Tag Archive: writing

Say it ain’t so

I don’t know about you, but there are times in my life when I wallow in fear rather than live in faith. I subscribe to the motto typified in the musical the Wiz where the character sings, “Don’t bring me no bad news.”

I’ve been throwing up a lot lately and it has me concerned. Something like seven out of the last ten days within fifteen minutes of waking up I have to race to the bathroom to visit the porcelain God, and dry heave what little water is left in my stomach from the night before. This morning I was driving in my car to get my morning java when I had to abruptly pull over to the side of the road, and now, after seven days of vomiting, my voice is kind of hoarse. So I screwed up my courage and made an appointment to see my doctor today.

I don’t drink alcohol, and I don’t smoke, so in reality it’s probably a case of end of school term nerves, but now I need to schedule an appointment with a Gastroenterologist to make sure my system is still in good working order.

My doctor put me on Protonix, a cousin of Prevacid, but stronger, apparently, and I’m hoping to stop the excess acid production in my stomach. I said, half jokingly, mock serious, “I hope I don’t have stomach cancer.”

“Don’t even say that,” the receptionist cautioned me. It’s almost as though if you give voice to your underlying fears, that somehow might make them come true. People don’t want to hear the “C” word, nor do they want to confront the uncomfortable reality that some people die before their time. A good friend of mine who used to be head librarian at my local library is bravely battling brain cancer, and the longterm prognosis is in months, not years, although she has survived over a year already.

I still want to write my first, second, and third full length novels, and I don’t feel ready to die, but I get nervous that the “best laid plans of mice and men” are going to go astray and that I’m going to be thwarted in my ambitions.

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I deserve good things happening to me. I think we’re so conditioned to believe that life is supposed to be a struggle that we don’t want to admit that we have been blessed, truly blessed beyond belief. I have great people in my life, including a support group that includes my mother’s cousin who loves me dearly and whom I love in return equally, and many other friends and family members.

The truth is: life is good, and I’m looking forward to creating many more meaningful days before I head into the western sunset. Just keep me out of the doctor’s waiting rooms please.


Creative Hack

I didn’t have all that much interest in seeing the new movie, The Interview, before the latest controversial threat, seemingly coming from North Korea, that anyone is goes to see the film faces consequences similar to what happened on September 11th, 2001. The film comedically explores the idea that two US citizens traveling abroad could assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and in the fallout controversy, Sony Pictures’ computer system itself was attacked and hacked, and private emails and information was leaked to the press.

The Sony company is based in Japan, and the studio portion of the company have decided not to release the film anywhere in Japan, citing Japanese citizens who are currently being held in North Korea, and Seth Grogan, one of the films stars, has cancelled his press promotional tour for the next few days.

This whole fiasco reminds me of the controversy over the freedom of creative expression. Books such as Ulysses, by James Joyce, and To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, have been banned in the past in an attempt to keep people from being exposed to ideas or expressions of ideas that challenge the norm. This is, in all likelihood, a forgettable spoof that would have otherwise disappeared shortly after its release, but it’s now garnering more attention than it would have otherwise, simply because the North Koreans take even a comedic attack on their leader as a serious provocation. My mind casts back to the time when Salmon Rushdie’s life from the Ayatollah of Iran for writing a book called, Satanic Verses.

I think we must work to retain the right to artistic freedom as one of the most fundamental, basic, and important freedoms we have.

Gentle James

You simply haven’t lived, dearest, until a straight man has cried for you. I went out with my friend James the other night, and told him about the six times I had ECT–Electroconvulsive Therapy–in late October and early November, and his eyes welled up, but he managed to contain himself, if only for my sake. How often do we do that? Keep ourselves together for the sake of another?

James reminded me of days gone by, and had to tell me his story again, because I’d forgotten the details of his life. Some would call it the detritus of one’s world. I choose to look at it otherwise. Indeed, we do imbue our actions with meaning, but in my mind, there is meaning that goes beyond the mere action. I hold with Soren Kierkegaard, the existentialist philosopher who also happened to believe in God, quite the mind fuck, maybe mind cluster is the more correct term.

But I digress. . .

James reminded me that he himself had had seizures as a child and takes anti-seizure medication. Personal disclosure between writerly friends is always valuable because it is what makes us unique that makes us valuable, yes, but it is also what makes us fully human.

When Words Aren’t Enough

Words are great. As a writer, I deal in words. They are my currency, but even I acknowledge that words are not actions, nor can they take the place of actions. There’s a saying: you can’t think your way into right action, you have to act your way into right thinking.

That’s where habit comes into play, and habit, for a writer, is perhaps more important than sheer unadulterated talent. Genius, after all, remains unexpressed without individuals being diligent enough to express their thoughts on paper (as a writer), to put their art on a canvas (as a painter), to move creatively through space in cohesive patterns (as a dancer), or to express themselves in virtually any other art form that demands creativity. Madeleine L’Engle famously pointed out, “Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it.”

In the most recent Writer magazine, author Andre Dubus III, who wrote House of Sand and Fog, talked about best practices for writers. In his mind, being a creature of habit is a good thing. I had heard that Charles Dickens spent the first part of his day at his desk arranging and rearranging pencils at his desk, and this meticulous organizing freed up his mind to think creatively while occupied with a seemingly mundane task. It’s ironic how much we worry, as a society, about time-wasting activities. Perhaps we need to look how we can turn those activities to our advantage. Andre Dubus III himself approaches writing intuitively without an outline in his head, but he does have a plan of carefully constructed habits to bolster him and lead him creatively. He settles into what he calls his Cave, and begins each day by reading poetry, then listens to music while he transcribes what he has written from the previous day. He will allow himself to tinker, tweak and rewrite, but when he finishes, he sets aside his editing jobs, turns off the music, and, interestingly, puts on noise-canceling headphones. He always writes his new days pages in pencil, and is very specific about the kind of pencil and pencil sharpener he depends upon. Many writers are likewise superstitious and adhere to strict routine. The key, for writers, indeed for all creative persons, is to find a routine that works and honor it.

So many wannabe writers are undisciplined, myself among them. Because I’m in grad school, getting my MFA in creative writing, I’m forced to produce material, but there’s no guarantee, once I graduate, that I’ll continue to write unless I’ve put in place habits to serve me along the way.

Today, October 2nd, is my birthday, and as it is the beginning of fall, and the beginning of a new school year, I also consider it a good time to make my New Year’s Resolutions. Here they are: this year, I would like to lose 40 pounds and write between 100 and 150 new pages by the time I turn 45 next year. Pretty simple, and you have to bear in mind how far I’ve come already, but, as the Robert Frost poem says, I have “Miles to go before I sleep.”

The Light Behind Their Eyes

I just spent a wonderful afternoon with a former teacher, I don’t dare call her my “old” teacher (though 78, she’s hardly what I would call old–let’s face it, there are young old people and old old people). Regardless whether she is old or young or somewhere in-between, we reminisced about those mostly halcyon undergraduate college years I spent at a small liberal arts university in Minnesota. I worked for her as a writing lab tutor for three years, and I was the first student she hired who was a sophomore. Before that they had all been juniors and seniors, so I felt privileged to work under her tutelage for a full three years.

One time a tutor once asked her, our fearless Writing Lab Director, how she decided who to hire to work for her, and she answered, “I look for the light behind their eyes.”

Now obviously our parents have a great impact on who we are and who we become, and their importance can’t be underestimated, but I would state categorically, without reservation that it is teachers and mentors like her who do so much to put the light in our eyes in the first place. I was the first person who had ever come out to her as a gay man, and she taught me that it is okay to be who I am, that God doesn’t make mistakes (this was before that catchphrase was in vogue). Since then quite a few other young men have told her that they are gay, and she is always accepting. I guess people have a way of sensing when someone has a gentle, kind spirit. More than just a kind spirit, though, she is a guiding spirit, and a guiding force in so many young people’s lives.

Just because I was struggling with issues of sexual identity, however, didn’t excuse me from educational obligations, and I knew better than to test her, much less turn in a late paper! She taught me deadlines and responsibilities. She also taught me how to lead others. She may as well have invented the term, “kill ’em with kindness.”

She instilled in her tutors that they must be respectful of others’ work, but also work to help students discover ways to improve their own papers rather than having us simply correct their mistakes. She suggested (early and often) that we tutors pick out the more glaring shortcomings in the student papers before us, and engage in what she termed, Socratic Questioning. This meant we would ask “leading questions,” questions designed of course to get a student to think about her paper critically, but also to guide her in a specific direction. We might have had an agenda, but we needed to disguise it. In doing this, we ourselves learned to write as we taught others how to write. I’ve heard the best way to learn something is to teach it to others, and that is what we did.

Before I had her as my Writing Lab Director, I had her as a teacher for my Honors’ Symposium. I think, in fact, she would prefer the term teacher over professor. And as our teacher, she taught us what the other great teachers who had come before her had taught the generations, with special emphasis on Aristotle and Ethics. At St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, we learned to pick apart and consider what is the nature and origin of good and evil, what makes an ethical man, and what makes an opportunist. She never had a specifically Catholic agenda; she merely wanted us to make a decision, in a million little ways, to do our best to live a good life.

There’s a saying in Judaism that you are only truly dead when no one longer remembers you, and in this respect, certainly, Betty will live on for generations. Her impact has been that profound, and her lessons will most certainly be taught by her students to their friends, co-workers, children, and extended family, both orally and through example. The best way to live a good life is by example, and Betty, with quite grace, showed me “the good life.”

The Big Hush-Hush

Although I’m gay, I have been experiencing great, I repeat, great difficulty creating interesting fictional gay characters. Right now I’m working on a novel where my main character’s best friend, a gay white man named Dewey, is in a relationship with a black man named Prophet who was formerly married to a woman. It sounds just a tad bit like the storyline to a soap opera, don’t you agree? Therein lies my problem. Dewey and Prophet are supporting characters, not even part of the main storyline, but they’ve proven the most difficult to render realistically on the page. I’ve written many scenes between Althea and her husband, then ex-husband, but trying to find the right tone for Dewey and Prophet, striking the right balance in developing a plausible gay characters, has eluded me.

I’m learning that capturing the truth on the page can be difficult, rude, cumbersome even. I think I may unconsciously be afraid to offend my parents by what I write. They haven’t really read much of my work, but when I recently described the plot of my novel to my dad, he responded by asking whether I really needed a gay character at all.

It’s frustrating when heterosexual authors like John Irving, famous for The World According to Garp as well as his most recent novel In One Person, and recent phenom Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding), have free rein in creating captivating characters who have a different sense of their sexual orientation whereas I’m stymied for writing about something too close to home, as if I were writing an autobiography instead of fiction.

It’s an interesting conundrum to be so inhibited because when I first came out of the closet, way back as an undergrad at the conservative Minnesota liberal arts school St. John’s University, one of my all-time favorite teachers Betty will assure you that I came out with a vengeance. What can I say? It was the late-80’s, frosted hair and ear rings were de rigeur for a certain subset. I won’t say that they were ever truly popular, at least not so in Minnesota, but it certainly made a man stand out.

As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve learned to be more polite, to create less waves and avoid controversial topics. One example: my dad is convinced that global warming is a fallacy and the leftist leaning politicians propagate alarmist prognostications to advance their own careers. We don’t discuss Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to prevent climate change. All my dad will say in regard to Gore is that those leftist Hollywood types made him their darling, and somehow won the prize on his behalf.

I truly hope I don’t have to wait for my father to die in order to write a publishable novel. I don’t want to spend so much energy worrying what other’s think about my abilities and talents. Charles Bukowski once famously said that when you get the shit kicked out of you over, and over, and over, you have a tendency to say what you think. I’m just not sure what it will take to get me to write my truth as well as live it.

The Idea Machine

Andy Rooney said it best: “I sit down at my typewriter, or my computer now, and I damn well decide to have an idea. That’s how you get an idea. They do not strike you very often in the middle of the night or when you’re doing something else. . .Ideas are amorphous, but you have to work on having one. The don’t just come out of the blue.”

Today I celebrate six years sober, six years since I last fell down drunk. It’s hard for me to take in that six years ago I traded Budweiser and gin and tonics for a life lived deliberately.

The reason this is relevant to Andy Rooney is that a little over six years ago I had this dream of becoming a writer, this vision of putting one word after another on paper until I had produced a novel, but nothing was getting done. I worried that if I quit drinking, I would no longer be creative, but the hard facts bore out a different truth. Many people out there can have one or two drinks, then sit down at their computer and write. That wasn’t my reality. I had big dreams, but nothing was being done to achieve them.

I’m not saying that everything has been easy since I quit drinking. I still haven’t finished that novel yet, but I have made significant progress. I have also started a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program at Northwestern University a little over a year ago. It’s been baby steps, but to me baby steps are better than no steps at all.

None of this would have been possible had I been drinking, of that I am sure. For that reason, if for no other, today is an important day for me. There’s that old saying: Do the footwork and leave the results up to God. And Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, says it a different way: “Leap, and the net will appear.” So now, even though it isn’t New Year’s Eve, I renew my commitment to my creativity, and renew my commitment to finishing my novel this coming year.

Wish me luck, if you’re so inclined.

Ruminations on Gatsby

I just ran across this quote from the Great Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and thought it was especially appropriate during this holiday season:

“Let us show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead”

Time to fess up. I’m a huge fan of Charlie Brown. So many memorable moments captured on the little screen. For an animated cartoon, Peanuts speaks volumes about the way to find your way in the world.

I’ll always remember the time Charlie Brown went Trick-or-Treating, and his famous complaint, “All I got was a rock.” This lesson can be applied across the board, the whole adage when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

I’m terminally single, it seems, but I make plenty of lemonade. My philosophy is: “I’m looking for someone who laughs more than he complains.”

But I digress.

Easter. The day when a particular, world-changing dead man named Jesus Christ rose, in preparation for his ascendency and the salvation of the world entire. Popular opinion has it that Jesus was the only perfect man, the only man without earthly sin, yet I’ve wondered if this could possibly be true, in particular in light of his final words, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Turns out, apparently, that doubting God or the presence of God isn’t in itself a sin. Think of the trials and tribulations of Job.

Easter, then, is a way to celebrate God’s promise that He will always be there for us.

Happy Easter, everyone, and as Tiny Tim proclaimed, “God Bless Us, Everyone.”

Two favorite quotes of Oscar Wilde:

“Either this wallpaper goes or I do.”

“It’s better to be talked about than not to be talked about.”

Remember this is by the playwright of “The Importance of Being Ernest.”