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!

 

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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.

 

 

Corn from castles, kyudo and tsunami debris

It’s been a busy few months for kyudo, Japanese archery, here in Georgia. In late July, we had the 2013 IKYF American Seminar in South Carolina, a major event that includes multiple Japanese Sensei traveling to the U.S. to further our teaching. Then, in September, our local organization GKR (Georgia Kyudo Renmei) demonstrated once again at JapanFest Atlanta, a great weekend.

Now, in a couple of weeks, we’ll be demonstrating once more at the beautiful Gibbs Gardens in North Georgia, as part of their new event, the Japanese Maples Festival.

Outdoor kyudo events in autumn always remind me of the first time I visited Japan, back in the fall of 2008, because I received my first exposure to kyudo during that trip, watching an informal practice in the inspiring Meijii-Jingu dojo. The beauty and serenity of kyudo entranced me then and still does to this day.

I was fortunate to see much of Japan during that trip, from Tokyo to Kyoto all the way up to Takayama. And smaller cities like Nara, Kamakura and Matsushima.

Corn with soy sauceAll those places were memorable, but for some reason fall also reminds me of one particular day in the city of Sendai, when we traveled to the top of a mountain to visit Sendai castle. It’s not the grandest castle in Japan, nor the oldest, but the view is extraordinary. It was a quiet day and in the courtyard, there was a lone vendor selling grilled ears of corn. That was the day I found out in Japan, they use soy sauce on their corn, not butter. That was the day I had the single best ear of corn ever. No hyperbole, promise.

As is often the case with such treats that stick in our minds, I always assumed I’d get back there to enjoy that corn again. It was just a matter of time. A place like Sendai would always be there to visit, after all. In fact, I journeyed to Japan once more, a couple of years later, but didn’t make it to Sendai that trip. But that was okay, I knew there would be a next time.

Then, in March 2011, the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck. And Sendai was right in the middle of the devastation, threatening my certainty of the city’s continued well-being.

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Try

SBXXXIVFirst, I promise this post has nothing to do with the pop artist Pink….although (hangs head in shame) I do confess to enjoying her new song “Try” every once in a while. Stop judging me.

Today is the Super Bowl. And though I’m not enamored with the teams that made it this time around, I will be watching along with well over 100 million of the rest of you.

Football is in a strange time in its history. It’s more popular than ever; certainly the NFL makes more money that it ever did. On the other hand, mounting evidence that concussions have long-lasting effects on the health of those who play it have made many consider whether to allow their children to participate in the sport. Even President Obama.

I’ve also read many accounts from others who used to watch the game but won’t even do that any longer, comparing it to supporting dogfighting or gladiators in the coliseum. This opinion is supported in much more eloquence than I can impart by blogger and author Nathan Bransford (a 49ers fan, by the way) here and here.

As a result, many parents are making the same choice the president has suggested he might – prohibiting their children from participating in the sport of football . In some cases, even stretching that ban into other sports: basketball, soccer, baseball, hockey.

At one time or another, at many different levels, I’ve played all these sports. And I certainly can’t fault anyone for making a decision they feel is protecting the long-term health of their children. But I want to add one thing to the conversation here: there is perhaps no more direct translation of effort to visible results than on the fields of athletic endeavor.

Or, in other words, in sports, trying matters.

Okay, so in truth, trying matters everywhere. In the classroom, in relationships, at work, in life. We must all give forth great effort to achieve success in these areas. But I’ve also found that in many walks of life, simply trying doesn’t always pay off. There are some very difficult things one can attempt and not meet success no matter how much effort is expended. This is for many reasons I won’t go into here. The short explanation is “life isn’t always fair.”

But in sports, it can be clearer to see, easier to evaluate, the results of trying. On the basketball court, if you move your feet and stay in front of the other player, you will play good defense. Sure, how fast, tall or strong you are can matter, but honestly if you give forth maximum effort, you can guard a person in front of you who is a better athlete. It’s just that simple.

The shortstop who just made the extraordinary play did it because, before the ball was hit, he assessed who he was on base, how fast they were and who was at bat. Is the batter left-handed or right-handed? Is the pitcher about to throw a breaking ball or a fastball?  Where is the ball most likely to be hit as a result? To my left or my right? What will I do with it once I field it, since there are runners on first and second base?

Quarterbacking in football is much the same. Peyton Manning is so good because he knows where all his teammates are going to be at any given time, can merely glance at a defense and know how they are going to react to the play he’s about to run. He’s achieved this through hours upon hours of film study.

And so on…or, you can just stare at your shoes and hope no one hits the ball at you.

Trying matters.

This can be an important thing for young people to learn, especially if they are finding that the axiom doesn’t hold true in other walks of life. Some may be trying just as hard as they can in the classroom, but some concepts simply elude them. They become confused because they feel they’re trying so hard and aren’t seeing the results they hope for. They might even hide their struggles as a result.

The concept of trying, of intention, is an interesting one to me. At kyudo seminars, we often recite something called the Raiki-Shagi, which contains the following:

After having acquired the right inner intention and correctness in the outward appearance, the bow and arrow can be handled resolutely.

Kyudo’s full of these zen-like sayings one can spend hours trying to understand the meaning of. In short, to me, this one means you can’t excel at kyudo until you bring the correct intention to it.

I’m also reading a very well-written book called Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd (one would hope a book called Good Prose is well-written, right?). Inside they talk about how the word “try” is used in Ghana.

In Ghana, once a British colony, where English remains the official but a second language, they have an interesting usage for the verb “try.” If a Ghanian does something particularly well, he is often told, “You tried.” What might be an insult in American English is high praise there, a recognition that purity of intention is at the core of achievement.

So I will be watching the Super Bowl this evening. What do I hope for it? I hope if they’re watching in Ghana that after the game, there will be a conversation like this:

Ghanian 1: How was the game?

Ghanian 2: Great. Both teams tried.

Oh, and I’m rooting for the Ravens, because of this kid:

And….all right. Here’s Pink, after all.

Of Kyudo and Chain Booksellers of the Year

Last night at kyudo practice, we were discussing test timing, partly in preparation for the upcoming 2011 American Kyudo Seminar, to be held in early August in Northfield, MN. “Test timing” is a way of conducting a rotation shoot that is done faster than normal because so many people have to be tested, usually in the space of one morning.

During last year’s seminar in Tokyo, several of the high ranking sensei demonstrated this timing and we found the video of it online. I remember watching this live – it was raining, as will become immediately apparent, but it was also freezing in Japan that day, really all week. Of course, rain or shine, hot or cold, at a seminar we are always required to wear the standard uniforms when we shoot, so short sleeves it was.

* * *

Meanwhile, over in the UK, they seem to have named a store called Sainsbury’s (which appears to be an equivalent to our Walmart or Target) as the “Martin Cole General or Chain Bookseller of the Year”. Odd folks those Brits can sometimes be. But then again, anyone who creates Doctor Who can’t be all bad.

When writing crosses with kyudo

Often I find myself discovering something in writing which resonates in my kyudo practice, and vice versa. Such was the case this week when reading Barbara O’Neal’s post So you want to be a professional writer on Writer Unboxed.

For those that haven’t read my About page, I practice Kyudo, which, in Japanese, literally means “The Way of the Bow.” Kyudo is a difficult practice to explain. It’s not a sport, yet it is. It’s considered a martial art. It’s strongly influenced by both Zen and Shintoism, but it’s not a religious practice per se.

In short, I’m still trying to understand it myself.

To help you along, I refer you to the What is Kyudo? page on Dan and Jackie DeProspero’s Kyudo.com site. DeProspero-sensei is the sensei of my sensei (the teacher of my teacher), Cindy Shannon, and I’ve visited his dojo in the past to study kyudo. My regular study is conducted here in Decatur, GA at Cindy’s dojo, Shingetsu Kyudo Kai. You may also wish to view this video about kyudo produced by Empty Mind films. The What is Kyudo? page and the video should give you a basic understanding of kyudo.

Go ahead, read the page and watch the video. I’ll wait.

Done? Good.

The piece written by Barbara that struck me was this:

But the biggest rewards are intrinsic. For the curious, questing, intelligent minds that turn to writing, there is nothing more thrilling than eternally tackling a pursuit that cannot ever be fully mastered. There is the chortling joy of learning something new, every single book. There is the pleasure of research and world-building and story design; there is detail enough for any geek of any ilk.

The emphasis is mine. I was reminded of the cross between kyudo and writing with her comment about “there is nothing more thrilling than eternally tackling a pursuit that cannot ever be fully mastered.” It struck me that this is true of both writing and kyudo, probably many other things as well.

Though there are definitely “masters” of Kyudo, even they would tell you that they are still continuing to learn each day, as, certainly, am I.

Kyudo is an interesting practice, because each time you reach a plateau of understanding, it’s time to deepen that understanding. This often results in taking one step back in order to take two steps forward (or sometimes, three or four steps back, at least in my case), a process that can be extremely frustrating if you’re not mentally prepared for it.

But also, rewarding and even, as Barbara says, “thrilling”. Because when you begin to take those steps forward, passing the point you had attained before and increasing your knowledge of such a complex practice, it truly is a joy.

Keep this in mind as you continue to perfect your own craft, whatever it may be.