Back at It

The holidays were a little more than disruptive to my writing. While I continued to write as much as I could, there was just too much going on to be fully immersed as I had been for much of the year. Now that the new year has turned and we’re getting back to our regular routines, I’m hoping to return my focus to the stories that I’ve been working on for the past few months.

My writing goals this year are very simple in terms of concept. I want to finish The Things We Cannot Keep and I want to attend the Atlanta Writer’s Conference. Given everything else going on, I can’t imagine doing much more than that without spreading myself hopelessly thin. In between all of this, I’ll continue posting to this blog including the remaining episodes of the serials I started last year – Donna Quixote and Standard Ink.

Toward the end of last year, I reduced the noise and distractions that constantly begged for my attention by eliminating many of my social media accounts except Instagram and Twitter. I reduced the frequency of my posting and checking on these accounts. I did this to reclaim so much time I had lost to pointless frittering online. This has tightened up my routine and re-routed a lot more of my time in the morning to actually writing and/or reading, which are far more important than the latest viral videos.

Speaking of reading, I’ve done a lot more of that since I reduced my social media activities. I read 14 books last year including a new all-time favorite in Where the Crawdads Sing. I had a great reading year thanks to many wonderful authors who continue to release excellent work. I’m looking forward to releases from some of my favorite authors this year including Robert Dugoni’s latest in the Tracy Crosswhite series.

There’s a lot to look forward to, and I’m glad to be back at it. Here’s to a happy, healthy 2019! Let’s get this year started!

My New Favorite Book

Over the past decade, if anyone asked me about my favorite book of all time, I’d tell them about Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. The story, set in Bombay, India, is about an Australian fugitive who flees to the country and gets involved with the local mob while making life-long friends and falling in love with a beautiful woman. On the surface it sounds as cliche as a story can be, but Roberts’ narrative style and masterful use of language takes the reader away to India and leaves him wanting more by the time the book comes to an end almost one thousand pages later. I loved that story from its poetic opening to the last heart-breaking pages, and it stayed as my all-time favorite until this week.

A week ago I began reading Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, a story about a little girl who is eventually abandoned by her entire family in the marshlands off the North Carolina coast. She is forced to grow up on her own and learns resilience and self-reliance in the most extreme circumstances. It is equal parts heart-breaking and inspiring. Owens not only brings to life a beautiful, full character, but she paints the picture of the marshland so vividly that I can feel the Spanish moss whisking across my face as I float through the water with Kya, the main character.

The book follows Kya’s life as she struggles to survive and comes of age with no constant adult presence other than the sweet store owner, nicknamed Jumpin’, who mans a store/shack on the pier in the nearest town. Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel become surrogate parents for Kya. To make the relationship even more interesting, Jumpin’ and Mabel are black and Kya is white in 1950s and 1960s North Carolina. There’s a symbiotic relationship between Kya and the couple because both are ostracized by the locals since neither is accepted or understood. The locals derisively refer to Kya as the “Marsh Girl” or swamp trash because she lives in a rundown shack, never attends school, and prefers to avoid contact with people. The reason the locals show disdain for Jumpin’ and Mabel needs no explanation in this unfortunate era of American history.

Despite all of the odds stacked against her, Kya survives and eventually becomes an expert on the creatures of the marshland. She falls into and out of love, and there’s an intriguing accidental death/murder that occurs in the marsh, which Owens expertly weaves into the narrative of her life. Just when you think you have it all figured out as the climax of the novel happens, there’s a twist and one final release that will leave you reeling at the end. I’m purposefully being very vague about the story line because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. It’s best read unimpeded by explanations. The beauty of the story is how it unfolds and toys with your emotions. I loved it. I felt sadness when I had to say goodbye to Kya after I read the last few words of the book.

I absolutely love books that paint a vivid picture of the setting and bring the characters fully to life as living, breathing people practically sitting next to you as you read. Owens’ prose is efficient and spare, not quite Hemmingway-esque, but certainly not as flowing as Roberts’ prose in Shantaram. Nevertheless, the narrative voice gives the reader plenty to like. The story stands on its own, somewhat complicated but not so much so that I had to flip back pages to keep it straight. Owens is a scientist and it shows in her efficiency. What she has created is a wonderful novel worthy of all of the praise she has received. I add to that the dubious honor of being my favorite book of all time. I’m sure she’ll take it to the bank. In all seriousness, thank you Ms. Owens for this beautiful story.

The Long Game

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As a writer I can appreciate the importance of patience and perseverance. I can think of no other field where these traits are needed more than in writing. I joke that you don’t become a writer to boost your confidence unless you’re a masochist because writing is the field where confidence comes to die. Let’s face it, the arts are subjective no matter how you slice it. One person’s masterpiece is another’s worthless junk. That’s just the way it is. The only thing that separates a successful writer from an unsuccessful one is the ability to stay in the game long enough to get read by an audience larger than your beta readers.

While I’m still working toward that goal myself, I’m no stranger to the long game. Over eight years ago, I set a goal to run a marathon in every state in the U.S. before I turned 50 years old. On my 48th birthday on Saturday, I finished my 36th state when I crossed the finish line at the Rehoboth Beach Seashore Marathon in Delaware. It’s been a long and challenging journey to this point, but I can almost see the big finish line now that I’m within 14 states of completing my goal.

This journey has not been without its challenges. Training for and running a marathon is no small feat when you’re just an average Joe runner with a family and a day job who also happens to be an aspiring writer. Luckily, writing and running are somewhat symbiotic since I find myself with hours of time to think about something other than the fact that my feet are pounding the trail. I’ve worked through many a plot twist while running, and creative lightning has struck more than a few times in mid-run. Thankfully.

Nevertheless, this journey across the 50 states has required copious amounts of patience and perseverance just like my writing journey has. I’ve improved, regressed, and improved again. I’ve had good times in races (hello, Georgia Marathon) and bad ones (yikes, Route 66 Marathon) just like I’ve had good and bad times in my writing. There have been times when I thought I’d have to quit these journeys. In 2014, I suffered an Achilles injury that luckily did not require surgery but has hampered me since. I didn’t know if I would make it back to the marathon level, but I did. I kept going, and now, I’m at 36 states. Here at the end of 2018, I’m no further along in my writing journey than I was in 2012 when this all began, but I’m going to keep moving forward. I feel compelled to do so because just like that elusive 2:55 marathon time, I think I can be a writer.

The good thing about my running goals is that I have concrete race finish times to track my progress. Finishing is the goal. I have a medal board with a map of the U.S. (pictured above) that lets me see my progress at any point. I like having this physical reminder of where I’m at and where I want to be. I wish there were something similar for my writing goals, but often, there’s nothing more than silence. I won’t let this deter me. I’ve been writing for most of my life, and I certainly won’t stop now.

Awakening

The ambient light filtered through my bedroom windows in the dark of the early morning. A street light and a lone outdoor light fought the darkness not far from the corner of my house. To my gaping irises, the light seemed impossibly bright, enough to give shape to the furniture in the bedroom.

I raised my wrist toward my face and my watch brightened displaying the time: 3:10 A.M. Normally, I’d be in deep sleep at this time, but my brain had things to say and it wanted an audience. I tried to shush it, but it kept insisting that these words could not wait. I turned one way and then another as if the position of my body would lull my brain to some semblance of sleep, but it remained adamant that I listen. A few more tosses and turns made me wonder if I should get up and start my day, but my body pleaded with me to stay put.

I rolled over on my back and stared up at the subtle glow on my ceiling. Shadows played across its screen rippling like the tiny waves from a pebble thrown into a calm lake. My brain had my attention. The words flowed. I don’t know if my slumber made them more than what they were, but as I listened, they sounded elegant and enthralling. The first stanza in a song or the first chapter in a book. I held the words in my hands. They felt soft and warm, comforting. My brain continued to chatter until the first pages became very clear.

I sat up and swung my legs over the edge of the bed debating whether to go downstairs to my office and type the words I saw in my head. Instead, I trudged to the bathroom. Maybe I did drink too much coffee before bed, or maybe this was my body’s way of interrupting my brain. No doubt the rest of me is passive-aggressive.

I dragged my feet across the carpet toward my bed and returned to the warmth of its heavy covers. My brain still screamed for an audience. I promised that I’d do something in the proper morning, not at this ungodly hour. We argued. I won, and eventually I fell back asleep.

When I awoke again, the words still pressed against my skull begging to be released. My brain stood, hands on hips, eyes rolling at me as if to say “I told you so.” First, I started the coffee. Then, I put the words on the page. They flowed like water from a faucet, smooth and even. The page filled up, and my brain exhaled relief. The words needed to be freed from the confines of my head. Now, they have a life of their own unencumbered my sleep preferences.

The Scene of the Story

Inspiration isn’t sequential, predictable, or convenient. Oftentimes, when I’m writing a novel, an idea for a scene will strike, and I’ll get very excited about writing it. I’ll spend hours crafting it and honing it to capture the emotion of the moment, and then, I’ll realize that it doesn’t belong at that point in the novel, that it’s likely a scene for much later after I’ve written other scenes. This happens repeatedly until I end up with a jumble of scenes that all belong in other parts of the novel. It makes for a discombobulated mess.

As much as I would like to think writing a novel is a linear process, it’s not. It quickly goes off the rails if I try to organize it in such a fashion. I’ve attended writing classes and seminars where the instructors try to put the writing process into little boxes that you fill up and move along an assembly line. I have this spreadsheet template I was given at one very good writing program, but when I use it, I feel like my creativity is being stamped out like a campfire that is no longer needed.

I’m at my best when my ducks are swimming fancifully all over the lake. When they’re in a row, I feel stilted and uninspired, yet how can I put a bow on the resulting mess? Too much backstory, convoluted plot points, unlikable characters, and other problems nest in the nooks and crannies of a novel in utero. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on perspective, this is the result of an organic approach to writing. I like to let the characters evolve themselves and point me in the next direction. It feels more believable with this approach, but like real-life people, characters are full of contradictions, which either make a story intriguing or doom it to the proverbial draft desk drawer.

In my mind, the straight-laced, anal retentive side battles constantly with the laid-back, come-what-may side as I write a novel. I’m constantly re-reading what I’ve written where the straight-laced side corrects and tidies up as I read along. The laid-back side sighs “Whatever”, but when it comes time to create the next chapter, the laid-back side powers my fingers across the keyboard like a virtuoso piano player banging out a complicated Beethoven concerto.

The result is that I write by feel, which means I write what I’m inspired to write on any given morning. When I feel in the groove, I can knock out two thousand or more words in an hour or so in the morning. If I let myself get too hung up on the structure, I’ll stifle myself and spend more time reading and staring at a blank screen than writing. This approach has yet to prove effective. I have six completed novels, but none of them are at a point of publication. All of them sit in the virtual draft drawer, but I keep writing, scene by scene, and one of these days, it will all come together. Somehow.

Rules for the Road

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the state of my life. When I was younger, I had all of these idealistic visions of how my life would turn out. I had more goals than I would ever have the time or energy to achieve. To be honest, my approach was scattershot, a random spraying of colors across a blank canvas.

Over the years I’ve tried to rein in my restless enthusiasm. I’ve whittled down my goals to things that were truly important. I cast aside those that were obviously outside the realm of realistic possibility. That has helped some, but long-held habits die hard, and just when I think I’ve herded all of the cats into the pen, a few stragglers break away from the crowd and dart into another room.

A few years ago, I boiled down my life-long goals to four. These four things are the most important things to me. I even have these four goals typed onto a small strip of paper and taped to the bottom of my computer monitor in my home office. That way I am reminded of them every day, and I’m forced to reckon with them when I lose my focus. Despite my best efforts, it’s still not enough. I do things that don’t serve the purpose of those goals. I waste time. I get distracted. I lose momentum.

I think about this when I’m on my runs and when I have any other time to think uninterrupted.  I look for ways to mitigate my tendency toward entropy when it comes to my goals. I chastise myself for being unruly and undisciplined. I’m disappointed that I fail to stay focused.

Not all is lost. I just need some guardrails to keep me on the path toward my goals like those bumpers little kids use at the bowling alley to keep the ball in play so that they don’t get discouraged with the difficulty of bowling. Sometimes, adults needs bumpers, or in my case, I need rules of the road to keep me focused.

I will not waste time doing things I don’t want or need to do. This will be the hardest rule to follow. Life itself invites so many of these things into my daily routine. Some things I will have to do regardless because they are just a fact of life like laundry, commuting, or chasing a pointless rabbit at work, but everything else will meet critical scrutiny and be put into one of two buckets: (1) I want/need to do it or (2) Bullshit.

I will either be brutally honest or silent. I spend too much time thinking about how others will respond to me and catering my message to that end. I play out scenarios in my head that distract me for hours on end. The truth is I matter to very few people. I need to focus only on those people and let the others go about their merry lives. Rather than wasting time on crafting messages, I will instead be brutally honest or silent. Silence doesn’t mean acquiescence; it just means I don’t want to spend time defending my position. I tell my kids to pick their battles and only fight the ones that matter. I need to take my own advice.

I will turn myself off more often. This one sounds counter-intuitive, but constantly being on and focused on the task at hand wears me down. It dulls my senses, hampers my creativity. My work often bleeds into my weekends. Our household schedule frequently whips up a storm of activity like a cavalry stomping out of town in hot pursuit of the bad guy. My workweeks pulsate like a tender bruise after a fight. It all culminates in a boiling pot that threatens to spill over into the hiss of the fire. I need to step back more frequently, and when I’m on, I’ll be better for it.

I think I will type up these rules on a small strip of paper and put them on my computer monitor because I guarantee that I will need a reminder at least once a day that some things are worth it and some things are not. I need that clarity.

Millisecond

The lady in the pink shirt tried to kill me. Well, not really, but she was the last thing I saw when it happened, when my world upended to the screech of tires on worn pavement and the smell of burnt rubber. There, in the suspension of impossibly-slowed time, her pink shirt blotched my field of view like paint splattered onto a clean window. I don’t remember much beyond the abysmal and suffocating pink hue.

Earlier, pink was the furthest color from my mind. Blue, in fact, held my interest, as in a deep blue sky. Fall had arrived and, with it, the deepest, clearest blue sky I had seen in a while. The haze of an exasperated summer had lost its tenuous grip on the city and slowly waltzed out of town like a spurned lover. In its wake, a comforting breeze rifled through the still-green leaves of equidistant trees planted along the wide sidewalk. The starkly blue sky cut an outline around the tall trees and the block buildings that rose even higher. The city sighed in relief and basked in the relative chill of the changing season.

Red blasted my senses. A coppery taste filled my mouth, warm and unsavory. I coughed, but instead of a forceful exhale of unneeded air, I wheezed like a balloon with a tiny leak. A dark red covered my hands and my arms. The red lights flashed on the street beside me. A red bag rested next to me. A woman wailed in a red anguish.

White crept into my vision, blotting out the red like a rising tide slowly engulfing the sand on the beach. It receded and brightened, and I could hear the ocean even though I was nowhere near it. Then, as if someone had entered the dim room and flipped on a bright light, the white was all I could see like a flashlight aimed at my face. It felt warm and inviting, not unlike the blue sky I had seen earlier. My inner eye fluttered, shutting and closing like a squeaky swinging door until in came to a final rest. I wondered why the lady in the pink shirt had wanted to kill me as my thoughts fluttered into the slight breeze and the silence slowly engulfed me.