Cabin at Dawn

Light trickles through gaps in the window linen, invisible until glittering motes whisper of its passage. Soft reflections from woodgrain cast it throughout the room, sending it to uncover what night hid away. From the darkness it pulls a chair, brown leather cracked and broken; a wooden desk filled with the scuffs and tears lifetimes of use carry with them; a tablet of white paper, unmarred by the ink of the pen whose lid it finds on the smooth oak floor; an empty bottle laid sideways, empty but for a thin puddle of caramel liquid. It nestles gently in the corner, among the dust-laden cobwebs and labrador hair.

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When Tragedy Strikes

It’s been all over the news: a gunman affiliated with a radical Islamic coalition gunned down 50 people with no provocation aside from his belief that they needed to die. The outcry came immediately: “Ban assault rifles” from the left; “Ban Islam” from the right.

They’re both fraught with hypocrisy, and they’re both wrong. And I’ll explain why.

Most people you speak to will tell you that the First Amendment to the Constitution is pretty straightforward. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. People have the freedoms of speech, religion, press, and congregation, and they should be able to exercise those rights without the government stepping in and preventing it. So, this madman who ran into a nightclub and gunned down fellow human beings has to right to practice his religion of choice, in this case, a radical branch of Islam. An Imam espouses his religious belief that killing homosexuals is “compassionate,” and he is protected under the First Amendment, both because it is part of his religion, and because of the governments inability to restrict his speech. I make these examples because they specifically apply to the situation that occurred this last weekend. I don’t support these ideas, nor do I think they are representative of modern Islamic practices.

The Second Amendment is, for reasons that never made sense to me, a source of contention. A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. Those who wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights can be quoted over and over as saying that this right is intended to allow citizens to have a means of protections against the government, in the case of tyranny, fellow citizens, in case violence is brought against their person, family, or property, or foreign invaders. It seems simple to me that this right is extended to the people to ensure sovereignty and just rule. In order to safeguard this idea, the right to own and use firearms “shall not be infringed.” To me, being raised as a “do it yourself” person in basically every aspect of life, there’s no question in my mind that the Second Amendment is there to allow me to ensure the safety of myself and my family in case we are confronted by a person with intentions to harm us. That “well regulated Militia,” piece gets tossed around a bunch, but it doesn’t bother me, because in the eyes of those that wrote it, the Militia means the citizenry. The populace. Every citizen, when war comes knocking, becomes either soldier or prisoner. That’s how war works. It’s brutal, and unforgiving, and it’s all the worst that humans are capable of.

Now, on to the real point. For some reason, one group of people (the “left” to use popular characterization) think that someone’s First Amendment rights are sacrosanct; someone can believe whatever they want, say whatever they want, print whatever they way etc. and it’s okay. With the next breath, however, they will demonize gun owners, ranting at how peoples’ guns should be taken away and bans should be implemented, seemingly blind to the idea that the very same document that gives them them right to their free speech and religion, also guarantees the gun owners’ rights to his firearms.

And the flip side of the argument is, to me at least, equally silly. These people (the “right” to use popular characterization) will talk about how terrible Islam is, and how the entire religion needs to be wiped from the planet, and with the next breath (as above) will espouse the Bill of Rights to protect their ability to keep and bear arms. Again, they are seemingly ignorant to the fact that their right to protect themselves is housed in the same text that prevents them from stripping this man of his religion.

What’s the point of this post? I’m not totally sure. I suppose part of it is reaction to hate I’ve been getting on social media as a result of trying to defend the Bill of Rights in the face of outcry against rights and protections from both sides. I just want to try and throw some perspective into the chaos of public reaction.

At this point, I think the only acceptable reaction is sympathy and regret. At least fifty people are dead as a result of this man’s actions. Fifty lifetimes’ worth of experience, love, and joy will never be lived, because of this man’s hate.

We, as a country, need to practice less hate.

Writing Fears

My biggest fear as a writer, and the reason I sometimes avoid my keyboard, is that I won’t be enough. Enough for the story. Enough for the world. Enough for the people I’ve created in the reality of my imagination.

I worry that the characters and their stories deserve better than the meager voice I can give them. I worry that I don’t use flowing prose to proper effect, or that my descriptions are too straightforward and lack a depth of metaphor. I worry that the lives I create on the page ring hollow, like they have no insides.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that some days I let that fear get the better of me, and I don’t bother to write. I prejudge myself as lacking, as so, I don’t even bother. Other days, I sit down and hammer away at the keys believing that whatever I write is better than whatever I don’t, and that by the simple act of hitting the keys, I’m improving.

Yet other days, I sit down at the computer and things flow out of me. I feel really great about the things I get on the page, and I end the session with a sense of accomplishment. Those days I really think I can do this whole writing thing. “Man, I’m pretty good at this!”

Usually, when I sit down and do a second or third or fourth draft, I can’t tell the difference between good days and bad ones. Sometimes I go back and re-read what I wrote the day before, on one of those awesome days, and think “This is terrible, real horseshit.” Most of the time, that can be fixed with ten minutes’ work and fifteen of the exact right words.

Anyway, some days I think I’m garbage. Other days I think I’m awesome. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Right there in the “You’ve spent time honing your craft, but you aren’t quite good enough to show the world yet.”

And I guess that’s okay. Still, it would be nice to be able to look inward and ask these people if they’re happy with their author. Did I paint them well enough? Can they see themselves reflected in the strokes of my pen? Have I left some piece of them empty, or are they whole, complete, and unabridged?

My deepest fear when writing is that they would say no, and that somehow I would have let them down.

I’m Not Racist, But…

Well, yes you are. You know how I know? EVERYBODY IS.

Avenue Q said it best: “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”

And it doesn’t stop with race. People pre-judge all the time, based on all kinds of (sometimes totally ludicrous) cues. I don’t talk to people about “edgy” topics very much because I’m continually disappointed by them. I am something of an optimist in that I just assume that people think the way I do, and by that I mean “at all”. I try to question my thought processes daily. When something surprises me, I ask myself why that surprised me.

I’ll give you an example. I was driving home from work the other day and saw someone driving like a complete jackass. Swerving in and out of traffic, gunning it to pass someone through the tiniest little hole between the poor sap they were about to rear and the near-victim they almost sideswiped to gain their tenth of a second. From my days in college, my immediate assumption about this person was that they were a privileged early twenties douche bag looking white dude with a badly lined goatee and a tight fitting wife beater. Yes, that’s what my subconscious thinks shitty drivers look like.

I was wrong. I passed the car as they were stuck in line to exit the highway. It was a woman talking on her phone. I couldn’t really tell the ethnicity because she was wearing huge sunglasses, but she was light-skinned, so my guess is white, but she could have been latina.

That surprised me. And that made me ask myself, why was I surprised by that?

That simple question is the key to evaluating your personal biases. You have them. Don’t try to tell me that you don’t. Everyone has them; it’s a side effect of existing as part of an ecosystem. It’s instinct, like being afraid of big cats. You should be scared of tigers because you, or some of your ancestors, saw what they were capable of and didn’t want be added to the menu. So, you prejudge a tiger as a thing that will kill you. That doesn’t mean that every tiger will snap your neck, but in your mind, tigers are capable of extreme violence, and so you are weary around them.

The same concept applies to interactions with people. Let’s say that when you were young, there was an ice cream truck. That ice cream truck was driven by a man without much hair and who had shocking blue eyes. He was the only bald blue-eyed guy you ever met and he was always smiling and handing you your favorite dessert treat. Now, you might form a subconscious opinion about bald blue-eyed men. So, when your forty and some blue-eyed guy with a bad toupee sticks you up in an alley somewhere, it surprises you. Not only because you just got jacked, but because that guy did it. You thought blue-eyed guys were the nice ones.

It surprised you.

So, when something surprises you, think about why; really think about it. Don’t just give it a cursory inspection and move on with your day. Substitute different people into the scenario. Why does it make more sense for those other people to do that thing? What about you makes you think that. Because here’s the truth that not many people seem to want to accept: It’s your fault you feel the way you do. It isn’t anyone else “living up to stereotypes” that make you biased or prejudiced. It’s you and only you.

So, the next time you’re in a meeting and the woman in the corner raises her hand and has a really good idea, see if it surprises you. And if you think the idea she had wasn’t very good, ask yourself if a man had said it, would you feel differently? If the black guy on the subway scoots over so you can have room to sit, see if it surprises you. And ask yourself if you think a white lady doing it would have been weird. If the middle eastern man at the shop is rooting for the same team as you, see if it surprises you. And ask yourself if a white guy doing it would have been odd.

It’s incredible how much you learn about yourself when you remove the assumption that you’re right. Confirmation bias, I believe is what it’s called. Ignore it. Don’t assume you’re right. Assume you’re wrong until you can prove to yourself that your brain can be trusted. You might be surprised.

Then ask yourself why.

Birthday

Happy birthday, Tom.

Today my father-in-law would have been 64. He died from a tumor in his brain. Specifically from gliobastoma multiforme.

Glioblastoma multiforme is an extremely aggressive and hard-to-kill type of tumor that kills more often than not. It took my wife’s father from her over the course of just a few months.

For more information, please visit the following:

American Brain Tumor Association

If you would like to make a donation to help find a more effective treatment for glioblastoma and other forms of brain tumor, please consider:

ABTA Donations

St. Jude’s is always good

 

Frustrated Ramblings

So, what do you blog about when you have no idea what to write, but you know you should put something out there for the web-tubes to slurp up and spit out? I’m going to vent a bit, I think. This should be fun. Let’s see where this goes.

I’ve been working on this science fiction detective story that I’m totally excited to write, and everyone that I’ve talked to about it thinks is really interesting.

“So, what’s the problem then, dummy?”

The problem, astute observer, is that I can’t get the damn thing out of my brain and into the friggin’ computer! I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me, but as soon as I start to type, I go completely blank. Nothing that will come out of my paralytic cortices seems good enough. I can’t decide on the POV for the scene. Once I decide on the POV, I can’t figure out where to start. I don’t want to come in too early, that’s a classic blunder and will bore the reader to death waiting on something important to happen. I can’t come in too late, then nobody will know what the hell is going on.

I’m second and third and fourth guessing everything I put on the damn page. It’s incredibly frustrating, and doubly so because I’ve never had this problem before. Not with any project I’ve done to date. I’ve had instances of single scenes or chapters or something where I’ve had a hard time getting started. That’s nothing new. But this has been every scene I’ve tried to write for this stupid book. I’ve trudged my way through four chapters now, and I’m seriously wondering whether I’m going to be able to get another one out there in two weeks for the writing group to look at.

Logically, I know what I need to do. I need to realize that the first step is just getting something vaguely resembling the story written. Once I have something, anything really, on a page, I can get critiques and I can make it something resembling good enough. My brain knows that I need to do that, but every time I start clacking away on the keys, something goes wonky and the train runs right off the rails, through downtown Crapsville, and meets with the six o’clock bus to Writersburg where my motivation dies a fiery, public-transit-induced death.

/sigh

That actually feels a lot better. Thanks for letting me vent, interwebs. If I worked somewhere that I was able to discuss my business, I’d totally let loose about that too. So much stress there. But, alas, that would be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea… That phrase sounds strangely familiar. Wonder what it’s from.

I’ll close out with a quote my wife often slurs at me through the sleepy haze  as I’m leaving for work in the pre-dawn darkness:

“Don’t let the assholes get you down.”

Why You Need a Writing Group

I started writing this in August or September of 2013. Then I came back to it in July of 2014 with a new perspective, and now it’s February 2015 and I’m finally going to finish it. Man I’m bad at this blogging stuff.

Initially, if I recall correctly, I started this as a sort of self-satisfying mini-rant about how agents don’t give authors enough feedback during the query process, and how they should spend more time giving authors real feedback instead of the form letters most send out. I mean, how can they expect us to get better if they don’t help us, right?

In the time between beginning this post and finishing it, I’ve been part of a truly stellar writing group. Those people have read my work, given me incredible feedback, and helped me grow as a writer by more than leaps and bounds, more like short jetpack trips. Somewhere in there, I realized that I was approaching things all wrong. I was looking at the industry as this thing that would take me, an aspiring author, and teach me what I needed to know.

It’s not like that, sport. Those folks are way-the-hell too busy to deal with writers who don’t know what they’re doing. Hell, sometimes those folks are way-the-hell too busy to deal with writers who do know what they’re doing. If I want to be a writer, I have to take the initiative to make myself better. It’s not some agent’s or even editor’s job to make me a better writer, it’s their job to find something they can sell, and sell it.

So, what I am going to say to every aspiring writer-type out there who reads this- all one or two of you, based on my general traffic trends- is:

Get involved in your writing community. The only people who are going to make your writing any better are other writers who have read lots of really good stuff, and really bad stuff, and can tell you why what you’re making is bad. Because it’s probably pretty bad. That’s not a judgment of you as a person, or as a writer, that’s just how things usually go. I’ve written some real stinkers in my short time as a writer. I mean I’ve only been writing seriously for a little over four years now, and it wasn’t until this last year that I actually think I’ve gotten to be any good. The only reason that’s happened is because I’ve had a group of three other writers telling me what’s good and what sucks.

They don’t actually tell me it sucks, thankfully, even if the stuff I’ve written really deserves it.

That’s the hallmark of a good writing group: they are supportive, but honest.

A good writing group will pull you out of the piece and help you see it from the outside. They will show you where it’s falling short of the mark and where it’s going so far past the mark that you need to use international minutes to get it on the phone.

A good writing group will show you the plot holes you can’t see with your nose buried in the pages.

A good writing group will show you glaring character inconsistencies that you explained away as simple quirks or that you cleverly ignored to help advance the plot.

A good writing group will challenge you to move past your first idea and your second and your third and your fourth until you finally come up with something original enough that it transforms the entire work into something you never imagined it would be. And you’ll love the new one more than the old one.

A good writing group will force you to grow as a writer, as a reader, and as a creative being.

A good writing group will introduce you to books and authors you had never heard of, and you’ll find some great stuff to expand your mind and creative sphere.

A good writing group will frustrate you when you don’t want to write but you have to have something to submit to them next week.

I could keep going, I suppose and fill up a hefty three-ring binder with all the things that a good writing group will gain you as an author, but here’s the number one thing that I love about my writing group, and why I think everyone should have one:

A good writing group will make you a better writer, and that will make you love writing again.