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.

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

 

Ramblings on Living Life

I have this theory about life. It isn’t terribly original, nor is it groundbreaking or revolutionary. It is, however, something I think about whenever I’m worried or afraid to do something I think will benefit me.

The things you fear are probably the things you should be doing.

Now, this isn’t fear like “if I do that, I’m going to die.” Although, some of those fears should also be faced. No, this is the fear that comes from without. The fear that someone else will see you doing a thing and judge it a waste of time. The fear that someone will take in the product of what you have done and deem it somehow unworthy. The fear that you will look silly.

The fear that you will fail.

That last one– that’s the reason most people don’t do things. That’s the reason why dreams lay by the side of the road, rotting in the ditch, as people drive past in their fuel-efficient vehicles and act like they don’t see them. That’s why people die with regrets.

I don’t want that. I have no idea how long I’m going to be here. I can’t tell you whether I will die next week from some rare blood disease or hyper-aggressive cancer or stray bullet. I’m 31 years old and people younger than me die every single day. What makes me special enough to be exempt from that?

Nothing.

Not one single, minuscule, fucking thing.

So I decided, a few years back, that I wasn’t going to let any of that petty “what if” bullshit hold me back. I was going to do the things that made me happy, and made the people I care about happy. I decided I would keep working my normal job, because it pays the bills and doesn’t stress me out too much, but in my spare time, I was going to write a book, or two, or three.

In the process of all of this writing, I’ve discovered a lot about myself. For three years, I worked on writing this story. I wrote 300,000 words without a single thought to how good or bad it was. I just puked words out onto a page. It was glorious. Then I joined up with the community and started showing other writers my work.

Judgment came down from on high.

For the most part, people were positive, which was awesome. Some people were negative, which was less than awesome, but it helped to make the work better. Then this strange thing happened: I started having difficulty writing.

I would sit down at my keyboard and stare at it. My mind would go totally blank. I knew what I needed to write, but it wouldn’t come out. I would start typing, because that’s what you do when you get blocked, you just write. Write anything, it doesn’t matter. Just get the words flowing again.

Still, it was all crap. I would write and write and write and end up deleting it all the next day because it just sucked. Eventually, I would break through the barrier and something worth a damn would spew giddily from my story hole and my fingertips would hesitantly cram it onto a computer screen. Then a few weeks later, the cycle would repeat.

I noticed something after a while: Rarely did the block come on its own. There was something that incited it. Something that made my mind say “You’re not a writer today. Today you’re a failure.” And somewhere in the corner there was this weak little nerdy kid with his hair parted on the side wearing a bolo tie sitting at his desk who just couldn’t tell that voice he was wrong (I have a picture of me looking exactly like that from like 4th grade, by the way. If you don’t believe me, ask my mother, I’m sure she’d happily show it to you and gush about how adorable I was). That kid would just agree and curl up in a ball and decide it wasn’t worth the effort if he was just going to fail anyway.

Here’s my thoughts on the matter: the kid’s wrong. Even if the voice is totally right and I’m a complete failure and not one single person ever enjoys the words I write down, the kid is still wrong. The value and beauty in life is in the living.

The measure of how well you’ve lived your life is how satisfied you are with it.

I’ll end this whole little rant with an exercise I do from time to time. I do this to make sure I’m living this life the way I want to, not the way someone else thinks I should. I do it when I feel like I’ve lost perspective and I need to remember the shit that matters.

Okay, relax. Here it is:

Contemplate for a moment the idea that one day you will die. Don’t think of it as an abstract idea. Really consider what those last moments will be like. Maybe you will die in your sleep, after a long struggle with an illness. You’ll lie in bed and you chest will feel so heavy. Breathing is a chore and when you do manage a few gasping wheezes, they aren’t enough to satisfy your need for oxygen. You close your eyes, and listen as the world hurdles through space. You can feel that the end is near and your essence will return to be among the forces of the universe. What will you think in those last few breaths before you close your eyes and the darkness takes you? How satisfied will you be with the decisions you’ve made and the way you’ve spent the all-too-few and precious minutes you were given? Did you look at the things that were just too scary, the things that, while in the moment, seemed too big and daunting to reach for and turned away from them? Or did you, instead, listen to your heart– to your soul– and grab life by the balls and take the things you wanted as it screamed and fell to its knees begging for mercy? What things will you wish you had the chance to go back and do? What things will you regret as you lay there, contemplating the end?

Go do those fucking things.

Live your life as though you’re watching it from your deathbed. Because one day you will be.

In Memoriam

I’ve debated with myself for the last 12 hours about whether or not I should post anything about this. Part of me feels it isn’t my place. Part of me feels like I shouldn’t put it out to the world. Part of me feels like people don’t want to see it. But, if I gave much of a damn about what other people thought, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I’m gonna ramble some, I’m gonna be melodramatic, I’m gonna be hokey, I’m gonna say a bunch of shit that may or may not even be intelligible. So, here it goes.

As a writer, I always want to find the perfect words to convey something. After this last weekend, I’m at a complete loss. First came the loss of my high school theater director, whose impact in my life almost can’t be measured.

J. Gary Wyatt was a storm of a man, a force to be reckoned with, even if his hands shook and threatened to spill the Diet Coke he always carried. With memorable phrases like “Don’t let stupid out of the box!”, “Don’t expect it to work, inspect it, so you know it will work! Just because it worked yesterday does not mean it will work today.”, and “You are auditioning all the time!” he instilled a sense of self-sufficiency, responsibility, and self-worth into every one of his actors, techies, and crew. It didn’t take long to realize that J Gary yelled because he cared. If he was yelling at you, it meant you were worth him spending time to get you on the right track. If he wasn’t yelling, you weren’t one of his kids.

Every night before a show, we would all gather in a circle around the stage, behind the curtain and clasp hands. Mr. Wyatt would bow his head and give a little pep talk. It always ended the same way. “Your talents are a gift from God. What you do with those talents is, in turn, your gift to God. The power of the circle is the strongest power of all. You take strength from one another and give strength to each other. Take the power and pass it on.” Then he would squeeze the hand of the person to his right. The power would traverse the circle and end back at him.

“Whatever you do, wherever you do it, always do it with Class and Style.”

Then on Sunday, we learned of my father-in-law’s passing. Not everyone thinks of their in-laws as real family, heck, not everyone think of their in-laws as real people, but since the first time I met Tom and Sally, I’ve felt like I belonged among them. I have been so lucky to have a mother- and father-in-law that love and accept me in the way they have. It’s like getting an extra set of parents, even when the first set is pretty damn amazing.

I first met Tom one week after I met his daughter. He and Sally and Amanda and I sat in lawn chairs in the river, drank beers from a floating styrofoam cooler, and talked about all the things you’re not supposed to discuss with people you just met: religion, politics, sex, the meaning of life… oh yeah, and the fact that I was still married, working on getting a divorce, and fighting desperately for custody of my son. In honesty, it could have been pretty bad, but they were very accepting of me and I was grateful for that. Probably more than they will ever really understand.

Ever since that day in the Blanco river, for as long as I have known him, no matter what else he was doing, Tom always had extra hands for two things: a baby and a beer–often at the same time. I’ve never seen him happier than sitting on the porch with a baby on one arm and a beer in his other hand while watching the grandkids ride bikes and play in the yard. No matter what cancer did to him, what toll it took on his body, when my wife walked into his room with grandbabies, Tom would light up like everything in the world was right. And I like to think that, if even for a brief moment, my children helped him forget the pain and hardship of leaving this world. It makes me feel like I’ve helped pay him back a little.

When we would go visit them, right as we were leaving, Tom would stand up, shake my hand and say “Glad you got to see me,” and now, all I can think is “Me too, Tom. Glad I got to see you.” Glad I was lucky enough to get to know you.

People in your life are like stars. They send forth their light for all to see, even if some aren’t observant enough to look for it. Every once in a while there’s a star so intense, so undeniable, that all who see it are changed. Long after the star burns out, as all stars must eventually do, its light carries on, bounding endlessly through time and space, leaving everything it touches a little brighter than it was before. I have seen more such stars than any one person has the right to keep to himself. It is my duty to these people, these beautiful people whose very nature shaped me as a man, to carry on their legacies. I have been made brighter by their light, and I only hope that the meager glow I send forth is enough to make them proud.

It Takes a Village

Writing is a lonely art form. Everything about it is so internal and solitary. It takes you away from everything and demands you give it your whole attention, sucking every bit of creative ichor your mind can possibly spare.

Then, of course, when the story has finally drawn forth the last of your vital juices and declared itself complete, you present it humbly to the public.

Who, not knowing how much of your soul is left open and bleeding on the page, spit on it. Not because it’s bad, well maybe it is, I don’t know how pleasant your soul and ichor are, but because it’s not what it could be, what it should be.

You see, because this wonderful beautiful thing you’ve created has only been inside your mind, it’s a bit stunted. It’s like whiskey aged in a glass jar. It’s not been allowed to breathe.

This is where community in writing becomes so damn important. You cannot, I repeat, cannot hope to bring out the best in your story without showing it to others. You cannot hope to make your story full, deep, and real unless you get outside of your own head and let others take a peek.

Join a writing group and let them see your precious little babies. Let them tell you every wrinkle and line on them that shouldn’t be where it is. Let them tell you how adorable and precious each one is as they, in the same breath, tell you that it will never grow up to be president, but it’s got a good shot at city council. Let them tell you all the bad things, but also let them show you the good. Revel in the feeling that these people are taking a thing you’ve created and are making it a part of themselves. Something you did caused all those synapses to fire that conjured that emotion, or that image, or those hopes. Your little keyboard babies are spreading a small amount of joy, and by allowing someone else to babysit them for a moment, you are enriching both their lives. These are the things you need to see; they are the things that keep you grounded. But they are also the things that force you to see your writing for what it is: something to be shared.

It takes a village to raise a story.

Wow, It’s Been a While

So… yeah.

I just realized a little bit ago that it’s been something like 6 months since I’ve posted on this blog… In my defense, I’ve been extremely busy with work and family and such. I mean, we had a new baby recently(that makes 3 little ones running around, 1 with my ex, and 2 with my current, wonderful, beautiful wife) and with trying to write stories, read stories, prepare for writing group critiques, find time to try and be a reasonably good father, and having a full time job where I’ve been putting in overtime, I’ve let the blog slide to the back burner.

So… (I realize I do that a lot, so + ellipses. That’s probably a habit I should get out of at some point, but today won’t be that day) I’m going to use this as an opportunity to vent.

Topic 1)

New baby.

My wife’s pregnancy wasn’t “easy”. I mean, what pregnancy is easy (aside from those thrice-blessed women who never seem disheveled at all and never gain weight and hardly show and seem to have quick births. And even then, can you call those easy? I don’t think so.)? She was diagnosed with pre-Eclampsia with our first, and, it didn’t disappear in between babies. It actually got worse. So, after about 20 weeks, her OB was like “You’re not on bed rest yet, but don’t get up if you don’t have to.” Yeah, cuz that’s easy with 2 kids… Anyway, after 34 weeks, she ended up in the hospital with elevated blood pressure that wouldn’t come down. So now Mom is out of commission, leaving Dad to pick up the slack. This wasn’t a first for me (I was a single dad when my wife and I met), but it’s not easy.

Then they induced at 35 weeks. Surprise! You get a baby a month before you had planned to!

But, baby and Mommy are healthy, so it all worked out.

Topic 2)

My father-in-law.

In late 2013, my wife’s father started having numbness in his arm. Then it got worse and he started to lose control of it. Doctors found a tumor in his brain.

Good news: it’s easily operable. Bad news: it’s malignant.

Fucking brain cancer. You’ve gotta be shitting me.

After surgery, he goes straight into radiation and chemotherapy treatments. He makes it through the brain burning and attempted medicinal poisoning, but he’s been getting weaker and weaker, partially the meds and partially because his brain isn’t speaking to his limbs well enough for him to work the muscles. Initial MRI results are promising.

Second round of MRI results show new tumor growth. My wife found this out a couple of days ago, and life has been less than happy since.

Topic 3)

Work.

I recently got one of those “promotions” at work where your boss is like “Hey, so-and-so is quitting and you’re like the only person who isn’t on a mega-important task who can do the job, so take on all of his old responsibilities. Yeah, this isn’t going to pay you any more, but will require significantly more of your time.”

Gee, thanks Lumbergh.

No, I mean seriously, I’m grateful for the opportunity because it could mean promotion for me in the near future, but the timing sucks. See topics 1 and 2. Baby is born in mid-May, pseudo-promotion comes two weeks later, news with father-in-law comes three weeks after that… It never rains, but it certainly does pour.

Phew! It feels good to get all of that out. That doesn’t mean I’m going to magically get more time to work on actual writing projects in the near future (sorry writing group!), but maybe I’ll be in a better state of mind when I do manage to find the time.

Deep breaths. This too shall pass.

 

On Jumping to Conclusions

People, as a general rule, are really bad about jumping to conclusions. Whenever someone says something in a public venue (like the internet, for example), the general populace is very quick to assume they know what that person is trying to convey. They make inferences that may not have been intended, leaving the speaker completely dumbfounded as to how someone could have thought that’s what they meant. They then must embark on a PR campaign to try and clear their sullied name because some asshole decided they knew the speaker better than they really did.

I’m not going to mention any names, or point to any specific instance of this, but it happens all the freaking time. It’s orders of magnitude worse when the topic is something racy like gender stereotypes, sexuality, human rights, abortion rights, reproductive rights, First Amendment rights, Second Amendment rights, rape, pedophilia, animal cruelty, etc. The list of people’s hot-button topics goes on for a long, long way. And anytime anyone says anything that maybe kinda-sorta touches on one of those topics, people always assume the worst.

The speaker, then, must wade through a blizzard of negative tweets, retweets, blog posts, Facebook updates, Tumblr posts, and gossip columns bashing them for being anti-(insert groupthink topic here) when, in reality, they meant nothing of the kind. This very thing has ruined careers, friendships, and relationships that should not have been strained because people were in violent agreement and simply unwilling to listen.

So, here’s what I’m trying to say to you all: stop, think, and ask. When someone says something that you think can’t possibly be what they really meant to say, ASK THEM A QUESTION! Clarify. Don’t be a smart ass and make some sort of sarcastic retort that will only fuel a fire they probably never even meant to set. Be courteous, respectful, and understand that some people don’t have the exact same thought process that you do. They may relate things differently in their mind and when they said something that you thought was belittling an ideology, maybe they simply consider their analogous subject to be much more important than you do.

Not only that, but (this seems so obvious to me, but it’s been the center of many a political and social media scandal) make sure you understand the true definition and usage of all the words they used. I know I said I wasn’t going to use examples, so all I’ll say here is “niggardly”. It DOES NOT mean what many people think it means. Given the current socio-political climate, it’s probably a word best left out of your vocabulary, BUT, it’s a valid word that has a perfectly inoffensive meaning. Still, best left unused in a public arena because things can be misconstrued by people who love to jump to conclusions about someone’s beliefs and world views.

The next time someone makes a statement, or posts a comic, or tweets something that you think is so unbelievably insensitive or crass, do me a favor. Step back, breathe, formulate a response, and make sure that response goes something on the order of “What you said came across in a way I was not sure you intended. To clarify, your statement seemed to make insinuation XY. This insinuation could be incredibly offensive to people who YZ. Could you please make clear what you wished to convey here, as it relates to this group?”

If they come back and say that the ignorant bigotry you pointed out was exactly what they intended, then by all means skewer them in any forum you deem suitable, but remember, your words can be misconstrued as well. So don’t say anything you might regret later.

First World Writer Problems

So, I went to WorldCon back in September. While there I learned a ton about the industry, agents, editors, other authors, and all that writing stuff. I met a boat-load of writers, a few of whom have kept in touch, and we started a writing group that is pretty great. In short, I had a blast.

I also learned what agents are looking for, and got a better idea of how to make an agent want to read my book. So, of course, I got back home and sent out a half-dozen queries with my newly refined and sharply honed pitch. I included such information as ‘I heard about you through XYZ author you/your agency represents and they spoke highly of you’ and ‘I’m looking for an agent who can help me grow into a career writer’.

And it worked. I got several partial requests and waited for the glory.

But alas, it did not come.

So, back to the other writers I met and the group we started. We’ve had a few meetings now, and things are going really well. They’ve pointed out all many of the reasons my story was not hooking agents in the first chapter and I’ve fixed most of those. Good news, right? Well, yes and no.

See, now I’m in the middle of a rewrite after they pointed out some weak motivations in one of my primary characters. I know where I’m going with it, but it’s going to take time to fix. Which wouldn’t be an issue if I hadn’t just gotten a partial request last week from an agent.

This is a first world writer problem. I had a manuscript for an agent, sent the query, but by the time she decided she wanted to read more, I had already started fixing all much of the bad stuff in my manuscript. In essence, I’ve shot myself in the foot, because I can’t send in the partial without a completed full to back it up! I’m wishing I had found such a great writing group a long time ago.

The best I can do at this point is finish my revision as quickly as I can and get it sent out before she loses interest. Publishing is a slow business, though, right? I mean, I’ve got some time, don’t I?

Maybe I better go work on that revision…

Writing Group

So, next week is the inaugural meetup of the online writing group I and a couple other people have put together. The four of us met up at Worldcon in San Antonio and we kept in touch and decided we would start constructively criticizing each other’s writing.

The plan, as it exists now, is to send out links to our work on Google Drive and read it ahead of time. Then, when meeting time comes, we’ll all get on Google Hangouts and video chat about what we meant by all the harsh and painful comments we left on each other’s brilliant prose.

So, to get the ball rolling, I sent out my link to the other 3 and over the course of the last couple of days, they’ve responded with their own. Huzzah! First task complete!

Bonus: I’ve started reading their stuff, and it’s all good! That means I’m not stuck in a group with some people who can’t write, so hopefully they’ll be able to help me improve my writing and I’ll finally get this mind-vomit published!

Yea, I just referred to years of writing, editing, revising, rewriting, plotting, and self-cutting as mine-vomit. Deal with it.

Hopefully everything will go swimmingly and our first meeting will be a huge success with everyone logging off full of inspiration and new ways to make their projects shiny pieces of brilliance. More realistically, I just hope we all wrap up the night and don’t hate each other.