All posts tagged “writing

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how do you define your work (self)?

I’ve heard comedians say it. I’ve noticed it myself. When I get together with other men, it’s not very likely that we’ll talk about ourselves, i.e., our emotions and feelings. I mean, we will talk our jobs, our goals. The closest we will come to opening up is when we discuss a hobby/pass-time, since that can be more personal. But that’s if we go out and meet for a beer/coffee. We often don’t. Better to meet and play a sport or a game. That makes the time go by, and the chat-time to a minimum.

Some might say that men do this to avoid intimacy. Maybe. But for me, for better or for worse, I think about my professional life more than almost anything else. Only my family gets more attention. I am a father of one–another little on the way–so this makes sense, right? I need to think about how much money I’m bringing in, so that along with my wife, we are able to do right by our kids.

But here’s the thing, and it’s quite embarrassing to admit: though I have obsessed about work for years, somehow, the money part of the discussion wasn’t really part of my thinking–not until recently. This comes out of laziness, in part it does. I have a pretty high tolerance for just hanging out at home if left to my own devices. I am a lazy-ass boulder not wanting to move unless moved by something powerful: like the need to eat. So, I really want to find something I enjoy. It just helps me roll out of bed–pun intended.

But there’s something else at play, something deeper down and not something I was totally aware of until now. All this time, I have been seeking out something I could do well and get paid for it. I am a good teacher; I think I can say that without being too arrogan about it. But teaching, like writing, needs life experiences to fuel it. I think that, at least. It’s like an incomplete protein; it needs to be coupled with something else. At least for me it does. I can see myself teaching; I’d like to keep a foot in education. But I want something else, and it’s time to go for that.

This week, I’ll be talking about how I found something I want to go for, and over the next year, I’ll share with you the steps I’m taking to get there. (That will, of course, include many neurotic moments of self-doubt.) But hey, the way I figure it if my readers are at least half women, at least someone will listen to me about me.

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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 can you tell the difference between being patient and being lazy?

only patience makes great art, only impatience makes artists finish anything

only patience makes great art, only impatience makes artists finish anything

So, almost two years later, I finished my 52nd story, which you can check out here.  If there is anyone out there who isn’t convinced that writing is like exercise and must be done regularly in order to stay in shape, well this story is proof of that. Writing is not easy, but the act of writing does become just a bit less taxing when you get that butt in the seat and start.  In fact, it’s quite enjoyable–sometimes.  My 52nd story, is a step towards finding my footing again, which is good.  That said, in my opinion, it seems to suffer from something I call the beeflessness of bad writing:  Interesting idea, but maybe not quite right for the genre of micro-fiction, or just lacking in enough intellectual protein to make the complete journey.  So why do I post it?

You can only find out what works by getting yourself writing, and I need deadlines in order to get myself writing.  So I told myself I wanted post this week and I went for it.  But here’s the problem: how do I balance my need for getting things done with the need to be patient?

One thing I have not done enough as a writer is give myself the permission and time to go back and re-do things, which is odd considerimng the name and theme of this blog.  But what I mean here is that I’ve come to realize that one of my biggest challenges is finding the right line between patience and laziness.  In other words, the more I listen to other people talk about their projects, the more I realize that the reason that a lot of projects don’t get done is that people don’t actually do the hard work and do them.  At the same time, you have to be patient.  You have to value your work enough to make sure that it’s worthy of readers.

the patient grasshopper

the patient grasshopper

For the film projects I’m working on, patience is not a choice.  I’m kind of stuck right now because I don’t have some basic gear yet, and even when I do get that done, there is also the problem of not having the right people or having the right people who don’t have time just now.  So, patience is forced upon me.  That said,  I have to push hard to look for ways to do what I can or I won’t ever find the funds to get my equipment or to get those people I need.

As a writer of fiction, the patience is more internal.  I can write as fast as my fingers and brain will allow.  I can put out a “finished” product whenever I feel like it–at least I can do so on my portfolio blog.  But truthfully, I need to make sure I give the piece in question its due attention.  I need to value it enough to make time for it the way I make time for  valued friend.   Sometimes that means trying the same story in a different setting, voice, or even a different genre.  Though I know this, the problem is that I feel a pressure to produce.  I want to create something that pushes my career a notch higher.  The paradox in that is that by rushing a piece before its time, I am assuring myself a very long wait.

As I write this, I realize that what it means to be an artist, a real artist, is finding that sweet spot for yourself and not giving in to some kind of external pressure.  The idea of taking that kind of control is both extremely exciting AND overwhelming.  But it is where I need to get.

What do you guys think?  How do you find that place between pushing yourself to get work done and waiting for it to be done?

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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]

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Michael Schegel's Iceland

what is this? it’s beautiful

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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.

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image of Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl

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image of Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak

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image of Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss

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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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