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.

 

Act III Coming Soon (Too Soon)

In a few weeks, I’ll turn 48 years old. I’m rapidly closing in on the half-century mark. Let the records show that this is happening against my will and without my approval, but so it goes. Yes, I realize that age is just a number and that 50 is the new 40 and all that other bullshit that we tell ourselves to not feel shitty about the onslaught of time, but let’s be real; it sucks.

As a writer, I can’t help but view life in the form of a story, a very long, and often boring one, but a story nonetheless. The typical story has three acts, and since the life expectancy of the average male in this country is around 76 years old that puts each act at about 25 years, so in that perspective, I’m closing out Act II very soon. It’s a very sobering realization.

I’ve spent the last few months thinking about this and what it means. When I began Act II, if you will, I could only faintly hear the tick-tock of that eternal clock. Quite frankly, I just ignored the damn thing. I had more time than anything, so what did I care. The arc of the story in Act II is all about the long runway of possibilities, which seem infinite. Looking back, I realize I was more than a little careless. I wasted time on things that didn’t matter, engaged people who ultimately didn’t matter, and allowed myself to lose focus.

The problem is entropy. In general, everything migrates toward disorder, especially if you’re not paying attention. Life gets away from you because of the distraction created by the creeping disorder that surrounds you. The next thing you know a decade has zipped by and you haven’t accomplished what you set out to do, or things simply haven’t turned out the way you expected them to (and whether you like it or not, it’s your fault; blaming others is a fool’s errand). The image of trying to herd cats comes to mind. Some of my cats have long since wandered down the street. It’s more than a little disappointing.

But there’s nothing like an artificial milestone to raise the cackles of discontent. A slight shuffling suddenly becomes a full-on sprint. Half-shut eyes spring open in surprise. It gives a certain clarity that may have been lingering in the background waiting to be called into action. I’ve always done my best work on a tight deadline. I hate this about myself, but it’s true. Give me more time than I need and entropy rears its ugly head. Tell me I have only an hour to do a five-hour task and I can part the seas to find the path to redemption. Well, Act III is the ultimate deadline, and there’s no better time than now to re-focus, re-energize, and reassert myself in my own story.

I’m going to start by removing all distractions, those things that allow entropy to take hold. I’m going to double-down on my life goals that I haven’t achieved yet (one of those goals is getting a book published). While I can’t reclaim the time I’ve wasted, I will be more careful with the time I have. This story isn’t done yet.

 

The Hill at the End

On Sunday, I ran a marathon in the rolling hills of West Virginia at the home of West Virginia University in Morgantown. I see why the WVU mascot is called the Mountaineers. The further east you go on the main thoroughfare through the town the more it drops off a cliff. That same street happens to be the last mile of the Morgantown Marathon. I’m sure the guy who set up this race had the best intentions (the net proceeds from the race go to benefit U.S. veterans) but he also has a sadistic streak because who puts a steep hill at the end of a marathon?

To be fair, it would be impossible to run a race through Morgantown and not have a hill on the course. The town is wedged into an outcrop of the Appalachian mountains, which are not as beautiful and dramatically rugged as the Rockies but they certainly aren’t lacking in steepness. This particular course featured 2,000 feet of elevation gain over the 26 miles. It was enough to make even the most experienced runner quiver in his sweaty running shoes.

Going into this race, I knew it’d be a challenge. In addition to the hills, the weather didn’t look too favorable. The “low” temperature was predicted to be 69 degrees Fahrenheit, while the high was forecast near 80 degrees with mostly sunny skies. Such temperatures may be ideal for a run-of-the-mill day out on a Sunday, but for running a race, these temps were closer to dangerous than favorable. I had never been more thankful for cloud cover than I was when I walked out of my hotel on Sunday morning. It was slightly cooler than expected, and those clouds stayed around for most of the race. It was still hot for running, but not as bad as I had expected.

Before the race I had reviewed the elevation map of the course in disbelief. I didn’t see how I was going to run the whole race and still finish. Hills chew through a lot of energy, something that must be managed carefully over a race the length of a marathon if you hope to finish. If you’re not careful, you’ll hit the proverbial wall sooner than later on such a course. I was prepared to walk, if necessary, when I encountered the biggest hills. It’d be better to recover than run out of gas before I finished the race.

Early in the race, I felt particularly strong. I settled into third place behind two stronger runners and held that pace until I hit the biggest hill on the course. At that point, when I looked at the long climb ahead, I pulled up and began to walk. I used the time to consume some food and pounded my way up the hill at a good walking pace. Only a couple of runners passed me. Before I crested the hill, I began to run again feeling refreshed and reinvigorated after my brief respite.

After that big hill, all of the others seemed illegitimate as if their status as hills had been revoked. I cruised through the next few miles and even managed to catch one of the runners who had passed me. The race was going extremely well. The stretch of miles 23 and 24 were along a river trail and were as flat as could be. I felt great despite having crossed the 20-mile point. At mile 25 I grabbed some water as I ran by the mile marker and turned the corner in the last stretch of the race. That’s when I saw the obstacle that stood between me and the finish – the hill from hell.

Almost the entire final mile of the race was up hill. Not only was it a steep climb, but it was completely exposed to the sun as there were no trees on either side of the road. By this time in the race, most of the clouds had burned off and the temperature hovered in the 70s. Seeing and feeling this felt like being squashed under a giant boot. I pulled up and began walking again. The finish line would have to wait.

Before I crested the hill at mile 26, I began running again. The finish was slightly downhill, so I let gravity give me a hand. My time was still a respectable 3:17 despite the walking. Having conquered the course, I felt good. This wasn’t a course for personal bests.

That hill at the end was a real bummer even though I knew it was there before the race started. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the race and writing. There seems to always be a big hill at the end when it comes to finishing a novel, and I don’t mean completing the novel itself. The hill is perfecting it or getting it to the point where it’s ready to go beyond the draft phase. It seems insurmountable, but it requires focus even if that means slowing down and taking much longer than I’d prefer. That walk to the finish can be maddening, but it’s worth it when you cross the finish line.

Living, Not Existing

My daughter and I had a great discussion this weekend, one of many that we’ve had over the years. I sometimes forget she’s only 13 until I put her and her brother in the same room. It started with an article about the 76-year-old who recently completed the Western States 100 trail race in under 30 hours becoming the oldest finisher of the grueling race. It’s a feat when a young person completes the race, but for a septuagenarian it’s downright miraculous. I can only admire the man and his determination, but mostly, I respect that he’s living life vs. simply existing.

This gets the crux of the conversation that I had with my budding philosophic teenager. One of the my favorite aphorisms that I’m constantly repeating to the kids is that if you’re not challenging yourself, you’re not growing. There’s a corollary to this that I don’t share, and that’s if you’re not growing, you might as well be dead. I save that morose offshoot for myself because, let’s face it, I don’t want to depress the kids; I just want them to make the most of their talents (and move out and get off the parental dole), but there’s a whole lot of truth to that corollary.

I see it all the time – people who are just there floating in space like a jellyfish waiting for something to happen to them rather than making things happen for themselves. They’re quick to bemoan the perception that they’re a victim of some unseen force and slow (if ever) to see how their lives are a collection of their own decisions. This gets to another aphorism that I push onto my kids: you are the result of your own decisions. Don’t blame anyone or anything else; it just makes you look dumb. It’s safe to say I don’t adopt the jellyfish persona.

During our conversation about the oldest finisher in Western States history, my daughter said, “that sounds like something you’ll be doing when you’re that age in a few years.” I forgave her for conflating 30 years into such a short time frame. While I don’t know if I’ll ever want to attempt the Western States, I do know that I will never get to the point of sitting around and waiting to die, and that’s really all simply existing is. I don’t understand that mentality. As long as I wake up each morning, I’m going to make the most of it. I’m certainly not going to waste time doing pointless things, staring into space without a meaningful thought in my head, or imagining all of the terrible things that could happen should I try to live my life.

If my kids are clear on anything, it’s that my wife and I intend to make the most of the the years ahead. They’ll be lucky if they can keep up with us. We’ll become a veritable game of Where’s Waldo once they move out. I have no intention of allowing the moss to grow under us. Life must be lived. Simply existing isn’t an option for me. Now, about that Western States race…

 

Mr. Big Nose

Several years ago, my family and I lived in China for a while. A job opportunity landed us in Beijing as I had taken an expatriate assignment with my employer at the time. There’s nothing more challenging from a personal and professional perspective than plopping yourself in the middle of a very different culture, especially if you don’t speak the language. The trials and tribulations of everyday life felt overwhelming at first, but gradually, we adjusted. You can’t grow if you don’t challenge yourself, so it’s safe to say, we grew a lot those three years. I learned a lot about myself, the most of important of which is that I have a big nose.

I’d never really regarded my nose as particularly large. Growing up, when I looked around me, everyone had similar-sized noses, so I never ascribed much stature to my nose. Sure, I saw some people who were considered to have rather large noses that were described as hawk-like, maybe in an admirable way, or elephantine, in an unkind way, but these folks were the exceptions rather than the rule. My nose was rather pedestrian. I could easily see around it, and in fact, I had to angle my eyes inward quite a bit to even see it without looking in a mirror. When I did use a mirror, I often looked straight on into it rather than at a profile, so I didn’t pay particular attention to my out-sized snout.

Just as it’s hard to see crutch words (can you find them in this post?) in your writing, it’s difficult to see aberrant personal features when you’re surrounded by similar people. Drop yourself into a different culture and suddenly those features stand out like a black sheep in a flock of white ones. In China, my prodigious beak looked like I could audition for the main role in Pinocchio. It became readily apparent, oddly enough, when my time there was nearly finished. As a goodbye gift, I received a caricature statue of my family from my coworkers. As is common with caricatures, they exaggerate the most prominent features of their subjects. The tiny statues of my wife and kids looked pretty normal, but when I saw mine, I was struck by how it looked like a tiny person attached to a giant nose.

It’s easy to laugh at the statue as an overwrought exaggeration of a heretofore unknown physical abnormality, but it also drives home the importance of perspective, which is something that makes writing (and reading for that matter) so interesting and enjoyable. As a writer, I get to step into someone else’s perspective and try it on for size. I attempt to see the world through his or her eyes. It doesn’t mean I get it right, but for once, I step outside my own view of the world and look at it in a different way, and much like the challenge of adapting to a very different culture, it helps me grow, and hopefully, it helps my readers grow. That’s the true value in a good story. It expands the mind beyond what is merely possible by being who and where you are. That’s the kind of growth I like, the kind unrelated to my snout.

Postscript: Only my wife can call me Big Nose. To everyone else, it’s Mr. Big Nose.