On “Wasting” My Life

I just read a post on a certain website that I frequent that asked users if they thought they had wasted their life by raising a family. The poster said they loved their family and would do anything for them, but couldn’t help but think of all the things they could be doing besides worrying about these other people in their life. They bemoaned being as good-looking, physically fit, emotionally and fiscally stable as they would ever be in their life, and it “going to waste” on their family.

As Arsenio Hall used to say, “Things that make you say ‘Hmmmmm’.”

I had to respond, and I did, but I didn’t really say all the things I wanted to say. I mean, how do you properly convey to someone just how badly they missed the point? And not just the point of some conversation, or a college English essay question, but the point of having a family. Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend to have all the answers and all the reasons that someone might want offspring, or not want them. I will stand proudly on a soap box and tell you all the reasons why I did, and expect you to swallow them with appropriate amounts of salt (you may even choose whether it’s Kosher or Sea or Iodized or fine or coarse or Pink Himalayan).

I understand that when you say something like “You’ve completely missed the point,” when the topic is something like “Why bother being alive,” people are going to come in with all kinds of opinions. And that’s okay. Everyone can and should pursue the things in life that make them happy and leave them feeling fulfilled. However, for me, and I believe for the majority of people out there raising families, the point of it all is to carve a place out where you can be surrounded by those you love and make you feel whole.

That’s what a family can do.

Everyone spends their whole life tilling soil, planting seeds, and watching their garden grow. What they choose to plant, and how well they maintain their crop will determine what sort of harvest they receive.

I want my harvest to be filled with the smiling faces of those I’ve spent my life with and who I’ve helped mold into happy, healthy, satisfied members of the human race. My children, their children, and maybe even those kids’ kids. Wouldn’t that be a trip?

So, is a family a waste? I feel like that’s like telling someone that their mortgage payment is a waste. You’re going to be spending the time anyway, you may as well put that time in a place that will pay dividends when you’re ready to cash out.

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.

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.