You Can’t Outrun Who You Are

IMG_0163Enough’s enough.

I give up.

Take this job and shove it.

I quit.

We’ve all been there. Hell, we’ve all very likely been there more than once. There was this one job, way back in college…

Never mind, let’s…err…not discuss that particular incident.

Bad jobs aside, that “I quit” moment can come all-too often in the other spheres of our life just as much as it does with work. I have, for instance, mentioned my serial bachelorhood more than once, I believe.

But what happens when that moment hits you as a writer? Writing isn’t, for me, a job; it’s who I am far, far more than what I do. So what happens when you face that Johnny Paycheck moment in regards to the words? That’s more than the song, that’s more than walking out on a shitty job, that’s real.

I hit that moment.

Oh, I fought it and fought it. I did whatever I had to to balance the “real world” with the writing. But still everything paled and faded. The words and emotions and thoughts weren’t the same.  I wasn’t even connecting with myself, let alone with a reader.

I’ve said it before: I write this blog for others, but I write the stories for me. When even that fails, something has to give.

I had to give up, I had to shift my focus and my efforts. I had to quit.

I quit the real world.

As writers we always talk about the stakes for our characters. What do they have to lose? What is at stake?

Well, for me the stakes were huge: I had writing to lose.

I gave up everything else instead. I put my life into storage, grabbed a couple of bags and agreed to a deal to live and work in Yellowstone for the next six months.

It’s made all the difference.

The words are back, and the honesty and truth of the emotions. I work my ass off five days a week…I hike and camp and drink my ass off the other two days…and I write every chance I get.

Wait, you thought I was gonna quit writing? Are you nuts?

It’s who I am.

The Silence That Never Comes

It took some thinking for this post. It especially took some thinking to use this particular title. Those blessed with good memory may recall that the above is also the working title of the current story I am writing (the sequel to This Place of Wrath & Tears).

Now, for Connor, the title carries the message and symbolism of his search for meaning and value in life. Of his nend to answer the question/problem of “there has to be more to life than this.” I hesitate to call it a search for faith, but in all honesty there is an awful lot of that in there as well.

That search, very obviously, has meaning for me as well. Crap, I wouldn’t write the damn story if it didn’t mean something to me. Just as I wouldn’t create characters, or use themes and subtexts, that are meaningless to me.

I had the day off today, so I went for a hike. Rather than go to one of the well known sites, or use one of the marked trails, I decided to set off for a bit of back-country hiking*.

*Yes, Mom, I carried bear spray and watched out for hungry and/or horny animals.

Where I call home has more than doubled in size since I moved there almost 15 years ago. Do you have any idea how long it’s been, among all those people, since I’ve heard silence? Since I’ve been able to get outside without people and dogs and cars and noise all around me? Hell, even the trails and national forests in my area are crowded and noisy.

I didn’t reach my destination on the hike, but I never expected to. The ground was snowy and marshy, the hills sudden and steep, and the way overgrown and difficult. I walked until I found a good spot and sat for a bit, just looking around me. Again and again I did that.

More than looking around, however, I listened.

I listened to silence.

The sound of tall trees in the wind. The sound of an animal a couple of hundred yards off. A few birds. The rushing of a tiny rivulet from the rapidly melting snow. That’s it, that’s all I heard.

All the things I haven’t heard in ages. All the silence I haven’t heard in…oh…decades, it feels.

Being who I am, I spent the time not just wrapping myself in all that silence but also thinking and planning about the thematic elements of Silence. And about what I want and need to communicate, both for myself and for Connor.

My time finally finding silence, and my thinking about Silence, was a reminder and a reinforcement for me: I write this blog for other people. Oh, I enjoy it, and I get both fun and benefit from writing these posts, but this is by definition something I do for others.

For good or for ill, I write my stories for me. That I share them is a side-benefit. They are more than the way I give life to those ghosts fluttering around me, they are the vehicle for my own thoughts and emotions…both the good and the bad.

That is why I can’t give up the writing, no matter how frustrating it can be. That is why I chose this life, and this outlet. That is why, honestly, it works: a reader doesn’t have to like what I write, but I promise you they will feel what I want to communicate.

Who could ever ask for more?

Ruts, And The Strangers You Meet

I’ve talked a bit before about characters, and about the thought and effort we put into them. But just as important are the assumptions we make about them…assumptions both as readers and as writers.

Jumping with both feet into a an entirely new group of folks, very few of whom know each other, is one hell of a way to start testing your assumptions and judgements about people. It is, honestly, like going to summer camp…just one with plenty of booze to smooth over the awkward bits (and create other awkward bits).

For someone like me, it is also a topic of some interest to expand that thought and wonder how my assumptions about strangers affect those I make about my own characters. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I also weigh all these strangers and new folks for personalities and life experiences to use for my characters…

People surprise me…all the time. In many ways that’s a good thing, since it means I’m not as jaded and cynical as I like to pretend. In other ways, it’s not so good since it means I probably made an ass of myself about them in the first place.

I think we can all agree on the need to be fair and honest in those snap judgments we make, and in the value of that fairness. But to those who read or write, or just plain dream, I will reiterate the broader question I posed above:

How often do you treat the characters that matter to you as strangers? How often do you step back to examine and reevaluate the snap judgments you made about them in the first place? Remember: good characters – characters that are complete and whole – should talk to you, should have depth and demands of their own.  Just like real people. Just like the strangers you meet.

I made assumptions and a snap judgment about one of my characters in Wrath & Tears that I regret to this day. The flaw is not so fundamental that I can’t go back and fix it, but it does mark a failure on my part to let her stand and tell her own story.

I knew, after all the revisions and edits, that I had not done her justice, but it wasn’t until I started trying to think about the assumptions I’ve made about the folks I’ve met up here in the park that I forced myself to really go back and look at her.

You never realize just how much of a rut you can fall into: a rut of people, places and things as much as of thought and experience. I had fallen into seeing and talking to the same people in the same places over and over. A couple of workers put together a “movie night” last night, and I was sitting and having drinks and a good time with several folks that never would have entered my orbit back home in my usual “rut”.

I love it. As a writer I love it, and as I person I need it. I joked about this in Monday’s post, but it really is like summer camp. Or better yet, your freshman year in college. You are, pretty literally, forced into close confines and friendships with folks from far outside your usual norm.

That is an experience and a skill that far too many of us who’ve made it through those early-twenties years tend to forget. Especially when you’re of the more…ahem…introspective type.

The Middle Way

The first bit of advice anyone gives when you start writing is “don’t quit your day job.” That’s not because they want to keep out any new competition, as some people like to charge, but rather it is hard-won common sense.

Writing is a hard way to make a living. Very hard. Even if you bust out short stories and freelance projects every week (along with whatever novels you’re writing, or are intending to write), the money is…well, terrible. And freelance writing is a whole lot like prostitution: you have to get out there and hustle yourself constantly, then be whatever your john…err, client wants you to be.

It’s also a lot of work just to drum up business. I know, I’ve done it…to an extent. It is exhausting, time consuming, and frustrating in the extreme. But writing novels is worse. Those people you see on TV? The writers with the huge advance for a first book, a massive apartment in downtown Manhattan, and hot chicks hanging on their every word? Yeah, they’re about as real, and as watchable, as a Jar-Jar Binks rendition of MacBeth

But how do you write, I hear you ask, when you have to work full-time as well?

It sucks, but there are folks who pull it off. The hard part, unfortunately, comes when your job takes so much time and energy that you don’t have anything left for the writing. There is also, in all honesty, that feeling that you’re not a “writer” at that point. And that is frustrating on an inner level and can (and often will) affect your ability to, well, write.

But there is another concept, one that tries to walk a fine line down the middle of those two options (suffering as a freelancer or suffering as an office monkey). You have to decide what is more important to you: the writing, or the security of steady work. For me, it is – and was – the writing. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I had left a perfectly good career to start my own business anyway…when that business failed, turning to writing just made sense.

Writing had also become more important to me, by that point, than a traditional career.

So I currently try to walk that middle line. That means the writing is first priority for me: everything I do is there to support the words. But, to help with the writing (and the reality of life), I take other work…more than I’d like, actually. Quite intentionally, I do not pursue or get into high-level work. I can’t (well, won’t) commit to a serious, non-writing career-path again, so I focus instead on work that offers the flexibility to live my life the way I want, but also isn’t completely pointless and soul-destroying*.

*By the way, if anyone out there is looking for an ex-sales&marketing-monkey with an overactive imagination and expertise in beer, history and pop-culture trivia, drop me a line…!

When I wrote the post a few days ago about self-confidence – about “the clothes that don’t fit anymore” – this is part of what was on my mind. I gave my youth to work and career (sorta). I don’t regret it, aside from some missed opportunities, but I can’t see going back to that life. How the hell could I ever get the same satisfaction from a sales report, or a marketing plan (or a fucking TPS report, for that matter) that I get from seeing my thoughts and words come to life on the page?

By the way, if you’re wondering, living as a full-time novelist does begin to open up as a possibility (barring amazing luck, perfect timing or pure genius) by the time you publish your fifth or sixth book. Yay, something to look forward to!

Self-publishing, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely. It is also, most assuredly, no faster to reach that point of self-sufficiency than is traditional publishing. Self-pubbing also has its own unique challenges and problems, and is not the “fast cash” many people seem to think (and want).

The Price Of The Words

IMG_0163

There’s an image out there – one I’ll admit to having held myself back in the “good ol’ days” – of the starving, suffering artist. Somehow that suffering, that instability and desperation, made it all…well…better. You could only create if you were broke and on the edge of personal disaster every moment of every day.

What a crock of shit.

I’ve been (relatively) rich, and I’ve been dirt poor. On the whole, rich is better. Anyone who says differently, anyone who points to their “happy days” of poverty, is living in a utopia of nostalgia and selective mental editing.

It is neither noble nor artistically enabling to have no idea if you can make rent next month. Throw in shit like wondering how far you can stretch $3 worth of cheap pasta and canned sauce…or like knowing the places that offer free bar snacks because at those you can get a “meal” for the price of a happy-hour Bud Light…

Why am I talking about this? Mostly because I was thinking about what it takes to write. I do suspect this is a question with no single answer, so all I can do is talk about what’s true for me. And what it takes, for me, is self-confidence. No self-confidence and there are no words on the page.

That is the difference between those who can (and do) write and those who just think/dream of writing. You’ve heard it a million times already: writers write. Well, take it from someone who knows: it is hard to think and dream and plan and then actually put it all down on paper when you’re obsessing about the demands of the “real world”.

Without the self-confidence – and the mental & emotional space – to lose myself in the writing, it is very, very hard to actually write. Honestly, that’s why you see so few new and/or fresh voices published nowadays. It is hard as hell to find (or make) the time & freedom – not to mention the access! – to break into the profession enough to succeed.

This is not a purely economic thing, by the way, and I don’t want to give that impression. I focused on that aspect in this post because, well, money matters. It matters a lot.

This life ain’t Star Trek…there is no space-magic to meet our daily needs. We have to fend for ourselves. Later, in another post (or two) I’ll tackle other aspects of self-confidence, other things that help and hurt. For now, however, I just wanted to note that which ties so many of us together: the frustrations of daily survival and how those affect the work. And note, specifically, how hard it can be to trust yourself, and to find the right thoughts and words, when the light at the end of that tunnel is oh-so-goddamned-far-away.

Sorry, but I have no answers. There are no magic words, and no easy solutions. But, and this is the important bit to know and to remember: you are not alone.  No writer, however we feel, suffers alone.  Whether you know them or not, there are others out there sharing your struggles…and, hopefully, your triumphs!

Want a beer?

[N.B. – this is the post I mentioned a while back, the one I was sitting on…]

All The Bubbles Of Life

You know the weirdest part of writing a pseudo-anonymous blog?  There are only pieces of me in here.  It’s almost like I started with the idea of “I’ll share this much, and no more.”

Of that limited amount, it is the patchwork nature that is most odd.  I’ve talked about – or at least hinted at – my incredibly pathetic, failed lovelife.  I’ve mentioned my obsession with video games and japanime.  I’ve even talked about my very real issues with depression and suicide…both with having far too many friends who killed themselves, and with my own impulses therewith.

But all of those are just snapshots, pictures in an album that don’t even come close to the whole thing.  I’ve never talked about a hockey locker room with 15 (surprisingly sober) players belting out Journey karaoke…or drinking beer with Vaclev Havel…or even my illicit, shameful passion for Downton Abbey

People live their lives in different, discreet little bubbles, and I am no exception.  The writer-me does not really talk to the hockey-player-me, and both look with contempt on the professional-me.  And pretty much every “me” just shakes their head at the introverted/socially-awkward-me.

I started this blog for three main reasons:

First and foremost, I needed to work on “short form” writing.  I’m a wordy bastard.  Always have been, always will be.  Here, however, I get to work on keeping myself to 500-600 words (err, more miss than hit on that score, honestly), while exploring a voice different from what I use in my fiction writing.

Second, this is my venue to explain the choices I’ve made in my long form stories.  Why is Connor the way he is?  Why did I choose the various languages & cultures I use?  Why do I cuss so fucking much?  You get the idea.

And the last bit – the relatively unimportant bit – was to “live-blog” the creative process.  When I started writing seriously, I read all kinds of stuff on the whats and hows, but all were disconnected from the creative process itself.  I started this blog thinking I would record, step by step, that process: from the beginnings of Connor and Oz, to the end of the (sorta accidental) trilogy, I would not only explain what and why, but put those in the context of creating the stories themselves.

Of those three, only #1 has consistently happened.  And, honestly, I have zero problem with that. I love me my “squirrel moments” and the occasional random drunk-post.

So why am I writing this?

I was having lunch the other day and the subject of this blog came up briefly.  As we talked, and even afterwards, I got to thinking about just how much of myself I don’t put in here.  And about how very hard it is to truly know and understand the “entirety” of someone else.

And, yes, I know and understand that that is what marriages and relationships are supposed to be all about. Please, let’s not go there…I can’t even commit to mowing the goddamned lawn, how the hell am I supposed to commit to a wife?!

Not putting all of yourself into a public blog may be understandable, but what happens when you do that with every single person you know and/or meet? When all of the discreet little bubbles of your life are private?

You turn into a writer.  Duh.

The Clothes That Don’t Fit Anymore

I have a post I’m sitting on at the moment. It touches on the challenges of economics for writers. Well, not so much on the specific economics, but rather on the confluence of frustration and desperation that so often comes with that topic for us. And how the despair and pressure can build into a hopelessness that makes it hard to actually, you know, write.

But there’s a hell of a lot more to the frustrations, and the lack of confidence, than just money. So I decided to write a follow-up to a post I’m not sure I’m even going to use. Huh, go figure.

I’ll repeat something I’ve said before: every single writer out there should do something else, something in addition to writing. Some other form of artistic outlet to hone and strengthen your creativity and brain in different ways. Personally, I do photography. I’ve even gone so far as to use it for another (small) source of income.

Now, maybe it’s because photography really is just a hobby for me, but that avocation very much comes second to writing in every way. It has also never ground me down in the same way writing has.

Sure, from time to time I look at a few of my pictures and think, “What the hell happened with this?!” But then that reaction turns into a shrug and recognition that I’ll keep shooting pictures anyway. I can only get better, right?

So why do I struggle to do that with writing?

I have my issues in life, God knows, but there really is nothing so up and down for me as writing. Nothing else that leaves me so often questioning my basic assumptions about myself. Nothing else that can – and does – grind me down in the same way, and make me wonder if “You want fries with that?” is such a bad career move, after all…

We all have them: those days and times when you just can’t muster the energy – or the drive – to craft the words. When that little demon at the back of your mind whispers, “This isn’t for you. You’re not smart enough, not experienced enough, not ready.”

Not, when you get right down to it, good enough.

That demon doesn’t yell and screech. No sir, not for me. But his quiet little voice never goes away. He just whispers and whispers, and sometimes – more often than I’d like to admit – those whispers get through.

I’ve done my time working in offices. I wore the clothes and lived the life of a successful sales & marketing guy. When that little demon gets through, and when the grinding of reality starts to hurt, that’s when I start thinking about putting on again those clothes.

But…

But then those times come when it all clicks. When you craft a scene that, no matter what that little demon whispers, you know just plain worked. For me, those are the times that remind me that being a writer is less what I do and more who I am.

I wear the clothes of a writer now. Every time nowadays that I try to put on those old, professional clothes, it turns me into a dancing bear: a freak and a fool pretending to be something he is not.

I’ve been that guy that parties and has a good time. I’ve also been successful and serious. I’ve seen and done things a lot of folks can, honestly, only dream of. And in the end, nothing I’ve ever done or seen or been can come close to that feeling when a scene just works. That time when the payoff makes all the pain and doubt and despair worth it.

Music and writing go hand in hand for me, so I’ll close with a line from the song that got me thinking about this:

“But the clothes I wore / just don’t fit my soul anymore” – The Gaslight Anthem, “Orphans”

When Creativity Turns To The Dark-Side

I’m a hockey guy.  That, err, might be a bit of an understatement.  I need a hockey 12-step program, to be honest.  We will, however, leave aside my OCD for all things hockey for the moment.  At least for long enough to make my point, anyway…

Both of my teams in the NHL were eliminated from playoff contention a while ago*, so I have this empty space to fill.  This does not make me happy.image

*Yay teams!

So, here I am, writing this post on the weekend of the Masters tournament.  Now, I should point out for the less “sporty”: there is no universe or reality in which golf is a suitable stand-in for hockey.  Shit, golf isn’t even a stand-in for freaking curling!  It does, however, make good background noise for napping and other sedentary activities (like professional bar-flying, for instance).

So one of the sports guys is on TV talking about how the favorite to win the Masters dropped out because his back was sore after tripping on the stairs.

Oh, for fuck’s sake!

Peter Forsberg played a hockey game with a ruptured goddamned spleen!  Shit, I wrenched my back (wiping out on my bike…don’t ask) and did I stop going to the brewery?  No, no I did not.  Now that is professional dedication!

Okay, Mr. Minion, so why the hell are you talking about this?

Excuses.  And, specifically, the making thereof.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a world-class excuse maker.  An old boss of mine finally told me to stop giving him reasons why I wasn’t coming in because they were far more entertaining than the rest of his day.

I’m pretty sure I reached peak-bullshit when I called in sick because I wrenched my elbow saving a toddler from vicious, marauding kangaroos…

img_0011I have mentioned my commitment to full-time slackerdom, have I not?  Believe it or not, I had ambition once.  Once.  Then it met someone better and dumped me.

Shit…now that was a serious squirrel-moment!  Never mind.

Ahem…back to excuses: “I’m still not sure about the direction of the scene.”  “I have more research and prep to do.”  “I’m just not in the mood.”  “I have writer’s block.”

We call ourselves artists and creative professionals…but we are oh-so-good at finding reasons to not do what it is we do.  You cannot be a writer if you do not…I don’t know, let’s see: write.

For me the big problem is being at home versus out in the wild.  I have convinced myself I can’t write at home, so now I can’t write at home.  That, at least, is the excuse I tell myself.  Marauding kangaroos would be more believable…or a sore back from tripping on the stairs.

I am a month behind on Silence at this point.  I have let myself make too many excuses, and found too many reasons to not write.

Writing is, very literally, who I am: if I’m not writing, then who the hell am I?  An under-employed ex-sales&marketing-monkey with delusions of adequacy…?

Hell, the shame alone is enough to make me start writing again!

Writing About Not Writing; or, Where’s My Beer?!

So I’ve been on this “healthy” kick lately. Keep my cardio up, try to lose a few (dozen) pounds, that kind of thing.

A big part of that effort has been riding my bike more and more. Now, that bit really helps…not just with the exercise, but also with the “mood” thing. Aside from a good hike in the mountains, there ain’t much out there better for your mental health than an hour or two riding in the sunshine (and, yes, where I live does have something to do with that).

All is not well in my world, however. Not by a long shot.

Bike riding and healthy eating are not challenging, to be honest. I can do those without missing a beat. No, the problem is that I’ve also been cutting way, way back on beer. And I mean WAY back: I get, while on this kick, all of one visit per week.

That sounds great in theory…until you remember that I do at least two-thirds of my writing in taprooms! Cutting back means I’m not going to breweries. Not going to breweries means – yep, you guessed it – I ain’t writing!

Gah! Fuck my health, I need to write!

The sun is finally back out after two days of freezing rain. Two days in which I’ve been not riding and not writing. A ninety-minute bike ride was exactly what I needed. It felt good. And what do I do right after that oh-so-healthy-ride?IMG_0153

I swear to everything I hold dear, there was a chorus of angels singing around me as I took that first sip (drink, quaff….okay, okay, massive gulp) of beer.

IMG_0152Oh, thank God! I’m not just sitting in my regular seat in my regular taproom…I’m home!

This post came out in about thirty seconds, and the next is already coming together in the back of my mind. So also are some notes for Act II of Silence that need to be done before I can start writing that portion of the story (yes, Act I is done-ish).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to write…

Na zdravi!

P.S.

And, yes, yes…I know it really is all in my head. But, hey, it’s my damned head! At some point I probably need to explore the preconceptions and neuroses that say I can only write when I’m out in the “wild”. But not now. Right now it’s beer:thirty and I’m, err, occupied.

Sinners 3 : Saints 0

Last Friday’s post got me to thinking a bit.  Specifically, it got me to thinking about the future…and about my vision of it.

unicorn-poop-cookiesThe first stories I wrote were intentionally light and easy, largely positive/optimistic.  While I never tried to paint the Star Trek land of puppies and rainbow-shitting-unicorns, I also glossed over a lot of err, reality.  An awful lot.

In what I’m writing now, that “glossing over” ain’t happening.  I am focusing, very intentionally, on the darker side of life.  Corruption, inequity, marginalization, exploitation…you know, all the shit Gene Roddenberry said would be gone!

Now, one thing to keep in mind: I am a cynic.  Possibly even a borderline pessimist, some would argue.  I’m gonna stick with calling myself a cynic.  And no, the glass being half-full or half-empty doesn’t matter.  I just want to know which bastard stole my water!!

Ahem.  Never mind.

The thing that helps me most when I imagine the future?  Studying the past.

History is full of highs and lows, and the future will be no different.  I don’t, however, see the future as totally bleak and hopeless.  Quite the opposite, actually.  But I do see the centuries ahead continuing all the sins of the present.  We very much will continue to visit on our children and grandchildren all of our sins.  Just as our parents and grandparents visited theirs upon us, and their parents upon them.  Call it the birthright from hell.

Humans as a species don’t change much, and certainly not quickly.  Aside from utopian dreams and naive idealism, there is no realistic situation where human nature itself will change.  If we haven’t changed all that much in the previous ten millennia, what makes anyone think things will be any different a few centuries from now?

The technology and locations and names have changed, but humans are still doing the same shit we did back when Ramses thought throwing together a big pile of bricks would be fun.  Julius Caesar could step onto the scene today and have to change nothing but the language…

We will, quite simply, always have peace and war, saints and sinners, winners and losers.  And, yes, we will always have drugs and booze and hookers, too.  Just like we will always have art and literature and music.  Not to go all gnostic on you, but there is always bad to counter the good.

I’ve written in the past about the first items in those pairs I mentioned above.  In Connor’s stories, and in his world, I am writing about the second ones.  I’ve mentioned before that it is more effective and more interesting, for both writer and story, to write about broken people than it is to deal with the perfect (here’s a link to that post), and that very much still holds true.

I could be writing about suicide and alienation and hopelessness from the perspective of a quiet, wealthy suburban kid…but those stories would lack the power and visceral, immediate reality of writing about a couple of street kids.

Besides, in all honesty, it’s just more fun to write about the sinners than the saints…