Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

I am someone for whom the internet was invented. My friends have told me so. It has to do with my generally insatiable curiosity and the ability to ferret out the bits of life’s ephemera, the stuff that amuses and illuminates and unifies our lives. I am a scholar in the loosest sense of the word but no less so than one with a formal doctorate. Of course, internet surfing – or “research” as it is sometimes derisively called in our house – has turned us all into masters of the ephemeral, but it also has become a giant time-suck as well. Such is the double-edged sword of knowledge.

On one of my ventures into the wilds of the internet I came upon a tumblr blog that did a daily upload of the scans made from the journals of artist Keith Haring. I could try to summarize Haring’s life, style, and his impact on the art world, but that’s what the internet is for, and others have already done that. I subscribed to Haring’s journal feed because the archive handling his journals were uploading pages chronologically from Haring was a teen and I was curious to see if there was a moment when you could see an artist emerge. I wanted to know because I have a back-burnered project to write about a teen artist coming into their own and I was hoping to limn some sense of what it looked like from within.

There was a lot of earnest trying-to-be-an-artist type entries, and while I recognized the truth in this from my own life – those early days when everything is so deep and so full of meaning, as if you were the first to have these thoughts – what I wanted was the moment when the trying became simply being. This, I knew, was what I wanted to capture, the narrative moments that rang true without all the sturm und drang attached. Sometimes capturing the truth means editing out the whole truth. Then this past week the beginnings of a new journal were posted and I felt like I’d found the emotional core of what I was looking for.


Haring had written this on the inside front cover, and it encapsulates not only the inculcation of a life deliberately set on understanding the process of creating, but it so underscores the experience of the reader and the writer and the event. Haring isn’t likely the first to articulate this idea but his youthful phrasing was what I was looking for, and his use of a box as a metaphor was exactly what I’d hoped to find. He elaborates on the first page of the journal proper


We experience “art” as a result of many factors outside of the actual “art” itself.

Are all of the factors part of the “art experience” itself?

Three years after Haring had written these words I was coming to a very similar understanding though through a different lens. I had encountered Koestler’s theory of bisociation at the same time that I discovered the Dadaist art movement and suddenly it was as if the creative world started making a whole lot more sense. But I didn’t keep a journal (foolish me) and it was stumbling onto Haring’s that helped me understand what I had been wrestling with in this shelved project.

But beyond my personal searching Haring underscores what makes books a distinct storytelling medium that has survived, and thrive, despite the development of television, movies, and other narrative distractions. Other media control the speed at which the story is told but the book allows for an individual, personal, and perfectly tailored experience. Naturally time can be controlled within all storytelling – it can be condensed, expanded, telescoped, and otherwise manipulated – the the experience of that time, that’s the ability to look inside the “box” and decide when it’s time to move along. When you look at a painting or a photo and are amassing the thousand or so words the picture paints you are composing the page that places that experience, that moment, in a box of memory. Likewise, reading a book allows the reader to take in the information at their own speed before defining the memory box in which it is kept.

So while casually looking for an attempt to capture the feel of a young artist making sense of the creative process I managed to find some comfort that working in the written word isn’t the pointless exercise it can sometimes feel like. Especially when the idea of finding an audience is still in a distant “someday,” a box full of time for another day.

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That’s right, ignore everybody.

Those aren’t my words, nor are they really Hugh MacLeod’s words either in that he’s probably not the first person to ever use the phrase, though they are the title of his book on creativity called, appropriately, Ignore Everybody, and 39 Other Keys to Creativity.  The title is a pretty good summary of his 40 short, zen-like chapters (taken from various blog posts at gapingvoid.com) where he lays out the problems and pitfalls of what it means to be a working creative, in any field.

I’m mostly throwing this out there to any of my creative peeps, but really there are a lot of people who could use a good shot in the arm when it comes to (re)thinking their priorities. For the writers and artists I know, there’s always something nibbling away at their confidence, something gnawing at their creative productivity, for better or worse. I know for me much of what is in MacLeod’s book isn’t new so much as a collection of reminders about when, where, and what to focus my creative energies on. In a lot of ways the chapters are like concentrated versions of much larger ideas bulking out other books on creativity (which shall remain nameless); these are like espresso shots in a world of watered down instant coffee crystals.

Though I would probably get different things from the books little aphorisms depending on where my head was at when I read it, this time around what stood out were the following:

3. Put in the hours
7. Keep your day job
27. The best way to get approval is not to need it
34. Beware of turning hobbies into jobs

Numbers 7 and 34 hit a funny chord in me as I recently found myself working a day job (after four years of unemployment) and, separately, been thinking of starting a new venture that would effectively turn a would-be hobby into a job. This is where number 3 kicked in to remind me that I just need to put in the hours. On the thing that is most important. Which is the creative stuff.

Number 27 probably ought to be lumped with number 12 to have the most meaning for the writing community – If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you. Accepting the pain is about the rejection process, and the approval process is a corollary to not caring and letting the process roll of your back. It’s a tough thing because somewhere deep-down the need for approval (or to not be rejected) has to do with confirming that we’re on the right path. Doubt, fear, confusion… they’re all there to keep us off-balance, to keep us from doing the work we’re driven to do.

Friends, creative or otherwise, hunt down Ignore Everybody and see what I mean. Do as I did and read it while commuting or someplace else public; you can practically feel people seething as they notice you reading a book that instructs you to ignore them. Consider it a first step to a new creative path (or path correction, as necessary).

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If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s one of those clichés that shows up in movies as an unimpeachable truth, a type of suffering artists grok and continue to believe is necessary in order to create great art. Ray Bradbury’s own advice to writers is to make a bucket list of fears and write about them as a way of conquering them, and in his own work those fears, guilt, and anxieties he possessed all manifested themselves in great stories; his fear of flying was the source of his writing about ships heading into deep space!

In the kidlit game, writers are encouraged to mine the depths of their childhood anguish in order to render a realistic world for their young readers. This is what allows a 40- or 50- or 60-year-old to capture the imaginations of those just barely into their double-digits. The advice to writers is to put the reader into the main character’s head, then keep putting the main character into increased danger, and at the very last minute pull them to safety — the requisite “hopeful” if not happy ending.

A bit sadistic when you think about it.

The danger in a culture, a media, an entertainment that continually relies on fear, pain, and anxiety as its inspiration is that it diminishes the value of other emotions and experiences. It trains individuals to respond more and more (and ultimately only) to fear to the extent that our political discourse is almost entirely based on our reaction to manufactured dangers. The worst part of all this fear-conditioning is that as a society we have also been trained to expect someone to come to the rescue at the last minute and save us.

If our ancestors had that same expectation during the Great Depression we might never have recovered as a nation.

In children’s literature, more so in middle grade that YA books, there is a fervent cry for realistic stories with hopeful endings. The idea is to give kids something they can relate to and then let them know they can rise above whatever crisis or turmoil is at stake. The problem is that the world around them, around all of us, isn’t interested in making the hopeful happen. We aren’t interested in the same gas or food rationing that was the result of the last Depression because it wouldn’t produce the “right” kind of fear; the fear of imaginary assault on our protected freedoms as opposed to the real fear that would cause us to rise up against the banking, corporate, and political entities that do well by courting our collective fear.

While I certainly agree that the traumas of our past make great fodder for the stories we tel,l I think writers owe it to kids to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and without the sugar-coating of a false hope tacked on. Perhaps this is what makes realistic fiction difficult for all but the best writers, and why fantasy gluts the shelves, because when you control the world you can control the outcomes better. But writing about the fears or growing up, the pains of adolescence, the anxieties of the world requires endings equally bold. If you want young readers to remember what they have just read you need to leave them hanging with all the suspense that the world has to offer. When it comes to endings writers might do well to remember:

If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

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At least I don’t think I did. Maybe I picked one up, struggled through it, and never went back. I can’t be sure, but I suspect I did because I’ve had a life-long dislike of detective stories that had to come from an early age.

Because those stories made me feel stupid.

Whether or not it was Encyclopedia Brown or the Hardy Boys or some generic detective stories I always felt cheated at the end. Either there was a key piece of information that I somehow glossed over early on, or the main character possessed the ability to wring out a logical connection between different clues that never would have occurred to me. Instead of a feeling of pleasant surprise and marvel I felt like the author was laughing at me for not figuring it out.

But I get it. There are people who love the thrill of following the clues, ruling out the red herrings, second-guessing motives. There is a secret delight in not knowing, a build-up of tension as the detective gets closer to finding out the truth at their own peril, and the release when it all comes together in the end. I simply found the exercise as excruciating as watching reruns of I Love Lucy.

Later, in college, I fell into the writings of Chandler and Cain and other hardboiled detective fiction because of the style. The mysteries themselves were incidental to the wise-cracking dialog and twisted metaphors the narrators used. In the end the mystery of who or why didn’t matter because the surprise of the double-cross was almost always a pretext for underscoring the main character’s folly. It was the detective who missed the key clues or trusted the wrong person and was made the fool.

Even later when I studied various forms of narrative storytelling I learned the structural underpinnings and the formula for the mystery became clear as day. TV shows are the most transparent when it comes to formula, telegraphing their plot developments in neat little packages. Movies, too. But as I became more adept at seeing the solution within the structure many people around me continue to marvel, as if the solution could only be gleaned through some supernatural power. I remember good friends who were willing to put down money (the cost of my movie ticket, plus snacks) that I couldn’t guess the twist in the movie “The Sixth Sense” because they, as wise and experienced as they were, were unable to see it coming. I remember leaning over in the first five minutes and guessing the movie’s big reveal a full two hours in advance. I didn’t do it to be obnoxious, but I also didn’t understand how they could have missed it. Structurally, it was pretty freakin’ obvious.

I suppose if I hadn’t been so easily frustrated with detective stories at a young age I might have developed a better sense of plot structure at an earlier on. It would have been nice to not feel like stories and storytelling was such a mystery for most of my school years, or that I was somehow stupid for not being able to guess a whodunnit.

Donald J. Sobel, the creator of the Encyclopedia Brown series of books, died this past week at the age of 87. The 56 books in the series have never been out of print and have been instrumental in helping generations of fledgling readers achieve a mastery of reading. I would personally be proud of that as an accomplishment, though it would have to be some other genre than detective stories.

Because I would hate to make some young reader feel the way I did when I was young.

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Every couple months or so I get the urge to tinker with writing a musical. Theatre isn’t in my background, though storytelling is, and this urge isn’t so strong that I feel this is what I was truly meant to do. I would be happy to realize this one story idea as a musical (and hopefully have it be mildly successful) and leave it at that.

It’s most likely a certain lack of “true” conviction that prevents me from realizing this project. In short, the need to do isn’t as compelling as my other writing projects.

This idea of the compelling need is fairly crucial to the idea of modern Western narratives. We want to read about and follow main characters with a compelling need that will, ultimately, drive the story and the character’s development though the story in a way that we cannot put it down. In short, the reader must be equally compelled to want to find out how it ends.

It was while I was tinkering with this compelling need for the main character in my musical – sometimes also called a controlling desire – that I realized how important it was to instill this sense of compulsion within the reader/audience. This idea of building a character whose desire lines are strongly etched that in turn cause the reader to become invested in that character’s needs that the, the reader/audience, adopts those desires themselves. It isn’t simply a question of manipulation, it’s a form of narrative alchemy that (when done correctly) subtly eases the reader into a position where they care about how and whether a character realizes their desires.

But then I thought: whose desires are really being actualized here, whose wants and needs?

Like a Möbius strip my thoughts circle around and I find myself wondering about the artist, the writer, the musician who feels compelled to create. We talk about the creative act as something the creative person cannot help but chase down. Like mountain climbers, creative people do what they do because they must. It is their controlling desire, their compelling need.

Or is it a want?

No one can be said to actually need to create. We need to eat, and breathe, and fulfill social and moral obligations, but the act of creation… can that really be something the individual needs? And this want (or need) in the writer, its to create a character with desires of their own, designed to compel a reader to care about those fictitious needs to the point where all three – writer, character, reader – come to a satisfactory meeting place where all needs are fulfilled.

Suddenly I understand what is wrong with a lot of the fiction that I find wanting. It is easy to say that the story didn’t interest, or that the plot was unbelievable, or that the characters were simply flat and two-dimensional, but the real problem is that I simply didn’t feel the writer’s compelling need to tell the story at hand. It may have lacked conviction, or somehow been muddled, but in the end no matter how sincerely the author may believe in their story and characters, they have failed in the same way a person fails to be funny at a party when they cannot retell a joke correctly. The parts may all be there, and in the correct order, but without the conviction to deliver the lines with care and precision – what is sometimes called comic timing – the punchline comes with tepid and polite laughter. Worse if the joke has to be explained.

I have been reading graphic novels lately, and though I am not ready to discuss them by name – they aren’t released for a few months yet, and I’d like to digest them a bit more – I am finding the ones that have been falling flat for me fail to convince me of their authorial need to tell the story. Naturally, those that I enjoy deliver so completely that I don’t even notice at first how well they are conveying their author’s urgency.

In the end what I’ve finally understood (because I can’t believe I haven’t been taught this in dozens of ways) is that the difference between “good” and “bad” writing is the difference between the way a small child wants and needs. The want is cloying, whining, and churlish while the need is essential, enthusiastic, and inclusive.

So my question to all my writer friends, real and virtual, is this: Are your stories telegraphing your wants or your needs?

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Many a moon ago when I was an aspiring writer with a self-published book, I collected some new material and decided to try to get published with a legitimate magazine. My book had been well-received by my peers and it seemed the next logical step was to broaden my horizons.

This was back in 1975. I was 13 years old and the book I’d published was a collection of illustrated puns that had been run off on an old mimeograph machine and handed out to classmates.

I’d actually co-authored the book with my best friend at the time, Marc Gartenberg, and we really thought we were all that and a bag of chips, although back then we would have said we were probably the bossest (or most boss) of anyone else. Slang has a funny way of slipping in and out of use, don’t it? Anyway, our heads were swollen with success and we decided we were going to conquer the world and gather more personal work and send it away to be published. Marc wrote a short story (illustrated by me) about his obsession of the time, Corvette’s, entitled “The Very Fast Car” while I put together a nonsensical collection of comics including one about a car tire that rolls around on an adventure called (and why I remember this I don’t know) “Zotimums.” We made a fateful decision to send our stuff together in one envelope with an SASE and mailed it off to a relatively young magazines aimed at a young audience called Kid’s magazine.

Outside of Highlights magazine, which we were too old for, Kids was the only magazine at the time we knew of that accepted contributions from kids. In fact, the entire contents of the magazine was kid-produced and it eventually had a 15-year-old managing editor. Better still, the paid their contributors $5 for each accepted piece plus the obligatory three copies of the issue they appeared in. Truly, this was the path for us budding young authors and illustrators, our chance to show the world with the kids at El Marino Elementary School already knew: that we were creative geniuses.

But did you catch the fatal flaw in all this?

Marc and I decided to send our contributions together more out of insecurity than anything else. In our crazy, kookoo, mixed-up minds we assumed the editors would be bowled over by our work and take us as a package. To our thinking, one nervous genius didn’t have the same chance as two nervous ones combined, so once we’d obtained the necessary postage for our envelope stuffed with papers we walked to the corner mailbox and together, each holding once side of the envelope, dropped it into the box together. All there was left to do was wait for inevitable SASE to return with our checks included.

We talked about it for days, for weeks, and then finally we talked about it less and less. After three months having heard nothing it might have lingered in the back of our minds in that same place where forgotten TV show episodes live, that mental basement where things that cannot be thrown out are left to be forgotten.

The one day I came home from school and found the SASE among the mail. It seemed pretty full of paper, which didn’t bode well. I was afraid to open it by myself so I hopped on my bike and rode to Marc’s place were we could open it as a team just as we’d mailed it. We gave the letter a glance, looked at the attached pages, then reread the letter again.

They’d only returned Marc’s story; they’d accepted all my cartoon randomness.

We’d never actually considered that we’d be rejected, and certainly never what to do in case only one of us was accepted. My memory is that we were bummed into silence. I think I might have said something about them being stupid for not taking Marc’s work. I don’t remember Marc saying anything at all, but I do sort of remember Marc telling me to go away. I took the envelope and his story home with me. For weeks Marc was cold and distant – as if it were somehow my fault – and one day he asked for his story back. That was the last we ever mentioned the situation. Eventually we ended the school year on friendly terms, though I was a year older and headed off to junior high where our friendships diverged further and further apart.

But what of my publishing career?

Ah, yes, well now we come to the first part of the post title. Kids magazine sent me not one but two letters begging my patience and indulgence while they were working behind the scene to put out their next issue. Already it seemed like they had gone from a quarterly to annual to sporadic publication schedule and I had read the handful of issues my library had so many times I had them memorized. Having already strained a friendship, I wasn’t really in the market to tout my pending credentials as a published author and risk the ridicule of fellow classmates until I had an issue in-hand as proof. If it thought the wait to hear back about my submissions was long, the period following my acceptance was an eternity.

Time is like that when you really want something as a kid.

Sometime in the course of the following year I’d more of less given up, and Kids confirmed they were no longer continuing as a publication. I’m pretty sure I got that notice with a return of my original comics, long since lost to history. Later, when I learned about the cosmos and its sense of humor, I chalked the whole thing up to my comics being the thing that “killed” Kids magazine, the low-quality straw that broke the camel’s back.

I was thinking about this only recently as an online magazine recently accepted one of my poems for inclusion in its “Spring” issue which was supposed to come out in the first week of June. Or so. Maybe it’ll be the Summer issue. There’s even less money involved than with Kids, and certainly no contributor’s copies in a digital space, and I’m only half wondering if, somehow, I haven’t once again brought a publication to its knees.

But if my 12-year-old self can wait in hope for over a year for publication of sub-par drawings I supposed I can give an online journal a few more months. In the meantime, I’d do anything to see those old Kids magazines again. In a pinch I suppose I could hunt down some early issues of Scholastic’s Dynamite! magazine; they were both created by the same person and were very similar in tone, though Kids was less commercial in tone, which may have been what really killed it in the end.



* To be clear, the Kids magazine of yore is not to be confused with the glossy magazine of the same name on the stands these days. Totally different, in a funky 70s kid sort of way.

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First, apologies to those who might believe the title of this post has anything to do with Douglas Adams. Though I’d do anything to possess his wit and literary note, I do not and I try not to think about it very often.

For several months now I’ve been pulling back at various aspects of my online presence, from my twitter feed to my blogging to even merely zooming around and seeing what the rest of the world has been up to. The reason has been external and not entirely planned, but absolutely necessary: I was hunting down some gainful employment. And now I am, gainfully employed full-time, and for the first time since 2008.

Yeah, the economy sucks.

To be fair, I’d only been job hunting seriously for seven months, and a great number of ideal positions I was seeking were clearly inundated with applicants. I’ve worked in HR for a spell and was well aware of the “negatives” that I couldn’t hide – gaps in employment, indirect career paths, and the biggies that no one could legally ever admit to, my age and my abundance of experience – so a good deal of my hunting involved reframing my personal narrative. Add to that my willingness to start from the bottom in a career shift where “entry-level” now means “at least two years unpaid internships with prior experience and a willingness to work 80 hour weeks” and I was really up against the wall. I landed in familiar territory – retail management, bookstore variety – but I really thought I had so much more to offer in other fields. Sadly, hundreds of employers did no agree with me.

The job hunt itself pulled my internet tendencies away from blogging and took up valuable time I would normally have assigned to my creative work. Then, just before a long-planned family vacation, and I thought I’d have plenty of time to do a little catching up before the nine-to-five grind caught hold of me.

Yeah, I honestly thought I’d be chillin’ online instead of enjoying a fine week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in late June.

And while I was on vacation, I caught a cold.

So here I am using a holiday to recoup and see if I can’t get a sense of what the future looks like.

When I was last employed full-time I had just begun the process of earning an MFA with an eye toward becoming (finally) published in the area of children’s and young adult literature. That work, that road, has been steady but bumpy. I think everyone has a hope of what they think will happen, and then adjusts as reality sets in. The hope is the goal, the distance keeps shifting, the way a place on the distant horizon always looks closer that it really is when you’re driving straight toward it. While many (or most) of my fellow MFA-ers worked parallel to their employed lives, I am just now making the adjustment back into the stream. I don’t imagine it’s going to be easy at first, but I also don’t think it’ll be impossible. Once I get the rhythms of the new job (and commuting, and home duties) in place, I’ll know how and when to establish writing time, better manage my online presence, and find that new balance between all the things I want and need and hope to get done.

I have much deck-clearing to get done on this Independence Day, with more to do in the days and weeks ahead, looking forward to the equilibrium that is the next stage in this crazy life of mine.

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