Sunday, December 13, 2020

Advice for Becoming a Writer

Photo of Northern Lights by NOAA

Looking back in the 10-year rearview mirror, here are some lessons learned about writing fiction. If you're new to "creative writing" and want to make a name for yourself or switch careers, let me clue you in:

  • If you're not reading, you won't make it. Not only must you read in your genre and good books in general, you should be reading ABOUT your genre and WHY books are good. Not only must you keep learning how to write better, you should be practicing what you learn. Not only must you market, you should be dedicating time to marketing, because in a larger sense, that's the only way anyone will ever see your work.
  • Don't bank on making a living by writing fiction exclusively. Despite that statement's negativity, it's realistic. If you put that kind of pressure on your creative life ("I must be a bestseller by XYZ or write the Great American Novel before I'm 30"), you will find all kinds of stresses will invade your psyche and take the joy out of creativity. 
  • Keep earning a steady source of income, even if it isn't writing and even it if cuts into your writing/creative time. Having resources for food, water, shelter gives you the headspace (and physical space) to write. If you love writing enough, you will continue to write regardless of having a day job, and your writing will reward you in ways other than financial. Can you make it "Big," whatever "Big" means to you? There's always a chance.
  • Break the rules, but know what they are first. This goes back to the advice: Keep learning.
  • Just because you write it, doesn't mean they will come. Readers and sales don't flop in your lap.
  • Your work isn't for everyone. That's okay. In fact, if it was liked by everyone that would be an anomaly the likes of an asteroid hitting Earth. Carve out a niche for yourself. If you want to be market-savvy, then hyper-focus on trends and popular tropes in your genre. Or, if you're like me, experiment. There's richnesses in following your own muse.
  • Your creative life is yours and yours alone. You don't have to live it any way but your own. If you find success with one piece and like the success enough to repeat it, then follow that path. If you never want to write another story like it again, then don't. You're the master of your spirit. Follow your spirit.
  • Have some FUN in your creative life! Do something that puts you out in the world (virtually, these days, of course). Make people smile, and the act will reciprocate.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

A Boxy Blog of (Dis)Comfort

When events beyond my control drag me down, many feelings can take hold. One, the feeling to retreat. My little voice, what could it say to make any difference for myself and my country? I have no grand designs on making things better. (Maybe I should run for office?) People want to feel safe, and art/artists can sometimes give this gift. A beautiful painting. A stunning creation. Music that lights a dark place, a song that conveys hope or makes a statement. Here, in this boxy blog, would anyone find a little comfort, like I do in the writing? I'm able to funnel the racing heart and anxiety of what ifs. What if I have to buy a gun? What if I lose my job? What if someone decides to ram a car through a march, and my body is in the way? That is fear speaking. We are a country full of fears. We fear violence, whether perceived or real. And, we should fear the real violence, too much this year. Peace seems unachievable. We fear lack of resources, that someone will get something that should be ours, or scarcity will rule the household. As millions file jobless claims, those are tangible fears. We fear death. The virus. Being alone in sickness. These are not easy thoughts to bend. Afraid can become a constant state of being. I'm reading the memoirs of black writers, and fear of brutality is woven into their very being. Those memoirists found ways to express the struggle in meaningful words with eloquence and new perspectives. They gave the searing steam an outlet. We might all need one. We need to learn to cope with the afraid and the realities of what produced it: somehow find a practice or method to examine it. We need ways to overcome, talk it out, be the light, let it go, and raise up something more positive for ourselves and each other. 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

I Am Not a Scientist

I’m not a scientist. But I work among them. I see my job as interpreting. My words give a voice to the science that could be affecting you right now. And, it is. The world is changing, and I don’t mean politically. It’s about our atmosphere and the ocean and the carbon we’re putting and have put into both. This isn’t my attempt at a lecture. This is an essay about what I see in my everyday work.

I initially laughed a few years ago when a colleague of mine asked: “What’s a different way of saying ‘It’s the hottest ______________ (yr, month, quarter, day) ever?’” That description has been needed so much of late, it has become a cliché. You may have noticed it, too, where you live. Maybe not more heat. Maybe something is different than what it used to be: it’s drier, wetter, colder. Yes, colder. If snows are happening where they didn’t used to, it counts as odd to those who live there. The changes may simply dawn on you one day: This weather isn’t normal; it’s not what I remember.
International Space Station photo over Philippines

Many of the people I work with study these changes. They monitor temperature and precipitation trends, soil moisture, or jet streams. They tally extreme weather events. Some focus on very specific questions and fields of study. They use language and calculations that ordinary people, me included, don’t really have a working knowledge of. What I do comprehend is that we’re in uncharted territory. In a nutshell, the planet is warming. We know because observations of the world have been recorded since before your grandparents were born, even before there was an America ( This information has been handed down and then documented, on paper documents and in computers. Now, we can look at the records and determine where we stand. Where we stand today is a hotter place—global temperatures in some locations are consistently above normal. Carbon levels are higher than they have ever been on record. Independent large scientific organizations across the world agree with these assessment. We are still learning what this means in the long run, for our future in a different climate.
But, what is normal? Well, think of normal as a span of certainty, when conditions fell within a range and didn’t veer too far off center. Except now we’re veering off center, and in same cases dramatically. One place in particular, Alaska, which I think of as the canary in the coal mine, is significantly hotter. It just recorded its hottest year in 95 years, the length of the state’s official records. Alaska’s statewide average temperature last year was 6°F above average; Anchorage recorded its first 90°F day in 2019. Think of this in terms of your own temperature. On average, the average human temperature hovers around 98.6°F (though science says this is also changing). If you were to add a degree, over a short period of time, you’d feel it. Your systems wouldn’t work like they should.
Another cold place that’s bearing the brunt: the Arctic. A scientist I know told a national news reporter this summer he/she wanted to get to the Arctic as soon as the pandemic ended but before the ice melted. He/she had just published a paper that indicates the Arctic could be mostly ice-free in the summer within 15 years.
People in my professional life aren’t full of doom and gloom; they are heads-down engaged in the serious study of changes going on across the globe and in our backyards. In many cases, it is their life’s work. They have been working in their specialties since the beginning of their careers and will keep on, mostly out of the limelight, until they retire. Some of the scientists study things you and I will never actually see: carbon levels in the ocean, drought in South America; or incidence we don’t want to see: unprecedented flooding along our coasts, coral bleaching. They would probably never write an essay like this, not because they couldn’t, but because they are concerned with the science and the exactness of it. My take on things would not be scientific enough. No one from my work endorsed this post; nor did anyone review it. I have to state that because of the nature of my job.
What they aren’t doing is debating among themselves about whether any of these major changes are actually taking place. I could send you to reports that have been a year or more in the making, or monthly charts, or data tables of temperatures and precipitation and ocean conditions, but would those numbers and figures and science-making make a difference to your understanding? I’m not sure they would. That’s why I wrote this essay. To tell you, unequivocally, change is happening. How good are you with change?

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Hey, there. What next?

Maybe we should think of this time as the Great Falling Away. All the stuff that didn't matter, just doesn't matter. And maybe, some of the stuff that we thought mattered, well, just doesn't matter either.

In other words, what aren't you doing or have anymore and do you miss it? Did it add to your life in the first place? Like running around trying to do too much. Or taking care of things for other people or doing stuff so other people thought better of you. Maybe this is just me. Some of those old "must dos" have come to a screeching halt. 

I go out less. I buy fewer things. I ask less of myself, give myself a gentler critique. I don't miss much. I miss people, but not any expectations of how we're supposed to be. I have thought about what could be the answer for our predicament: Love everyone without condition. Could this help? Tall order. I try not to hate, but loving everyone? 

If you have lost your job, or your health, or a loved one, how does loving everyone without condition help? It may not. But maybe someone who cares will be more likely to help.

If you are hurting right now, I care 💙. I hope the cause goes away and the stuff you are enduring is not lasting. If it is, let's dispense with the trite sayings: Things will get better. You'll overcome. What doesn't kill you will make you stronger. All trite and pointless. Pain sometimes sticks around. It is a measure of being human.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Lost: A Verse in COVID

I am/am not okay in superimposed solitude,
my mental seesaw tilts between stability and warp.
One minute I stir sugar in my good coffee,
the next, infinity is not large enough to hold the heaviness.

What is lost? The ordinariness of showers at 7a,
leftovers packed into a foil square, an overstuffed backpack,
a tough choice of 'Which shoes?', a slamming door in a rush,
a hurried drive to a parking space before it's gone.
People pass me on the street to Point B, a few feet apart,
close enough to see a man's whiskers,
to smell a woman's perfume.

My clothes in solitude smell of my body in them for days in a row,
ripe but stagnant, and covered in cat fur. My pants crease from
sitting too long in one place, no need to do anything.

No need -- besides take a deep breath.

Needs were a thing we took for granted
while we passed each other on the street,
aloof to our closeness, unafraid of the proximity.
Why now that tragedy of disconnection seems a luxury.

I always walked overly conscious of myself in the public realm,
comparing my size to the street and the people on it.
Black cat on black shirt.
Black cat on black shirt.
My steps -- straight ahead or to the side -- would be determined
by the others on the path. And now there are none.

What is lost? The maybe-thoughts of not fitting in.
The maybe-thoughts of inferiority.
The maybe-thoughts of aloneness.
What is more alone?

My stay-at-home community is my couch and my cats.
My old black cat sits on my chest right now, interested in the scribbling.
When I reach the end of the sentence and sweep back to the fold,
this cat spreads open its paw a little, somewhat on cue,
as if to settle me down.

Be still. We are in this together.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Upside of the Downside

Make no mistake. We haven't hit bottom. If anything, these days feel like the calm before the real storm. When, similar to the autumn of 2008, the experts proclaimed the economy would meltdown, but we really weren't sure what that prediction meant. So, call this post the rose-colored-glasses or looking-at-the-bright-side version of a pandemic. First, let me clarify, the economic downturn is a tab in the file cabinet labeled: FATALITIES. For all the thousands (just in the U.S.A.) who have and will die, for the survivors, for the pain and suffering and the inability to succor and mourn properly, I commiserate in grief.

Here is where I find comfort: each day, the leaves have grown. The trees in my yard started six weeks ago without a leaf on them, and now they are full. I've watched the process every day, which I couldn't have witnessed had I been at my desk job. The leaves do not know the chaos undermining humanity.

And, my grass is mowed. Well, you might ask, isn't mowing something you always do? And, I will admit, not necessarily. I wanted to bring some structure to the chaos, and my yard guy was happy to take the job. He mowed the same day I called. In some ways, I felt a sense of duty to still use him. Give him an immediate focus and a check. He didn't say so, but the look on his face told me what went unsaid.

The sheets are clean on my bed. Again, you'll wonder again, is that any different than before? Yes, it is, because it was done out of a conscious need to nest. Nesting is the new overachieving. Clean sheets make the world seem better, even if it isn't. And, I've hung sheets and towels and clothes to dry on the clothesline. This seems appropriate. Because life has slowed down. I don't feel rushed. Haste is not on my calendar. The whir and thunk of the dryer may become a relic of the frenzied life of going-and-doing, and right now, those opportunities and obligations are far fewer.

Photo of black cat napping in a laundry basket.
Cat nap in a basket.
I receive a postcard now about once a week from a friend in Portland, Ore. We have begun a jovial correspondence. A distraction but a connection. The cards don't really say much but signal we are alive and haven't lost our marbles. You could easily lose them, you know. (Of course, you do.) Postcards are amazing at mental uplift. Would you like one? I'll send a few. Soon, you'll be waltzing to the mailbox in great anticipation.

And, of course, I have my three cats, Ollie (right), Fish, and Slayer. I won't wax on about my fondness for them. Anyone who has more than one in the house automatically qualifies as cat infatuated. And, who among us has not had a COVID nightmare? Well, this week, my dream was not a nightmare but a strange product of my feline domesticity. One of my cats spoke its first word: "Yes." Then I realized it had been speaking to me for quite some time. In full sentences, naturally. And in these unnatural times, odd has an entirely different meaning.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Surviving Coronavirus AKA Chasing My Tail

It's only been a week. We're a week into an usual shift to pull inward. Keep to ourselves. Flatten the curve. Be socially responsible by not being social. Well, I've had a bit of my own "come to Jesus" moments in that last 7-10 days, and they haven't been pretty.

Things about this pandemic that have been a challenge:
Staying off the news feeds. They could be the death of my psyche. With so much information available on an hourly basis (if you toggle, like I'm doing, between the NYT, NPR, and the Johns Hopkins virus tracker map), I'm chasing my tail. I never get enough (peace?) or the thing I'm truly looking for, which is: When will this be over? And, Can I guarantee no one I love will get sick or die? Answers to both are impossible.

Going outside. Logically, I know it's okay to go outside. It's fine. Fresh air is good, but for some reason, it's not as comforting as it should be. Not that I reasonably think anything bad could happen to me out in the open air. It just feels different. Solution? Go outside more.

Being creative to combat the stress. Artistic types are finding creative ways to do their art. So, what's up when you can't muster the enthusiasm to do your art? This is the first words I've written since the national emergency. I thought of a poem the other day but lost it in the dread to go into a grocery store. For the record, I have not stocked up on toilet paper.

Caring what others are doing to stay safe. This one is a biggy, because the directives of the White House, my city, and state, aren't universally being followed. Everyone has a different opinion about their freedom of movement. I can't control the behavior of anyone despite my decision to follow the recommendations. In fact, I can't control anything about these circumstances except my own response. I suppose I could put up a sign in my yard that says: Hey, follow the rules! But that wouldn't do any good either. My heart goes out to essential workers and people who can't afford to miss work. You need support, too.
My writing pal.

Upsides? There are a few:
Old friends are in touch. It has been nice to reconnect with many people this week. Hey, even though we're mostly on social media doesn't mean we're anymore likely to stay in touch. We see snippets of each others' lives from our posts but not the meaty stuff. This week, I'm having conversations that are more meaningful.

I appreciate my home more. So Much More! Frankly, because of my day job, I'm just not home that much. Yes, on weekends (in-between errands). But now I'm more thankful to have a nice place to live and a yard to walk around. I have a fridge and a washer/dryer and a garage that needs cleaning out. Rather than a burden, my overstuffed garage might actually get a makeover.

My pets love the company. My three cats have discovered ear-scratches are available anytime. Spoiled kitties.

My kid made cookies. For the first time in forever. Thank you, Ronnie. You're good to be cooped up with.

Let me know how you are doing.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Retro Writing: Why My Hands Win Out

Sometimes, a writer's job only involves contemplating the story. That's not the same as writing. It can happen between sentences, or it might take the form of long stretches when wistfulness clouds the eyes. Generally, my hearing stops working while my story is swirling around in my head.

This could change with technology, when computers gain the ability to read our thoughts. I've read that a form of this type of virtual reality technology is being developed. In my Luddite-lite worldview, my warning sirens go into Category 5 hurricane mode (BTW, 5 is the most severe hurricane). If thinking a story becomes a way to write a story, would a computer capture every thought and plot line that my brain thinks? How would I revise such a conglomeration? My thoughts go in hundreds of directions before I write them, so much so that the physical act of actually writing a coherent string of words is the thing that makes them coherent.

Writers have been using dictation to write stories for a while. I tried this once several years ago using speech-to-text software, but it wasn't sophisticated enough to understand all my words and the flow of my speech pattern, so I forgot about it. However, a case can be made that speech-to-text could be a productive option for many and make a writer's wordcount soar.
Photo of a book cover entitled "A Real Book"

There may come a time when the way we write doesn't involve "writing" anymore. Consumer pressure for more words and stories, faster and faster, to make a living and satisfy audiences could send the keyboard into obsolescence. Then we may find ourselves waxing nostalgically about the days when we used a laptop. Our Chromebooks and MacBooks would fall in with the dinosaurs and the rotatory telephone. (Somewhat ironically, the speech-to-text software marketed to writers is called Dragon.) Or, it could be that this development will peter out like other changes in technology. Hardcopy vs. ebook, anyone? I also know writers who still use pen and paper.

Nonetheless, if you have a rotatory phone because it's cool, rock on! And if your vinyl collection is lovingly intact, you are my hero! Maybe I'll just stay retro and write the old fashioned way, one keystroke at a time.