, it’s a powerful question to ask in life, as well. After some consideration I decided to try that alternative story path. It was sort of a pain in the butt because I had to back up a bit in the narrative and rewrite some sections, but I did what needed to be done. And it was bloody.

And how did it turn out, you ask? Not bad. At least, it feels satisfying to me. It’s not what I was expecting, which in a way is a good thing, but I don’t know if it’s necessary better than what I was shooting for.

When it comes to writing – and art in general – tough decisions are just part of the process. Luckily, they don’t pop up in every story I write. But much like in life, we come to a crossroad and we have to consider the possibilities. In this case, I had to decide what worked best for the story. It wasn’t about what I wanted to do. Sort of like a parent with their child, I had to let my story loose and hope for the best. Sometimes it works out, other times it doesn’t, but I believe we have to take chances as artists. We never know if something will work out unless we try it.

RB