Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

All Writing Can Be Personal

June 23, 2018

You don’t need to write something that discusses politics, spirituality, or personal details to write something that is political, spiritual, or personal.  The very act of writing is all of those, even if it appears to be (or professes to be) none of them.  There’s something inherently personal about sharing your own words and thoughts, even if they don’t always seem like yours.  By sharing your writing, you are placing a certain amount of trust in your audience.  While sharing very personal writing, like a diary, is exposing yourself to the World, allowing readers to study who you are and, perhaps the most chilling aspect of it all, to make determinations about what you are.

Today, I had the opportunity to share at Community Writers.  I heard a tribute to an 88 year old man who always encouraged others to publish, I witnessed a four part poem (including a two-voice third act) that gave tribute to Beethoven, and I found out why not everybody necessarily wants to go to Hawaii.  One person shared about the 43 years that they have been with their husband, another shared about losing their mother, and another shared about a spiritual experience that they had on the Big Sur River.  What did I share?  I shared a moment from a work in progress, Their Sharpest Thorns, in which my protagonist gets distracted from his main objective.  What I shared was not personal, or political, or spiritual, but it was my writing.  I’ve come a long way in the past year, moving past my first experiences in front of other writers — minutes spent shaking and  stammering as I shared excerpts of the very novel that I shared today.

I’m learning to speak with a more deliberate pace.  So far, sharing my work out loud has been like having to change clothes in your car: the faster you go, the lower the chance that you’ll be exposed.  Today, I think I succeeded. I spoke deliberately.  I think I’ve improved, and the reason why is something that is personal.

As you might suspect, another hobby of mine is reading.  I love to read — particularly if what I’m reading is Stephen King. I’ve spent hundreds of hours reading King.  I’m not even entirely sure how many times I’ve read The Stand, On Writing, and The Gunslinger.  Reading is a very personal experience, and a very personal hobby.  After all, I will gravitate to my personal favorites, as well as books that pique my curiosity, and perhaps my guilty pleasures.  Everybody does this.  Their preferences and selection is personal; even if you are one to share books, you may not share the same perception of the same books. As such, not many people I know share my love for Stephen King’s work.  Lately, I’ve met a few King fans.  During a group hike, I bonded with a new friend over our love for Stephen King.  I didn’t tell him even half the story.  One of the items that I omitted was that I’ve been reading Stephen King out loud to my son.

Reading Stephen King to a child might make you cringe, especially when you think of all of the bloody and disturbing imagery that has come from Stephen King’s fingertips.  I’m not too worried about that, right now, as the book that I’ve been reading is docile compared to King’s bloodier works. Reading out loud has been unusual, and I find it to be very interesting trying to read another author’s work out loud.  I haven’t done this since I was a teacher — but that’s another story.  Reading another novelist’s work out loud is not as difficult as reading your own work out loud — at least, not on an emotional level — but I find myself stumbling on words that I already know well because Stephen King’s voice is not my own.  His word choice and pacing is not the same as my own.  As I read King, I have to keep myself from phrasing things the way that I expect them to be phrased, rather than how King would phrase them.

Thus, as I’m slowly training myself to orate more deliberately, I am slowly training myself to expose my writings to others. It may not be political, or spiritual, or even all that personal, but learning to trust readers with my writing sure feels like a personal endeavor.

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What’s in a Name?

March 21, 2018

For the past several months, my wife and I have been floating names around in preparation for a new arrival. We have a ways to go, as no names have stood out as being the surefire name if it’s a boy or if it’s a girl.

In my moonlighting career, naming has always been a difficult part of characterization.  I sometimes just throw in a random name to see if it sticks.  Other times, I’ll select the name of a celebrity — perhaps with nothing to do with the character itself — and think that I won’t be so stupid as to leave someone named Cary Grant in my novel.

Recently, I watched the first two seasons of The Magicians, a SYFY TV series based on the Lev Grossman books. For those of you who are not as familiar with the book or television series, the story follows Quentin Coldwater and his friends at Brakebills, a university for magicians.  If you think that it’s reminiscent of a certain JK Rowling book, you wouldn’t be mistaken. Of course, the novel adds a bunch of things that would appeal to college students: sex, drugs, and self-loathing. Aside from the obvious similarities between Brakebills and Hogwarts, the book centers around someone finding out that magic, and the ersatz Narnia, is real.

At any rate, I tore through the first book about five years ago, was ready to order the second book on Amazon, and then came to the last third of the book. It ticked me off so much that I decided to hold off on buying the second.  I still think I will buy it eventually, but other things go in the way — and I have a lot of books in the queue.

One of the main characters — and perhaps my favorite character in the book and the show — is Alice.  At first, I didn’t know what to make of a character named Alice.  I’ve never met an Alice before.  Yes, I remember Alice from Alice in Wonderland, and perhaps particularly well from the Disney animated movie or the CBS miniseries with a who’s who of Hollywood.  I’m a little too young to remember Alice from The Brady Bunch, but I’ve seen my fair share of Nick at Night.  Through all of that, I don’t think I’ve ever met an Alice in real life.  At first, I couldn’t picture a young Alice — an Alice that was a living, breathing college student full of her own hopes and insecurities.  Soon, the character became an image that I associate with the name.

The Magicians show presents a slightly different Alice than the books, but the actress in the Alice role makes it her own.  By changing the character from a raven-haired girl to a blonde, the show suddenly evokes the classic Alice from Lewis Carroll, whether or not it intended to make that connection.  Alice is still the determined, often sullen, and occasionally morose character she was in the book, but she is more vibrant and well-rounded than she was in my mind’s eye. Much of the Netflix series still bothers me, but at least the actress did justice to Alice.

The name Alice, from its very roots, evokes the idea of someone who is noble in both behavior and appearance.  I’ve named characters based on a variety of items, including the name meaning, and that is sometimes what makes naming someone — fictitious or real — so difficult.  What does the name mean? Who does it remind you of? Do you have fond memories of that person, or are you naming the villain John Smith just to spite ol’ Johnny from down the street?  I continue to grapple with this, and probably will do throughout my career as a writer.

Of course, it’s much more challenging when the person you’re naming is real.  Even though I am actively writing The Best of You, I have a feeling that I’ll settle on names for a real person long before all of my characters have their final monikers.  This could take a while!

Generosity Helps Your Babies Grow

March 18, 2018

It’s time to get a little long and meandering… so you might want to buckle up.

There are a few things that I’m not sure I’ve mentioned in this blog.  One is that I briefly studied Buddhism in college. It was a survey course, and spent more time discussing the history and ideas behind it than the practice, but it was a Buddhism class nonetheless.  The closest we got to practice was a field trip to the Buddha Gate monastery in Lafayette. One of the items discussed in this class was the schools of “Theravada” vs. “Mahayana.”

I’m sure what I’m about to say is laden with political undertones, but this is how it was conveyed to us.  Theravada (lit. the teaching of the elders) tend to follow the belief that only the few can attain enlightenment, and that they do it on their own.  Mahayana (lit. the great vehicle), on the other hand, tend to follow the belief that the community of practitioners can lift themselves up and help lift others up.

So, what does this mean to me? Lately, I’ve been hearing and sensing more about the great vehicle, the (sometimes informal) network of people who are out there helping others. As many of you readers know, we are going through a period of great change in our personal lives.  At some point in the next month, my wife and I will have our first child.  We will be, and have always been, partners in a new adventure — something that we’ve never been particularly close to before.  Yes, we have friends and family with children, but seeing them with their kids is an every-now-and-then thing.  Soon, it will be an everyday thing.

Along the way, we’ve had friends offer to throw us baby showers, friends and rarely-seen neighbors offer to be part of a meal train, friends giving us gifts outside of baby showers, and overwhelming community support.  All of this is, indeed, overwhelming, but some of the most overwhelming things have come from people that are relative new to our lives.  For instance, my coworker gave me a gift certificate that is pretty hefty.  A close friend, the officiant for our wedding, gave us his childhood stuffed raccoon — this wasn’t all that he gave us/our child, but the sentimental value of your childhood stuffed animal is enormous.  Our friend, the officiant, is a Zazen Buddhist and a member of a collective of teachers in a nearby sangha, so it is clear that he is doing this with an understanding of Tanha (lit. thirst), the understanding that one of the causes of suffering is grasping or longing for things that have passed. Nevertheless, the amount of generosity of spirit is a little overwhelming.

The amazing thing is that this isn’t the only extremely personal gift we’ve received.  Over the past year-plus, we’ve grown closer to a writer friend of ours.  We see her at social gatherings, and in my writer’s group.

A few months ago, a pair of friends offered to host a baby shower for local friends, as we’d already had one for family.  One of them volunteered their home, and the other volunteered to coordinate everything.  Again, the generosity was overwhelming; we happily accepted. We asked that our writer friend was invited to a baby shower hosted by another one of our friends. I wasn’t there when she arrived, but I was able to see her as the event was winding down.  When we opened the gift from her, we saw (among other things), her childhood copy of Hans Christian Andersen, a book that followed her all of the way across the country, through the decades as she grew from a little girl to an independent woman. Again, the largesse of such a gift is astounding.  Beyond what our writer friend has given us, thinking about the whole of what we’ve received as gifts and as hand-me-downs, it is amazing to think of how personal these items were, and how long gifts like the raccoon and the Andersen book have been a part (however small or large) of somebody’s life.

Beyond the gifts that we’d already received to that point, there was more. This writer friend also let it be known that another writer friend was trying to locate us.

And it happened. Just about a week ago, another writer friend visited my wife at home, with a big bag of goodies, built upon a collection from our writer’s group.  I don’t know the history of the writer’s group as well as I should, but it appears that we will have the first child from the writer’s group.  I suppose it makes sense, as my wife and I are perhaps 15 years younger than the next youngest group member, and even if the group had been around for 15 years, their children would have likely been older when it started.  Regardless of how it happened, a group of people that I have seen no more than once a month for just over a year have thought enough of us to gather a fund for a stuffed lamb, sundries for both the baby and the parents, and Anne Lamott‘s Operating Instructions: A Journal of my Son’s First Year. Yet again, their generosity and thought surprised me, not because of who they are, but because of what they did.

Moving beyond sharing of our friends’ astounding generosity, I wanted to mention a few small things about writing.  First, writing is a combination of Theravada and Mahayana.  Getting good writing out there is the effort of the individual, built upon from the wisdom of those that have been there before.  You wouldn’t be inspired to write had it not been for those writers that you enjoyed as a youth — for me, that’d include C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, and Tolkien, among others.  You need to put in the work for your writing to amount to anything.  At the same time, a manuscript is just like a child.  I’m sure you’ve heard about the philosophy of Ubuntu, or the notion that “it takes a village to raise a child” by now.  A manuscript is no different in that respect. It takes a village of people, from your beta readers, to your writer’s group, to your various editors, to turn good writing into great writing.  They are practicing the art of giving, and are generous with their time, their input, and their willingness to simply read or listen.

Entrusting my writing to others was always difficult for me when I was younger, but that is another tale entirely.  However, now that I am older and looking to fulfill another lifelong dream, I am glad that I have shared my stories with Community Writers, and that I have had such a supportive community of writers, encouraging me to keep writing.  Even with all of the words that I have committed to paper, Word, and the virtual ether, it is still difficult for me to find the right words to express that gratitude.  Hopefully, this helps. (more…)

Laugh. Smile. Breathe. Live.

March 11, 2018

So here we are again.  We’ve had another long delay between posts.  So far, there’s good reason, and the reason still isn’t here yet.  As many of you know by now, my wife and I are expecting our first child.  We’re predicting it will come sometime between today and Tax Day (April 15th for those of you outside of the US).  We’ve encountered people from all walks of life who have been willing to share words of wisdom with us, and it has been interesting to hear all of the different perspectives.

Yesterday, we ran into a roofer friend of ours at Costco, and he told us a compelling story.  At one point, a friend of his approached him with an interesting proposition.  She wanted to cross something off of her bucket list.  He was happy to oblige.  What was it, you might ask?  Skydiving.  She wanted a friendly, supportive person who could be there for her when she jumped out of a plane at ~13,000 feet.

Fast forward a few weeks, and our friend is up there in the plane, chatting with the skydiving instructor.  The instructor, a grizzled veteran of thousands of jumps (and I believe an army vet, to boot), was trying to encourage a lot of first time jumpers.  He was there with a rookie who was just trying to get his certification.  The instructor tells our friend that the rookie was likely to jump and then wake up on the ground, wondering how he got down there (presumably because someone with a little know-how saved his butt).  The instructor warned our friend that one thing nervous people forget to do is breathe.  So, the instructor gave our friend this advice, which he shared with us, and I will share with you.  When you jump, don’t forget to laugh, to smile, and to breathe.

Our friend shared this information with us in the hopes that it would help with our transition from a duo to a trio.  The prospect of childbirth has us bristling with anticipation, and shaking with nerves. However, he’s right, we just need to laugh, to smile, and to breathe.

I was ruminating on this, thinking that this would be something great to share with folks, and then I realized that this is also appropriate for writing.  We’ve all been in t hat situation where we just need to put something on the page, but we can’t.  Of course, we then need to put something good on the page, but whatever comes out just doesn’t look right.  We make mistakes.  As Stephen King said, he once wrote about “shooting peasants” rather than “shooting pheasants.”  Sometimes, we cringe at the mistakes that we make, but we catch them as we’re editing.  Other times, we aren’t so fortunate.  Some times, we’re asked to share something in front of others, and it all comes out at once.

For all of the times that we struggle to write, to read our work, and to share our work, maybe we should take a page from that skydiver.  Don’t forget to laugh, don’t forget to smile, and don’t forget to breathe.

Misspoken Words

February 12, 2018

One clip that has seemingly gone viral over the past two weeks is the Finnish comedian Ismo on Conan O’Brien, and his various uses of the word “ass.” I find comedy like this interesting, and also the chief reason why George Carlin was so successful for so many years. (Warning: links contain somewhat vulgar language)

It reminds me about how language is something that is dynamic, and how language in our writing can date us.  No, I’m not talking about spelling — though I will never accept “thru” as an appropriate replacement for “through” outside of where people get their hamburgers.  No, I am talking about certain words or phrases that place you and your characters in a specific era or a specific region.  It can give identify you as having a certain political, religious, or social affiliation.  It can also make you unintentionally funny.

I Could(n’t) Care Less

For instance, I’ve recently heard a growing number of people, both in person and in shows, say “I could care less.”  The problem, of course, is that the wording of the phrase implies yes, you could conceivably care less.  The reality of the situation is that you’re typically saying “nothing is less important to me right now.”  In other words, you could not care less. So, the next time you hear someone say “I could care less,” you might want to answer “go ahead.”

Literally

There’s two words that pop up constantly, particularly around here. One is “literally,” and the other is “hella/hecka.”  The first, literally, is one that is used so carelessly, so casually, that I don’t think people even understand the word beyond its use as an intensifier. I don’t think it means what you think it means.  If, by chance, you do not know what it means, here’s a crash course: literally comes from the word “littera” or “a letter,” thus literally means by the letter.  In other words, literally means the exact definition of the word.  To put this in context, I’ll give you a few examples of phrases that you’ll hear a fair amount, and the equivalent of what people are really saying.

“I literally died,” to mean “I was embarrassed / dejected / laughing so hard I could hardly stop myself,” by the letter of the word, is much closer to saying “I must be a spirit or apparition talking to you, because in that moment, I ceased living.”

“I literally sh** myself” to mean “I was laughing so hard at that,” by the letter of the word, is much closer to saying “I don’t have control of my bowels, so I soiled my pants and was walking around the rest of the night smelling like I have a loaded diaper.”

“I’ll literally just be a second,” to mean “I’ll be quick.” What it actually means… “One-one-thousand, two… oops, I’m a liar.”

Hella

Moving on to a regional slang term; “hella” is a word that people will blame on Northern California, because it may have originated in Oakland in the 1970s.  It is simply a shorter form of “hell of a” or “hell of a lot of,” and both of these longer phrases are fairly common, regardless of region.  As a native of Santa Cruz, which would be more closely affiliated with Northern California had it not been for the influx of Southern Californians attracted to the “Surf City” vibe of Santa Cruz and the physical distance from their parents, I knew many Santa Cruzans who hated the term “hella.” We would blame it on “transplants” or “trannies” from other cities.  Few of us, at the time, appeared aware that even our terms “transplants” or “trannies” have completely different meanings in different contexts.  No, we were simply referring to those folks coming from “out of town.”

Nevertheless, when I went to college, I remember several people saying something to the effect of “if you’re from Northern California, why don’t you say ‘hella?'” To the best of my recollection, the most flagrant offenders of the word ‘hella’ came from far flung places such as Seattle (specifically Mercer Island), Los Angeles, or San Diego.  In our little enclave of Santa Cruz, the term ‘hella’ meant you were an outsider, much like any of you who referred to Highway 1 as “the One” or Highway 17 as *shudder* “the 17.” A lot of people who dislike the word ‘hella’ might dislike it because it has the word ‘hell’ in it.  Sure, that’s a mild vulgarity for the Christian set, I sort of get it, in the sense that nobody wants to be reminded of the place where bad people go when they die, but those people who are offended by ‘hell’ in ‘hella’ sometimes will even be offended by the word ‘hello.’  These people are probably also offended when they see the word shiitake to describe a species of mushroom or the Tampa Bay Devil Rays being named after a cartilaginous fish, so I guess I just have a very thick skin when it comes to words.

Hell

Those who object to “hello,” may instead say “Heaven-O,” but this is clunky and just as offensive to social mores.  Furthermore, it is taking something that has nothing to do with Heaven and Hell and turning it on its head.  “Hello,” popularized by Thomas Edison, is a word of somewhat disputed Germanic origin.  Many Germanic-root languages (English included) have a word or phrase of similar meaning that is similar phonemically to “hello.”  Even a few Romance languages have the terms “hola” or “holà” that have similar meanings, and come as loanwords from early or Proto-German. In general, hello is not believed to be of the same origin as “hail,” as in “Hail, Caesar,” but even “hail” is German.

Hell is also German, and is used to describe the netherworld, but it was not a term that was used in Abrahamic religions until Christianity was introduced to Germanic people.  Yes, there was a pre-Christian Germanic underworld (particularly in Norse mythology, where we get the term ‘Hel’ as a proper name for the queen of the dead. However, the term that now offends people of certain religious backgrounds was not found in Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, or Latin versions of the Bible, and has the same origins as the term “hall” to describe a “covered place,” as in “I have to go to Study Hall this afternoon rather than sit outside.” Come to think of it, maybe “hall” and “hell” haven’t changed much in meaning.

Still, when I hear people object to the word ‘hell,’ I don’t think that they understand that the four letter word is simply representing an idea, and that the word doesn’t mean what they think it means — at least, not exactly.

It Started with Hook… sort of

February 7, 2018

It has been a stressful week at work, and I’ve had to drop one project with a deadline for another.  In times like these, I put on my headphones and try to disappear into my work.  It certainly helped, as I hardly realized that 5 o’clock passed, let alone 6 o’clock.  Soon, I was making my way back home at 6:30.  Definitely not a late night, but later than I intended.

When I put my headphones on, I only listen to music.  It can be music of any kind, but it often helps if there’s no lyrics.  Today, I started off listening to classical music (Sheherazade — a name that I can never pronounce correctly, just ask my wife) and then moved on to movie soundtracks.  I went from one movie that I enjoyed as a kid (ET: The Extra-Terrestrial) to another (The Neverending Story) and yet to another (Hook).

I’ve had many opportunities to grow misty-eyed over the past several months, and they’re mostly about family, both past and future, but Hook had me misty eyed for a few different reasons.

First, you might remember the children’s play, where they’re singing about men having to show up to work in “shirt and tie — yuck!” all while Peter ‘Banning’ has his cell phone in hand, on the phone with Brad.  Banning was so wrapped up in being a man… being “the man” that he forgot to be Jack and Maggie’s father (and Moira’s husband). He forgot what it was like to be himself, until he was forced to remember.  As Toodles said “Have to fly, have to fight, have to crow.”  I don’t think anyone ever wants to forget who they are, or who they were, let alone forget their childhood.

What’s the key takeaway for writing here?  Well, don’t forget that your characters were once children, too!  They have moments in the past that have shaped who they are as characters, and indelible memories that they hold onto for years and years.

The rest of this doesn’t have much to do with writing (but it does have something to do with baby… surprise, surprise).

Hook was a big part of my childhood.  Robin Williams. Stephen Spielberg.  John Williams.  Dustin Hoffman. Julia Roberts.  Should I go on?  As a matter of fact, Williams was the actor of my childhood.  I just have to shake my head thinking about all of the times that I tried to mimic  Genie’s scatting portion from Aladdin’s “Never Had a Friend like Me,” or the times I tried to sound like Mrs. Doubtfire when I said “hello,” or how (much later) I even started one of my college radio shows with the sound clip “Goooood Morning, Vietnam! This is not a test, this is rock and roll!”  Robin Williams wasn’t just some actor, he was your goofy Uncle Mork.  Yes, I know that he’d probably turn heel and run if I called him that (hell, ‘Mork’ might as well have done that), but there were so many stories and so many moments that all burst from the screen.  I must admit that I didn’t quite understand Moscow on the Hudson when I was 8 years old, but neither did the critics.  As I matured as a viewer, I even enjoyed some of the critical flops, from RV to The Crazy Ones  — especially The Crazy Ones.

It’s not that I expect Spielberg or Hoffman or Roberts to leave the profession any time soon, but I lament the fact that my children will never know what it’s like to see a brand new Robin Williams film, and may never get to uncover that Robin Williams special where the beloved star of stage and screen does something that you don’t expect. Robin Williams could make a scene.

Williams is about the same age as my parents, and his big break in acting came before I was born, so I have never known a world before Robin Williams.  I have also never known a world without John Williams, the prolific composer who is almost a given with any Spielberg or Lucas directed film.  Spielberg, Lucas, Altman, Jewison, Eastwood, Penn, Stone, Donner, De Palma and Hitchcock all used Williams throughout the ’70s and ’80s.  Add Ron Howard, Chris Columbus, and JJ Abrams to the list, and you have an unbeatable set of 13 directors who have all textured their feature films with John Williams’ work.  Having a lesser composer may have ruined some of these movies.  Others may have stood a chance, but John Williams’ work is unmatched in his field.  As I listened to John Williams’ penned soundtrack to a Robin Williams movie, I thought about how my child will likely only get to hear about Robin Williams (and perhaps John Williams) in the past tense.  Robin was… John Williams was… I wonder who will eventually fill their shoes.  Will it be somebody that we already know?  Will someone look at Jack Black’s career, 20 years down the road, and talk about how he reshaped comedy?  Will someone listen to Jonny Greenwood’s work on There Will Be Blood and say “this is the score that began the legend? It’s hard to imagine what things will be like when my child is 30.

As a writer, I aspire to be the kind of writer that can be self-sustaining.  I aspire to be the kind of writer who publishes because he enjoys it, and not because he is forced to or because he needs to make ends meet.  Unfortunately, I also understand how things can be fleeting and a product of their time.   Robin Williams, rainbow suspenders and all, probably wouldn’t have been able to get his break today because people are more interested in the so-called real life farce that is reality TV, and Williams was suitable as a man-child from another planet.  J.K. Rowling was a revelation as Harry Potter‘s creator, but her book might not be so effective in twenty years.  After all, what happened to Franklin W. Dixon, R.L. Stine, and the popularity of Louis L’Amour?  Okay, granted several of them aren’t with us, but these names have not ascended to the pantheon of LitFic, and the average 20 year old probably doesn’t even remember these names.

Every now and then, I watch this YouTube show called “Teens React: Do They Know…” and it’s always something like “’90s Music”  (by the way, it’s as if Alternative and Grunge never existed).  Some day in the future, perhaps when my child is old enough to be on that show, teens will react to a Robin Williams movie or a John Williams score and say “this guy is good?  This is who?  Robin Williams? Oh, I think my dad mentioned something about her.  Wait, she’s a guy?”

I can guarantee that my son or daughter will know Robin Williams, just as he or she will know John Williams; ET: The Extraterrestrial; and, yes, Mork calling Orson.

 

Visualization: Something that Has Helped me Write and Run

February 5, 2018

You wouldn’t believe it by looking at me now, but I was once a distance runner.  I wasn’t the fastest on the team — in fact, I was frequently the slowest — but I could keep going for miles and miles.  When I was a freshman and sophomore, one of the older runners took me under his wing.  We’d frequently run back home from cross-country practice.  It would add a mile here and there, and as much as three if we were running back from the school, but it was worth it.

Two years into my high school running career, I was suddenly one of the oldest (or at least longest tenured) members of the team.  There were four of us who didn’t quite make it all four years together, but we started out as the low men on the totem pole and spent several great years as teammates.  Our coach, Clare, retired, and our track coach, Victor, became our cross-country coach.

Victor’s coaching philosophy was a bit different from Clare’s.  Whereas Clare emphasized long runs and getting out there on the trails, Victor spent a lot more time focusing on speed work and cutting down times.  We learned more about stretching, and a fair deal about the mental aspect of cross-country racing.  Included among these many moments of focusing on the mental race, we learned about body scanning.

So, what is body scanning?  I’m sure you’ll find a much better description of this (and that Victor was doing his own  blend of body scanning and visualization techniques), but what it is, essentially, is getting in touch with where you are in that moment.  It is mindfulness, and mindfulness of everything that is going on — starting from the tip of your head and going on down to your feet.  Victor would take it a step further, and we’d try to imagine ourselves on the track (or on the path), getting ready to start our race.  We’d focus on things like our breathing, our form, and how we were going to think as we got out there in the race.

Now, one thing that I haven’t mentioned about this whole thing is that we did it lying down, on a concrete floor (or sometimes the rubbery composite of the high jump area), and that we’d have our eyes closed.  Body scanning and visualization wasn’t something that we did just for a few moments — no, this would last fifteen minutes at a time.   Because of the nature of this whole scenario (lying horizontal, eyes closed), members of the team would sometimes fall asleep.  There were three or four frequent offenders, but I think that many of us came close, on occasion.  I would stand up after these body scanning exercises a little drowsy, but overall feeling quite well, and confident about the whole thing.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical of the whole thing at first, but it proved to be useful, even long after my running career ended.  For the first half hour or so of me trying to fall asleep, I’m a light sleeper.  As my college roommates will tell you, I’m a “chalk outline” (to quote my friend Steve) when I eventually do fall asleep.  Until then, I’m thinking about everything other than what it will take for me to fall asleep.  It was particularly bad for me when I was a college freshman.  My freshman year was split between two dorms, and involved roommates that were seldom even back in the room before I was in bed (or had guests as I was trying to crash out).  It may have seemed weird, but by practicing my breathing or by performing a body scan, I could (sometimes) help myself fall to sleep more easily than I otherwise could have.

Fast forward a few more years later, and I’m now awaiting fatherhood.  My wife and I are taking a baby class, and our instructor, Lily, has us go through guided meditation and body scans, all of the while focusing on our breathing.  For the past few years, I haven’t been using this as a sleep aid, but this practice now takes me all of the way back to when I was in high school, running cross-country and track for Victor, Phil, Anthony, and the team.

So, as this is (mostly) a writing blog, you might be wondering what all of the above has to do with writing… or, specifically, with my writing.  When I write, I don’t always look at the screen or the keyboard.  In fact, I don’t always have my eyes open; that’s for editing!  When I tilt my head back and close my eyes, I can sometimes make out the shapes, the form, or the texture of the story.  I can sometimes picture a character much more clearly than I can envision him with my eyes open.

Visualization, if not exactly body scan, helps me define the physical aspect of a character.  Does he have a broad nose or a thin nose?  Does he have a moustache, or stubble, or is he clean shaven?  Now, some of these factors may not matter at all.  I can’t recall an incident where somebody’s facial hair became an important plot point in my own writing) although I recently saw an episode of Eugene Levy’s Schitt’s Creek where it was.  Other factors may become defining traits for an individual character; this is the case in my first novel, where a father and son had the same defining trait, and their reasons for that same pronounced trait becomes a relevant plot point.

I’m not the most qualified person to speak about the how or why about using body scan and visualization in your daily life.  However, I can say that it has been useful for me as a writer.  I am still trying to figure out how I can incorporate it into aspects of my life outside of writing.  I suppose that is what the baby class is designed to do.  However, I encourage you to look into it and attempt to augment your writing experience with some visualization, body scans, and overall mindfulness.

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As an aside, I’d like to give a plug for my former coach, Victor Dubin.  Victor is a yoga instructor and business owner in downtown Santa Cruz.  He owns Nourish, a holistic wellness center in downtown Santa Cruz, alongside his wife, Jocelyn, a nutritionist.  Check them out here: Nourish

I’d also like to give a plug to the Mindfulness Birthing Program.  I’m still learning about the program, as we’ve only had a few classes.  I am appreciative of the ideas that our instructor, Lily, has imparted upon us, and I hope to learn more.  You can check out the umbrella organization that trains mindful childbirth instructors in Santa Cruz here: Mindful Childbirth Santa Cruz.   I don’t know if our instructor is still directly affiliated with them, but she does speak fondly of its leadership.

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As a second aside, I’d like to give a shout out to my friend, Dan.  Dan is the guy who, two years my senior, mentored me when I was a young cross-country runner.  We had some great times together.  My favorite is when the two of us ran a 4×400 meter race, each taking two 400 meter legs because our track team was so small that we didn’t have enough middle-distance runners for a 4×400 team.  He was running down from being a miler/2-miler, and I was running what was then the upper limit of my track races — I didn’t start doing 800 meter races regularly until I was a junior.  We even ran “against” a women’s 4×400 team that had one of the best female runners to come out of our county.  I don’t recall if we beat the Soquel girls’ A-team, but I know we beat at least one of the teams that was out there on the track that night — if we hadn’t been disqualified for having too few runners. This is one of the fondest memories I have from my entire high school experience, and it is one that I wish we both were capable of repeating.

An Unmanly Thing Happened on the Way to Fatherhood

February 4, 2018

Yesterday, I did something decidedly unmanly.  Of course, in this era, it’s hard to say what is manly and what is false bravado. So, what did I do?  I participated (albeit briefly) in a baby shower.  As far as manly things, this is probably just a peccadillo.  After all, I wasn’t wearing baby blue or pink or doing anything that would make me seem like anything more than the expecting father around a bunch of female family members.

As far as guests went, it was mostly family… and that’s what prompted this post.  I spent most of the day down the street at my grandparents, where my grandfather and I sat back, talked basketball, golf, and politics.  We lamented about the fact that people were hooting and hollering at the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale, treating it like it was a Sun Devils baseball game.  We even talked a little bit about the Super Bowl, and how my grandpa’s local pool had people who picked either Philadelphia or New England to win it all when they started their pre-season picks.  When I looked around that gathering, I saw my grandmother, my grand-aunt, all five of my aunts, and 6-of-8 of my cousins (or their significant others) — as well as two of the seven members of the next generation.  I saw my sister, my sister-in-law, my mother and my mother-in-law, and my wife and our future child.  We all come from different walks of life, and have shaped our perceptions based on our experiences.  There were, of course, little things that keep us connected, but the biggest thing that connected most of us there was our heritage and the kinship of family.

There is something that all eight of my cousins (as well as my sister, myself, my future child, and a few members of the next generation of cousins) have in common: my mother has crocheted something for each of them.  In fact, my cousin’s daughter had brought hers the baby shower!  Our future child received the latest crocheted artwork yesterday.

Between hanging out with my grandfather and spending time with my aunts and cousins, I was able to look at a lot of pictures.  In the blur of the day, I’m not sure if it was on my grandparent’s bookshelf or my aunt’s bookshelf, but I came across an old photo that I’ve always remembered.  It was a summer event – perhaps a July 4th barbecue, because July 4th was always very big for our family.  It was a hot day, and the cousins (8 of us on that side) were in and out of the pool.  Eventually, we got together for a picture.  So much has changed since then.  The oldest of us were probably pre-teens, maybe early teens, and the youngest were still in early grade school.  I was always tall for my age, but back then I looked like I could have been twice the size of my younger cousins.  My uncles were all there.  All were young, healthy and full of life.  Unfortunately, all of them are now gone.  Life has changed so much for my grandparents, my aunts, my parents, and all of us cousins, but that picture represents a memory of the good times, before the weight of adulthood reached half of us.

All of these people, both in the picture and at the baby shower, have impacted my life in some way.  Yes, I didn’t really know some of my mother-in-law’s friends, aside from pleasantries here and there, but it’s a small world, and I know and appreciate them, as well.

When I think of my writing, I think about the characters and who they are as people.  Are they from a traditional nuclear family?  Have family members been estranged for many years?  Perhaps they’re a divorcee, spinning away from half of their family entirely.  In my first novel, Absconded by Sin, much of the story resolves around one character, Angela, who is alone with her son.  In my current novel, The Best of You, the main character, Guerrero, is out on his own.  Regardless of the lots that they draw in life, they do have family, and it is an important part of their characterization.

When you look at your own characters, draw upon your own family experiences.  You do not (and should not) need to pilfer from cherished memories, but you can always take what you remember and see how something like that might apply to your character.  Was your uncle a carpenter?  Did he build a wall that kept his backyard from flooding?  Was your aunt an animal lover?  Was she always bringing home pets, both domestic and exotic?

As the majority of the family members who have shared this family experience with me are still alive, I will save them from the specifics. I can tell you that the cousins have grown up to be very different people.  We have Democrats and Republicans, people who are looking to pursue their doctorates and people who have led lucrative and fulfilling careers without continuing on to a four year college, Niners fans and Raiders fans, and everybody in between.  I may not share the same views, cherish the same things, or have the same experiences as my aunts and uncles, cousins and every iteration thereof, but I am grateful that I’ve been able to spend time with them.

Maybe some of your characters have had that fulfilling experience with their extended family.  Maybe they remember when Uncle Leo took everybody to the ballgame, or when Aunt Petunia burnt the Thanksgiving turkey.  Maybe they remember their great-grandmother, who lived to be 106 years old and still baked her own bread.  Maybe some of your characters had never met any of their cousins, and have no memories of their grandparents. The experiences that your characters have had in life help add depth to the page, and can add a lot of texture to your stories.  Sometimes, even what was missing from their lives is what deserves to be on the page.

Thank you for your time, and keep on writing!

 

 

P.S., It looks like my grandfather won his pool, and my cousin’s husband got to check something off of his bucket list.  Congratulations, Philadelphia!

 

Photo Credit: qimono via Pixabay

I Need to Zero in on my Zero Drafts

January 28, 2018

Nearly a month has passed between New Year’s and now. Four weeks is a long time, but it never feels nearly as long as it is.  Perhaps I shouldn’t say that to someone going through pregnancy, or rehabbing an injury, or awaiting summer vacation.  These past four weeks have resulted in February staring me in the face, and not one, but two nearly finished “zero drafts” of my novels still waiting to be capped off.

I have deadlines upon deadlines. One, which is self-imposed in a manner of speaking, is to get one of these zero drafts ready for my wife before we have our first child.  That doesn’t give me much time.  The others are to wrap up ongoing projects at work — several of which should have been wrapped up in December.  Standing in the way of all of those (but a good kind of “in the way”), baby classes and basketball games have kept my evenings busy.  I’ve needed to move out of my house and move back into my house and alter my schedule (somewhat) to accommodate construction.

A few months ago, a colleague of mine took an interest in my writing.  This was during NaNoWriMo, when 1,667 words in a night was the bare minimum to keep a project going.  Her first question, and invariably the first question I get when people ask me about NaNoWriMo, was “how do you write so many words in such a short time?  I would run out of things to say.”

In my mind, there are two things that are most effective.  The first is writing whatever comes easy to you, and writing a lot of it.  The second is writing the basic actions that get you from point A to point B.  For some, this might not be all that beneficial; after all, rattling off the action might be what you do better than anything else.   For me, these are what help get my word counts up without bogging things down.  Ironically, writing good dialogue does not come easily to me.  However, it’s easy for me to write dialogue, and a lot of it.  The process of writing dialogue allows me to consider how characters act toward each other, what they think, and what they do, without getting bogged down with any of the details of how they act, what they think, and what they do.  After I write a scene that is almost entirely dialogue, I can go back and fill in everything: blocking, action, and symbolism all come through later pass-throughs. I may not have the meat of the scene, but I typically have some decent bones.

When dialogue and description aren’t coming to me, action usually does.  Again, this allows me to consider the motivation of the scene, without getting into the fact that the Camaro didn’t have a Rally Sport in such-and-such year or that Ronnie had twisted his left ankle, and not his right.  Often, a lot of interesting trivia comes from those action scenes.   Perhaps it comes out that Tony doesn’t have any cartilage left in his knee, or that Annie was the local Aikido champion in 1993.  Perhaps it comes out that Ruth is asthmatic or that Taro has put on twenty pounds due to months of inactivity. These might not be things that I set out to discuss when I penciled in basic character sketches, but it quickly becomes canon.

If I use this philosophy of focusing on dialogue and action, I might have a two-dimensional world when I finish my original draft, but I have a sense of where everything id, and perhaps where I can flesh things out in subsequent runs.  In this way, writing is like a baby, sometimes it gains length, and sometimes it gains weight.  It’s seldom both at once, and it can be difficult to predict when one will overtake the other.

I sometimes use this same philosophy when I write for work.  I work in market research.  Our omnibus syndicated research involves tens of thousands of words, and we try to keep it as current as possible.  This involves a lot of research.  The problem is, half of what my company discusses relates to products.  The other half refers to practices or general design philosophies. It can become difficult to figure out what is new and noteworthy in a twenty year old design philosophy, especially when our updates come every six months.  However, a product usually has a lot happen in six months.  This makes it easy to research, and also easy to write.  For this reason, I may skip pages entirely for a few days, but have other pages that I need to cut short for lack of room.

Over the past few weeks, I haven’t written much for either of my two zero drafts, and I find that I have to read more and more of my copy before I’m ready to add to them.  Fortunately, work is still ongoing, and I haven’t given up hope or interest for these projects.  Maybe I just need to add more to get me from A-to-Z.

What about you, fellow writers?  What do you do that makes it easier for you to put words on the page?  Let me know in the comments below.  In the mean time, thanks for reading and keep on writing!

A Writer’s Thoughts at 1am on Christmas Morning:

December 25, 2017

Christmas goes by many names.  Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, Natale, Noel, Yule, and a host of others.  By tradition, convention, and perhaps even fact, it is celebrated on the 25th of December, every year.  There are some interesting notions as to why it is December 25th (as well as some as to why it is not), but so it is, so it has been, and so it will be.  The time has expanded.  Now, it’s two or three days, and for some people as much as 12.  We had a Christmas feast this year on Friday the 23rd.  We then spent time with one family on the 24th, and will spend time at three different places today (to be fair, I started this much earlier, but couldn’t get the lead out!).  I’ll throw in another two words that I associate with Christmas (and I’m sure I’m not the only one): Family and Gratitude.

I’m grateful to have celebrated Christmas with my family for oh-so-many years.  My first Christmas wasn’t the case.  In a manner of speaking, I was fighting to keep living.  Now, 30-something years later, I’m awaiting a new life in my growing family, and thinking back to all of the many lives that have impacted my own, people that my family has known and lost over the years.  Uncles, grandparents, friends, and family that extend beyond truly linear means have all left us in recent years, but their memories will not.

I am grateful not only for the gifts that they have given me in terms of physical things, but also the gifts they have given me in terms of memories and inspiration.  Inspiration doesn’t always come naturally, and it may take many years for me to evolve and figure it all out.  A lot of times, my inspiration appears in my writing.  I don’t always write with a future dedication in mind, but my two most current projects both have strong ties to the sentiments that I’ve felt at losing a loved one, and both of these people are people that I associate with Christmas.

A few years back, I was in the middle of writing an action-adventure novel, something that was inspired by the works of Robert E. Howard.  Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror, and Solomon Kane were all ubermensches, the noble savages that populated dark worlds of swords and sorcery.  In the middle of my work on this novel, my grandfather died.  Now, my grandfather wasn’t an ubermensch — he wasn’t a musclebound barbarian who was set to take over the World.  No, he was a man with a kind heart, and a man who fought to provide warmth, and understanding, and clarity.

Every year, my family would make the 3+ hour drive (which I’m now told is closer to 4) to visit my grandparents, who lived halfway across the state. My grandpa, and particularly my grandma, loved Christmas, and loved the time spent with family.  They loved showering us with gifts, and making one of my favorite foods with such great care that I felt like I could have been a king in their household.  When we were ready to return home, we would step out into the dry, biting cold of the Central Valley, and make the trip back home to a place that was (even if not warm) much more temperate.

When I created my main character for one of my current ongoing works in progress, Their Sharpest Thorns, I did so with my grandpa in mind.  The main character, Harold Parrish, is a gruff but kind-hearted man, and all he wants is to provide safety and sanity to his community, even as things fall apart.  The parallels between Harold and my grandfather run a little deeper than that, but the protagonist of Their Sharpest Thorns is far from my grandfather.

The protagonist of the next work in progress, The Best of You, is inspired by many people.  One of whom is one of my uncles.  A few years ago, we had a nasty run of deaths in the family, including losing two of my uncles within a few months of each other.  All of my uncles loved baseball, but one of my uncles was a particular baseball fan.  This uncle was particularly generous.  As he was simplifying his life, making plans to ease the transition, just in case such a time came, he gave me his collection of CDs.  He was an absolute audiophile, and the collection of CDs in my house easily doubled overnight. For some, this might be a burden.  For me, it was a blessing, as it gives me something to remember him by, but also feeds another one of my passions: music.  For reference, I was a DJ for about two years, and a radio sports commentator for close to three.

This uncle was the inspiration for The Best of You, a story about one of the greats in a fictitious baseball league.  The main character couldn’t be further from my uncle in personality.  My uncle was humble, and the main character is brash.  My uncle was soft-spoken, and the main character loudly proclaims that he is “Pelayo Guerrero, the best that ever was.”  My uncle was a wonderful family man, a devoted husband, and a supportive father; Guerrero is a self-centered bachelor, who beds a different woman in every city.  So, you may ask, how was The Best of You inspired by this uncle?  For one, it was his love of baseball.  For another, Guerrero is his opposite in so many ways.  However, there is a supporting cast that is a lot like my uncle, his brother (and brother-in-law), and their friends.  These aren’t one-for-one translations, but there are aspects that pull from people that I was accustomed to seeing on Christmas.

So, that leaves me here.  The presents are all wrapped, and the stockings are hung with care (as much as I can, at least), and I am left being grateful for the memories and inspiration.  To all of you, your families, and your future families, cherish the time that you have together.  It may sound hokey, but they are the gifts that you’ll remember.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a… holy heck, it’s 1am!

Happy reading!

Jim