Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Keep Practicing


I've spent six months with my current cast of characters and one of them needs a different name. The current one is too similar to another character's. This should be easy, just pick something. But it's not because I've lived with the other one for so long. To change names is to change identities. I'm a little annoyed by this, though not in the sense that it's something of great consequence. Just annoying.

I'm also thinking of transitions. What was once important to me now seems trivial. It's odd to be reminded that things were otherwise, to see visual evidence that I used to care about something that hardly feels real. It's like trying to remember a dream after waking. I might recall certain specific events for a while, but eventually it's a giant fog full of nothing more than vague impressions.

In a painfully real sense, that's life. People sometimes talk about letting go as though it's something we can choose to do. No, letting go happens whether we want it to or not. The best we can do is accept it, not fight it so much. It's a physical law, like gravity, not the breakable sort that we create for ourselves.

On the bright side, such finiteness provides immutable parameters in which to function. Boundaries are lain and observed, no matter what. There is no room for doubt about how things begin or end. This should provide more comfort than it usually does. The world is so full of uncertainty, and this is a source of unease. But when we find something that is certain, it causes even greater unease.

This problem should be as easy to solve as renaming my character. And yet, neither is easy. It's like the difference between theory and practice. I dunno, keep practicing?

Monday, May 30, 2016

It Never Goes Away


Some days you sit and stare at the keyboard, then at the monitor, and hope for anything. You look outside and wonder where the birds are. Oh, there's one, on top of the pine tree. It's probably the same bird you always see on the top of that same pine tree.

“This is shit,” you think to yourself while struggling for more eloquent words or a better situation. Frustration sets in, but you keep typing because that's your job. You check and notice that you've only typed 80 words, which means you need 221 more to meet your quota, and then are happy because this sentence just used 34 words on its own.

You could, if so inclined, fill the remainder of your quota with sentences describing how much farther you have to go before reaching said quota. It would doubtless make for gripping drama.

You were thinking about grief when you started typing and then decided against focusing on something so heavy, although today is Memorial Day, so it wouldn't be entirely inappropriate. On the other hand, “memorial” relates to memory, so maybe you remember those you've lost and are filled with joy at knowing that you got to spend some amount of time with them in this world.

It's good to be connected. Good, but sometimes difficult.

You conjure the images of loved ones in your mind. And you contemplate the different kinds of loss. Some died, others just went away. Some you knew, others you really didn't.

As you grow older, you come to gain a greater understanding of bittersweet. And yet, you still have trouble finding the right words to describe it. There's a feeling whose essence you want to capture but which remains ever elusive.

Best get comfortable with that. It never goes away.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Unspeakably Large


I'm dreaming of Utah, of places I've never been, like Canyonlands and Arches. We were discussing beauty in the world and I felt limited, which I am, as are we all. Animal, vegetable, mineral... makes no difference in the end.

Roads traveled linger in my mind like atoms scattered across an ever-expanding universe. Those not traveled gnaw at me, call to me like the Sirens. I would go there if I could, perhaps even to my death.

The last thing I see might be magnificent, or it might be mundane. But then, there is magnificence in the mundane, even if we do not always recognize it. We just need to look more closely, pay attention to the right things (assuming we know what those right things are).

But we're dwelling too much on endings. Beginnings are also worth remembering, for they are our launch points into a larger world. They only hint at what lies ahead, when we may feel both excitement and fear at the unknown.

Then again, is there really a difference between beginnings and endings? If every journey is circular (from the universe, back to it... never having left, in fact), then points along the loop are arbitrary both in position and in sequence. They could easily be changed without consequence. Yes, minor differences would arise, but in the end (or beginning) there is only everything around us.

At this point I must mention that I'm completely sober as I write this. My mind wanders into weird areas of its own accord, without chemical assistance. It's a blessing and a curse.

Meanwhile, Utah continues to exist, largely unexplored by me. The same can be said of the entire planet or even universe. Space is unspeakably large, so I'm led to believe, though I can neither confirm nor deny.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Bad Case of Loving You


We had a regular gig at strip mall dive bar in Chula Vista, between a 99 cent Chinese restaurant and an all-night laundromat. Across the parking lot was a Denny's. We parked and loaded our stuff out back. About ten yards separated us from the retaining wall that kept drunks out of the adjoining apartment complex, which probably had enough drunks of its own.

The bartenders were cool, mostly women. At least one of them had done hard time and provided good anecdotal evidence that rehabilitation could work. The bouncer was a mountain of a man who rarely lost his cool, and for good reason. We made friends with him and the women serving drinks. You never know what will happen in a place like that, and you want as many people on your side as possible.

First set is always “oldies” (Beatles, Eagles, softer stuff from the '60s and '70s). Second set is AOR (Tom Petty, .38 Special, etc.). Third is dance tunes (“You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Play That Funky Music,” “Brick House,” etc.). Fourth is straight-up shitkicker music (Steppenwolf, Judas Priest, Bush, White Stripes, anything aggressive).

There's grandmas, bikers, gangbangers, tweakers in the joint on any given night. Some folks fall into more than one category, and most get along well enough, even after a few too many.

One night we're playing as usual and this couple at the corner of the bar nearest me (stage right) starts getting into it, just yelling at each other. It gets physical as we're wrapping up a song. They're right in front of me as we start the next song, which I sing: “Bad Case of Loving You.”

Doorman jumps in, hauls them away. I eventually stop laughing long enough to blurt out the first line.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Insufferable Bore


Another thing that pisses me off about the book I'm currently reading is the quality of research. It's bad enough that the author displays an almost limitless lack of adventure and the same amount of self-pity. Never mind her strange obsessions with coffee and food, and the fact that she belittles her more interesting travel companion at every opportunity. Forget her didactic tone, her purple prose.

Even aside from all that, she just plain gets her facts wrong, which maybe isn't too surprising given that she takes the time to complain about how she once spent eight whole hours researching something. While looking for more information on her subject matter, about whom I am now genuinely curious, I've discovered that she has probably gotten the nationality of her subject wrong. I'm in no position to confirm or deny this, but here are some other gaffes:
  • At one point she decries an event as being “archetypically American,” which would be fine except that the event in question occurs in Canada. She actually repeats the error later in the same paragraph. The author is from Australia. Or New Zealand, whatever.
  • I flipped to the back of the book to see how much more there is to read and stumbled across a familiar line: “Isn't it pretty to think so.” I immediately recognized it as Hemingway and thought it was from The Sun Also Rises (it is). She even mentions the sunrise in her sentence leading up to that quote, which she then attributes to Fitzgerald.
So yeah, if you complain about doing research and can't tell the difference between the United States and Canada or between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, I have to assume you're making shit up.

She got a government grant for this. And she's an insufferable bore.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

There's Always Stuff to Do


The question becomes one of how much you can cut out of a thing and still have it be that thing. Or in a perfect world, a better version of that thing. What is needed, what isn't? Signal or noise, wheat or chaff.

So you keep cutting, and the thing may get worse before it gets better, but you trust that you'll end up with what you want. Sometimes you get lucky and it actually works that way.

Other times you end up with a mess. Okay, then. Make something else out of that mess. In which case it doesn't become a better version of the thing, but rather a different thing altogether. Hopefully a better thing than what you originally had.

If not? Well, try again. Keep trying. Add, subtract, change. Probably swear a lot. If you're like me, anyway, maybe shake your fist at the world. That always helps. Make a mean face, show the world who's boss, or at least who you like to believe the boss is.

Get it out of your system, get back to work. Read a book. Play with your dog. Go for a walk. Do stuff. There's always stuff to do.

* * *

Speaking of books, I'm reading a travel memoir written by a woman who has chosen to give herself the most unsympathetic narrative voice imaginable. She whines about everything: the eight whole hours it took her to research something, the coffee she drinks, the food she eats, her less boring companion who drives her crazy by not being a complete stick in the mud.

It reads like parody in parts, but she's dead serious, which makes it even more amusing. I have a feeling the companion will not survive the trip, and we'll be stuck with the narrator by herself.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

You Got My Order Wrong


I ordered a chef's salad and the waitress came back with shrimp salad and an admonition from the chef that they don't make shrimp salad on weekends. First, you got my order wrong. Second, your chef's instructions to you have nothing to do with me. Third, you are the restaurant owner's stepdaughter so ignore those first two points.

* * *

The parking garage was crowded, as mall garages often are. A woman waiting for a spot was taking up too much of the lane and I couldn't get around her, so I stopped to wait for her to take the spot. When it opened up she kept looking at me but wouldn't move.

I pointed at her and at the spot, to let her know that she should go ahead. She kept looking at me but wouldn't move. Finally she threw up her hands and drove past me, leaving the spot empty. With her out of the way, I could continue forward. Presumably someone else took the spot she'd wanted.

* * *

In a different parking garage, in a different mall, in a different city, I pulled over to let a woman pass so I could turn around and go back the way I'd come. Instead of passing, she decided to sit and watch me. Then she honked her horn and yelled, “You don't suppose to park there!”

First, I know that, which is why I'm not parking here. Second, you're not the police. Third, go around me like a normal person would.

She didn't go around me, so I couldn't come back they way I'd come. Instead I had to go all the way around the garage and head out the other side, which is not where I wanted to be.

Where did I want to be?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Stuff in the World


You must have been in Hawai'i, me wandering down India Street looking for something to eat or drink, finding both. It was sunny outside, as it often is in this part of the world, except in the summer when tourists visit and are disappointed by the predominant cloudiness.

They eventually return to Wisconsin or Germany and tell friends how wonderful it was here despite the weather. Maybe they saw pandas at the zoo or took a harbor cruise and shivered in the stiff breeze that they weren't expecting. By God, it was wonderful!

I was watching these people have the proverbial times of their lives as they strolled down the street and popped into shops, supporting the local economy by paying too much for pedestrian items, thank you very much. There were dogs and bicycles. Some stopped to sit in chairs on the sidewalk. The people, that is, not the dogs and bicycles (the latter would look especially silly in a chair, although now I want to see it).

The food was, as the tourists would say, quite wonderful. Crisp thin crust, melted cheese so hot it burns the roof of your mouth, ground meats, fresh veggies. The beer was also wonderful because all beer is wonderful, especially the kind they make in this part of the world (although Wisconsin and Germany are also home to fine beer).

After lunch I continued walking and watching, overhearing snippets of conversation along the way in many languages, most of which I didn't understand. There were a few clouds, though not as many as when our poor tourist friends came to visit that one time.

I missed you, as I always do when you are gone. But I found things to do, as I always do. There's a lot of stuff in the world.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Bagels


Bagels. Goose eggs. Zero, zilch, nada. Whole lotta nothin' goin' on.

The trick we must play on ourselves is to believe that we can learn and improve with effort. Fake it till you make it, as they say. We try new things and are transformed. Even if those changes may seem slow at times, they do occur.

We drank some of our first batch of homebrew last night, a porter. It is not particularly good, but it is particularly ours, made with our own hands. We could at least taste the effort.

And since this is all one giant experiment, we played with our food. Take some shredded coconut and brown it in a frying pan. Toss in some vanilla extract, some almond extract. Dump all that into a French press with the beer, and voila, it's a totally different drink. Still not particularly good, but now in a way that tastes more like amaretto.

The process reminds me a lot of writing or making music. Yes, eventually you'd like to end up with something resembling what you intended to created. In the meantime, pay attention to the process and make tweaks as needed, enjoying the mistakes made along the way. Some of those mistakes could lead to new and exciting discoveries: an unexpected twist of phrase or flavor combination.

None of this is revolutionary, but it's good to be reminded every now and then that such things are not only possible but likely given enough time and effort. So the sooner you start and the more you apply yourself, the better your chances.

This is what we tell ourselves as we try to fake it till we make it. The alternative is to do nothing at all, but there will be plenty of time for that before we know it.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Keep Moving Forward


I was late, as usual, and couldn't find you. I was carrying too much, kept dropping things all over the place and stopping to pick them up again. I ran through airport checkpoints with my ticket, which was one of the things I kept dropping.

Where was the gate? I watched time slip away on any number of clocks but had no idea where the gate was or how to get there. I stopped for a beer when I knew I wouldn't find you. I began sobbing and ended up on a beach.

Where did the beach come from? Where did the airport go? The tears receded as the tide rolled in and I ran across the hot sand. I had no idea where I was or how I'd gotten there.

* * *

Self-fulfilling prophecies are troublesome. Belief and mind-sets, cause and effect. Reality is nothing more than dreams come to life. Vonnegut advised us to be careful about what we pretend to be. We should be similarly careful about what we dream, for example, getting lost at the airport.

That extrapolation probably makes no sense, but what if it did? What if dreams were a necessary precursor to reality? Stronger than that. What if there were an exact correlation between our current dreams and future reality?

That sounds a lot like the age of superstition. Explanations are needed to create coherent narratives in our minds that allow us to continue moving forward as a species. But what happens when those explanations are wrong and we cling to them anyway?

* * *

In the end, it's hard to keep moving forward. Life is more like dropping things and having no idea where you are, where you're trying to go, or how to get there. Let's hope this isn't self-fulfilling.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Something Else in Mind


How would you describe your relationship with Jerry?

My relationship with Jerry is... he comes over late at night after the kids are in bed and leaves before they wake up in the morning. It's fantastic.

But you're married?

But he's away on business.

And he's okay with your arrangement?

He doesn't know about it.

How do you think he'd feel if he did know?

Maybe he wouldn't go on so many business trips. Besides, it's not like he isn't getting any action when he's gone.

Do you know that for a fact?

Technically no, but come on. It's what I'd do.

How did you become such a big James Dean fan?

I wouldn't say I'm a big fan, but... okay, yeah, I'm kind of a dork for him even though he died way before I was born. Is that weird? I don't think that's weird. Anyway, I like the movies he made and obviously he's hot. Plus he died just around the corner from here.

And that adds to the appeal?

Not exactly. It just makes his presence more real. Does that make sense?

Not exactly, but that's fine. What about your hair?

What about it?

Would you describe it as more auburn or chestnut?

How would you describe it?

Are you flirting with me?

Maybe. Would you like that?

Maybe.

Good to know. Anyway, I've heard my hair described as both. I guess I'd go with chestnut, but I'm happy with whatever makes you happy.

Chestnut works.

I'm glad to hear it. How many more questions do we have?

Not many.

Good, because we could be doing more interesting things, if you know what I mean.

Where is your husband right now?

Is this part of the interview or did you have something else in mind?

We're done.

Nope.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Natural Evolution


Why do you think the two of you didn't get along toward the end?

First of all, it wasn't just toward the end. This had been a long time coming. I can't even remember when it started, probably when I was in middle school. But basically he loved baseball and wanted me to love it, too, which I didn't. That somehow diminished me in his eyes.

Do you really believe that?

Yes, of course.

But if you're his son, why would something like that make a difference?

My guess is that he expected me to be a certain person and then I turned out to be someone else. I let him down in a way. It's hard to say, but that's my guess.

Did you ever ask him?

How the hell would I do that? You don't just ask someone if you've disappointed them. How does that conversation even work? “Hey dad, do I disappoint you?” People don't talk like that.

No, I just meant, did you ever check in with him to see what was going on in his life?

I don't follow.

Like, maybe he was disappointed in himself and not you?

Why would he be disappointed in himself?

I don't know, but that might be an interesting question to ask.

Sure. “Uh, dad, are you disappointed in yourself?” That seems realistic.

More like, “Hey dad, are you happy?”

Yeah, I can see that. No, I never asked him, but I can see it. It seems kind of corny, but... I dunno, maybe we're just too stubborn. Someone would have to make the first move, you know?

Why not you?

Why not him?

I see.

It's not that simple. It's not like we just decided to be done with each other, it was a natural evolution.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

We Speak Different Languages


How is your relationship with your son?

Difficult, not like what I thought it would be. He's really into music, which is great, but I don't know anything about that world. We speak different languages, you know? I try to connect... well, I used to, but it seems I've given up on that. We both have. I'm hoping it's just the age. Honestly, I wish we got along better, or even at all. I thought we'd be maybe not buddies but at least... I dunno. There's just no common ground, it's pretty frustrating.

How do you suppose he feels?

No clue, you'd have to ask him. I'm guessing he probably feels frustrated, but I really don't know.

How is your job?

It's fine, you know, it keeps a roof over our heads. Nobody ever grew up dreaming they'd manage a retail store, right? But the pay is good enough, same with the benefits. It's stable, secure. It put one kid through college and it'll put another through before too long.

But are you satisfied with it?

I'm satisfied with the roof over our heads.

Do you regret not pursuing a career in baseball?

Regret is the wrong word. That implies that I'm not happy with where I ended up, which isn't the case. But yeah, it'd be interesting to know how that might have turned out. The Royals drafted me in the 23rd round so it would have been a long shot. I couldn't hit, but I was a reliable shortstop and might have shown enough glove to make it as utility guy. But you know, with a family... no, I don't regret it at all.

Could you have been a scout?

Probably, but again, was I willing to put everyone through the hardship needed for me to make it? No.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Disappear for a While


“If you could be anywhere tonight, where would it be?” His questions were always loaded.

“Anywhere?” She twirled her hair slowly. “Right here.”

“Too predictable, try again.”

She tried to remember places she'd loved or places she'd longed to visit. There were too many to count, so she went for the easy one.

“James Dean Memorial,” she said.

He raised an eyebrow, but remained silent, letting her do the work.

“Shut up,” she said, “I like James Dean. Besides, it's not far from here.”

He smiled. “I didn't say anything.”

“You didn't have to.”

“I never have to.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “More vino?”

He nodded, and she poured. It was a pinot noir from Oregon. Expensive, not too bad.

“Have you ever been?” she asked.

“I didn't even know there was such a thing.”

Was he pulling her leg? He played dumb so well, it was hard to know. He had to be messing with her. She flicked his nose.

“I'm serious,” he said. “My James Dean knowledge is limited. What's out there?”

“Not much.”

“Then why go?”

“There's a great view of the sky at night. You can see all the stars. It's a good place to feel small.”

“Why would you want to feel small?”

She smiled. “You never want to feel small?”

“I don't think so.”

“You never feel like there's too much going on this world and you'd just like to disappear for a while?”

He nodded.

“When you stare up at the stars,” she said, “it's like you disappear. You're only one tiny thing among billions of much bigger things.”

“Hard to take yourself seriously.”

She sighed. “Or anything.”

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Breaks Are Good


Breaks are good. They help provide perspective, which is needed most when we don't realize it, when we're so invested in our process that we can't see beyond it. Breaks let us breathe and consider the problem in different ways.

I didn't write yesterday. It felt weird, but life kept me from sitting down and doing work. My brain didn't get them memo and kept trying to solve puzzles. It worked through various scenarios that my fingers could try the next time I was at the keyboard.

So today's project involves rearranging the first five chapters of my novel. The goal is to mix my various POV characters up a bit, have them appear at different times. Will this have a profound effect? Maybe, maybe not, but it can't hurt to try.

Point is, if I'd kept plowing through the work like a bulldozer, I'm not sure I'd have even thought of such an alternative. Not quickly, anyway. Which leads to an interesting paradox: Taking breaks can improve efficiency.

I forget this all the time and keep going. My mind doesn't want to stop. It's so invested in the process that it just keeps grinding the ol' gears. The hard part, and I haven't figured out how to do this, is getting myself to remember that resting and contemplating is a crucial part of the process.

To wreck another metaphor, you plot a course. It feels like you're going in the right direction, but you can't be sure. So you pull over to the side of the road, figure out where you are and where you want to be, and make any necessary adjustments.

You can't make those adjustments if you just keep going. And if you never pause to figure out where you are, who knows where you'll end up?

Friday, May 13, 2016

One Never Knows


In the interest of accountability, I finished 6 ½ of my 8 goals yesterday. The only ones I missed were editing someone else's article and watching baseball. Technically there was a game on, but I had no interest in either team and watched Star Trek instead. Partial credit.

Moving on, today it's more of the novel. It's always more of the novel, which is fine because I love it. Not the novel itself, which needs more improvement than I might be able to give it, but the process. The discipline.

I've tried writing a novel twice before. Once in college, then again last summer.

The one in college I wrote late at night, usually accompanied by Joe Satriani's Flying in a Blue Dream or J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. It was a sustained effort, and I got to revisit my characters at the end of every day, which provided some level of comfort.

The key problems were a) it lacked plot and b) I had no clue what I was doing. Either or both might have been overcome, but after a year or so I gave up. I finished a first draft, but attempts at revision made things worse rather than better. I was young and frustrated, and there was much else to do in life like earn enough money for food and rent.

That novel was written longhand on yellow legal pads. I'm pretty sure it's still in a black notebook somewhere in the garage. Now that 25 years have passed I'm tempted to find it and see if anything can be salvaged.

I attempted my second novel last summer. The story feels contrived, and there's too much exposition, but again I loved the process. I might use the setting for something else, borrow a character or three. One never knows.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Hooray for Me!


Today's goals are simple:
  1. Write this—Seems straightforward enough and achievable, especially since I've decided to make a list rather than assemble paragraphs.
  2. Slap together a quick book review—Something more profound than “I liked it” would be good (although “I liked it” is an accurate assessment).
  3. Work on the novel.
    1. Clean up yesterday's mess—I don't even know where to start, but then I never know where to start, which is a good place to start.
    2. Move forward with today's mess—You could define a writer as someone who makes a mess and then tries to clean it up, and not be far from the truth.
  4. Edit someone else's article—This is hard for me because an actual person wrote the words and probably loves them more than I do.
  5. Go to the gym—Technically I'm just driving my wife, so this is a gimme; I get to read a book.
  6. Record a podcast—Talk into a microphone and have someone else record it; the hard part is having something interesting to say, which is the hard part of many things in life.
  7. Put bottles of beer in the refrigerator—This is actually homebrew that isn't quite ready but that I want to test as a reference point so I can hopefully learn how to do it better next time.
  8. Watch baseball—I haven't checked the schedule yet, don't know if this is even possible; might watch Star Trek instead, which wouldn't be the worst thing.
Eight goals seems like a lot, but I think I can do it. I'll need to give 110% and catch a few breaks, and possibly indulge in a few more sports clich├ęs, but it's still early... there's plenty of time. And hey, I've just finished the first goal. Hooray for me!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Revising


They say that the only writing is rewriting, and although I believe this to be true, I also find it more than a little problematic. For example, a scene I'm working on now reveals information that shouldn't be revealed until later. It needs to be earned by both the characters and the reader. If it appears too early it feels like cheating.

This is all well and good, except for one thing. Now where the hell do I put it? Other scenes are contingent on this scene, and the information revealed here leads to other actions. Moving things around disrupts cause and effect, as they currently exist.

The challenge, then, becomes one of making slight (or not so slight) modifications to cause and effect. Sounds easy enough in Chapter 1, but what happens in Chapter 31, when all the dominoes I'd originally lain at the beginning are now in different places? I'll tell you what happens: probably something different from what I'd envisioned way back when.

Revising is literally re-envisioning. It's seeing things a different way. When the son returns, a stranger in his own home, maybe the neighbors mention his prolonged absence. Great idea, now I need to add neighbors into the story. Their world just became more complex and richer for it. I just gave myself more work to do.

Does the mother react a certain way because that's how she would react, or does she do so because I want the plot to advance? If I'm honest about it, which I must be, it's the latter. The only problem there is that such reaction is complete bullshit and topples the remaining dominoes. Nobody, least of all me, will care what happens after her forced reaction.

Her reaction will be forced either way, it just shouldn't feel like it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Compliment to No One


Some days you just stare at shit like an outsider, like some half-crazed thing that doesn't understand how the world works. You stop at the wrong place in the wrong part of town on your way to some other place you don't really want to be.

The universe feels out of sync and it's not your fault. And as you stare at shit, you realize that blame isn't even part of the equation, not that this realization helps matters. It just adds another dimension to your staring.

“What's good here?” You're looking at the menu, she's looking at you like it's 8 a.m. and she wants to go home, which it is and she does.

“Pretty much nothing.”

“Okay, I'll have that.”

She doesn't crack a smile, probably hasn't in years. How did she get here? Not only the physical location but the mental state? Both are troubled places that would break the best of them, which he doubted she ever was.

“Say again?” she says. Fast, too.

“Two eggs over medium, side of bacon, black coffee.”

She takes your menu and walks away without a word.

A bell rings as the front door opens. An older gentleman with silver stubble and a trucker hat ambles in. You're surprised he ever left. He takes a seat without waiting, just takes it. He isn't the sort who waits, he's done that enough in life. Waitress is already pouring him coffee before his ass hits the chair.

You keep staring at shit. Paper napkin and mostly clean utensils scattered in front of you like some four-year-old set the table. You still don't want to go where you need to go, although this place makes it seem more appealing. It's a compliment to no one, least of all you.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Bird Flies Off


Another challenge is knowing what to cut. How much of a thing can be removed without destroying its inherent truth? One answer, which is probably more accurate than helpful, is as much as possible.

Then it becomes a question of particles, of breaking down a work on an atomic level. What belongs and what is merely scaffolding used to find the part that belongs? It's impossible to know until that scaffolding has been lain and examined.

* * *

There was a passage describing the lead character's band. It isn't horrible, but it doesn't exactly belong. It explains a situation that might not need explaining, at least not there and then. Maybe later on, when we're in the middle of some other scene, it will come up naturally. So for now it sits in a bin marked “This might come in handy at some point, or not.”

Snappy name for a bin, no?

* * *

Also, how do we delineate time? Is it always a forward progression, or can there be back and forth movement like waves in the ocean, pushing and pulling? Think of brush strokes on canvas. A sense of contiguity comes from discrete parts that form the illusion of a unified object.

* * *

Meanwhile, this bird keeps perching atop a pine tree in the backyard. Is it the same bird every time? Who can know such things?

* * *

Questions keep coming, which is a good thing. Without those, there is no need for answers. Without a need for answers, there is no reason to keep going. Without a reason to keep going... well, you see the problem there.

The bird flies off, then returns. It keeps coming back, like so many questions. This might come in handy at some point, or not.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Like Any Other Day


It was a day like any other day, and Anthony dreamt of being anywhere but here. A train could take him places he'd never been.

“All aboard!” cried the conductor.

Anthony stared at the train, then at the concrete beneath his feet as the engine roared, the horn sounded, and everyone onboard made their way toward brighter destinations.

Not today, Anthony, he told himself. Not today.

* * *

They were going to the ballpark. He'd planned to leave her there. The plan didn't make much sense, nor did he know whether he could follow through with it. He wanted to be free and yet feared what freedom might bring.

* * *

There's an episode of Star Trek where water makes people crazy. It's a horrifying thought. The idea that something we depend on could precipitate (so to speak) our demise is difficult to swallow (so to speak). Also, the acting on that show is so over the top. Those were different times.

* * *

Water flows. Today ideas are not flowing. It's a day like any other day, when I dream of being anywhere but here. My brain is the train. “All aboard!” it cries, but the coffee hasn't kicked in yet. Projects are my destinations, and there are many to visit.

* * *

A crow lands atop a pine tree outside my window, sits for a few seconds, then flies off to destinations of its own. Everyone is busy in life, until they aren't. Then others take over the work.

* * *

We were drinking mead and talking about college. Those days seem impossibly far away now, and yet the train of our imaginations can still take us there. We can sit there for a few seconds before flying off to other places.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Leave Space for Collaboration


Second drafts are curious beasts. You relive the original telling of the tale and see the overwhelming number of flaws. If you're lucky, somewhere along the way you remember why you fell in love with your characters.

For my current project, it took me getting 95 percent of the way through to reach that point. Then I remembered why I loved them. And I realized that, although they end up where they belong, I hate the way they got there.

This is my fault, of course, but that's the beauty of drafts. I can go back and fix the flaws. Not fix them, exactly, but reshape them so that the whole constitutes a more plausible truth. The characters need to earn their place, even if that place is where they ultimately belong.

Petty conflicts won't suffice. These are real people who need to suffer more for my art. They deserve better challenges and obstacles to overcome, so that the conclusion of their story is satisfying.

* * *

I'm listening to Tycho, a chillwave band from San Francisco. It's evocative in the way I like music to be and also the way I like storytelling to be. I appreciate when artists leave space for those of us taking it in to collaborate by filling in the blanks.

Less analytically, their music takes me to a place that I cannot find on any map nor define in my mind. It's a mind-altering sonic drug.

* * *

In my next draft, I need to not only reshape the path these characters take so they end up where they belong by earning their way but also remove the obvious parts. Readers should love my characters the way I do, and the only way that can happen is if I leave space for collaboration.

Friday, May 6, 2016

I'll Stare at Maps


I'll stare at maps for hours. It goes back to when I was a kid. I'd grab any map I could find and study it. Not that I was going anywhere, but those roads and highways let me dream of going somewhere.

I have an atlas of the United States that I flip through almost daily. It gives me a peaceful, easy feeling, as the Eagles might say. Which roads have I traveled? Which would I like to travel? What towns would I like to visit?

Sometimes I'll follow an interstate across the country. Or because interstates are mainstream and kind of boring, I'll follow the U.S. highways, whose paths are less predictable and pass through more obscure locations.

I'm drawn to the obscure. Ask people to name a place in California and most will say Los Angeles or San Francisco, maybe San Diego if they remember it's not part of Mexico. I'm more likely to think of spots I've visited that have memories attached: Adin, Bishop, Bodega Bay, Cayucos, Sea Ranch.

It requires effort to reach such places. You have to want to be there, or at least want to travel the remote roads that pass through those small towns full of potential memories. Whether it be almost running out of gas in the middle of nowhere, buying pastries at a family bakery, chatting with a kind woman and her dog who doesn't like hats, strolling along a wooden pier, or taking in a spectacular view of the ocean from high atop bluffs, each has a deeply personal story that started as a point on the map.

I may not go everywhere I'd like to go, but I'll never stop dreaming. I'll keep plotting trips. Some I might take, others will only be in my mind. I'll stare at maps.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

She Took Me by Surprise


I recently attended a writers' group as part of a panel to discuss creativity and the Internet. It was cool because of the people involved. Sharing ideas with folks who are trying to achieve similar goals and encountering similar obstacles along the way reminded me that I'm not alone. The conversation was lively and inspiring.

Before the panel, though, everyone had two hours to write in a room filled with ambient music to help get the words flowing. Writing with others present was a twist on my usual routine and turned out to be surprisingly productive. I started two pieces that may or may not turn into anything.

The first was an anecdote about when I went to Oregon not long after Mt. St. Helens erupted to visit a cousin in Portland and also a friend of mine from grade school who had moved to a small town 100 or so miles south of there. That friend and I spent a week or two just doing kid stuff that summer.

One of our activities involved hitting small rocks with pieces of wood. It sounds boring, but in my memory we had a blast doing it. I met a girl, of course. We wrote letters for a while, as one did in those days, and then stopped. I still remember her. Maybe she remembers me, maybe not.

The second was written from the point of view of a character in a novel I'm working on. I wanted to understand her better. I succeeded in that regard but now think she needs more of a voice in the story.

It's funny what happens when you let people talk. Sometimes they say things that grab you and make you want to know more. This character did that to me. She took me by surprise.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

That's What Everything Does


“Remember when this place used to be good?” she asked.

He nodded. “Those were the days.”

They looked up the hill at the nearly hidden restaurant where they had often dined, remembering evenings spent there in unlikely bliss. It had meant something to them then and now it didn't, except in vague nostalgic terms.

She wrinkled her brow. “It did used to be good, right?”

“Of course it did.”

The edifice looked the same, but the last time they went, the vibe was completely different from what they'd experienced back in the day.

“What changed?”

He rubbed at his chin. “I'm not sure, maybe us.”

A bridge stretched between them and the restaurant. Physically it was easy enough to cross, but the metaphorical chasm was too wide to traverse.

“What do you mean? We're the same as always.” She looked to him for assurance, but found none.

“We've gotten older,” he said.

“So has everyone else.”

He nodded. “They probably don't go there anymore either.”

It still looked appetizing, so to speak. Maybe they didn't need to go there anymore. Maybe it was time for others to enjoy what they once had so that one day they could also stand near this bridge and share bittersweet memories of fleeting moments.

“There are other places to go, I suppose,” she said.

“Like here, for example,” he replied.

They stood in silence and looked around them. It was a nice bridge, pleasing to the eye and easy enough to cross.

She inhaled deeply. “This is a good place.”

His lips curled upward into a smile. “It really is.”

They stood a few moments longer and then continued onward toward the bridge. They kept moving because that's what everything does.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Life as Improvisation


A theme can be heavy handed, like a hammer to the temple, or it can be a gentle undercurrent that runs nearly invisible through a work. The latter suits me better and is what I strive toward when writing. Even when it doesn't appear, it at least informs. In fact, the more it informs and the less it appears, the better it works.

I'm speaking in absolutes, but for the record, these are my personal opinions. My bias is toward subtle shades and shadows that are barely detectable unless you look closely and with care. On the other side of the partnership, as a reader I take great pleasure in discovering nuggets that aren't immediately obvious on first glance. It's like a reward for paying attention and thinking, which are mental processes that should be rewarded.

Again: my essay, my opinion.

What might a theme be? Ducks could be a theme. So could fountains. In the context of the lead photo, those are hammers to the temple. Something more nuanced might focus on how ripples in the water disrupt an otherwise placid surface, necessitating minor adjustments by those who glide on that surface (i.e., ducks) to stay on course.

We're speaking in metaphor here. I have no idea what course a duck might want to maintain, especially when the only real option is to float around in a relatively small circle.

On the other hand, ducks can fly. So if these guys ever get tired of floating, they can always just take off and go somewhere else. Which leads to another possible theme: What are the perceived limitations of the environment we find ourselves in at any given moment, and how might we overcome those?

I'm just making this up as I go along. Hey, there's another theme: life as improvisation.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Kernel of Truth


I feel like these tacos could have been centered better in the frame. Where was this? I'm thinking it was somewhere downtown. Maybe I was on the way to a ballgame. I have no idea, but that's a pretty good guess given the time frame. It's the sort of thing I would have been doing back then. That and taking off-centered photos of tacos.

* * *

A part of fiction I have trouble with—and I'm not alone in this—is generating real conflict. It seems real in my head, but when I read stuff later it feels like everyone is getting along too well. There's also way too much “How are you?” and “I'm good, thanks” that doesn't advance anything other than my boredom at hearing flat characters speak.

Recognizing these problems is a good first step. Fixing them is... a thing I haven't figured out how to do just yet, but I'm working on it.

I need to dig deeper, go to the darker places. I can do that in my head, but somehow I haven't been able to translate what's in my head into actual words on the page. But then, isn't that the challenge of writing, of being a writer?

* * *

Tacos being off-centered in a photo don't qualify as conflict. They're more an annoyance that nags, like flat characters speaking. Where this photo was taken, who it was with, and other details of the affair would be far more interesting and could potentially advance a plot or at least characters.

The good and bad thing is that I no longer remember the circumstances of this particular event. I can guess at them and fill in the blanks with recollections or imaginations of similar events. Use a kernel of truth to feed everything else.