On July Fourth, we celebrate our country’s basic human freedoms – one of which is Freedom of Expression. We live in sensitive times, however, where words can inflame or incite reactions from others who take deference to those words.
That’s why I write fiction, where …
… names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.
It’s a cop-out, but it keeps the litigation worms from getting into the creative literary food bin. Of course, there are times when someone might ask – “what was really on your mind when you wrote this?” Um – sounded like a good idea at the time?
I revisited an article I posted five years ago, titled: The Fourth of Fantastic, where I wrote about the imperfection of our freedom of expression.
Right versus left, up versus down, it is enough to make your head spin. That’s what makes it great. People voicing opinions, standing up and saying what for. Democracy is chaotic, inclusive, confusing, open-minded, batty, and downright fantastic. Like all large families, a potpourri of multi-generational next of kin comes with large doses of squabbling and that crazy uncle we whisper about. And man, do we love to bicker.
Just for the record, I’m that crazy uncle they whisper about.
I didn’t shy away from espousing opinions in my younger years. It’s the passion of youth. Winston Churchill never actually said it, but I like the quote: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” I like to think of myself as having one foot in, one foot out. Guess that means I have half a brain.
As an older man, I tend to avoid espousing my opinion in public forums. It’s not healthy for a writer beginning to emerge like me. Why piss off a potential reader? I don’t want to be one of those curmudgeons who grouse at a newspaper article, then proselytize my differing opinion to anyone who happens to walk by. I save all that for my long-suffering wife, who has learned to shake her head and follow-up with, “did you cut the lawn yet?”
Another quote I liked from an unknown author used to be pinned on my desk.
Speak with good intention. Remember your goal is to communicate, not just be heard.
I didn’t live up to it as I’d hoped. I was too busy waiting to spout something clever or funny, and not listening. It’s still a work in process.
I’ve historically been one of the loud ones, as if talking in a very loud voice ensured I’d be heard. Years ago, during a transfer to a new position, a colleague presented me a phone with a noise suppression device. Subtle. Loud didn’t work with the kids either. They’d often blink a lot when I got on a roll; their way of semaphoring a message, “Hey Dad, turn it down a notch”, followed by a negative post debate review. Too many years passed before I realized that which is spoken loudly does not equate to truth.
I sort of miss the days of flaming editorials limited to one newspaper and three TV channels. Today, it’s instant access to thousands of media “information” sites whether I want it or not, with more truer than fiction facts than the number of fleas on a herd of bison. As a responsible citizen, it’s up to me to sift for accuracy, some of which is more fiction than fact. When I add in opinions on social media platforms, one can get a migraine from all the freedom of expression.
My contribution to the world of social media opinionating is to avoid it (see curmudgeon on the porch comment above). Anything I contribute tends to be pictures of the grand-boys, family gatherings, something I just cooked, clever quotes, concept art, self-deprecating jokes, vacation pics, or a rare glorious sunset in a locale I’ve come to label as Wet-sylvania. We have plenty of podium prophets out there without my input.
What, you don’t stand for anything? Of course I do. When the time comes, I exercise that other American right.
Happy Fourth of July to you all. Wrap yourself in the symbol of our country that allows freedom of expression. I just ask you do it with good intention, strive to not be hurtful, and look the other in the eye to ensure you’ve heard their side as well.
My thanks again to the talented photographers of Unsplash.com for allowing use of their work, in order of appearance.
It’s been a rough spring largely because I missed it.
In December, we made a sudden decision to spend February through April in Florida. Our primary reason was to spend time with elderly mother-in-law in assisted living before she forgot who we were. Secondary reason is spousal unit’s desire to skip winter in Pennsylvania.
Who could blame her? It was a rough winter as well. My initial fear, however, is what would it do to the time I reserve for writing. I’d just come off a promise to the long-suffering muse in my head that I’d not neglect her; (click and read – The Silent Light of a Winter Night, December 2018).
Turned out, I wrote more than usual. Cranked out 40K on the book I’m rewriting, and still had time to format and post blogs on our group’s GLVWG Write Stuff Conference™ blog about every three-four days that began in mid-January through the end of March. Lot of work, but something had to give.
Yep, bless me readers, but I haven’t blogged since February.
During this rather busy period, I heard from an ex-colleague who used to follow humorous articles I wrote for a travel magazine overseas. Would I submit something for a quarterly newsletter they do? More specifically, would I write about our first ever snowbird experience in the same voice as my former writing experience? How could I turn down a fan from yesteryear? It published a few weeks ago, and he’s given me permission to post it here.
The article is in a different voice from what I pen today, but as penance for not keeping up in blogosphere, I offer it below. I hope you find it humorous, and perhaps it will brighten your day as well.
Never thought I’d be a Snowbird, defined as those who abandon the bitter winters of Northern America for sunnier climes in Florida. I like the change of seasons and don’t mind shoveling the times Nature dumps solidified water on my driveway. It’s also my most productive season as a writer, when I don’t have to answer the WYWA (Worldwide Yard Wrestling Association), or involuntarily submit to projects assigned by my wife.
It was an impulsive decision, sparked by a need to spend more time with my 90-year-old mother-in-law in an assisted living facility in Naples. Wheelchair bound, she’d weakened the past year after her husband passed-away in 2017. My bro-in-law knows everybody in the South Florida boating industry, and he found a place in Ft. Myers beginning February if we were willing to take it for three months.
Three months? What the heck do I do for three months in a territory commonly known as “God’s Waiting Room”.
It’s that time of year when I’m away from my writing desk to spend time with family out west. I had hopes to scratch a few lines between the happy helter-skelter of being with loved ones. I made a promise to my muse I wouldn’t desert her (see November’s article, A Writer Comes Home to His Beloved Muse).
Presents scattered on the floor like flotsam, bellies full, and kids down for the night, instead of quiet conversation, clutching mugs of hot beverages on a cold winter night, the adults had their eyes glued on smart-phones. I too browsed the cacophony of apps and media distraction. No wonder I can’t think creatively. I tried reading, but the oversized television screen on mute kept drawing my eye.
I stared at the Christmas tree in lazy thought, and shook my head. Peace of mind in the monochromatic world of all things life oriented can be elusive. Our heads are too often pointed downward in the bustling crowd. Even those who live in remote places are as burdened as city dwellers from the incessant distraction of a connected society. I needed to find some quiet – a place of reticence to air out the brain.
I set the book aside, closed my eyes, and imagined a small town, where new fallen snow muffled my footsteps, the only sound that of a hushed breeze though barren branches – and the occasional air pump of holiday yard blimps. I thought of a cardinal balanced on snow-laden boughs, its scarlet feathers a singular lighthouse in a sea of white, and a lantern post, its warm yellow light a beacon against a colorless palette.
The streets of the small town were deserted, and I marveled at the twinkle of holiday decorations that festooned houses. As if waiting for someone to notice, a lone white bulb was tucked inside a riot of colored lights. Like the cardinal, and the lantern, it impressed upon me the serenity of a simple light in an ostentatious environment. It’s where I needed to get my head at if I had a shot at writing anything.
I turned, and spotted lighted candy canes on the edge of thick forest. I trudged away from the brashness of holiday décor. Somehow, my whimsical town had disappeared, and I was on a deserted road in a thick forest. I shuffled my foot in the snow to find what powered this odd display, until my eyes revealed a single set of footprints leading into the woods.
This month, I’m the featured author in the Author’s Roundtable, an online quarterly magazine of short stories for the Bethlehem Writers Group (BWG). Based on a theme that changes with every issue, this quarter is ‘Written in the Stars’.
A shell of its former glory, NASA in the near future discovers what Planet Nine really is, and has to convince a skeptical director who doesn’t understand the basics of our solar system.
“What’s this all about,” Trevor Stanhope asked his Associate Administrator.
The click of Helen Martinez’s low-heeled shoes kept cadence to Stanhope’s brisk stride as they hurried along on the polished floors of NASA’s subterranean levels. “The note mentioned recent information that needs your immediate attention,” she said.
Six months since Stanhope’s appointment as NASA’s Administrator, President Barbara Preston specifically asked him to shake things up by reining-in expensive projects and the Brainiacs who were too busy looking for ET. “Bring in some solid space science we can use while getting the Mars mission off the ground, like updated satellite reconnaissance and better asteroid killers,” she’d told him.
“Did they send a synopsis, so I can understand what they’re saying when they start throwing those pseudo-scientific terms and acronyms around?” he asked.
“All I got was something to do with all the increased meteorite activity, asteroid close calls, and TNO’s . . . Trans Neptunian Objects.”
“Trans-nep-toonia objects . . .” Stanhope chuckled. “Sounds like that Christmas rock orchestra that pops up every holiday.” A lawyer by education, and six-term, conservative US Congressman before President Preston handed him this job, Stanhope’s grasp of science was limited to high school chemistry. Where did they come up with these names?
Which leads me to confessing how I got into little big stories in the first place.
Aside from a writer’s muse that never sleeps, I’m used to finding #writerinspiration from mostly colorful photographs and art from a variety of sites. I post the ones I like on my Twitter feed and Facebook page. My favorite place for royalty-free photos without restrictions is Unsplash.com. Two of my boards on Pinterest – Searching for Light, and Characters, are both galleries of art and photographs used to fine tune the muse when I’m writing scenes.
This past Memorial Day weekend, I went on a desert excursion with my son-in-law in his off-road 4Runner. That my young grandson tagged along as well, made the trip extra special.
But – we were talking about writer inspiration.
How does one go from a visual inspiration of a colorful marketplace …
… and find inspiration in the homogeneity of a desert landscape?
First, you need to get off the beaten track, and into places most vehicles can’t tread. That’s where I discovered it isn’t the visual so much, as it is – the silence.
Writers have an abnormal predilection for planting themselves in a chair – alone – surrounded by nothing – and wait for the words to rain. It just ain’t natural.
The 24th GLVWG Write Stuff Conference™ come and gone, this is the time I take a few days to reflect on what I’ve learned, what I’ve heard before, and why the hell I’m still writing.
Our keynote speaker and headliner this year was NYT Bestseller, Bob Mayer, a former Green Beret who wrote the Area 51 series, as well as 70 other titles in fiction and non-fiction. That’s me on the right (as if you couldn’t tell).
We spent a full day with Bob, listening to his advice on the standard elements of plot, story structure, character, the importance of tight narrative, and dangers of going off on tangents that don’t move the story. Anyone who has read my article from last year, ‘The Perils of Captain Tangent – a Pantser’s Writing Journey’, knows I have an issue with side stories that end nowhere.
It was the Day 2 of the conference that struck a chord with me. Bob Mayer spoke about ‘Write it Forward’, with lessons he learned in the military. He gave the classic pitch, “everyone stand up, look at the person on the right, then look at the one on the left. Only one of you is going to make it.” He reminded us that only five-percent of all writers ever finish a book, that five-percent get to the point of publishing the book, and five percent of those people ever get anywhere with it. In simpler terms, earning enough to buy a case of Yuengling beer is like winning the lottery.
As a writer, it’s a requirement to keep one’s skills honed. To quote a master of modern fiction, Stephen King, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write. Simple as that.”
My reading stack is mountainous. Books I want to read, books others want me to read, books fellow authors want me to beta-read, and books my wife wants me to read, which deserves a separate category since it’s usually non-fiction (insert gag reflex). I don’t hate non-fiction, mind you, it just isn’t on my priority list. Unless it’s research for a novel, or a good science article, the real stuff bores me fast.
To quote Mr. King again, “Reading a good long novel is in many ways like having a long and satisfying affair“. Given the occasional stink eye I get from my wife, one wonders if she views my writing muse as the other woman in that satisfying affair. I don’t know what she’s worried about since it’s all in my head.
Do you see the boy in the graphic above wearing glasses by a window on a rainy night? That was me. I was a middle child of seven, geekish, card-carrying four-eyes by age ten, preferred loner – you get the drill. My second home was the library in small town Wisconsin. That’s where it all started.
After finally finishing my latest novel, I see a whole new set of beginnings coming with it. No time to revel in joy for completing the novel, I’m already looking for that new spark in the wilderness of imagination.
But first, I must reset the way I do things. Productivity this past year was in the shitter. I could rail on with a few dog-ate-my-homework memes. Birth of a new grandson a few months ago, and losing a father-in-law in past weeks would certainly headline the list. Too many times I found myself looking back to say WTF.
I made a commitment to finish the book, “The Gravity of Light”, by October. That slipped to November, which then slipped to December. In order to keep up between life events, I slowed my Twitter and Facebook posts, and let this blog lapse for a couple months to focus on typing those final chapters. Didn’t help matters I was already on version four, and heading into version five after realizing I was caught in a blizzard of plot holes.
Imagine that’s me huddled in the rocks beneath an infinite sky with a story I’ve written cupped in my palms. Do I release it like a dove to the big wide world, or not. There’s no easy answer for a pantser writer like me.
It all starts well, but somewhere in the process I always get lost by straying from the story arc in search of a new trail. As a friend cautioned, I’m susceptible to the antics of the antihero, Captain Tangent, defined by Yogi Berra’s famous quip, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
I am the master of the side journey and story scenes that entice me toward a glimmer of light on a dark trail with promises of enhancing the story arc, only to lead to a dead end. I write with a story mindset easily seduced by a maze of infinite paths, unable to see the pitfalls around the next corner. You need to be more disciplined, make notes, follow a plan,” literary superheroes tell me. I do make notes. I just – tend not to use them much. Why is that, Captain Tangent? My story telling imagination is a twisted spaghetti junction of chaos. It’s where all the fun is, where the best story elements lie, waiting for me to grab on while riding a hundred-mile-per-hour carnival ride.
It’s hard to describe what I go through in words. How ironic is that? I like visuals you can sense, and I’ll turn to the amazing photography of talented artists from Unsplash.com to help me.