January 15

A Different Perspective

Most of us look at the world from our singular point of view. We have our preconceptions, our opinions, our way of doing things, and all that shapes the way we see and interpret the world around us. This is the sum of who we are, how we were raised, the things we’ve been exposed to (opinions, education, etc.) over the years. 

Obviously, there are both good and bad aspects to having this singular point of view of the world. It often makes us see the world with blinders on so we don’t see the whole picture. It limits us by keeping us in a box. It’s like looking through a cardboard tube. You can see straight ahead, but you can’t see anything on either side. And depending on the circumstance, this can be incredibly dangerous.

As a writer, I feel that a limited perspective can hamper creativity. What I mean is, if I’m only exposing myself to a certain amount of outside input, then I’m not giving myself an opportunity to learn, to grow as an artist.

But it also goes deeper than that. Outside of art, in the real world, forcing oneself to see things from other perspectives is healthy. It challenges us to side other sides of issues, to consider other options and opinions, and it helps us to grow as individuals. Living in a bubble may be comforting, but it’s not realistic. 

Of course, I’m not claiming that every side and every opinion deserves equal consideration. For example, if someone wants to believe the world is flat, that’s their choice and they are welcome to their viewpoint. However, I also know this is bullshit and I won’t waste my time going down that path to explore all their claims. The science is sound and there’s no disputing it, so why give this opinion equal weight? 

I guess there’s a weird gray area when it comes to other viewpoints. What I mean is, we have to use good judgement, reason, and common sense when it comes to exploring other perspectives. And really, even when we consider the facts from all sides, we still have to incorporate our own perspectives and opinions. 

Take exercise. There are facts that support daily, intense cardio for a long and healthy life. But there are other facts that support lower-impact exercise achieving the same goal. In this case, I look at the facts on both sides and determine what’s best for me and my situation. The same applies to economics, politics, even relationships. You may have two people vying for your romantic attention (because you’re a player) so you have to look at both of these suitors, weigh the pros and cons, listen to their arguments as to why each one is the better mate, then make a decision based on your own perspective, feelings, experiences.

Looking at things from different perspectives is healthy, but as I mentioned above, we have to also use common sense and reason. Just because someone has another opinion doesn’t make the right or wrong, they just see things differently than we do. There’s nothing wrong with that, barring they aren’t using their opinion to justify hatred, violence, or being an asshole to other people. 

The point, I think, is to simply keep an open mind and be willing and capable of changing your opinions on occasion. It’ll make you a better person and open you up to all sorts of new ideas. And for creative individuals, this will feed your imagination. 

RB

January 13

Old Photos

Is it weird that I like to look through old photos? Not just family pictures, but also those of strangers. I find it fascinating to look at these moments captured in time, frozen for eternity, and wonder what became of the people.

With family photos, it’s interesting to see the faces, the expressions, and know that I share DNA with these people. Occasionally, I can see how certain facial features or physicality carried on through the generations. The way the eyes are set in a face, or the shape of a nose, maybe a hairline. 

Old photo of two young women.

And with family, I generally know something about the unfamiliar – yet familiar – faces set in black and white or faded color. I know that they had children, where they lived, maybe even when and how they died. There isn’t much mystery there, but it’s still interesting to see them there in my hand and to wonder about their lives. Were they happy? Content? Did they love? Hate? Feel regret? Were they content with their lives or did they long for something more?

Recently, I’ve been helping my partner clean out some clutter at her parent’s house and I’ve stumbled upon several photo albums and boxes filled with old photos. It’s like discovering hidden pirate treasure. Most of the photos are older ones, black and white, sepia-toned, color-tinted. All the faces are strangers to me, people I’ve never met, know nothing about, and I’ve spent far too much time the past few days sifting through these pictures and wondering.

That’s where my weird obsession comes into play. I like to look at these old photos, these strangers, and wonder about their lives. I have no direct relation to these people, no idea what they were like, where they lived, what they might have felt. A few photos may have names, a date, maybe a location scribbled on the back with a pencil, but most are unblemished, leaving me to use my imagination to fill in the blanks.

I  guess it’s the writer in me that enjoys this activity. I get to make up stories about complete strangers, create personalities, wants, needs, desires, fears, hopes, and dreams. That’s an amazing feeling, the creative process. By using the photos as prompts, I also feel like I’m exercising my imagination, giving it a workout, like a light cardio session. I can stare at the faces of strangers and just…well, just make things up. 

For fun, I included a few of the photos in this post so you can have a better idea of what I’m looking at, what I’m actually seeing. Out of curiosity, what is it that you see when you look at these photos? Does your imagination kick into gear and begin to wonder about the possibilities? Do you feel any connection to these strangers from the past? Do you think you may have had anything in common with them? 

I think that old photos are some of the best ways to give my creativity a jump-start. I still have a few hundred photos to browse, but I plan on setting aside some of the more intriguing ones. Maybe there are a few stories hidden in those boxes and photo albums. I’m looking forward to finding them.

RB

December 9

Review – The Name of the Rose

Back in the late 1980s, I saw a film titled, The Name of the Rose, and thought it was fantastic. It starred Sean Connery and Christian Slater, and told the story of murder, intrigue, and forbidden books in a medieval monastery. Connery’s character, William of Baskerville, was a sort of a Sherlock Holmes in that he paid attention to little details to discover clues. Slater played his apprentice, Adso, who also narrates the story as an old man looking back on an exciting part of his young life. Sadly, the film didn’t do well at the box office, but it’s always been one of my favorites. The movie, like so many, was based on a novel by the same name and written by first-time novelist Umberto Eco, an Italian medievalist and philosopher.

Now obviously, I was interested in reading the novel, but I hesitated. This was in part due to the fact that the book was daunting. Over five-hundred pages and filled with philosophy, theology, social and political commentary, and peppered with all sorts of references to other sources – books, art, historical events, biblical prophecy – and was apparently a difficult read. In fact, someone who had attempted to read it warned me that in order to truly understand the novel, a reader needed to be well-versed in medieval architecture, monastic life, philosophy, and fluent in Greek, Italian, and Latin. I decided to pass.

But earlier this year I finally found the courage to pick up a copy of the novel and read it. Of course, I had two choices – a physical copy or an e-book. I went with the physical copy, hardbound, because I knew that if I made it through this beast, I wanted to have a trophy for my bookcase. And yes, if I chose the e-version I would have all the translations at my fingertips. But I felt that was cheating. I wanted the full experience as Eco intended.

Was it a difficult read? Yes and no. The story itself is wonderful. William and Adso arrive at the monestary to prepare for an important theological debate between religious orders. But they arrive just as a murder is discovered, and from there the story turns into a murder mystery that rivals anything Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote. William’s character is definitely inspired by Sherlock Holmes, seeing the minute details of different situations and amazing the other monks with his discoveries.

The mystery – and additional murders – all seem to center on the monastery library, a collection said to rival and possibly surpass the great Library of Alexandria. Books from all over the known world, in all known languages, and many of them forbidden and kept hidden from all but the Abbot and head librarian. William and Adso are told at the very beginning that they are not permitted to enter the library, but they both know that’s where they will find the answers they seek.

The narrative, however, can run into dry spots. Eco was an incredibly intelligent man and the writing shows this. There are pages and pages of theological discussions about the nature of Christ, his poverty, the place of the Church in a changing society. While interesting, it can be a bit of a slog to get through. And no, it’s not necessarily pertinent to the story itself, but it does help to give perspective and background to the many characters. Additionally, with careful reading you can find little clues as to their motivations and possibly the part they may – or may not have – played in the murders.

There is also quite a bit of untranslated Greek and Latin. I did okay with the Latin. Well, I was able to discern small bits. I grew up Catholic, attended mass on a regular basis, and my great-aunt was a nun, so when the Latin was religious text, I was able to make some sense out of it. The Greek was, well, Greek to me and I ended up going online to translate it. There are also a lot of references to ancient texts and religious dogma that I wasn’t familiar with, so I kept my pad nearby for a quick Google search every few pages. I’ll admit, it definitely slowed my reading speed to a crawl, but that was okay. The book – the story – was immersive and having to do this research made the experience interactive. It’s like I was participating in the story to some degree.

I’m glad I finally found the courage to read this novel, and now that I’ve finished it, I plan to re-read it in the near future. The next time, however, I plan to do some research ahead of time to find out what tidbits I missed on my first pass. As I mentioned above, Eco peppered the novel with all sorts of meta-references, so I want to make sure I catch them all. It’s sort of like watching a well-written movie. You watch it the first time for entertainment, but then you go back and rewatch it to catch all the little things you may have missed the first time. To me, that’s good art because it warrants additional viewing, or reading.

If you enjoy murder mysteries, medieval history, philosophy, theology, and a story that blends fact with fiction, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel. But be warned, it’s an undertaking and you may want to go with the e-version to make it easier on yourself. It might also help to watch the movie, first. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation. Plus, Sean Connery is perfect in the role.

RB

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