All posts filed under “craft

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writing a novel…really, I am

I’ve read that John Cheever, a writer who I love, was never really comfortable with the novel as a form. I read Falconer, and I thought it was fine, though I could see why some critics say that his longer works suffer from being episodic; the flow that he manages with great short stories like The Enormous Radio and The Swimmer–it’s just not there, at least not with Falconer.

But so what? At least the guy got the thing done. Right?

That’s kind of my attitude now. I started a novel when I was leaving grad school–10 years ago. I’d decided I wasn’t going to go on for a Ph.D., and I would throw my lot in with the creative types. I worked at it for a couple years, got lost along the way, got obsessed by a woman–escapism takes all guises. Then, I got obsessed with Tango. I met my wife, moved across the country, got married, became a dad. You see where this is going? But I wouldn’t say that mine is that story of the artist growing up or giving up. I have written all this time: a story collection, an attempt at a graphic novel and a children’s book, too.

In 2013, I became exhausted with trying to do that stuff and blog and keep up with things social. My father was diagnosed with cancer; my kid is like his pops and a bit of an insomniac, which means I sleep fitfully and not enough. But some time around the summer, I found my groove with the novel again. I can say one thing about this thing: good or bad, I believe in its purpose, its reason for being. Basically, it’s about an elderly woman whose spent her life taking care of her son who suffers from a lot of things. I don’t name it, but the ailment is basically a combination of autism and schizophrenia. The woman is based on a real person who I worked for during my last year at Harvard. It was, in many ways, one of the saddest years of my life.

In my hands, this family drama takes on some magical realism–I can’t help it, and really, that’s the book I sought to write from the beginning. Think Jonathan Franzen meets Twilight Zone or Borges-with-a-heart and you have what I’m after. Anyway, up until November, I was on target to finish a decent draft by years-end, and then, once again, I was lulled away, distracted, pulled by the siren’s call of blog and social media and other creative pursuits.

There are some practical reasons for this. This blog, I’ve finally figured out after months off, is going to be a diary of some of them. But as you can imagine: with one little and another on the way, and the fact that we live in San Francisco, which is increasingly becoming impossible, it’s time for this middle-aged dude to shake things up. So creative juices have to flow where the money is, and that means getting out of the teaching racket and probably out of this lovely city by the bay. It means, and I’m finaly understanding the lesson: I need to use the storytelling/writing talents that I have–meager that they might be–in order to make money. NOW. Not later.

And still…and still, my good friends, that novel waits, and I will return to it. I’ve stopped thinking of the book as some kind of obligation or worse, as a reminder of my meager talents as a writer. The book might turn out to be a big dud, but it will be mine. It is also a story worth telling, and for some reason, rightly or wrongly, part of the reason it’s taken me so long to finish it is because I wasn’t sure of that until now. So that’s something.

As I mentioned above: I love Cheever. His characters are messy and complicated, and maybe the writing is episodic, but then again, isn’t life?

the school where basic words get new meanings
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what business podcasts are teaching me: not much

OK, so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking–big surprise there. I’ve been thinking about career. I know, I’m still not surprising you. It’s been a long road, and I won’t get into the twists and turns here. If you’ve read this blog, you have heard the past twists, and new turns are on the way I promise.

Today, I’m actually interested in one aspect of the journey that I’ve been experiencing lately: podcasts.

There are podcasts for everything–some are strictly entertaining; some are thought-provoking. The ones I’m writing about here are educational in nature, but not in the Liberal Arts sense of the word–more in the trade-school sense. Let’s just call them for what they are: business coaching sessions that are so generalized that they are meant to sell “How To” videos. I’ve been listening to them because I have never really been interested in business before (I’m just sick of being a broke teacher) but since I can’t afford a life/business coach, I figured I might learn something from some of these podcasts.

First off, I want to say that there are a lot out there, and I want to give a lot of the authors of these casts the benefit of the doubt. But it’s hard to do when you consider that these people make their money trying to tell other people how to make money. Their business model is not based on what they’ve made, but rather on how they think you should make things. Now maybe you’re thinking that about that old saying in which people who can, do and, etc. etc. I’ve never liked that saying. I think it’s unfair, for one. I am a teacher, after all.

But part of the problem is that these people are basically acting like teachers, and yet they don’t actually teach anything. It would be nice to see someone teaching others how to make a business who themselves have done it. (Let me say: I’d like to see this in podcasts; I am fully aware that B-Schools have profs that fit this bill, but again, I can’t even afford a business coach, so B-School is not possible.) I also realize that if these podcasters had built up businesses, they probably would not have the time nor the interest in podcasting, but one can dream.

Another thing I’ve noticed about these podcasts is the language. A lot of these guys talk like it’s some strange cult of personal growth. What I’ve noticed about this vocab is that it often sounds like fancy and deep, but the words are just saying pretty obvious things. “Value” is a big word, which for them, seems to convey a thing that helps people. There are also words that are idiosyncratic, part of the brand of the self-help teacher in question: one guys likes the word, “epic,” which just means good or valuable. Another always speaks in three-word commands that kind of rhyme, like a weird New Age preacher, as in, “I think all of you should exercise, capitalize and monetize.”

In the end, I think it’s telling that these people are successful. They are successful because there are people like me out there: middle-aged, trying to find their way. A less sympathetic part of me wants to say that these podcasters have a predatory streak. It’s all virtual creation. They create virtual schools made up of lessons on how to game the virtual world of Facebook, Twitter and whichever other social media network there is.

And yet I listen. There is a part of me that is fascinated by this world. I am not really one to sell things, but one thing I am learning from all these podcasts is that there is a branch of social media/new business world that’s all about content. These experts talk about content like it’s something they just discovered. “Content” in this world means what writers call ideas, by the way. And I think what heartens me/scares me a little about this new business world is just that. Ideas, which are what any writer takes for granted, are seen as strange exotic things in the land of this kind of business. So maybe, just maybe, all that philosophy I read as a young man is going to pay off. I just have to keep some ethics in my head, if things work out and not do a podcast that is devoid of “value” and that is anything but epic.

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how photography helps me with depression

At some point in my college/grad school career, I remember reading something about depression from a philosophical POV. I can’t remember who the author was, but I do remember a line about depression being akin to a restlessness of the soul. Maybe. I certainly feel restless when I get depressed. I want to do nothing, and yet at the same time, I want to do anything but stay still.

My mother, who I never think of as being depressed, told me recently that whenever she’s felt down, she wills herself out of depression by just doing something, anything. I don’t think this would work for people who are clinically depressed, but it seems to work for her. Still, I don’t like the sound of it. I don’t feel like I can will myself out of anything when I’m down. So, I just remain stubborn and somewhat miserable until the clouds pass.

And then, this year, I started filming things and taking photos. I even started getting paid to do so as a second shooter for a local wedding/event videographer.I think I have a decent eye, and I think I have some instincts for a good versus a bad shot. BUT, learning how to use the camera–really use it–is not easy. The hardest part about taking a picture is the fact that I have a great little camera in my IPhonbe, and it takes good pictures with no effort. But to jump up to really good pictures, you need something better. AND if you want to control exactly what your image is going to be like, then you really need to bust out a camera and not use the auto settings. You have to think about light–quality and color. You have to think about composition and exposure. And if you’re shooting moving pictures, you have to think about all these things plus make sure you are in focus and not walking into a wall.

But the first step is to slow down and experiment and learn your camera. And this, unexpectedly, takes me back to the depression thing.

The other day I was walking with my son. HE likes to explore the smallest things–cracks in the sidewalk or a patch of black asphalt or even a leaf. He has all the patience in the world for this. I now am bringing my camera on walks with him, because he teaches me to look at old things in new ways. But still sometimes, I get impatient. Why are my photos looking crappy? How can I make what I want in my mind to come out? Which button? I can feel my blood pressure rise, not out of anger, but out of an almost desperate need to figure out the problem, so I can move on to the next.

And this when it hits me: it’s this kind of thinking, this kind of need to speed through things that often leads me to depression, to that boredom of my soul. I’m trying to go faster and faster through the things I can do so I can do more. But to what end? It’s like that idiot who gets behind you on a Sunday morning and is hugging up against your back fender only to finally pass you. But then you see him up at the next light, stopped at the same red light that you are stopped at. And you wonder: what was the rush?

Maybe the rush, the need for speed, both on the road and in life, is just a palliative for boredom, an attempt to run away from depression, but ironically, at least for me, I think, it also is what rushes me towards depression. Instead of just sitting back and letting myself explore, I get anxious. But the camera, as with anything else that’s worthwhile, will not be rushed. The camera asks me to slow down and just be with it, and eventually, it tells me its secrets. And though I hate to be slowed down at first, in the end, I appreciate the lack of speed.

It makes me calmer, and yes, though I don’t always realize it, happier, as well.

It makes me happy.

cat in the hat
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writing fiction for children–what it teaches me as a storyteller….

I’ve been looking at a lot of images lately.  It’s kind of a new thing for me.  If I’m honest, somewhere in my writer’s mind, I developed a distrust of images.  Truth resided in words, I used to tell myself this, not in the facile quality of images.  Even the old saying about pictures being worth a thousand words only made me feel that the words in question were better because of the effort they required.  There was no way that those thousand words weren’t getting at some subtlety lost in that one lonely image.

As with so many things in life, the truth is never so black and white–no pun intended.  Words have their place, and so do images.  And as I learn more about how to use both–separately and in concert–I find that one teaches me about the other.  Case in point: last week, when I was putting together my Marvelous Mondays post (a series I do on Mondays, obviously, in which I share pictures I’ve seen over the week that I love), I realized that increasingly I am drawn to photos of very ordinary things but composed in ways that make them seem new.  Usually, this means looking at something from an unusual angle or with a stylized look to the point that it makes the ordinary seem abstract.

[one_third]I don’t know why, but right now, those are the images that are really bringing me in.  I still the love street photography.  I still love looking at people’s faces, but this new love of abstraction has seemed to come out of nowhere, and it started making me wonder where it was coming from and what it meant for me as an artist.  This is where children’s fiction has come in.[/one_third]


Michael Schegel's Iceland

what is this? it’s beautiful



If you’ve been following me for any amount of time, then you know that this year, I finished my first picture book.  Currently, G.E. Gallas is finishing up the art as I am researching where to send the MS.  It’s been an odd couple years for my writing, but one of the more surprising realizations I’ve had is that in my heart of hearts, the type of book I most want to write is a successful book for children, by which I mean a book that children can love and that adults who are open to such stories can love, as well.  This would be a major accomplishment, I realize, but as a writer, I’ve come to realize it is a goal I want to work towards.

There are a lot of reasons for this: probably first among them, I like tales where something strange happens, something that runs counter to what we normally experience but that somehow highlights something about our own reality.  I’ve said it before, but the stuff I love best lies somewhere between the Twilight Zone and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  And when you write that kind of story, it just seems that kids are the first audience, the early adapters, to use a word from the tech-world.  So there’s that.

But going back to my recent appreciation of abstraction in images, I think it comes out of the same impulse as my writing for children.  When I think of the children’s writers whose work I most appreciate: the Roald Dahls, the Maurice Sendaks, even Dr. Seuss books I grew up with, they often look at very ordinary things, but something about the angle the author takes makes those ordinary things seem fresh, full of wonder.  I love that, not only as a goal for art, but for life.


image of Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl



image of Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak



image of Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss

It’s taken me almost 600 words to say something quite ordinary, I know.  I like to find ways to wonder at the ordinary.  But sometimes these obvious realizations need to be expressed.  Have you discovered anything recently about your art or craft?  Please share if you have.  I’d love to hear from you.

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How to know if you are a writer…

Not unlike a lot of other writers, I have my doubts about myself–specifically, I sometimes wonder if I truly am meant to be one. But what does it mean to be a writer? At its most basic, I think it means you have to write. DUH. But that simple definition, though useful in that it keeps you honest about your craft, can get you into some trouble, because there are some times in a person’s writing life in which life takes over the writing. This past year, my son was born–a first child for me–which means I had to and am still trying to cope with less sleep than I’d like. This also means that writing has suffered.

But The Boy and his craziness is not the only reason for my lack of writing these past seven months; there is also that itch to try new things that I think a lot of artists seem to suffer from. Last year, I wrote and produced a couple short films, and out of that, came an urge to tell different kinds of stories in different ways and through different media. I became aware that I want to be a storyteller more than a writer, by which I mean I am less caught up in the idea that the book is the only way I can get my stories out in the world.

I still hold to that idea. But the vagueness of the term, “storyteller,” though liberating, can be confusing. And thanks to the lack of sleep I mentioned above coupled with this new found freedom, I spent the last few months, a little adrift. Some positive things have come out of this time: the children’s book project with GE Gallas, which we will be sending to agents and publishers next month has been a fruitful experience. And those couple short films taught me quite a bit, as well. But I’ve been uneasy through it all.

Now I know why: I wasn’t writing. I mean, I was blogging. I was writing copy for this or that project. BUT I was NOT writing.

There’s a lot of talk, I know, about this crazy time of Twitter and Facebook that is making us all dumb and destroying out ability to focus in on anything for any extended amount of time, but the solution–at least my solution–is to sit down and come up with characters and scenarios for those people who live in my mind. The act of writing, if it does nothing else, grounds me. It makes me feel whole. To put in the words of Renee Zellweger in Jerry Macguire, it “completes me.”

What I realize now is that even if I am a storyteller, the starting point is always the story, and that begins with tapping out words on a screen. So, that’s what I’m going to do right now. Time to start writing!

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