August 10, 2015
This is the final installment (for now) of “Dad the Writer.” We’ve gone over how to keep mind and body sane and healthy while you juggle being a parent and an artist. Obviously, as cliché as it sounds, we end with keeping the soul sane.
Whether or not you believe in the soul is immaterial. If you’re an artist, if you want to create something, make an idea tangible, then you have a soul. Maybe you didn’t have one before you started. If you’re reading this and want to be a better artist, congratulations. You have a brand new soul.
It’s not enough to simply be good at something, though. It’s also not enough to keep your mind sharp. Anyone can sit at a computer and just type at normal speed, maybe even half speed, and write a novel within a week or two. Anyone can buy a camera and take pictures of animals, landscapes, and people. Anyone can shoot videos or write poems. Doing any of these well, though, is another matter. That takes practice and dedication.
And a healthy artist’s soul.
A healthy artist’s soul means being willing to fail. Again. And again. And again. If you’re doing whatever you’re doing for the chance to get rich, you’re doing business, not art. You’re looking at trends and what’s hot and jumping on the bandwagon. You’re not creating. You’re selling. Creating something that rings true to people, something that can last generations and change people’s minds, something that has, for lack of a better term, a piece of your soul, is difficult.
This takes time.
No piece of writing is ever good on the first try. Or the second. Or the third. Maybe, a handful of times in your career, you’ll stumble onto the perfect line, the perfect shot, and that’s fantastic. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it requires patience and determination. And failing is the last thing artists want. I know it’s something that gives me nightmares to this day. I’m afraid of creating something, pouring my history and my troubles into it for others to see and learn from, and then finding out it’s complete garbage.
Do not be afraid to fail. You will. Just remember that your work is not final until you put it out for the world to see. You can make changes, go back and redo your work, or do anything that needs to happen in order for your art to be better. Embrace failure, but reach for perfection. And don’t be disillusioned when your work isn’t perfect. It never will be. Every writer, for example, can look at old stories and find mistakes. I look at my work from even six years ago and find not just errors in grammar but also plot holes and clutter that I would strike out in the first editing session today.
Just think what you’ll learn in another six years.
Your work does not have to be perfect, just as perfect as you can make it at the time. At some point, you need to stop and say, “It’s done. I can do nothing else.” Otherwise, you’ll spend the rest of your life checking work that needs to go out and be seen.
Which brings me to one of the Ultimate Truths About Art™ that you need to understand to keep your soul healthy.
You will always improve, as will your work, if you have dedication and support.
Surround yourself with people who can encourage you, be honest, and promote your growth. Find those who will give you honest feedback, and maybe a little ego-boost, when things get dark. You need someone who will tell that your work is the greatest thing in the world even if you don’t believe it. Balance this with actual criticism because constant failure can wear you down.
It’s not easy to have that kind of dedication and will. That, like anything worthwhile, takes practice. So go ahead and fail. Cry. Drink that six pack and pass out. Cry again. Curse the day you thought you could do this.
And try again. And again. And lean on those around you. The loner artist is a myth, a romanticized idea that rarely works. You need that support to keep you grounded or your ego will kill you one way or another. If you gain an audience, it will make you think things are easy and you’ll flounder. If you don’t do well, it’ll tell you it was never meant to be.
Use your support network. Use your loved ones. Bring them along for the ride.
And now, to help you pass the time between reading and working on your own work, here’s the trailer for a feel-good family movie about parents and their children.
Okay, maybe not so much.
I’ve written extensively about the many things that a writer needs to do to make time and create good works and excel at his or craft.
That was before my wife and I ushered in Mattie, our precious little spawn.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Mattie to death. Nothing cheers me up more than hearing her laugh. That little smile of hers and her “I know I own your ass” look she gives us are some of the greatest moments of my day.
That being said, our toddler can be such a baby.
Every parent knows this. We certainly knew that any semblance of free time was gone the instant Mattie was born. What does this mean for our projects, though, for my wife’s photography and for my writing? It means we have to work much smarter than before.
I can write almost anywhere. Give me some paper and a pen and I can outline, draft, and do anything I need. I could do this before, but it’s so much more important now. I can’t just go to the computer and write an idea. Sometimes, I can’t even pull out paper to write said idea. Taking care of baby requires two hands, after all.
Time to get creative.
My wife and I have started using Evernote. It’s a handy way to quickly write down a note or save a webpage that we need for future reference. Because we both have the app, we can share lists, photos, and anything else we need while keeping everything sorted and catalogued for later. Barring that, having paper and pen handy, despite the abundance of thrown food, is still a viable option. I keep a notebook and pen nearby whenever I’m with the little one, and despite the focus needed to keep a little human in good working order, I’ve found that it’s still the best way to quickly write something down and keep going. When I do have time later in the day to actually sit and work, I quickly pull the notebook out and start expanding the notes and ideas, or the outright passages, into Word documents.
This stop-and-go method to working is tiring, though, perhaps more than actually sitting down for a few hours to type. You can’t focus and let ideas just come to you. Sometimes, it feels like you’re forcing creativity, that the clock is ticking, and you need to get it done NOW. There’s no sitting and thinking and drafting and just letting ideas happen.
While it would be easy to think that any free time should be devoted to craft, that’s not the case. I’m not about to spend every minute the baby is asleep working on my writing. Aside from the fact that we still need to cook food and keep the house clean, there’s also the very important matter of spending time with my wife, talking, just spending a few minutes lying on the carpet and relaxing as the Little One plays by herself. This was one of the mistakes I made years ago, one for which I apologized profusely. Despite the writer in me demanding I sit down to work if I have even five minutes, I need to spend time with my family too. I can’t ignore them or the people I’m doing this for will suffer.
This all means focus is so much more important than before. When I work, I work. Nothing else matters. It helps that my wife and I have our desks next to each other, so that when one of us is working or if we’re both working, we can still chat and share ideas. This also means we need time to relax. Mediation, music, a walk outside, anything and everything to clear the ol’ brain pan before the next mad session. It’s not a perfect set-up, but it works, and discipline is paramount.
Stay tuned for Part 2! In the meantime, enjoy this:
It’s been over two years since I was here in any permanent capacity. Yes, I wrote a handful of articles, but they were anomalies. The site’s lingered here, virtual spiders building their virtual cobwebs, traffic trickling down, but still consistent.
A year and a half ago, we had a baby girl.
My time’s been devoted to this tiny little life I must now care for until she moves out and goes to college to become the greatest president/ private detective/ writer/ Jedi the world has ever known. I was sure this site, and my writing in general, were distant memories, the kinds of dreams you have as a kid before you realize the world is a cold, hard place and you need to make the choice to either follow your dreams or do something that will actually help you in life.
Then something happened.
I looked at this little life in front of me and I saw everything going on. Our country is still crazy, maybe getting crazier. We’re trying to fight for the rights we should have won a century ago, even fifty years ago. I can have a safe, uneventful career simply working as an instructor or writing consultant and hope to move up.
This, dear reader, will not do.
I’m going to finish editing Charcoal Streets and it will be a hit. I am going to keep making YouTube videos because I have something to say and I think it needs to be said. I’m going to keep posting here because I believe this site has changed people’s minds.
I’m going to keep doing this, even if I have to wake up at dark o’clock, because I can’t let go of the dreamer I was five years ago. I want my daughter to see that dreams have power. I want her to know that imagination is not just something you leave in the playground. I want her to see that Daddy pursued his dreams and worked hard and through a combination of blood, sweat, and luck, he made it big.
I need to be the kind of person I want her to become, or at least someone she can see is driven and willing to go the extra mile for his family.
I used to write for me. In a way, I still do. But now I’m doing this for Mattie, too.
Release the Kraken! I’m back!
…What is this. WHAT IS THIS?!
No. I will stay quiet no more. It’s bad enough this corpulent festering pool of a company sells a product that a good chunk of the American population thinks is Mexican food… but what the ever-loving FRAK is this?!
It was bad enough when they sold “tacos” and “gorditas” that resembled their namesakes as much as an ostrich resembles a chimp because both have eyes and legs. It’s bad enough that their processed meat-like product will clean you out like a bottle of Liquid Plumr. I understand that “authentic” ethnic food is a difficult thing to find in another country, and I’m well aware of the fact that most Chinese restaurants, for example, are not indicative of the cuisine of China.
But this isn’t even trying. This is like peeing on a stack of paper and calling art. This is like hiring Michael Bay to do Transformers all over again.
America, do you want a real Mexican breakfast? Do you?!
Here’s what you do.
First, party. I mean PARTY. Get some tequila. None of that fratboy, Spring Break, Jose Cuervo crap. I mean a bottle of 100% blue agave, the kind of liquor that God expels from his nipples when he’s aroused. You grab that bottle and you get a dozen of your best friends. You drink that bottle and play Vicente Fernandez until you all cry and remember loves lost and found. I don’t care if you understand the lyrics. You DRINK. And YOU CRY. You cry like a little bitch and you hug those friends like they’re your brothers and sisters and you stay up reminding each other that LIFE IS GOOD AND FRIENDS MATTER AND YOU TELL THOSE SONS OF BITCHES YOU LOVE THEM. And you do this outside, with the mosquitos and warm night air to keep you company. You let your body sweat tears of pain and heat!
Second, you stay up all night. You go through that bottle and maybe throw in a few beers. Not some artisan, microbrew beer, either. I mean Dos Equis. Tecate. And you drink that swill with lime and salt. Yes, lime and salt. Add some hot sauce for flavor and texture at your own peril.
Thirdly, you wait until the sun comes up. You have to move quickly, because you have work to do. Real work. Like my grandfather used to tell my mother and like he told me twenty years later, “You want to party? Fine, but you WORK IN THE MORNING.” You don’t skip out on your responsibilities. You’re an ADULT. So you drag your semi-drunk corpse out of the building and you find a Mexican restaurant, the kind of place health inspectors would cite on looks alone. No art on the walls. No big sombreros. Just waiters that understand your menu order and that’s it. If you speak Spanish, they’ll treat you like family.
Thirdly, order ANYTHING on the menu. It’s all tortillas, beans, cheese, and meat in varied ratios, but it’s your choice. You eat that meal with home-made salsa and tortillas that smell better than any lover you’ve ever had. You finish that plate and give a satisfied nod to the waiter. And you go on with the rest of your day like nothing happened.
Why? Because you’re AN ADULT HUMAN WHO GRABS LIFE BY THE SHORT AND CURLIES. You enjoy that breakfast, those enchiladas and that chorizo, like you’re about to be fraking executed by a firing squad. That meal is the greatest plate of food in your life.
And come next week, you repeat the process. THAT’S Mexican breakfast.
February 12, 2014
My class today revolved around learning how to peer edit papers. These students are not professional writers, and some of them have had to take the class before, so aside from myself and the Writing Center, I want them to feel comfortable asking each other for help. The lesson, then, revolved around teaching them how to critique and take criticism.
It was simple enough. First, find something in the paper that works. It could be the dialogue, the story itself, or even just the title, but it must be genuine praise, not just cheerleader fluff. Then, you need to point out an actual shortcoming in the paper. And be specific. Is the ending vague? Does it try to cover too much ground? Finally, end with a second positive.
While this may feel like some sort of self-help seminar, the purpose is to make the writer receptive to criticism. Hearing that there are good things in the essay and not just hings to fix is essential, especially for insecure writers. Writing is one of the most stressful activities a person can partake in, so knowing that some parts of the work work is essential. A person can get friend focusing on the things that need to be changed, the mistakes that slipped through the first and second drafts, and even just the amount of work needed to polish an essay for submission. I know.
That little bit of positive feedback can make the difference becoming bitter at the process and learning to enjoy the small victories.
And I’m not asking for too much when I ask students to find something good in each others’ essays. Rarely will anyone find a piece of writing so unbearably bad, so insulting to the senses, that at least one positive thing can be said about it.
In my life, I’ve come across two. I’ve read hundreds of essays, countless books, and I’ve only found two.
The first was actually a student essay back in college. To say that the essay offended my sense of storytelling by taking a story and purposefully twisting the reader’s brain around metafiction with all the grace and subtlety of a rocket-powered brick to the face would be an understatement. Chaos theory states than an infinite amount of monkeys writing at an infinite amount of typewriters will, given an infinite amount of time, write the complete works of William Shakespeare. This essay, however, was a twelve monkey, half hour job. It’s the only time I’ve ever thrown a piece of writing. Its aura offended me.
The second was a novel I had to edit in order to compensate for a small car accident I caused. Instead of having to get insurance involved, the other driver asked me to edit her novel. It took me a good half hour to get past the first page. It was a mess, both grammatically and structurally. The story began with two retired men who won the lottery and drove around the country getting into small adventures. It ended with said men recruiting a dog groomer, a bartender, and assorted folks into a black ops mercenary outfit running operations in Colombia. It may sound like the kind of thing that could work on paper, but it’s not. Not by a long shot. The story would have made more sense if alien ghosts had appeared midway through to explain how reality was being melted by a giant toddler with a magnifying lens.
Being a reader is more than just editing and finding mistakes. It’s about providing a little support to go along with those criticisms.
Except for the odd writing like those two mentioned above. Writing that bad needs to be burned and buried at a crossroads.
For now, let’s enjoy the sights and sounds of The Daily Show destroying the GOP on something that shouldn’t be this difficult.
February 10, 2014
I’d like to believe I’m a fair teacher, one that is willing to work with you to help you pass. I don’t believe in unfair advantages like extra credit or undeserved extensions. I do, however, believe in working with you, explaining through different methods, using office hours and email discussion to help you reach the proper level of understanding and confidence to write. That is my goal.
And mistakes will be made. This, too, is inevitable, but it’s part of the process. Writing is about making mistakes, trying out new sentences, new approaches, telling the story a different way in order to better get across to the audience. Writers who are afraid to make mistakes never grow, they never improve, and in the end they become wrecks as far as the profession is concerned.
That being said, there is one thing I will not tolerate.
Every one of us who calls him or herself “writer” most likely started out imitating others. We copied style. We copied story. We copied tone. But few of us would ever take something copied word for word and call it our own. There is a special level of hell for plagiarists. It’s right between the level where they keep Kardashian fans and people who serve Natural Light at parties.
Accidental plagiarism is also a thing. Students forget quotation marks but have a proper citation. A student thinks he paraphrased something but it was still too similar. Again, these are mistakes.
But knowingly stealing words and trying to pass them off as your own?
I’ve had students lift paragraphs from Wikipedia and sites with sample essays. If it was up to me, the forms outlining their dishonesty would have been sent to the Registrar and the Honor Council ten seconds after I caught their deceit. That is a choice to try and lie and cheat. It’s an insult to the trade.
But the department says we need to give them a chance to explain or fix the mistake, especially if they’re freshmen.
But to everyone else, or those who think they can pass off this sort of work in a final draft, please pay attention.
Are you listening?
I will come down on you like the hammer of an angry god.
I will rain holy fire on your academic record. The ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah will look the Elysian Fields compared to what I will do your grade in my class. Your lies smell like sulfur, and I will exorcise your demons from the digital database with holy water and a sword cast from the church bells of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. I’ll make that essay look like the ruins of Alderaan. You did it because you ran out of time? You forgot? Well, guess what? I’m teaching a full load and have a wife with a baby on the way. I take time out of my evenings and weekends to put together a class designed to make it easy for you to pass if you put forth actual effort and respect the craft, and if you show me something you did not write and think you can get away with it, then you’re wasting my time, time I could be happily spending with my family.
You’re too young to know the kind of pain I will inflict on your soul.
…All I’m saying is, please don’t do it. The paperwork’s a bitch.
I think we’re going to get along great.
And yes… I’m back.