All I Needed to Know

I learned all I needed to know about life when I was nine years old, important lessons like when things get difficult you find out who really cares about you (hint: fewer people than you may choose to believe). These were difficult lessons to absorb, but looking back, I realize that was the best time to learn, those critical formative years that lay the foundation for the adult I was to become. These lessons also help me create the characters I put in my stories because they are centered around universal flaws that drive human beings, so while those years weren’t necessarily kind, they produced an important perspective that informs all of my characters. So what were these lessons? Let’s take a look.

Ignorance is not an excuse. Everyone makes mistakes, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with mistakes. They’re good for you because I guarantee that you’ll remember your mistakes long after the dust has settled around your successes. The problem with mistakes is not the act of making them but the failure to learn from them. Such ignorance is inexcusable. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome is truly the definition of insanity and stupidity, too.

Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m generally a tolerant person, but my experience with Debbie Downers is a mixed record at best. What is it with people who see only the clouds in a beautiful, deep blue sky? Everyone I’ve ever known who is a pessimist has been a miserable fool, and their self-imposed misery has resulted in, guess what, more misery. Pessimism is a cancer that begets terrible results. Life is too short. I’ve since cut most pessimists out of my life. I don’t have the time for them.

Blame is a fool’s game. We are all the result of our own decisions. Let me repeat: We are all the result of our own decisions. We all make bad decisions sometimes. I’ve made plenty, but I own them and move on. Trying to blame someone or something for your failures is about as effective as chewing gum to solve an algebra problem (yes, that’s in a song from the 1990s – guess which one). I’ve never met anyone who’s been able to blame their way to success, and my guess is that’s true throughout the entirety of human history.

Focus on what you can control, which in the end is only you. Getting anxious about what someone else has done or will do is a recipe for a bad headache and a miserable time. Worrying about who has what and who doesn’t isn’t much more productive. Poorly adjusted people spend too much time worrying about things well beyond their control, and come to think of it, most things are beyond your control. This lesson really hit me hard back then, and I’ve taken it to heart throughout my adult life, which has made me so much happier than I would have been. In the end, the only thing I can control is myself, and that’s where my focus lies. Everyone else can do whatever they want.

Each and every one of these lessons informs my writing. Creating the imperfect characters (and all of them should be imperfect if they’re human) requires salting their personalities with flaws. The clueless dolt who refuses to learn from his mistakes and keeps hurting those who care about him and the woman who seeks to blame anything but herself for her own failures are examples of characters I’ve imbued with these lessons. Sometimes, life is stranger than fiction, and that’s certainly true when it comes to my characters. I’ll continue to put these lessons to good use. There’s nothing wrong with mining a deep well of experience or creating characters that are just a hint of this and that from people I’ve met over the years. It certainly makes it interesting and entertaining.

Happenstance

A breath taken,

And exhaled,

Achenes scatter.

Pappus swirl and dance,

Toes tapping on the breeze,

Spinning couples intertwined,

An eternal chasse to a place unknown.

Neither angst nor worry,

Affect its wistful path,

Along the rippling breath.

Once aground,

Roots clasp at the soil,

Fertile or not.

From the darkness,

A new hope arises,

Frail yet strong-willed.

A rich, sun-kissed prairie,

A barren, mossy rock,

A scavenged field,

Yield to determination.

The scape,

The rosette,

The flower,

Feel no urgency for lacking,

Only the fight to survive,

To prosper,

To propagate,

In spite of the whims of chance.

 

It’s Mental, My Dear

I ran a marathon yesterday, my 37th one. When someone finds out that I run marathons they often react in surprise that anyone would and could run 26 miles on purpose without the prospect of an Olympic medal being up for grabs. Fellow runners are a little more accepting of this especially if they run the distance themselves. There’s a kinship among marathon runners that makes us all feel relatively normal because to the outside world we appear insane. Nevertheless, if those on the outside have one thing right, it’s that the marathon is a mental case, but not in the way they would think, and not surprisingly, this idea extends to writing and life in general.

I would argue that most reasonably fit people can run ten to 15 miles without much of a problem. They may have to take walk breaks or even stop for a sandwich, but they could do it. Beyond 15 or so miles things get dicey because your mind enters into the fray. That little voice inside your head starts talking trash, and either you’re apt to listen or you’re not. Everyone has that annoying little voice in their heads, even long-time marathoners. The only difference between a marathoner and a non-marathoner is that we’ve learned how to put that voice in its place. Most likely, we’ve bound and gagged him and stuck him in a dark corner somewhere in our minds.

In order to do that, you have to really want to reach your goal. In this case, the goal is to reach the finish line. If you don’t really care about the goal, then that voice will overwhelm you and leave you in a heaping mess somewhere around mile 15. The same is true for writing. There are a lot of great success stories about writers. Just about everyone is familiar with J.K. Rowling’s story before she met great success with Harry Potter. Countless other successful writers have similar stories. If you read interviews with them, they all talk about those moments when they thought they should quit. That voice in their heads almost beat them.

Writers have to put that voice in their heads in its place much like marathon runners do if they want to be successful. It’s too easy to let it win. To add to the scrutiny, writers suffer no lack of criticism and negative feedback. That’s something that marathoners rarely, if ever, have to deal with unless there’s some band of roving running critics that I’ve yet to encounter. It’s easy for it all to become overwhelming and seem insurmountable.

I always tell myself to focus on a 10K (ten kilometers) at a time when I’m running a marathon (a marathon is 42K). This helps me avoid becoming mentally overwhelmed by thinking about the whole 26 miles. It serves as a distraction because I can blithely run past the crowds like I’m just running a 10K, except, of course, I’m doing it four times over. As a writer I use the same approach. Writing a novel is like a marathon in that if you think about completing 90 thousand words at once it can doom you from the start, but if you just focus on one chapter at a time, it seems less daunting.

Whether running a marathon or writing a novel, it all boils down to the mental aspects of the task. Both are endurance sports in a sense, and both involve tamping down that annoying little voice in your head. It helps to having coping mechanisms that work for you to keep you focused on your goal and help you ignore the doubts (for there will be plenty). Come to think of it, it’s not all that different from life itself.

A Familiar Journey

Although my kids do not believe me, I remember what it was like to be a teenager. It may have been a long time ago, but I have a pretty good memory (for now, at least). It’s easy to ridicule teenagers and their take on language, fashion, or just about any other pop culture topic, and it seems every adult likes to proclaim how ridiculous teenagers are today and how it wasn’t like that when they were that age. “Kids today,” they say shaking their heads forlornly.

I’m here to say, “Yes, it was.”

I’m no fan of conventional “wisdom” and question whether such an oxymoron can exist. Every kid beats the path to adulthood through the field of teenagedom. Being a teenager is about pushing the envelope and exploring the world in different ways. It’s certainly not about being like your parents and other adults. What fun is there in that? The truth is that we need this with each successive generation. By the time we all reach our thirties, we’ve grown stale and become set in our ways. The world wouldn’t move forward without those willing to shake up the place a bit, and that’s where teenagers come in.

But being a teenager is more than setting the world on fire; it’s also about finding yourself and discovering who you are that makes you happy. It’s a journey fraught with the whole range of emotions from sheer joy to disappointment. The reality that who we want to be and who we are can be different and incongruent slowly settles in until we reach our late 20s and we either settle or make changes to achieve a level of happiness that girds us for the rest of our lives. Not everyone makes it to that point. Many are lost along the way either physically or mentally.

It goes without saying that most people navigate this path through which we all must pass successfully, but that doesn’t make it any easier. The supporting cast of adults around teenagers make the world of difference even if they are spurned by the adult-in-the-making. This is where a good memory helps. We’ve all “been there done that,” but it’s important not to apply our “woulda-coulda-shoulda” thoughts to our kids. Yes, if you had it to do over again, you’d do it differently, but that doesn’t mean your kids will use your wisdom to make the perfect journey to adulthood. It’s not going to happen. We all make our our own mistakes. That’s how we earn it.

Of course, I can write these words and believe them. The rational side of me understands this well but the father in me struggles as my kids venture into this critical period of their lives. This stage of life brings back a lot of memories for me as it likely does for most adults. I know I cannot and should not try to eliminate pain and disappointment for my kids. They have to experience these things to grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults, but watching them suffer, no matter how small it may be, challenges my resolve. Parental instincts can be powerful and unflappable, but they can also be irrational and short-sighted. It’s a battle I hope I’m prepared for because the toughest years are yet to come.

Finding Perspective

I wrote the first draft of Into the Caldera in three months. I had just returned from a vacation to Yellowstone where the idea sprouted and blossomed in my mind. By the time I returned to writing after vacation, I had the entire story formed in my head. It was just a matter of putting the words on the pages. It turns out that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell, which put me on a meandering path of re-writes and re-imaginings of the story for much of the past 18 months.

That first draft was a punch-to-the-gut revenge fantasy. Although I still like that version of the story, I realized after a few people read the initial version that it wouldn’t work. It was rough-edged and too in-your-face, not to mention that the promiscuous sex and drugs were likely too much for many readers. Nevertheless, I loved the heroine of the story who took matters in her own hands to strike back against those who had wronged her even if she targeted the wrong people. She was deeply flawed but in control. I liked that.

Originally, the story was told from two points of view – the heroine and one of the guys she wanted to punish. This worked well because their perspectives were vastly different and intertwining the two left the reader wondering what was really true until the squishy truth was revealed at the climax. The twist, one of mistaken identity, was supposed to leave readers stunned, but instead, it left a bad taste in their mouths, so it was back to the drawing board for me.

The second writing of the story introduced more context to the plot and softened the edges around characters. I redrew the heroine, who was too unlikable in the first draft, as a more sympathetic character, but doing so extinguished her kick-ass nature, something akin to taking the weapons away from Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill. All during this re-write, I realized something was missing. I fell out of love with the story and felt like I had compromised it too much. I almost killed the whole novel. Almost.

The second draft earned some faint praise. It seemed pedestrian to me, predictable. The element  of surprise that had been buried in the climax had been dug up and cast aside. It didn’t have the punch that excited me as I wrote the first draft. I took a break and re-examined why I wanted to write this book.

During this introspection I returned to my characters and sought to understand who they were and what their motivations were. I felt like I knew my heroine and her primary antagonist pretty well. After all, I had told the story from their perspectives – twice. In the background, there was a third character, the best friend of the antagonist. He had lurked there the whole time, but the reader did not get to hear from him. He primarily served as an accomplice who was quiet and reserved – a wallflower. I had written some extensive background on the antagonist and his relationship with this secondary character. As I re-read it, I realized that this secondary character had an interesting perspective. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could re-write the entire novel from his perspective and have a very intriguing story.

After all the hand-wringing over whether to continue or not, I had finally found a path that excited me again. It keeps the element of shock that appealed to me in the first draft, but the climax is more nuanced and the sharp edges of the original concept have been sanded smooth to ease the reader into the dark nature of the story. The original theme of jealousy seeps from the seams of the story versus the in-your-face blast of the first draft. I’m happy with where the story is headed. The life-long friendship of the two guys in the story gives me plenty of material to fill in the substance of the plot and really amps up the tension at the climax. I can’t wait to finish this third version. I hope that it’s true that the third time is the charm.