A Labor of Love

I recently finished reading John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, which is another excellent book from the author featuring eccentric, young characters facing a challenge that ultimately plays out over the course of the story. Green’s books are reliably good, and although I’m not the demographic he targets, I enjoy a well-told story. Green thoroughly develops his characters such that they come alive for the reader, and then, he surrounds them with an intriguing plot. There’s a lot to admire in his writing.

After I finished the book, I turned to the acknowledgments, as I always do when I finish a novel, and read through what the author had to say to those who helped him through the writing of this book. I was surprised to learn that he spent six years writing the book. While Green isn’t as prolific as Stephen King, he has released six books in the last 13 years starting with Looking for Alaska to this most recent book. He’s averaged about a book every three years since his first release. Given the time it takes to write a good book, every three years is about right.

But six years. That struck me as a long time for an established author who writes reliably good novels. I’d love to chat with him about why it took so long, not because I’m being critical, but because I want to understand the creative process he went through. Quite frankly, it’s comforting in some way that even big-name authors plod through their work. It’s proof that the creative process is not a nice walk down a breezy lane on a cool, spring day. Sometimes, it’s a slog through a rainstorm in knee-deep mud.

If anything I can sympathize. I’ve been working on my current novel for almost two years (it will be two years in July), and I don’t feel I’m close to finishing. I’m on my third full re-write. There have been moments where I’ve wanted to throw it in the virtual trash bin and work on something else. Some mornings, I look at my manuscript and just write a blog post or a short story instead. My motivation waxes and wanes like the phases of the moon. There are moments of pure inspiration that drive me to write two thousand words in a single sitting, and then there are moments, where I’m lucky if I can get two hundred coherent words to fit on the page. I’d change the title of the book to The Neverending Story if it didn’t sound like a flashback to the 1980s.

Nevertheless, I keep plodding along. This book may never go anywhere, but I’ll be damned if I don’t finish it. I have to see if it works. It may not, but I want to give it a chance even if it takes another two years. Then, I will work on something else.

Some Kind of Nothing

Sometime in the middle of the night on Saturday, I woke up. It took a moment for me to realize that it wasn’t near sunrise. The full moon outside shined impossibly bright giving the illusion, at least to the half asleep, that a dawn was imminent. It wasn’t. Even summer mornings in Seattle don’t begin that early. I closed my eyes, but my mind wouldn’t let me go back to sleep. Something festered in crawl of my brain, a half-finished dream of some sort that fizzled slowly like the mist on a spring morning. I tried to shake it loose, but once my mind latches onto something it doesn’t let go.

I normally sleep very well. I believe I do so because I follow a very regular routine. Sleep, like brushing your teeth is a habit. At least it is to me. I also immortalize anything that could potentially worry me by writing it down before I go to bed. It relaxes me to write the things down that I must do. The act itself gives my mind permission to forget, at least for the purpose of a good night’s rest. I have a pretty comprehensive to-do list that precludes me from worrying about things, so it’s very rare for me to lie awake worrying about what needs to get done.

Likewise, once my mind groks a story idea, it will run like a hamster on a wheel until every conceivable facet of the story is exhausted. On this particular morning, that’s why I found myself involuntarily awake. I’m not exactly sure where this story idea will go, but when I finally wiped the sleep from my eyes and listened to what my brain was telling me, I had a title and a general story concept floating in front of me. I’m not sure if this story idea came from a dream I was having or if it had been brewing in my mind based on something I had read or thought about earlier in the day or the week.

I think the idea requires some background to make any sense. Again, I’m not sure where this is going, but the title that reverberated in my head is Some Kind of Nothing. The story is a first-person narrative that follows a man through a series of strange events that leave him wondering what is happening to him. It’s a primordial tale of existentialism. It borders on the paranormal, which makes the whole concept odd for me since I don’t read or write in the fantasy genre.

The “Nothing” in the title refers to death. While I often explore mortality and the philosophical musings it engenders, most of my writing focuses on more uplifting topics. I like my characters to change for the better or at least impact the fictional world around them for the better. I don’t think this story will be any different should I choose to continue to develop it, especially since its base topic is morbid and there needs to be some counterbalance to make it palatable to readers.

Like most of my other stories, there is something personal in the idea. I don’t subscribe to any religious beliefs. I believe death is simply a step into the dark abyss where nothing exists. It’s the end of all ends. That doesn’t cause me so much consternation or discomfort that I seek another explanation. Some things we can never know, and I’m okay with that. Instead, I focus on living the life I have to the fullest. Life is a gift, something to be cherished and fulfilled in the way that I feel satisfies me. Living life in misery, real or imagined, is pointless. Quite frankly, were that my primary disposition, I would gladly step into the abyss voluntarily. My comfort in my own skin doesn’t prevent me from exploring other ideas. I’m confident enough to disagree with myself, to challenge myself and my thoughts in ways that I hope make me grow and, I hope, help my readers grow, too. That’s what this story is about. Nothing isn’t one thing. It could be many things, some we choose to see and some we don’t. What would happen if some core belief you hold isn’t true? That’s the engine that drives this concept.

Certainty

Human beings love certainty. That’s why we have comfort zones (a controlled space where we can more or less predict what will happen) and why we put an out-sized value on the past (it already happened, so it can’t change). Uncertainty is nerve-wracking, a darkened path into the unknown that could or could not end well. What is to come is scary because anything could happen and we can’t control it.

Sometimes, certainty is not comfortable or enlightening. This past weekend I ran a wonderful little marathon in Northern Virginia that started and finished at a local suburban high school. The course was a double loop half marathon meaning that I had to run the course twice to complete the full marathon distance. Normally, I like these courses because it helps to know what the second half of the course looks like when I enter the inevitable battle with the mental demons that descend on me around mile 18. Those bastards love pointing out the uncertainty of the course and how it will imminently lead to my failure. With a double loop, they lose some of their ammunition.

The course started like many others – a rush of adrenaline on a luxuriously wide asphalt surface just outside the school. A couple of miles of gently rolling roadway begat more of the same until we entered a wooded trail just before the four-mile marker. This mile-long trek along a peaceful trail through the woods is normally a runner’s dream – no traffic or associated noise and pollution, but this trail had as many twists and turns as a Stephen King novel and meandered through the trees as if some drunken explorer had founded it back in the day. If the twists weren’t bad enough, the amplitude of the undulating hills seemed to accelerate. My legs groaned and the pace displayed on my watch slowed.

After a mile in the wooded path, I plopped back onto pavement, which, although undulating and unforgiving, felt like a relief from the twisting trail I had just left behind. Another mile-long section of trail followed that before I ended up on pavement again. The race course marshal obviously had a sense of humor and a mean sadistic streak, but I hadn’t seen anything truly sadistic yet. Until I did. What followed the short respite of relatively straight roadway was three miles of rolling, twisting trail. I felt like one of those sad, inevitable victims in a slasher film running an aimless path among the trees in hopes that the determined mass murderer wouldn’t be able to keep up with me.

When I finally emerged from the last section of the wooded path on the first loop, my legs and my time had suffered. The slight downhill run on the longest straightaway of the course led me back to where I had started. As I ran by the halfway point, the thought of running through those trail sections again left me with an unsettled feeling. The grind was already wearing on me at the 13-mile point. Normally, I don’t start to feel it until around mile 15 or beyond. In this case, certainty, as in I most certainly had to run the trail sections again, didn’t help me in the least. In fact, it made me very uncomfortable.

The marathon is an exercise in determination, more mental than physical. Certainty helps relieve some of the mental stress in most cases. That’s why many marathoners have specific routines they follow that border on OCD. In this case, certainty didn’t help. Despite the sense of dread that hung over me as I dropped off the roadway onto the first section of trail for the second time, I kept going. The paths were just as grueling as the first time except my legs were lingering near the edge of exhaustion. My pace slowed markedly, but I kept moving forward. I did experience some euphoria when I emerged from the final section of trail and hurled myself down the home stretch. Because I had experienced that about two hours earlier, I knew the worst was over. Finally, certainty worked in my favor.

 

The Lull in the Storm

One of the most salient bits of advice that often gets passed around is to “do what you love.” In general, that advice is solid unless what you love is sleeping or some other activity incapable of providing you with fulfillment and a means to make a living, but even if you’re doing the thing you love most, there will be inevitable ups and downs just like everything else in life. This is especially true for creative endeavors.

I always find it interesting to read or listen to interviews with other authors to hear about their creative process. The paths to a good book are as varied as the people who write them, but one common thread among all of these people is the sense that there’s some magic in the process, a black box of sorts. This box emits great ideas most of the time, but sometimes, it doesn’t. The creative storm that pushes a work forward comes and goes like the ebb and flow of the tides, and no one really knows how or why.

I’m not prone to believing in fairies and such, but my inability to describe or control the creative process in a logical paradigm leaves me little choice but to put it in the context similar to moods, an undulating wave of varying amplitude and frequency that pulses through the universe in a non-repeating pattern. I never know when a creative storm will form and dash out a hailstorm of ideas. I do know that ideas often strike at the most inopportune times like in the middle of a run, on an airplane, or in the shower – moments where I may not have the means to capture them quickly.

In the middle of all of this is my usual routine, which helps to some degree corral the forces at work here. I’m at my best in the morning, so I get up before everyone else to write. It helps if I’m comfortable, so I have my favorite (and most comfortable) chair at the ready in my office. Coffee helps, too. All of these environmental elements combine forces to coax the creative fairies out of hiding (hopefully). On some mornings, my fingers can barely keep up on the keyboard as words flow like music from my fingertips. On other mornings, the blinking cursor mocks me as if the well were dry, but I know it will rain another day. Despite this seemingly feast or famine nature, I love to write.

Sometimes I get asked if I plan to make writing my full-time gig. My answer invariably is no, which seems contradictory to the “do what you love” advice. I do love to write, but I don’t want to add the pressure of having to make a living to the mystical blend that is the creative process. I think it would ruin it for me. I can walk away from writing for a day or a week and rejuvenate because I know I don’t depend on it to make a living. If it were my day job, I’d feel compelled to push and push until all of the joy were gone from it. I like things the way they are just fine. I’m writing for the joy of it, even when it’s not so joyful. I can wait out the lull in the storm.

Wow!

deadly

A few years ago, I came across the graphic above, and suddenly I understood something about women that I had failed to understand in my forty plus years on the planet. I had been misinterpreting their words all along. I had understood simple words like “fine” and “nothing” in a literal sense and had failed to realize that they had broader, unspoken meanings that could impact my quality of life.

With this newfound knowledge, I felt empowered to listen and ascertain the enormity of any given situation that required my attention. Admittedly, I am generally oblivious and assume that spoken words are to be taken in a literal sense. This works when talking to my male friends, but it’s a minefield of angst when dealing with the opposite sex.

Given the numerical notation, I assumed this was a hierarchy of sorts, like a progressive chart that indicates the level of anxiety I should feel. The thermometer in my car is similar in that it goes from cold to hot, and as it gets closer to hot, the little arm of the gauge crosses into the red. That’s when you really know you’re in for some trouble. Likewise, the bonus word “Wow” in the chart above represents the red area in this gauge of female-to-male communication.

If it were only that simple. Much to my dismay, I soon learned that this is not a progressive chart and that there may be no warning whatsoever when communication crosses “into the red.” It’s the equivalent of cranking the car and having the thermometer gauge go straight to red and the car overheating in that very instant with no time to react.

The randomness of the scale makes it difficult to apply any sort of mathematical formula to predict the probability that any actions or careless words could lead to an overheated situation. Being a simple guy, I instantly decided to reduce the scale to a game since it couldn’t be conquered mathematically. I conducted unauthorized experiments with my wife to see what actions or words elicited which reactions. This soon led me toward an imminent demise, so I stopped the game. I can say, somewhat with pride and maybe a little fear, that I am able to get to “Wow!” pretty fast. It’s a skill I never knew I had.

I wish I could say I had some sage advice for those men out there just now realizing the implications of the chart above, but I have difficulty retaining knowledge gained from experience, even that gained from near-death experiences. All I can say is that it’s not a game and the logic and progression cannot be discerned. Consider yourself warned.

When Ideas Strike Again

I admit that I’m a deliberate person. It’s both good and bad – good in the sense that I usually think things out and bad in the sense that I often over-think things. Whether or not something is a positive attribute is a matter of perspective, but nevertheless, it is likely a double-edge sword as are most things in life. I try to be self-aware, but habit is a comfortable chair with a nice warm blanket on a chilly day. It’s hard to resist.

Nowhere is my deliberateness more evident than in how I approach my story ideas. Oftentimes, an idea will strike and I’ll jot down the necessary details and walk away. I like for the idea to marinate a while to see if it has any merit. Occasionally, I’ll hastily write the first chapter just to see how the idea presents itself on paper (some ideas sound great in my head but flounder on the page), but for the most part, the idea sits in my notebook for a while, begging for attention like a pup that just wants a scratch on its head.

Besides the fact that it is my habit to be deliberate, I find this approach allows my mind to run around with the idea for a while. When it comes back to me, it often has new elements that make the idea even better. Sometimes, I let the idea sit so long that my mind will devise whole new concepts around the story while I’m not paying attention. Such is the case this past weekend.

A few years ago (yes, years), I came up with a story idea entitled My Father’s Daughter, which centers around a young woman who is estranged from her father because he left her mother for another woman years ago and subsequently had another daughter, her step-sister, whom she barely knows and dislikes from afar. Her father’s impending death as a result of a heart attack brings her back to him, if only for a few fleeting days, where she faces her inevitable loss and fiery resentment.

While this story has many intriguing elements, as do most family dramas, I hadn’t written anything more than a first chapter, which I posted here a couple of years ago. It simply died on the vine, or at least withered while it waited for me to consider it again. This weekend, while I was on a plane waiting to take off, the story suddenly came back to me, and it had changed. Whether the change is for the better, I don’t know, but it’s certainly interesting.

Now the story is about a young woman who discovers that her father has a daughter by another woman who is not her mother in the wake of her mother’s death. This discovery starts a whole chain of events that unfold dramatically over the course of the novel as the woman comes to grips with the realization that her father is not who she thought he was. The story, told from the first-person perspective of the daughter (same as the original idea) explores the depths of the daughter’s relationship with her father and the family that surrounds them.

I find these new elements add more nuance to the story and make it more gripping in the sense that the daughter doesn’t know what is true in the beginning of the story. The revelation sends her reeling as she seeks to find out the truth and what it means to her. I think this approach has more appeal and promise as a novel. Of course, only time will tell if this is the route I take or if this story ever makes it onto the page as a full-blown novel.

I like having a lot of ideas in the hopper, and I certainly have plenty. Most will likely never make it past the concept phase, but when ideas strike, I put them in my notebook, and when they strike again, I add more notes and story angles to see which ones will ultimately win out. It seems my mind is always working on story ideas even though I’m not fully aware of it. It just takes something to trigger it, like sitting on an airplane waiting to take off.

One More Time

Nothing prepares you for parenthood. No matter how many books you read or how many parents you talk to, nothing really preps you for what is to come. It’s like being thrown into Lake Michigan in the early spring. Once you get over the initial shock of the icy, cold water, you either sink or swim for your life. The good news is that a lot of what it takes to be a parent comes naturally once you adjust to the fact that you’re responsible for another person’s life, one you happened to create, and the inevitable ups and downs come and go as your child rolls through the phases of childhood.

After having been a father for over 13 years, I’m convinced that the hardest part of being a parent isn’t the long, sleepless, stressful nights of the baby phase or the teetering-on-the-edge of danger toddler years, but the simple act of letting go. I believe this to be true not because it’s one dramatic moment that occurs when you drop your young adult off at college, but because letting go happens much sooner than we all would like to admit, and it happens gradually like the slow drip-drip of Chinese water torture.

Once a child reaches nine or ten years old, your ability to inculcate them with your values and your own voice begins a rapid decline. It is then that they start to form their own view of themselves and start the proverbial search for who they are. By the time they reach the teenage years, they are seemingly in full revolt often trying things that are a direct conflict to your own ideals. This is a natural and necessary phase that often doesn’t go well. My wife and I often say we have to pick our battles with the kids. That’s especially true with teenagers. I just hope we can abide by that maxim.

After all the fretful years of coaxing your kids from utter helplessness to independence, it’s disappointing that they push away just when they become more interesting. Everyone who has been through this tells me that they’ll come back around. In their early 20s. That’s a long time to wander in the desert of parenthood, but time seems to accelerate once you become a parent. I look back over the years since my kids were born, and I wonder how so much time has passed so quickly. One moment I’m holding my newborn daughter, and in the next, she’s a full-grown young woman who is almost as tall as me. What the hell?

To a parent, time is like an avalanche that throttles you down the mountain at hyper-speed. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, but you can take your moments. Four years ago I took the kids on individual trips to somewhere they wanted to go. Just the two of us. My daughter wanted to go to California, so we went to L.A. and toured around. My son wanted to go to the desert to look for lizards, so I took him to Arizona. That one-on-one time and those moments together probably meant more to me than they did to them. They had fun for sure, but to spend that time with them, to appreciate them as individuals outside the spotlight of our broader family, that was something special.

Obviously, they are older now. They’d rather spend time texting their friends or playing games with them on Xbox or on their phones than spend any amount of forced time with their parents. Back when they were toddlers, I’d come home from work and they’d run to the door to greet me, hanging onto me like I was Gulliver on Lilliput. No matter how exhausted I was when I returned home from a long day of work, I’d immediately perk up when I saw those smiling faces at the door each night. Today is remarkably different. Forget smiles and giddy excitement. If they’re even around the door when I come home, I’m lucky to get a grunt of acknowledgement. Their noses are likely glued to the assortment of screens that they have. Most likely, they are ensconced in their rooms, doors shut, frittering away their time on homework or whatever strikes their fancy.

Despite the droll, mopey aura that has overtaken my once sweet, little kids, I’m not ready to let them sail off toward adulthood undisturbed. I accept the fact that I have to let go, and I will try to do it gracefully, but there are no promises. While they’d rather spend their summer vacation playing with their friends, I decided a while ago that I want to do the individual trips again. One more time.

In a few short years, they’ll be driving and will have summer jobs, and before that they’ll become so engaged with activities that any free time they have will be consumed by them. Then, there’s the matter of how uncool it is for teenagers to hang out with their parents (I was there once and I remember it well). Before that happens, I want another moment with them, so this summer we’ll head out to a destination of their own choosing. My daughter and I will head to Cedar Point because we discovered that we both love the thrill of roller coasters back on that California trip a few years ago. My son and I will head to New York City because he wants to see it for himself. It’ll be fun, one last hurrah before they scurry off and play with the cool kids.