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:
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.
June 3, 2013
My dreams tend to be kind of weird, especially, when I’m stressed about work. Twice now, I’ve been working on something and wondered if I should really do it. The last time, Neil Gaiman, or rather a dream projection of him, told me to enjoy what I do.
Last night, the Red Hot Chili Peppers gave me some advice.
I’ve loved the Chili Peppers since I first heard the Californication album. In fact, their sound and general attitude have been a huge influence on my own writing. The dream, though, started off gray.
I walked down a street. It was full, and I’m more than sure it was in Laredo, too. Everything looked gray, not black and white, but certainly washed out. As I approached a bar on my right, someone pulled me and said, “Hey, are you going to come to watch the Chili Peppers?”
Since the Chili Peppers are one of my favorite bands, I of course rushed in. It was a small bar, too, maybe a dozen tables spread out over a long floor. The bar was surrounded with red Christmas lights and upbeat music. Anthony Kiedis was actually tending bar as Chad Smith talked with people at the tables and Flea served drinks. John Frusciante played the guitar on the stage, no song in particular, just strummed along with the music.
Everything seemed too surreal. I felt like I was in a dream, but didn’t realize I really was in a dream.
Kiedis served me a drink but declined one himself. Smith went behind the bar. The band never actually played throughout the entire dream, but it felt like I was getting to just know them.
Flea then said something strange.
“It’s hard to tell your story,” he said.
I thought about it. I thought about the book I’m just waiting to get back from my editors. I’m ready, just itching, to put the finishing touches on this thing, but I’m also nervous.
What if it doesn’t sell? What if it does? What if people hate it? What if they love it?
It’s enough to paralyze someone. Too afraid to keep going, too scared to even start.
Kiedis then said, “Who cares what they think? People will love it if they love it. It’s you. Just tell your story.”
And then I woke up.
Fear is a powerful emotion. It’s the first and last thing you can feel when trying to do something. I’m afraid right now. The trick is to not let that fear be the deciding factor in anything. I learned that part a long time ago. Emotions are powerful, but actions trump them every time. Acting in spite of fear destroys it. Showing your love grows it. Enduring pain lessens it.
All I have to do now is close my eyes, take a breath, and jump.
May 13, 2013
I just finished a major project: a fantasy novel. Now, I’m seriously considering a new venture for next year: a science fiction novel. Anyone who’s known me for more than five years should know that science fiction was my first great literary love. It’s what pushed me to become a writer. It’s the genre I read and saw and instantly thought, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.”
It’s also why some people wondered why I would possibly write a fantasy work.
I never really considered the genre when writing Charcoal Streets. In fact, given some tweaks, I could see it adapted as a science fiction story instead. I recall once reading about a version of The Hobbit that was rewritten as a space opera. The methods of getting the fantastic into the “real world” or introducing strange concepts really just depend on window dressing. Maybe telekinesis is due to mutations or maybe it’s due to magic. Science fiction has robots and fantasy has golems and animated statues. What’s the difference?
That being the case, I’ve realized I write fantasy or science fiction specifically based on the kind of story I want to tell. I write fantasy to show something about people. I write science fiction to show something about the world. I’ll admit it’s not always the case, but it seems to be a general pattern.
Fantasy allows me to introduce something strange into a person’s life. It’s not so much how it happened, but rather just that it happened. Does it really matter, for example, if the monster in the closet is the boogeyman or a mutant escaped from a lab? Maybe. Maybe not. In the grand picture, the important thing should be the story. Am I trying to say something about the nature of science and the world? Science fiction is probably the best way to go. If I’m trying to analyze culture, fantasy is probably the best option.
In the end, really, I’m just trying to show something about the world. I just have to pick the best vehicle for that message.
And now, let’s enjoy some science fiction becoming science fact. You are about to watch a man on a space station record a song and transmit it to your mind using light processed through a silicone chip.
March 25, 2012
I just sent off “The Divine Anomaly” to see if it will get accepted for publication. Like I wrote on Facebook earlier today, there’s a sense of peace that comes from finally saying, “It’s done.” I can focus on other things and switch to other modes of thought. I have a big item scratched off my to-do-list.
And it reminds me of why I write.
Students will often tell me they’re done with a work after about the second or third draft. That may be fine for a quick assignment, but for me, five or even six drafts are not enough. I have to make sure everything is just right. Of course, this has to balance out with my need to get the writing out. Eventually, one side has to shut up and the story must be declared “done.” That’s why deadlines, while annoying, are so necessary, even if they’re self-imposed. The entire thing is gut-wrenching and stressful and, let’s face, doesn’t pay well unless you make it big.
So why do I do this?
I could become a teacher. The pay’s better, and I’ve done it before. I can handle a room full of kids, middle school or high school or college. I could hire myself out as a copyeditor. That’s another job I’ve done, too. Article writing for publishers who need bulk material? Done that too. All of them pay much better.
And yet I stay with one part-time job that lets me get by while I work on these tales.
You’d be right to think I’m crazy.
But maybe crazy isn’t the word. How many people out there have stories to tell? I think I have one or two. Maybe more. Like George Orwell said, there is some demon within writers, something that pushes them to these self-destructive places where everything vanishes and only the writing, the story, exists.
I’ve grappled with my own demon for years. I’ve tried to make time. Once, I shunned the world and everything in it for the sake of getting the demon out. Then, I realized I needed people, I needed contact, to stay sane. Now, I balance my home life, work, and this website while also trying to finish Charcoal Streets. The stories and themes have been bouncing around my head since 2005 and now I’m finally in a position to get them down and finish them the way I want to tell them.
It’s difficult to explain the need to create to non-artists. Yes, it would be easy to sputter articles out. It would be a simple to take up a teaching position to pay the bills. I could copyedit.
But I need to create.
Maybe this makes me crazy. Fine. It makes me crazy. But I enjoy it.
Now, let’s enjoy some well-deserved laughs. See you soon!
February 27, 2013
As I get ready for another SAT class this weekend, I look around Facebook at friends who are also teaching and I come across many familiar sentiments. Some teachers want to grade hard but are afraid. Others are not sure if incompetence qualifies for plagiarism. It’s fine. No teacher has all the answers, but one old friend recently put up the following:
Student complained after seeing her grade on blackboard that I am ‘too harsh’ of a grader when it comes to papers.
“Despite what you might think, it is actually perhaps of greater importance in science than in any other field that you be able to effectively, clearly, and accurately communicate your findings in writing. I’m not trying to be harsh, I’m trying to help you improve.”
I offered to meet with the student during office hours, gave her the location of the writing center and linked two good science-writing websites for tips. Hopefully that helps!
People sometimes accuse me of being a grammar Nazi, of being too harsh, and of expecting far too much from my students. They’re only in high school, they say. They’re not AP and magnet program, they say. It’s onl;y their first year in college, others say. These are average, every day students.
Well then what the FRAK is wrong with wanting to raise the average?!
Look, I understand that not every student will finish high school and go on to college. I understand not every college student will pursue a Masters. I understand that even at the graduate level, most people probably won’t be reading stories and analyzing literature.
But could we please, for the love of all that is good and holy in the world, please agree that making sure we can all communicate clearly, and maybe even sneak some critical thinking into what we’re doing, is a GOOD thing? I’m not going to push them so far that the whole class fails, but I don’t want to make it so easy they don’t learn anything new. And if a few of them have to think harder to get it, I’m more than happy to sit with them and explain the concepts to them.
Take my SAT students. They come from private schools and public schools. Some are getting ready to apply for college. Some are a year ahead. I’m treating all of them like potential college students, and I work with college students, so I’m VERY much aware that the current crop, and even the graduate level, is woefully unprepared for the rigors of higher education when it comes to writing.
I went out of my way to learn this all the way back in middle school. I majored in it. I have a degree and career based on it. Fine. I get it. I don’t expect my students to put together sonnets in fifteen minutes or even an entire seven hundred word essay in under an hour. But I would like them to at least have the proper foundation to make themselves heard and understood.
It’s not just English classes. Like my friend said above, science requires very precise language, but as I’ve seen, scientists are also very fond of clutter. Better to cut it off at the source, don’t you think?
Not every person is a writer. I know that. But I’m not a NASCAR driver, yet I know how to signal, avoid danger on the road, and do basic car maintenance if needed. Why shouldn’t everyone know how to write clearly and communicate properly?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get ready for a podcast in two hours. Hello, wine!
In the meantime, let’s enjoy a good little set of jump scares with the trailer for The Conjuring.