Buckle Up

I’ve been sitting at the coffee shop again, killing time before school lets out early in anticipation of the Seattle Snowpocalypse that’s anticipated to being any moment now. While I’m here, I’ve been attempting to reconstruct a plot for Fire Weather and mulling over our heating situation. We’ve been toasty for a while now, but I keep recalling the last big freeze we experienced in the area (back in 2006), and I’m sort of anticipating that we’ll be without power again.

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Under these lines of thought is the notion that I haven’t talked about what I’m grateful for in a while. And away we go!

Seat belts and safety nets, yep all those things that keep people safe or prop people up when they invariably fall down. Catastrophic mitigation efforts that are everywhere, and I am grateful that they are.

Recent Reading

Bernard Cornwell’s latest War of the Wolf consumed most of my January. I felt sort of obliged to read this mostly because it’s a continuation of Uhtred of Bebbanburg’s tale. And it’s the consummate, well-crafted storytelling as one should expect from a master such as Cornwell, but, and it took me two readings of the novel to realize this, it’s about an old man. That’s what makes it, in the cannon of Uhtred, super special.

Truth be told, there just aren’t that many good stories about old people. Why? Probably, because no one wants to read about some old dude’s sword swinging sciatica. Instead, most audiences apparently wish to learn about the youthful genesis of all those pinched butt nerves. You yong’uns and yer hopping about and booty shaking. GET OFF MY LAWN!

During my second listening, I realized that Cornwell’s craft was directed to the concept that age can limit our activity, but it doesn’t change our character. Uthred is still Uthred, despite the limitations age has imposed on his body. Wasp’s Sting still hisses in its scabbard, Bebbanburg still stands implacably at the peak of Northumbria, but Uthred is slowed and takes more care as he deals with the upstart Sköll and the Saxon’s to the South.

So that’s my first fiction insight and the second? The second is that life before safety belts genuinely, without question, you-can’t-argue-this-even-a-little-bit, sucked. We’ve come so very, very far since the days when a scratch could end a life. When death and brutal violence were our mainstays and not rare exceptions to the norm.

SOTU

Yes, I actually watched the highlights of the State of the Union speech. Yes, I felt threatened. And yes, I acknowledge the multitude of lies that were told in a setting that should only allow brutal honesty. But there’s no riddle in any of that. Nope. “All that was to be expected,” he’s says while breathing a cognizant “Oh shit!”

Safety belts? Yeah, here’s the up-sight I’d like to share. During the SOTU He Who Should Not Be Named uttered the following, “America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

With the prospect of too much snow headed my way I can unquestionably say that I welcome government intervention. Please come plow my roads. I’m glad there is a quality education available for my kids. Please, help prepare my offspring for the future. In fact, in just about every aspect of my life, I’m pleased that the burden’s of living can be shared and the risks to my life can be equitably mitigated.

I do not embrace the anarchy that deregulation and “independence” will inevitably bring. These are not the words of contemporary Conservatism, rather the fiddle song that plays while Roam burns.

I’m grateful for safety belts in cars, for snow plows on roads, public schools funded by tax dollars, ambulance services, interstate highway networks, maintenance crews, single-payer healthcare, grid electrical supply, housing projects, and the whole damn enchilada that is modernity. I’m grateful for all of this because the alternative is hissing steel in leather scabbards, and I’m too old for that.

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Corrective vs Reflective Influence

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Writing Prompt: How does this huge spider make you feel without using simile.

Today, I’d like to consider the happy realization that I’m still becoming literate. Today, I’d like to thank the universe for random, fruitful encounters too, because the latter gratitude is predicated on the former.

I met a woman at the coffee shop this morning who refocused my mind on a lot of things. During our conversation, I discovered a way to articulate a good number of things that will help not only my writing practice develop but many other aspects of my existence.

Our conversation began because of an off-hand comment I made. She was sitting down at the table next to me and appeared chilled. While she curled up in her down coat, I mentioned that the coffee shop really should invest in some comforters we could just wrap up in as we sip our bean juice.

“Oh, we just got back from Methow,” she responded, and then we started covering some bases. The intrinsic anxiety of electric cars. The gradual, often slow, development of children’s travel tolerance. It meandered for a while until we locked onto the creative process.

“A poet has been appointed ambassador. A playwright is elected president. Construction workers stand in line with office managers to buy a new novel. Adults seek moral guidance and intellectual challenge in stories about warrior monkeys, one-eyed giants, and crazy knights who fight windmills. Literacy is considered a beginning, not an end.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Operating Instructions

Writing Groups

Since I made the transition from a mechanistic approach to life to one driven by imagination I’ve been a part of a number of these groups. Some, not all, have helped me reach beyond my current place in a story, effectively leveling me up as a writer. Others, unfortunately, seem little more than side quests where I waste much time foraging endlessly for tokens that cannot be bartered.

“Why?”

Holy cow, have I thought about this. Tried to put it into words, sought to transform my experiences with these groups into, if not a set of Laws to Write By, at least some guidelines to be aware of as I engage my imagination. And, objectively, I’ve failed to transform these adventures into anything other than a confusing, self-contradicting, impediment creating collection of reasons to never write another word. That is until today. This morning, in fact, at the coffee shop.

“Still why?”

Because I’m not starting from the right place. Writing, fuck that, creating anything is a deeply personal practice. You can’t imagine a world, with a bazillion possibilities, while consuming marketing advice about how to sell that. Your head is likely to twist right off your neck, fall on the floor, and roll down the stairs and into the street where raccoons will gleefully braid your nostril hair.

That is to say, I can’t write anyone else’s story. I’ve got to stop trying to do that.

So, to collect my thoughts and get back to the topic, I’ve experienced a number of different writing groups — some helpful, some not so much — and the difference when you peel back this pile of onions is that the helpful ones don’t bother correcting what you’ve submitted. They don’t tell you that something is implausible. They don’t point out line edits that you need to make or suggest sentence reconstruction. These groups are keenly aware of the need for all that, but they also know that’s why we hire editors.

Instead these instrumental, super valuable groups understand that story, even if written for an audience of one, requires a sort of recognition. They answer the question “Do you see the value in this story? If so, where’s it at? Once we know where it’s at, how can we make it much more valuable?”

If creating is a lonely, individual method of imagination then we should define how collaborative efforts, such as writing groups, should help us achieve our particular set of goals. If they can’t and we, as creatives, can’t steer them in that direction then it’s critical we move on.

Setting the Standard

If forty-six years of life has taught me anything, it’s that there is a difference between “it’s” and “its” that I need to be vigilantly aware of and that it’s really important to know what’s important. I’m not sure which of these is more important.

“Despair could never touch a morning like this.”

–Kim Stanley Robinson, Pacific Edge: Three Californias

I am, however, aware that I can ask for editorial help to fix my misuses of the contraction.

Our conversation touched on this idea quite a bit because it’s foundational to success. I stuck those eight words from KSR in this post because to me they represent a fulfillment of what is important to me in my writing. Those eight words are like a protein, folded and unfolded just so; when my eyes or ears suck them into neural receptors and transmit them to the thinking part of my mind for consideration, they fit perfectly. They grab me, they transform me, they light a fire in me.

I don’t know how or why KSR strung those words together. Why he didn’t start this novel with “A morning like this, despair could never touch.” Why he didn’t then go one to write a dialogue between his protagonist and his cast? But, for me anyway, this is by far one of my favorite hooks of all time. It drew me into his tale as if he’d written those words just for me.

Which, now that I think about it is a funny way to look at imagination. Is there any other way to share our experience, our emotions, our inner selves than like this? It’s so random, but there it is.

I’ve known for a long time now what I want my writing to do. I want it to tell a story like this. My goal is to unfold a word-protein in someone else’s mind correctly, just like these eight words unfold in mine.

Literacy

Writing for a market is like meditating for someone else’s approval. One of the alternatives to the word “literacy” is “scholarship,” and both of these words fail to convey the actual meaning I see between them. I’m grateful not just that my brain can decode language in its written form, this is the beginning Le Guin talked about. Instead, I’m thankful that literacy is a study. It is a pursuit of giving and receiving, the exchange of ideas with ever increasing clarity.

2019?

So our New Years came about like you might expect. Tess and I were both in a miserable funk, a cold that we picked up or incubated in San Diago over Xmas. Tissues and ibuprofen were consumed in quantity, and I spent the last night of 2018 coughing, sneezing and ducking for cover each and every time one of our neighbors launched a salvo from his vast surplus of leftover Independence Day rockets.

Despite my reluctance, this year is upon me; the outstanding questing of the season is inevitable “What are you going to do about it?”

My friend who moved to Florida recently posted one of the best and most realizable New Years resolutions I’ve ever seen. She plans on going to a pro baseball game, her first, and she plans on filling out a whole nine-inning play card. That made me smile, en français bien sur. Thanks, Coco!

Truth be told, I came into the New Year already balanced on a razor’s edge of depression, so it wasn’t just sick. A lot was going on. My dog died. I’ve had a persistent and worrying numbness and tingling in my right hand, arm and sometimes face for easily a month or more. My van broke down. Add fatigue to all my other neurological bull shit. The days are really short here in the Pacific Northwest and what little sunshine there is can also be cold and wet. And man, I really don’t think I need to justify any depression given the state of the world in general. People are, for one reason or another, just plain crappy and that rides on my spirit.

So yeah, 2019 finally fell on me like a big fat boulder which had been precariously balanced at the edge by fate. Pow! Crash. The sound of dust settling. Cut to an image of Matt’s feet sticking out from under a rock.

Ides of January

And thus, the middle of the month rolled on by without me finishing this post, no oracle bothering to remind me of the passage of time.

This morning I woke up to a steaming hot cup of coffee brewed for me by a beautiful, intelligent, capable woman who happens to be my wife. Yeah, I know I don’t deserve so much, but I’m grateful nonetheless. That little seed is still struggling to break the soil of my soul, but I can feel it growing today. Gratitude is a soil building soul plant.

How to nurture that seed over the course of the year? That’s the question. I want a big fucking tree of gratitude. I want to lean on it when I weak. I want to sit under its shade when things get too hot. I want to rake up my gratitude tree’s fallen leaves and use them as compost for next winter.

Yes, I know, no SMART goals in that resolution. That is, however, how organic systems tend to work. They require patience and courage. Equal parts hope and fear.

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Regulators Mount Up

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So, yeah, I just finished writing a short story. Wrapped up the ending yesterday, and started another one today. I’ll give the former some time to ferment and stay busy brewing up the latter with the intent of having the first edited, published and out to fans this month and the second lined up and ready for similar treatment in November.

I’ve been writing at one of the local coffee shops again and that seems to make all the difference. Even with interruptions, I can knock out an easy thousand words a morning and they’ve started providing free refills so it couldn’t be better.

Given that I’m restarting my creative process all over again, I’ve been trying to remain conscious of how much of me it’s consuming. Don’t get me wrong, I love to read and write as much as just about anything else, but I’ve felt a certain amount of fatigue in the past that hasn’t panned out for me in the long run.

“Okay,” you wonder. “What makes writing more of a task than a pleasure?” And I respond with a list.

  1. Socializing around writing. NaNoWriMo is shortly upon us, and in the past, that has meant I’ve been attended write-ins and the like. Add to that the end of the year conventions and writers groups and Clarior West weekend symposiums and suddenly I’m staring into the headlights of a social-anxiety train. If I try and to that again, it’s a done deal, my x-mas break you’ll have to fish my carcass out of the Sound. My plan this time around is to do everything on my time, commit to nothing and stay sane.
  2. Tying myself to arbitrary deadlines. No one gets to dictate how many words a day I can or even should produce. Not even me. I’ve stopped counting, in fact, and it’s been liberating. Here’s a simple truth that most how-to-write books won’t tell you. Writing more words doesn’t make your writing any better. This is a common trap I’ve fallen into in the past, especially during things like NaNoWriMo. You sit down with a word goal — I’ve got to write 1,472 words a day to complete the NaNo on time, blah blah blah — and pretty soon you’re cramming junk words into a chapter because without them you’ll never have a hope of finishing. Worse, you’ll start splitting out all your contractions because two words are better than one, right? So, at least for me, counting ain’t the way. I write a story because I have a story to write. If it’s only a 200-word story well, then so be it.
  3. No more using writing to excuse other work. If I’m honest, I’ve done this in the past. Mountain of stinky laundry need washing but I’d rather do anything else? Well “writing” can be a convenient get out of doing laundry card. Scared of crawling along your roof-line to clean gutters because you might fall? Tell everyone you’ve got some words to get down. At least for a while, I’m going to make sure that when it’s time to write that’s what I’m doing and when it’s time to do other things there will be my focus.
  4. Rejection! Complicated by all of the above, this is what killed my desire to write last year. A fuck-ton of rejection. And yeah, the advice “grow thicker skin, keep submitting” is good, but only to a point.

    I’m going to be a lot more selective about who and when I submit anything from here on out. Plus, I’m going to raise my expectations. Don’t want my piece? That’s fine, just tell me why. Over the years I’ve submitted over and over again and there have been a couple of good rejectors. C.C. Finley comes to mind. He never responds with boilerplate. He never tells me that I’ve written junk (and should kill myself because I’ll never make it as a writer you rotten slob how could you think you could ever amount to anything …). And he always gives me some indication of why he’s not interested. Even if it’s “Hey, I’m not sure where this would fit in this month’s line-up” or “I just didn’t find your story interesting, but keep trying.”

    If and when I submit, I’m going to do so judiciously. When I’m rejected, I’m going to note down if I learned anything from the rejection. If the answer is no then I won’t resubmit.

Okay, so there are my four guiding principles that I hope will allow me to continue to write. Expect a new story on Patreon in the next couple of weeks.

Whatsername

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Lately, I’ve been considering a retreat from social media. The train wreck of political angst that Twitter has become usually leaves me raging mad. There’s just soo much stupid out there that can be expressed with 240 characters. Volumetrically, that’s what most of it is so even if I intend to focus on the better bits, invariably my attention will be ripped away by yet another red-hatted asshole spouting off about the Deep State or whatever. UGH!

With a Twitter vacation, my mental health and diction can only improve.

And then there’s Facebook, the granddaddy of the old school services, which I’d like to talk about specifically. I’ve been an infrequent FB user for some time, and lately, I’ve been thinking about why that might be.

One reason is that I’ve consciously rejected many of the older media models — television, cable, even newspapers — because those models are all powered by advertisement. I can’t stomach the idea that I’m paying for all that bullshyte twice. First with my time/attention and second by subsidizing the service in question. As is the case with YouTube I’d happily pay a reasonable subscription fee to *AVOID* endless advertisement custom designed to twist my pants in knots.

Facebook has been slipping in advertisements into our feeds for some time, and it’s annoying and wrong, but that’s not the biggest reason for my withdrawal.

I think it was 1988 when I asked Daliah to go to a school dance with me, she was the older sister of my middle brother’s buddy, and we all used to carpool to high school in my tiny 1972 Honda Civic. If I remember all that correctly. Anyway, I believe it was a Homecoming dance, and the theme was jeans and flannel or something like that because I’m pretty sure I still have a picture of the two of us which I uncovered while helping my folks move from Colorado. Ultimately it was this picture that reminded me of that night and what a good time we had together.

The picture also reminded me how scared I was to ask her. How excited she seemed when I did. How enthusiastic she was about going with me in the weeks before the dance. I know that I’m probably scraping the bottom of the barrel of my memory, but because of this one posed glossy in the 80’s I’ve now got a pile of good times and memories that I get to sort through.

Since leaving high school in 1991, I’ve not seen or heard from Deliah. Other than a chance meeting with her brother in the early 2000s this photo was the first time I’ve recalled her or that night. I’ve been positively wallowing in the nostalgia of it all.

Thing is that I’m not “connected” to either of these people on Facebook. Even though I have searched for them, they don’t seem to be around. Consequently, my imagination has been freed, I’m able to wonder “whatever happened to Deliah” because the question apparently can’t be answered.

That freedom is actually exceptionally liberating. Time, distance, age — all the things that change us — they’re still variables for her in my mind. Did she grow up and buy a boat? Is she even now single handing the Pacific in search for adventure? Is she happily ensconced in an Eastern Oregon commune happily raising a brood of Brown Coats who worship The Whedon? Is she a cutthroat capitalist quietly managing the board of some weapons manufacturing company? I don’t know!

Honestly, the more I think about it, I don’t want to know.

Facebook was great at first because it did connect me with people from my past. At first, lifting of that mist was enjoyable. “Oh hey, you’ve got two kids and a happy marriage. Good for you. And you too.” “So sad to learn of your loss or mistake.” But it turns out that the uncertainty and disconnection preserved plenty of precious moments like amber. The insect trapped a million years ago inside the sap of a tree is a focal point for the imagination, cut away the sap and you’re left with a crunchy mosquito.

Adulting

I just dropped A-bear off at school for his second day of second grade. This morning slipped away about as fast as summer seems to have disappeared. The vine maples are turning and there is an undeniable crispness in the air that I’d bottle for later consumption. This is, without a question, my favorite season of any year.

Right now I’m sitting at my local coffee shop trying to get the words flowing. Back at base camp, I’ve got about fifty unfinished projects demanding my attention. Some of them should be addressed before the weather gets colder or wetter or windy. Others, they’re just part of the process between the start and the end.

That’s what most of much of this is, isn’t it? The milestones that mark our lives are more often than not just piles of folded laundry or a freshly mopped kitchen. Transitory tasks completed in a moment and lost to time as quickly as a season.

This autumn I’m okay with that, I’ve made my peace. Don’t curse me, don’t condemn me to live through interesting times.