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.
July 22, 2015
In continuing last week’s “Dad the Writer,” I need to point out that keeping mentally active is not the only thing needed in order to be an artist and a parent. Yes, you need to keep sharp, but your body can suffer if you neglect it.
While many of us would be happy living on a diet of tea or coffee and whatever we can throw in the microwave, very few of us have the Kryptonian physiology to not die after a few years of this. Luckily, my wife and I have some experience making do with small budgets and trying to eat healthy, so these habits very much informed our current situation.
I’ll be the first to admit it: I dropped the ball when it came to taking care of myself. After the baby was born, and even about a year before, I focused so much on work and taking care of my then-pregnant wife that I did gain weight and neglect my exercise. Now, with the Little One more or less in a stable schedule, my wife and I are getting back to a routine to better ourselves.
I’m by no means a nutritionist, but I have found a few things that work for me to eat healthier and not go on some fad diet, and I’m not a personal trainer, so take my advice with a grain of salt. Just because it works for me, doesn’t mean it can work for you.
Learn to Cook
Most of us are more than satisfied with just opening a bag and mixing in water or simply putting a plate into the microwave. That might do in a pinch, but I discovered many years ago, long before I’d even met my wife, that learning to cook means having control over what you consume. Diet sodas and even “healthy” meal options often pack in the sugar to mask the fact that they’re basically cardboard.
It takes a little time, but you can choose exactly what you put in your body, and cooking is a good way to de-stress or at least step away from work long enough to refresh your mind.
Our diet right now is almost vegetarian and focused on greens like kale, collard greens, spinach, and other goodies. We add plenty of garlic, lentils, brown rice, and couscous into the mix and some turkey when we want meat. Once in a while, we’ll go for actual red meat, but this is a treat, both for nutrition’s sake and for health’s sake. Sodas and anything processed is also right out.
Alcohol? Well, in reality, we should cut that out to a drink a week, but a little bourbon once the Little One goes down once in a while is a good way to help the day just melt away. Suffice to say, though, that any sort of mixed drink goes right out the window due to the sugar.
Works Out for the Meek
You want to know how I lost twenty pounds in a few weeks once? I walked. A lot. At least an hour a day, five days a week. Yes, I did also cut back on sugars and soda, but the main thing is to keep moving. That sounds easy enough when you’re taking care of a tiny human learning to walk, but you need to combine it with something else.
Given that time is more precious than gold right now, I had to find some way to keep in shape that didn’t eat up the clock. I’m not talking about getting on the cover of Men’s Fitness. I mean doing something to keep flexible and strong and even have some energy and keep my metabolism up. I chose to do tabata workouts because they’re easy, require no equipment (mostly), and they can be done in less than fifteen minutes.
The short version is that you pick a small number of exercises (jumping jacks, squats, push-ups, sit-ups, etc) and do them, one at a time for twenty seconds with a ten second break in between. You do as many reps as possible in those twenty seconds. After you do four exercises, you repeat the cycle once and then rest for thirty seconds or a minute before you start again. Doing two sets takes no more than ten minutes and kicks your butt if you’re not ready for it.
Sleep When You’re Dead
I used to joke that sleep was for the week. Well, I’m weak. And tired. And Mattie woke up at 3 AM today and figured it was time to play. A lot.
Sleep is SO important. I didn’t realize until becoming a father just how much I didn’t appreciate it. I’ve been tired before, either studying for tests or staying up grading tests. The difference, I finally realized, was that I could step away from my work. I could just tell myself to go take a nap and come back to it in a few hours.
You can’t do that with a baby.
This is where the focus from the last article comes in. Yes, do the work you need and push yourself to sit and actually write or create something in the precious few minutes you can spare, but if you need to rest and have the chance, TAKE IT. You don’t know when that opportunity will come again. And really sleep. Don’t just lay there.
Seriously. I need a week-long vacation after every tooth comes out.
That’s it for today. Stay tuned for more goodies and, in the meantime, enjoy this trailer for Clown, a movie that was surprisingly creepy, if not silly.
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.
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.
May 9, 2013
I’m a professional writer.
That means that I make my living through my knowledge of the writing process, my own writing, and my paycheck hinges on my ability to communicate through little symbols on paper.
Not everyone is a professional writer. And I know this.
Most of my students learn as much writing as is needed to write reports, essays, or applications. That’s fine. I do, however, expect them to try and learn basics like sentence structure and critical thinking skills. Over the years, I’ve had students who learned barely enough to do this. They complained, year after year, that writing was hard, but they never made the effort to change that.
Recently, though, I helped a new student.
While she’s an English Language Learner, she’s from South America, meaning she doesn’t have the tether other ELL students have by having Mexico so close. As such, she had to deal not only with a new language, but also with cultural adaptation. Her first essays months ago were choppy, barely-legible series of sentences. She wasn’t dumb. Far from it. She could speak well enough, though it took some translation to get her ideas across. As she continued to visit us, though, and as I tutored her a few more times, I noticed a definite improvement in her writing.
Her last session with me was her reflective essay on how she’s improved as a writer. It was actually a well-written essay and had a line that I’ll never forget.
“I still think of writing as climbing up a hill, but at least I get a great view when I finish.”
That right there is the sentiment I wish EVERY student held close.
The writing process, like I’ve written before, is HARD. I’m not sure many writers actually enjoy the process, but we all love the final product. It also highlights the kind of attitude I wish more people would foster.
Yes, the ride may be rough. Yes, you’re not going to have a blast pouring over notes. Yes, the headaches and lost free time suck.
But guess what? You’re better for it at the end. I hear so many students complaining about this or that being hard. They don’t have enough time. They have too much to study and it piles on later.
Wake up earlier. Learn to make quick meals. Make a schedule.
None of these things are particularly fun, but I’d rather have a little annoyance spread out over my day than one HUGE problem later. Good grades, or whatever the goal may be, don’t just arrive at your doorstep. They wait for you. I didn’t decide to wait to just meet some publisher who would give me a huge advance so I could sit and calmly write my book. I’m working part time and taking odd teaching jobs so I could write it as I saw fit. And that’s what she and other students have done. They’ve taken the initiative.
Few things in life get handed to you. The things you really want? You have to go after them yourself.
May 6, 2013
With Charcoal Streets undergoing final editing, I finally have a little bit of time to get back to writing these articles, reading, and not stressing about the book.
Of course, I just spent the last week not writing as much because I was stressing about the book.
It’s not the first book I’ve written. Back in high school, I wrote a science fiction novel I hope to polish up and publish someday. I’ve ghostwritten a book and a half. Each and every time, though, I end up feeling like I just got back from some jungle war zone. I notice the little things more. I feel twitchy when I don’t type, but I feel like I should still be working on said novel.
I have Post Writing Stress Disorder.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but the writing process is hard. Really hard. Anyone who says writing is easy has never really done it, and it only gets harder the better you get at it. I remember writing a lot more when I was younger, but that was before I knew how to really do it. Now, I may write less, but that’s because I take the time to draft, check, edit, proofread, rewrite, and check my work like I was looking into a specific grain of sand on a beach.
Now that the warzone is behind me (mostly), I have to try and move on to another project. I’m still going to keep writing here and I’m putting videos out on the YouTube channel. I’m also thinking of what the next big project will be. Maybe I’ll keep writing Charcoal Streets stories for the next collection. Or maybe a full novel?
What about “The Divine Anomaly?” Should I expand that into the full novella and put back the subplots I cut out for length requirements? Or maybe I’ll get the other stories I’ve been tossing around in that universe and the next anthology will be science fiction.
Once the initial brain-drain is over, it’s always important to get right back to work. I’ve found that if I spend more than a week not doing serious writing, I tend to just not do it for weeks at a time, and I really want to avoid that. Writing, I’ve found, is a lot like working out. It’s fine to start steady, but go hard and push yourself. After you give yourself time to rest to make sure you don’t burn out or hurt yourself, jump right back in and go even harder.
Time to get back to work on lift those linguistic dumbbells.