Butter Fingers

Butterfingers

Never played cricket, but a quick search reveals those guys make the absolute BEST faces as they’re dropping the ball

Lately I drop a lot of stuff.

This is super frustrating, because it used to be I could catch anything. Okay…actually, I still catch pretty well, but holding on to smaller crap has become much more difficult.

Example: Do not hand me a bunch of pistachios and ask me to hold them in one hand while I crack them open and save the discarded shells in the other hand without at least one – er, okay, maybe more like twenty-one – hitting the floor at one point or another.

You may conclude from this that I eat too many pistachios. You may be correct.

That’s beside the point.

stark handed thingsThe point is more like: expensive medicine or not, that kind of simple stuff is nearly impossible with Parkinson’s.

Which means I’m now more like Tony Stark in yet another way – I don’t like being handed things.

Hey, I’m getting used to it. Just don’t hand me anything and we’re cool.

But hold on, this post isn’t about Parkinson’s or pistachios or Iron Man, it’s about writing. Of course.

A writing career, I think for most writers, is always going to feel like something slippery in your hands, at least a little bit. Something that could easily be dropped at any moment, whether you’re just getting those words on the page, trying to find an agent, already published, whatever.

Because at every one of those stages, there’s rejection. It starts with being brave enough to finally show up at that first critique group and wincing as people talk about the words you’ve put on the page. Then it continues into querying agents, having those agents pitch to publishers, getting reviewed by critics and readers, and on and on and on. Rejection, rejection, rejection.

Every writer I know is facing rejection in some form or another, all the time.

kid-kicking-ball

Future Writer

It can be exhausting, just like having those butter fingers – grabbing something only to drop it, over and over again. Or trying to learn to kick a ball for the first time, because at each stage you feel like you’ve got no idea what you’re doing, that you”ll screw something up, drop the ball, trip over yourself, fall backwards.

Or – maybe worst of all – that someone’s going to notice you standing there and figure out you don’t belong. Good old imposter syndrome.

But I guess if we all DO feel like that, maybe none of us SHOULD feel like that. Because in between those rejections, your successes are hiding, waiting for you in the shadows. And you’ll only find them if you go through the rejections first.

In fact, maybe we start out looking at rejection a little bit wrong. Maybe rejection isn’t something to fear or dread. Maybe rejection is something we all ought to be seeking out.

I recently ran across this post on LitHub, Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year. The title seems subversive. It can’t possibly be right, can it? Do you want 100 rejections in one year? Really?

Well, yeah, actually, I think you do. The point is, you can only get to where you’re going by working a lot and submitting that work for appraisal. If you submit too early, you’ll know it. But you shouldn’t feel like you’ve made a huge mistake or you’re dropping the ball. You learned something, right?

The anecdote in that LitHub article that stands out to me the most is the comment about the pottery class from the book Art & Fear. Here’s a little outtake from the article, but you should really click over and read the whole thing.

In the book Art & Fear, authors David Bales and Ted Orland describe a ceramics class in which half of the students were asked to focus only on producing a high quantity of work while the other half was tasked with producing work of high quality. For a grade at the end of the term, the “quantity” group’s pottery would be weighed, and fifty pounds of pots would automatically get an A, whereas the “quality” group only needed to turn in one—albeit perfect—piece. Surprisingly, the works of highest quality came from the group being graded on quantity, because they had continually practiced, churned out tons of work, and learned from their mistakes. The other half of the class spent most of the semester paralyzed by theorizing about perfection, which sounded disconcertingly familiar to me—like all my cases of writer’s block.

The other night I was at a dinner with a bunch of artists and this same subject came up. I told a guy the above pottery story, and he said, “That’s just like the Grateful Dead.” He then proceeded to relate how the bass player for the Dead didn’t actually know how to play the instrument when he started joining the band on stage for little gigs. But Jerry Garcia apparently (disclaimer: I’m repeating the story the way it was told to me; I’m not actually a Grateful Dead historian) told him, “Just come and play every night. You’ll learn.”

And, from what I understand, learn he did. I do know the Grateful Dead were around for a minute or two.

So I guess what I want to say is this:

Writers! Don’t let your butter fingers paralyze you. Don’t dread rejection so much that it keeps you from working a lot, from seeking critique and opinion. Whatever stage you find yourself at, don’t be afraid to drop what’s in your hand. Listen, even if you do lose twenty-one pistachio shells, you can always pick them up, throw them out, grab another batch, start over. And I promise there will be success soon enough. Just keep learning from your mistakes.

But really, still don’t hand me anything. That’s just plain wrong.

And I’ll probably drop it anyway.

89th Academy Awards: So different, so much the same

lego-oscarIt’s Oscars weekend and I’m super excited. I’m a huge movie buff, and this year I’ve seen all but two of the nominees for Best Picture. One is FENCES, which I’m actually hoping to see tonight if I can, and the other is LION, which I probably won’t get to see before the awards tomorrow evening (sorry, LION, it’s definitely nothing personal. You look great.)

So – huge disclaimer – I’m going to write a bit about the movies I have seen, which is sort of unfair to those two that I haven’t. My apologies to everyone involved in those two films for this inequity. I have no doubt they’re amazing.

I really enjoyed all the nominees this year. ARRIVAL stunned me with its unexpected depth and brilliance and big ideas. HIDDEN FIGURES and HACKSAW RIDGE inspired me with the heroism of unknown characters from history who faced insurmountable odds. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA broke my heart more than once. HELL OR HIGH WATER drew an artful picture of the friendship between men and brothers.

Most interesting to me this year, though, are the two seeming front-runners for Best Picture, two movies that couldn’t be more different at a time when it seems our differences are being called out every day with the virtual slashes of a thick, yellow highlighter: LA LA LAND and MOONLIGHT.

LA LA LAND is big and audacious. It’s a musical, and from the opening number that required an entire highway to be shut down so hundreds of people could sing and dance on top of their cars, to the ending, where the movie breaks free from the confines of conventional reality in a gorgeous, bold way, it seems to be constantly seeking to be larger than life. The colors are vivid, the music and songs inspiring, the choreography magical.

I confess I’m not normally a huge musical fan, but I adored LA LA LAND with its inspiring message urging us all to follow our dreams, and its familiar-feeling love story that was equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. The filmmakers made no attempt to hide the fact that the movie often reaches out beyond itself, paying homage to several classic films, notably SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. Sometimes it felt like the movie wanted to reach out and grab everyone in the audience, too, like it wanted to pull us in one by one – “Sing with us, dance with us,” it seemed to say.

Conversely, I’m not sure I’ve seen a movie recently that’s been more comfortable in its own skin than MOONLIGHT. Which is ironic, since the film features a main character who is anything but comfortable being who he is, especially early in the movie.

“Society isn’t letting Chiron be who he is,” the movie seemed to whisper to us, “but you’re damn-well going to let us be who we are for these next two hours.”

Where LA LA LAND wanted to reach out to us, MOONLIGHT stayed within itself and its main character. It remained focused on telling the story of one man’s struggle – a gay, black man – in society as he aged from boy to adolescent to man, in some ways a small story that was actually huge. MOONLIGHT doesn’t reach out and grab you so much as it leaves a door ajar just a small crack, and asks you to have the courage to push it open and stay for awhile.

I was particularly moved by the third act. The writers, actors and direction came together to show an incredible amount of restraint in completing their story in a way that felt entirely authentic and moving. All it was, really, was life, such as it is for some of us, right there on the screen. The heartbreak of life, the way each of us is challenged to find our way in this difficult place, how we search for happiness in the small things, the way we break each other’s hearts, the times we find comfort in each other.

It would’ve been easy to be over the top in a variety of ways in that last act, which is primarily made up of a conversation between two men – old friends with a history. But the writers kept the dialogue sparse and meaningful. The actors were moving, portraying their characters with a subtlety and grace that felt true to life, and the director guided them all with what felt like a practiced, sensitive and restrained hand.

So it strikes me how incredibly different these movies are from one another, how incredibly varied life itself is. Big vs. small, predominately white vs. predominately black, loud vs. quiet – and yet, also, they were the same in so many important, fundamental ways – inspiring, heartbreaking, heartwarming, innovative.

I’m not sure which one should win Best Picture, and I won’t pretend to be enough of an expert to even hazard a guess. I do know that some folks feel MOONLIGHT should win because it, in some sense, is a more important film socially. That’s probably true. It gives voice and stands up for a segment of our population that needs someone and something standing up for them just now.

What I hope is the best movie wins. And MOONLIGHT may in fact be the better movie. If it doesn’t win, I hope folks won’t lose sight of the fact that it has ALREADY stood up.

For myself, I’ll be overjoyed for either movie’s success. They both really challenged, inspired and spoke to me this year. In that way, for me, they’ve both already won.

Now we just wait for the little golden statue. Good luck to all the nominees Sunday night.

Your most important grade

awc-talk*From Member Spotlight talk at Atlanta Writers Club monthly meeting, February 18th, 2017.

Mr. Cronk was my favorite high school teacher. He taught 10th grade social studies, and I think I liked him best because he was a storyteller. One might go so far as to say he didn’t just tell stories, he created legends. About himself, mostly, but yeah. Legends.

The starkly bald, middle-aged teacher talked to us kids like regular people, from what I remember, and he liked to fool around with us a lot. We used to ask him where he lived. He could’ve told the truth – he probably just lived in a normal two story in some regular cul de sac in one of the other area suburbs. But that wouldn’t have been much of a legend at all, now, would it?

So instead Mr. Cronk told us he lived above the Bar Bill.

Now, you have to understand our little town. Elma, NY. Frankly, there wasn’t much there. A few stoplights, churches, farms, little neighborhoods. The school. The town of East Aurora was next door, and that had more. A real, live main street. Fast food restaurants. Actual grocery stores.

And the Bar Bill, that was in East Aurora, too. The Bar Bill was – for me, anyway, since my parents didn’t frequent those sorts of places – this very mysterious tavern – an old house turned bar that I shouldn’t have any reason to be near. For Mr. Cronk to say he LIVED there, upstairs, so he could pop down at any time and grab a beer, well, this was fascinating.

Hushed whispers in the hallway. “Do you think it’s true?!?”

Mr. Cronk stuck to his Bar Bill story relentlessly. I’m sure I didn’t realize back then how his tenacity would later teach me to hold on to my own stories. All year long, whenever asked, he would tell us he lived above the Bar Bill, shocked that we’d question his claim. I remember even back then I had my doubts – but that’s all they were. Doubts. Because of the way he never wavered, I have to admit a big part of me thought it could actually be true.

Maybe Mr. Cronk DID live above the Bar Bill.

There were other legends that revolved around Mr. Cronk, like planets stuck in the orbit of a massive star. Some proved true, some seemed to have been merely rumor. One of the true ones was that, at the end of the year, to get your final grade, you had to go up to the front of the room and talk to Mr. Cronk about it.

(At least, I remember a friend telling me this might happen. I also remember it DID happen to me. I confess I’m not sure everyone got the same treatment. The details are a little fuzzy.)

Sure enough, the time came for me to head up and get my final grade, and I have to admit to being pretty nervous about the whole thing.

I knew I’d earned a good grade – aced most of the tests, did all the homework (yes, I was THAT kid) – but this “meeting” thing (or whatever it was) of Mr. Cronk’s represented unpredictability. Where grades and me were concerned, unpredictability was NOT a welcome thing.

At home my dad expected me to get As. A B could be tolerated – maybe – but anything lower than that was definitely WAY out of bounds. What if Mr. Cronk graded me on something other than the tests and the homework and all that? What if it was how many questions I asked in class? (Did I ask enough questions?) With him, you just never knew. After all, he lived above the Bar Bill, and a guy like that…

He had a grade book open on his desk and, in a blurred way, I could see other grades for other students. 75, 92, 84. He ran his finger down it to my name, and across from it, there was…nothing. A blank.

I held my breath. Looked down at him. He was grinning.

Grinning.

Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer. “So…what’s my grade?”

And, still smiling, Mr. Cronk replied, “I don’t know. What do you think your grade should be?”

Seriously, he let me give myself my own grade.

But the actual grade (which was – wait for it – awesome) is beside the point. Mr. Cronk was trying to teach me something that day besides Social Studies. Something I still wrestle with a bit today.

Sometimes the most important grade you get is the one you give yourself.

Self-evaluation is really important, I think, in all walks of life, including writing. I don’t want to get political, but sometimes in politics we seem to find people who appear to incapable of self-evaluation and self-criticism. Maybe you can hold public office without that skill, but I don’t think you can write without it.

I’ve learned the most important part of writing is revision. At first you don’t think so. Despite all the blogs you read and podcasts you hear from more experienced writers, that “writing is rewriting,” you still start out sort of resistant to change.

You think you’re killing your darlings, but you’re really not.

You think you’re examining every word and sentence and plot point and point-of-view decision, but you’re really not.

Honestly, I know for me anyway, I thought I had this willingness to change anything to make my stories better, but it took a lot of writing for me to really get to that point. It took a long time for me to have the tools to properly self-evaluate and self-criticize my own writing at what I would consider a successful level.

Because, probably more important than knowing when you deserve a good grade is being able to see when you haven’t done enough work yet, being able to admit to yourself that more is required before you give yourself that top grade. And what does that even mean in writing? Probably, in a way, that it’s ready to submit to others to review. It’s a sort of personal responsibility, not to do that until your piece is ready. And sometimes I feel like I’m still working on that.

I practice kyudo, Japanese archery. I think I’ve blogged about it here before, so I’m not going to go into a ton of detail, just that learning it takes a great deal of repetitive practice and attention to the fine points. Many of the Japanese “ways” (the “do”s – kendo, shodo, chado, etc.) are like this, lots of repeating practice, always pushing forward. The 10,000 hours, as Malcolm Gladwell says.

One of the really frustrating things about kyudo is, after a whole lot of practice, you usually reach a point where you can hit the target. And that’s also usually around the time your sensei comes in and changes something, a little different (more correct) way to hold the bow, spreading your feet wider, raising the bow differently in the initial movements of the draw.

And – boom – you stop hitting the target. Soooo frustrating.

It’s that whole two steps back to take three steps forward thing, but it’s more than that.

It’s diving completely into your internal motivations and goals vs. the external ones. Because hitting the target is an external goal. If that’s the only reason you’re practicing kyudo, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

Hitting the target’s a gift, one of my senseis used to say. A result, rather than a goal. If you push yourself to do all the internal stuff right, that external result will sort of just come on its own.

The other thing about kyudo is the type of thing you never completely learn. You’re always growing in it, changing, moving forward, and that internal willingness to change is a really critical facet of this type of continual learning.

Another thing that happens in kyudo is eventually your instructor might tell you you’ve reached a point where most of the evaluation and change has to come from yourself. You have to reach a point internally, like Mr. Cronk was trying to teach me, where you can self-evaluate and self-criticize effectively. Practice at home and have an awareness of what went wrong with a particular shot or draw.

This internal self-evaluation and motivation is really important in writing, too. Don’t get me wrong, I love critique partners and workshops and anyone who takes time out to teach writing. And feedback is gold – I gobble it up.

But you can’t be too external. Writing is full of external goals that can really trip you up. You won’t be happy until you get an agent, then you won’t be happy until you get published, then you won’t be happy until you have a certain level of sales, then you won’t be happy until you get great reviews and critical acclaim. Awards. A movie deal…whew.

The problem with these external goals is you don’t control most of them. And so when they’re the things driving change, you’re not in control of the change either.

I think it’s really important to be internally focused about your writing. After all, having something to say is a lot different than needing to be heard, right?

I struggle with all that. I’m going to guess I’m not the only one (God, I hope I’m not the only one). Sometimes when I feel a little lost, I remember Mr. Cronk’s grin. I remember the time he let me give myself my own grade. I think he knew that, back then, the reason I worked so hard in school was more external than internal. It was for someone else. He helped me see that wasn’t the only reason – shouldn’t be the only reason – to work so hard, and every day I think I understand his lesson a little bit better.

I guess I should probably thank him. You know, I still have never stepped foot in the Bar Bill. Maybe next time I’m home, I’ll stop in and look for Mr. Cronk . He’s just upstairs, right?

UPDATE: The Bar Bill has a website! Progress! Look at those wings!

 

Why Parkinson’s Will Make Me A Better Writer

 

Our characters are supposed to change.

In our stories, characters have arcs. They begin as one sort of person and gradually transform into another, usually in response to the events of the plot.

It shouldn’t happen all at once, though. Those are the bad stories, where the character just snaps his fingers one day and – boom! – now he’s different.

No, the better stories contain scenes that show little changes over the course of time – a few weeks maybe. Months or years. An entire life. Little changes that add up to him being a different person by the end, and it all happens in a way that makes the transformation as a whole feel entirely plausible.

Sometimes these changes are so small, so subtle, the character – or the reader – doesn’t even notice them. Or maybe they have an awareness of…something, but it isn’t quite clear exactly what’s happening.

This creates a wonderful intrigue in the story that keeps us turning the page. Something is different, sure. But we’re trying to puzzle out just exactly what, to put our finger on the transformation happening just beneath the surface. The what. The why. We want to see the next little change, to find that new clue that might point us in the direction of the answers we’re yearning for.

And these little changes, these barely noticeable things, well, eventually they do become something big. Ultimately our character is a different person at the end of the story than they were in chapter one.

Change, change, change. It’s one of the inevitable things in life, like death, taxes.

It hasn’t even been a month since I received my diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Not so much time at all, really, but enough to grant me an opportunity to collect up all those scenes in my head. The subtle little changes that were merely puzzling at the time but now, with the benefit of hindsight, reveal the path to a much larger transformation, like someone sweeping the dirt off a track that had always been there.

Maybe one scene is at a kyudo practice, where lately our hero’s left arm is explicably shaking when he gets into kai – full draw – the arrow wavering at the center of his chest, his aim difficult to maintain. He practices again and again, listens hard to his teachers, but he can’t seem to correct it. He decides to take a break from Japanese archery, just for a little while. A few weeks that become months. A year.

On another day our hero notices his arm’s in a strange position while he walks. Sort of fixed at his side. Weird.

Our hero’s a writer, did I mention that? He loves critique groups, and one day when he’s heading into the local library for one, the librarian asks if he’s all right. “Of course,” he says, wondering what she means. “You’re walking like you’re hungover,” she laughs. Odd.

Stupid, but lately he can’t find the hole in his shirtsleeve for his left arm. His hand hunts and hunts, continually failing to locate the sleeve hole. For the first time, he makes a change to compensate – trying to put his shirts on left arm first, the opposite of what he’s been doing his entire life. A little better. Still…strange.

And why is it hard to dig his keys out of his left pocket all of a sudden? And how come his left hand feels sluggish when he’s typing? And where’s this shaking when he takes a heavy casserole dish down from the top shelf of the fridge coming from?

He always had those video game fingers. There was a time when he was pretty darn athletic. Is it carpal tunnel? Arthritis? Nope, red herrings. He tries keeping his keys in his right pocket. Every once and a while he finds it more comfortable to hunt and peck on the keyboard with one hand. Oh, and make sure to remember to use the right hand to grab things from the fridge. Change.

Change, change, change.

His wife starts complaining about his right turns while he’s driving. He has to admit, they have been a little wide. What’s up with that? He’s always been an excellent driver (cue Dustin Hoffman’s voice from Rain Man). Why, now, does he have to think so hard about it all of a sudden?

One day the pinkie and ring fingers on his left hand start to hurt, then go abruptly numb. They come back, eventually, but now those little changes on our hero’s left hand are bigger. It’s clear – his fingers aren’t moving like they’re supposed to.

“I think something’s wrong,” he says to his wife.

There are CT scans and MRIs. “Normal.” He keeps telling doctors he has diabetes, could it be related to that? The neurologists squint at him skeptically. Those same doctors make him walk up and down their hallways, test the strength in his hands by gripping them, assess how big and fast certain movements with his fingers are. It surprises him how much trouble he has with some of these tests.

Still, maybe it’s just a pinched nerve. It could be that, right? More squinting from more doctors.

And eventually one of them says, “Parkinson’s.”

Our hero will always remember the day of his diagnosis, because it’s the day before his wedding anniversary. The next night, he and his wife dress up and head out to the fancy restaurant they planned to and everything is fine, because he’s pretty strong about these things after all.

But when he goes to pay, he has trouble getting his credit card out of his wallet. Then, try as he might, he can’t get the card into that little slot in the card holder. Such a basic thing, but It. Just. Won’t. Go. Finally his wife reaches over and does it for him.

In a series of small changes, it’s hard to pick the one that will be the Dark Night of the Soul for our characters, the moment in the story that becomes our hero’s low point.

This point in time, this little struggle with the card, it shouldn’t be any bigger than all those other scenes, but somehow it is. Somehow, it’s this moment that almost brings our hero to tears right there in that fancy restaurant. Because he thinks, is this what his life is going to be about now? All the things he can’t do?

He can’t pay for his own anniversary. He can’t drive right, put his shirt on right, take something out of his damn pocket. Walk without limping, open a fucking door. He can’t.

Can’t. Can’t. Can’t.

Eventually, though, in the really good stories, our hero reaches a point on the arc where he  gains a new sense of who he is becoming, when he emerges from that Dark Night of the Soul with a renewed purpose and vision.

There are things he can do.

He can take the medicine the doctors have prescribed. It’s already making him feel better, loosening his hand up again.

He can join support groups, participate in studies, read about balance and stretching and other physical activity that might slow things down. He can make sure to get to the gym more often.

Our hero can make sure to use that Wii his wife decides to buy him for Christmas, for more work on balance.

images-4He can find that boxing therapy a couple of towns away, designed specifically for Parkinson’s patients, where he might get to learn boxing from a former pro nicknamed “The Truth.” And, really, what guy doesn’t want to learn boxing from a dude nicknamed The Truth? Do they play Eye of the Tiger? They should play Eye of the Tiger, like the whole time, every time. (Oh, and maybe he’ll even get a matching nickname, like The Falsehood or something).

He can become a better writer by remembering all those little changes that got him here, how those scenes worked, how small and insignificant they seemed at the time, but how they added up. He can take the same approach in his own work, create better arcs for the scores of people in his head.

He can.

I can.

Can. Can. Can.

And the great thing is, even though I am different now (aren’t we all?), even though the big transformation hinted at by all those little changes has happened, this isn’t a book. It’s real life.

And the end is still a long way off.

 

 

The Importance of Showing Up

So my wife Mary is a painter and this past weekend she had a booth at a Christmas Arts and Crafts show. She’d done the same show last year and had some success, but it’s a lot of work each year to get the paintings ready and set up the booth and transport everything to the venue, then spend the entire weekend manning it.

A little bit exhausting, actually. She wasn’t sure she wanted to do it again this year.

But in the end, she found some partners to join her, which eased the burden a bit. So she went ahead and decided to come back to the show for a second year. Can’t hurt to show up, right?

No, it can’t hurt. In fact, showing up is essential.

Booth

The full booth

We brought the paintings and some Christmas decorations, set up our booth. We showed up.

And you know what? It turned out to be a great weekend. Sure, she sold some paintings, but more important was connecting with people in the community with a burgeoning appreciation of Mary’s work. There was one woman in particular who had visited Mary’s booth last year. Back then, she’d thought and thought about buying a painting, but in the end decided not to.

When she got to the booth this year, she was so glad to find Mary again. “I thought about your art all year,” she said, going on to explain that she’d come to the show mostly with the hope Mary would have a booth again.

It was a great moment, a confidence-building moment. A moment she would’ve missed if she hadn’t shown up.

And, yes, this time the woman made sure to leave with a painting,

Still Life

Mary’s studio work

It’s hard to be an artist – painter, writer, whatever. We’re continually struggling with our confidence, constantly going through rejection. Sometimes we wonder why we do it. Sometimes we wonder if maybe we should stop.

This little post is a reminder to you (and myself!) to keep showing up, whatever that means to you, whether it’s continuing to submit to lit journals, agents, self-publishing another book, hitting another festival, whatever.

Keep showing up, because you never know when you’ll meet someone who’s spent a year thinking about your work. And you’ll only find out if you show up. Again and again.

Ballet shoes

 

earlan

These paintings by Earlan Gill

 

Some of Earlan’s paintings, some of Mary’s

 

 

 

 

 

Write What You Love

I had the great fortune of attending a talk on authenticity and creativity in Apalachicola, FL last week. The talk was given by Joe Paquet, a wonderfully gifted painter and a really inspiring theorist on the arts.

David

David

At one point, Joe recounted a visit to Florence. Lots of his friends were excited to hear about his reaction, as an artist, to Michelangelo’s statue of David, which of course we all must see when we visit Florence (I did as well, many years ago now).

But as he was on his way to see the statue, Joe passed some later works by Michelangelo, the four “Unfinished Slaves.” These works made the hairs on the back of his neck bristle, he said.

On he continued, though, to David, who, if you haven’t seen him, is perfection itself. As Joe noted, “There are even cuticles on his fingernails!”

David was incredible. Perfect.

Two of Michelangelo's Unfinished Slaves

Two of Michelangelo’s Unfinished Slaves

Still, though, Joe kept returning to those slaves. These were the works he wanted to stare at, to connect with, these statues that weren’t even finished. Prisoners in stone.

Why?

In Joe’s own words:

“The statue of David is the work of a young man trying to prove he was the best. The Unfinished Slaves are the work of an older man just trying to show the world what he loved.” – Joe Paquet, Apalachicola, FL (May 2016)

I’m not the first writer to talk about writing what you love (or as Chuck Wendig refers to it, WWYL).

So yes, it’s been done. And done again.

And yet. I think maybe I have a few points of my own.

Chuck is right. The old adage in writing is “Write What You Know.” I’ve never really been a subscriber to this. My earlier work involved quite a bit of research into cultures and events and laws that I didn’t know a ton about. If I was fascinated enough by a subject to research it and write about it, the theory went, that same fascination and wonder would be transferred on to the reader.

Sure, maybe. That can probably happen. Just as writing what you know can deliver a work full of authenticity to the reader.

And, listen. Fascination is great. Authenticity is wonderful.

Love is better. Love is always better.

Here’s the other thing. Love leads to fascination, to authenticity.

The most recent manuscript I’ve written is me writing what I love. Comic books. Baseball. A period of my youth I remember well, a time I really connect with still. I don’t know if it cracked any codes – I hope it did – but man did I enjoy the process.

Scratch that. I loved it.

Cracking the code is something we writers sometimes talk about. What’s the magic elixir that creates those mega hits, those books or movies – the stories – that great swaths of people enjoy, that, gosh, it seems like everyone connects with on some level?

I could list them out, but you already know what they are. Because you’re one of the somebodys who connected with them.

They’re the works that make the hairs on the back of your neck bristle, the ones you couldn’t look away from.

A lot of times, they come from a writer showing the world what he / she loves, is passionate about, can’t stop thinking about. They allow that writer to, in some way large or small, convey those feelings along to the reader. To create that connection. To bristle those hairs.

Does this mean writing what you know isn’t also writing what you love? Of course not. But it doesn’t guarantee it, either. You may know a great deal about some subject you don’t love. Or maybe…you did love it at one time, but no longer. You may even feel compelled to write about this subject, simply because you know so much about it.

I encourage you to consider first, though, whether you love it.

Because if you care about cracking the code, I believe you’ll only do it through WWYL.

There’s more to say about writing what you love, and authenticity, and where the magic happens, but I’ll save all that for another post.

Meanwhile, go forth and WWYL, people.

I promise magic will happen.

Possibly only in your own head, but hey, still magic, right?

Maybe even the best kind.

 

Flash Fiction as Emotional Photography

I might never see a sky this exact color again. Which, actually, would be kinda awesome.

I might never see a sky this exact color again. Which, actually, would be kinda awesome.

I was eating seafood gumbo in Apalachicola, FL, alone in a restaurant that sat on a busy (for Apalach, anyway) corner, where 98W streams through town and turns left.

This restaurant has big picture windows, and if you’re sitting facing the corner, you can see the traffic clearly. I watched as a truck hauling cypress lumber passed by, turning the restaurant’s corner. It was distinct because when you drive from Atlanta to Apalach, you usually follow route 65S, which cuts through Apalachicola National Forest, and all that cypress is unmistakable.

A few minutes later, another identical truck passed by. Then another. And another.

The scene reminded me of a corner I pass almost every day at home here in North Georgia. If you get stopped at the light at this particular intersection, you’re almost guaranteed to see a chicken truck pass by on route 20. It always strikes me, because it’s kind of sad, watching those pent up chickens transported into town. We know their fates.

That juxtaposition – the chicken trucks in Georgia, the cypress trucks in Florida – sparked an emotion in me that I knew would lead to a story. I’ve been writing flash fiction a while now, and it’s starting to become easier to recognize that ignition, the feeling I’m on the verge of a new story.

Things usually happen quickly after that. The characters come into view – there was a woman who had worked as a waitress in Georgia, watching those chicken trucks out her window, and something – a guy, probably – made her move to Apalach, where her life hadn’t changed as much as she’d hoped. She was still a waitress, and she was still watching trucks pass by her window. The only thing that had changed was what the trucks were carrying, and where they were going, while her life, to her eyes, remained rooted in place.

It would’ve been a great story (if I do say so myself), but here’s the thing.

I didn’t write it.

Here’s the other thing.

I’ll never write it.

See, I didn’t write it because I had made a commitment to myself to use my writing time on this particular work-cation to finish a revision of my work-in-progress, a middle grade adventure novel I’m really in love with. I didn’t have time to write flash fiction at that particular moment, not if I wanted to keep my promise to myself.

So write it now! I hear some of you crying out. Or sometime later, anyway.

Nope.

The thing is, even though I remember the basic plot and, even to some extent, the fundamental emotional core of the story – why I thought it would make a good piece in the first place – the particular emotions I felt at that moment, emotions that had a certain color, a certain light and texture in my head, my heart and my soul, those are gone. They left me when I stood up from that restaurant and paid the bill, as those cypress trucks sped on to wherever they were heading.

I discovered this week that’s one of the secrets to flash fiction – one of mine, anyway – the emotional connection to the work has to be there. People sometimes ask me if I’ve ever figured out why my flash fiction seems to work so well, and until now, I haven’t really been able to answer.

But now I think I understand better. A little better, anyway.

It’s that emotional connection, and a lot of times – most of the time – it’s sort of fleeting. It’s like a photograph. Do you ever have a moment where the light is just right, a subject is in the perfect spot, and you know it’s going to make a great picture? But maybe you fumble with your camera, or you forgot it in the hotel room, or whatever, and you promise you’ll come back, but by the time you do, the sun has set or the sky is a different color or the horse is no longer standing there, the boat is out to sea now, and heck you can take the photo anyway, but it’ll never be quite the same thing as it was in that moment you missed?

That’s flash fiction, for me at least. It’s emotional photography, and I either write the story when I’m still experiencing that exuberant feeling, or I don’t. I say exuberant, even if the emotion is one of melancholy, because it’s having the feeling that’s thrilling. For me, out of strong feelings and emotions come truth.

And I think, too, that’s the answer to what makes very short stories work or not. A good flash fiction piece, a great piece of music, a fantastic painting – most of them are doing the same thing. They’re capturing the universal in the particular. Particular details – lyrics, words, imagery – can evoke a universal connection between creator and consumer.

We’ve all experienced the sadness of cleaning up after a loved one’s death (The Union Bank Times), or struggled with disrespect in our work life (Sometimes It Goes Down the Wrong Way), or thought about moving somewhere else before realizing how much we’d miss our friends (Winter Ball).

Good stories remind of us of these universal experiences by establishing a firm emotional connection with you, the reader, listener or viewer. I believe they can only do this (or maybe, best do this) if the creator, the artist, felt that emotional connection him or herself at the time of the production of the work.

apalach bayThis shouldn’t be seen as a loss, that I didn’t write that particular story. That’s the great thing about emotions. We’re having them all the time, because we’re human, and that’s what we do. I may never feel the exact spark that might’ve ignited that particular story, in the same way the color of the sunset may never be exactly like it was that evening ten years ago, or twenty, but I will have other emotions, and there will be other sunsets.

The key is being able and willing to let the one you missed go, and to be open and receptive to the next one you see. Because, then, all you have to do is write it down.