On the Redeemability of Fellow Humans

I saw the documentary The Overnighters on my local PBS station this weekend. It’s an intriguing film about a particularly fraught situation: the oil boom town of Williston, ND and the men it draws to work there, some of whom only have a car (if that) to their name. The local pastor of a church starts a program to help the most desperate, providing food and places to sleep for many in the church itself, and sometimes just the parking lot so some can sleep in their car overnight. He even puts some of them up in his home with his family.

The movie’s description probably puts it best, “Broken, desperate men chase their dreams and run from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields. A local Pastor risks everything to help them.” Needless to say, there are a lot of issues at work here, none of them particularly easy to deal with. Some of these men have felonies on their record, and besides that, the town of Williston is going through all the difficulties any community would when its population doubles or triples in just a few years. The backlash of the church and local community against these newcomers is at once understandable and saddening.

The scene that sticks with me, the thing that keeps bugging me, is one where the pastor, Jay Reinke, goes around to neighboring houses, trying to get residents to come to the church and meet the overnighters, on the belief that if they start to get to know them, the fear of the newcomers will go away. After the pastor introduces himself at the door of one house, the neighbor comments on the “trash” he’s keeping at the church.

To call another human trash is to profess a depressing belief in the irredeemability of you and your fellow humans. I’m not so naive as to say there aren’t quite a few members of humanity that can commit despicable and heinous acts—history and the present moment and even this documentary provide far too many examples of this—but to call another human trash is to say they’re on the level of a greasy food wrapper, not worth anything but wadding up and tossing in a landfill. It’s to also ignore the many examples to the contrary of what humanity is capable of, some of which the film also captures.

I wish I could focus more on those hopeful aspects caught in the film, one of which has Pastor Reinke stopping his car so he can wave at a passing Amtrak—the day is beautifully sunny, and it is something to see a grown man wave at a passing train like a ten year-old. But try as I might, I can’t stop seeing the other scene, the one with that perfectly normal house with the perfectly normal person answering the door, calling other humans trash because they’re less fortunate than they are.

I knew some people in high school that liked to look at the “gross stuff” in medical books, for some reason. Weird, cheap thrills, or something… the eww factor that leads to some of the stupid stuff you see on reality TV, I guess. I did it once and couldn’t do it again, because I couldn’t get rid of the image in my head. This is also why I have difficulty with shows or movies that are overly violent—it’s hard to forget what I’ve seen.

I wish I could stop seeing someone call their fellow humans trash, but I can’t.


On a Less Than Hoped for Series Four from Sherlock 1 comment

So the BBC production of Sherlock roared on the scene in 2010, delighting me with its modern take on the greatSherlock Cumberbatch/Freeman detective—surprisingly so, considering the Robert Downey, jr/Jude Law movie of 2009 should have made me feel tapped out on the character and concept… at least for awhile (tell Elementary how not interested in it I am, deservedly or not).

Cumberbatch has his own zany, manic take on the character, with enough indications of humanity brought out by Martin Freeman (and the rest of the cast) to make you want to spend time with him, to hope he might become something more than an often egomaniacal brainiac that turns to drugs to make his overpowered brain slow down for a time.

Which is why Series Four (Season Four, for us noobs across the pond), carried much hope for me. Other than a rather fun special in 2016, we’d all been waiting three years for things to pick up where they left off, with Moriarty maybe, possibly, not being dead as we all surmised.

More than that, in Series Three, Watson was challenging Sherlock’s destructive ways more than ever, backed up by an excellent addition to the cast, Watson’s fiancee (then wife), Mary Morstan. It was just the change the show, and Sherlock, needed. While there were still weird things going on in Series Three that worried me, Series Four was set up to take things in a good direction as a potential finale for the show.

Instead, it royally bollocksed it up.

Bollocks #1: Watson emotionally cheats on his wife, Mary. This might—might—have made sense in Series Three, when Watson first finds out about Mary’s secret past. But no, this is Series Four. The two have a child, and more, Watson forgave Mary all her secrets in Series Three, saying “the problems of your past are your business, the problems of your future are my privilege.” Sure, people can have moments of doubt even after saying something that romantic and loving (and Watson even said he was still angry after he said those words), but one of Watson’s main characteristics is loyalty. He sticks by Sherlock despite all his shenanigans and he shows the same loyalty and love to Mary. The show’s creators even seem to realize how much of a bollocks this is, as they couldn’t go so far as to have any physical cheating going on, just some texting after a woman on the bus takes a shine to Watson and gives him her number.

Infidelity does happen, sure, but it’s an all too common tactic used by lazy writers (particularly TV writers) to shake things up when needed: whether the shoe fits for a particular character or not… and it really does not fit for Watson.

Bollocks #2: Mary’s fate in episode one, “The Six Thatchers.” Good lord, talk about lame. An elite super spy/assassin, taken down by an office drudge—even if said drudge was smarter than she appeared. Extra cookie points for selflessly saving someone else, I guess, but it was a terrible send-off to a character that was a much needed addition to the show (more on this below). It’s made even worse when you consider all of “The Six Thatchers” is incidental to the main villain and plot of Series Four!

Bollocks #3: The main villain of Series 4, Eurus, is inadequately developed and doesn’t have enough screen time. She’s hanging about in little ways throughout Series 4, but she really only has screen time in the final episode. This would be okay if she was a villain of an episode, like Culverton Smith or Charles Magnussen, but she’s not. Compare with Moriarty, Sherlock’s other main nemesis: Moriarty was a factor and had plenty of screen time in Series 1 and 2, and the show plumbed the depths of the connection between the two more than adequately.

With Eurus, we have someone that was foundational to Sherlock and who he is—which the show took pains to note—and all we get is one episode to deal with her, which is mostly filled with nasty little puzzles, like a wannabe Saw. She’s also taken care of far too simply. She apparently has no remorse or conscience, but getting a hug from Sherlock is all that it takes to stop her extremely convoluted and drawn out methods of revenge? Not buying it. The show simply ran out of time to adequately deal with her and what she represented to both Sherlock and his older brother, Mycroft.

Bollocks #4: Sherlock’s emotions and treatment of others receives little recognition or closure. Series Three was aiming in a clear direction: Sherlock’s actions were self-destructive and pushing him away from those who were close to him. Even Molly Hooper—meek Molly Hooper who is hopelessly smitten with Sherlock—literally slaps him upside the head for wasting his gifts.

The show’s main writers, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, remembered this well. They even brought in Molly to up the emotional stakes in the final episode of Series Four, but other than a short, visceral reaction from Sherlock, his harmful treatment of Molly receives no follow through.

As noted above, Mary was a terrific foil for both Sherlock and Watson (and how their friendship was going), but her rather pointless death didn’t even do anything for the show and its two main characters other than to be a cheap upping of the emotional stakes for an otherwise red herring of an episode. At one point, Sherlock notes that Mary’s sacrifice conferred a value upon his life that he hadn’t yet been able to calculate, but just like Molly Hooper, Mary Watson is cast aside so the show can spend more time on crazy, brilliant Sherlock antics.

What always set this show aside wasn’t just its production values—fun and frenetic as they always were—it was its relationships. Despite some weird moments in the first three series, the show paid good attention to those relationships and how Sherlock was endangering them. The pieces were there for Series Four to deal with those effectively (you can see them on the drawing board: how Eurus affected both Sherlock and Mycroft, Mycroft maybe starting a relationship, of all things, etc.), but it simply didn’t focus on them. Instead, it focused on the surface—convoluted plots, Sherlockian hijinks, and vicious villains—mistaking its production values for the real heart of the show.

The final episode ends with an odd fan-service type of superhero shot, with Watson and Sherlock racing out the door to solve another crime. It might have worked, albeit schlockily, if the show had adequately dealt with its emotional center. Instead, it left me feeling hollow—so close, and yet so far from what it could have been.


BFS Update: How This Fall Just Needed to End and My Cat Is Plotting My Doom 2 comments

Photo credit: Foter.com / CC0

Photo credit: Foter.com / CC0

So I spent the Fall of 2016 just wanting it to be over. Going in, it was already guaranteed to add some more white hairs to my once gloriously red goatee—full class loads as a college professor of writing have a tendency to do that. But then this wonderful year just kept wanting to give:

Here you go, your your last living grandparent is going to pass on. Here you go, your wife is going to land a dream job in a city 4.5 hours away, and while the job is wonderful, it’s also going to require you moving during the aforementioned busy semester—once for her and many of your things in late October so she can start the dream job, and once for you with the rest of your things after you finish teaching your classes for the semester. Oh, and did you notice that? Here you go, you get to find an apartment in a strange city and live apart from your wife for two months, even though you two are pretty much inseparable!

But wait, there’s more! Just when you think you’re all done, grades turned in for all of your classes, both moves completed, sanity about to be restored, here you go… a stupid neighbor will leave a window open in the second floor community room of your apartment building (during a winter storm, no less), causing a pipe to freeze and send water everywhere. Sure, it won’t be directly over your apartment, but it will make the carpet in much of your living room swampy and squishy, and the management for your building will take over a day to get a water extractor in (it being the day after Christmas). A dehumidifier will take two days.

Good times, am I right? See you later, 2016, I don’t miss ya. And it certainly explains the dearth of blogginess around here the past couple months. Yet something more is troubling me, something that makes the events of the past few months pale in comparison: my cat seeks my doom.

Don’t believe all the cute pictures Jessica/the Celt may show you of our cat, Rosie, nor the picture below. She may seem quiet, shy, and altogether adorable, but she is crafty—she plays the long game in seeking my demise. With our living room unusable and our office full of boxes and objects rescued from the living room, Jessica and I must live in the bedroom. And even though we have two (not just one) kitty beds in this bedroom, this is not good enough for our seemingly innocent feline named Rosie. Oh no, she must lie all day on my side of the bed. Not just an hour or two: all day.

What? I'm just lying here innocently, I'm not plotting your imminent demise.

What? I’m just lying here innocently, I’m not plotting your imminent demise.

She’ll grudgingly accede for me to take the spot back when Jessica is home—though I have had to pick her up on more than one occasion—but if I get up to do something? Perhaps to put something away? Perhaps to let the maintenance men in to work on the living room rug? Spring, spring! Lightly does the Rosie leap from wherever she lay before, finding my spot on the bed, curling up so cutely, so innocently, that surely no human could possibly try to move her!

This obviously is leading in one direction. My permanent removal! Rosie had a month to grow accustomed to having an entire half of a queen-sized bed to herself, and she does not want to give it up. Every time I have to move her, she looks at me with those big, kitty eyes, tearing my soul in two… and she knows it.

Soon, I’ll be forced into sleeping on a couch I am too tall for, or on a not very comfortable airbed. Soon, I’ll be so tired my mental capacity will deteriorate, my paranoia reigning supreme, and I will be relegated to the funny farm. Soon…

And Rosie will have her half of the bed all to herself.


On Seeing My Grandmother as Herself

In defiance of (or alignment?) with Twitter’s character limitation, I wrote a long chain about my grandmother, who died early in the morning a week and a half ago.

Something about a Twitter chain feels poetic, with the need for each line (or tweet) to hold its own but feed into the next. It made me want to post it here as well with a couple of additions, where the whole thing can work together outside of Twitter’s sometimes frustrating interface for reading reply chains (and maybe a little editing to work better in this new context).

Grandma Herself

So… my grandmother died last Wednesday. Jessica and I have no remaining grandparents alive.
But there’s more I wanted to share about my grandma than that frustrating bummer of a fact.

She felt like a stereotypical grandma in many ways, giving big smooches on cheeks
(and occasionally pinching them),
and she made good food (I still use her pancake, lasagna, & spaghetti recipes).

But the thing I want to remember,
the thing I wanted to share,
Is her taking painting classes.

About eight years ago, Jessica and I chatted with her about how they were going, and
she was so vibrant talking about them,
so awake and alive,
and she joked about her differences of opinion from her instructor.
she had certain ideas about what she wanted to do, and she was quite firm about them:
she wasn’t backing down!
It’s the most her I ever remember her being. Her her. Not my stereotypical image of a grandma, but herself,
through and through.

Childhood memories are spotty, and I only knew her for less than half her life,
but I’m certain of it.

I’m happy to say I saw more of her this weekend.
One universal good thing about all grandparent funerals I have witnessed:
learning more about them.

This weekend, we heard anecdotes & stories about her I’d never heard before,
Saw pictures I’d never seen before of her as a child, a teen, and in her twenties.
It was the her we saw when we talked to her about her painting.

I love what I saw then and I love this memory.

I will always love it.

We need to see more of the people around us—friends, family, strangers.
Go out and create something, everyone. Connect with others. I’m so glad my grandmother did.
My only wish is that I had shared more moments with her.
But I think we would think that about most people,

if we saw the real them.


BFS Recommends: Angela Melick and Wasted Talent

Because Jam is "tha very bessst!"

Because Jam is “tha very bessst!”

Straight behind my love of the written word is my love of visuals: photographs, movies, drawing, painting, and… comics/graphic novels. In writing, there’s little better than an author’s distinctive voice, which adds another layer to the story or narrative of the piece, moving it beyond mere information. With comics and graphic novels, the artist’s renderings add a whole other dimension to the ideas being communicated, whether they are laugh-out-loud hilarious or profoundly insightful. I’ve loved this ever since I started reading Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes, and this love has only deepened as I’ve discovered so many wonderful artists in the webcomic community.

One of my favorites (which my wonderful wife, Jessica, introduced me to) is Wasted Talent, which is written and drawn by Angela Melick, also known by the nickname Jam. You’ve been introduced to her work already. See, over there? On the right side of the screen? I lucked out and commissioned an avatar by Jam, and you can see the wonderful added dimension her drawing and coloring style bring to her work (she is really good at Viking beards, too, since she drew one of her husband and a truly epic hockey playoff beard before she drew mine).

In her online archives, it’s also a true joy to see her rougher beginnings in black and white ink, her uses of color as her ability deepened, and her style shiftings as she found her own artistic voice. Whether she’s making use of markers or watercolors (or a mix of the two), Jam’s style is now something that is uniquely her own, though there are definitely anime/manga influences. **

Jam’s commitment to excellence and desire to push her abilities are also things any writer or artist can learn from (and be inspired by). While working full time as an engineer, she practices her art regularly above and beyond her weekly comic for Wasted Talent, tries out different comic forms (she has some travelogues and other short comics), and also pushes herself whenever she publishes Wasted Talent in book form. When publishing her earlier drawings in We Are the Engineers! (her first book), she went back and redrew them all, showing how much she had grown over a few years of honing her craft.

But what truly seems to drive the thriving vitality of Wasted Talent and Jam’s work is humanity at its best: joy and love. Wasted Talent is an autobiographical comic, so while Jam generally aims for a humorous take on life, she doesn’t hide from its ups and downs, whether it’s a lost job, the pains of a job search, a desire for something more from life, or the almost annual trip to the hospital for her or her husband, thanks to the broken bones mountain biking seems to encourage.

I’ll take the humor, though, whether it’s this wonderful malapropism of “for all intents and purposes,” a bit of everyday silliness, or a scene that seems right out of my own household. Seriously, if you ever want to know what my marriage is like (and I know everyone was wondering about that), you can get it within the pages of Angela Melick’s work.

*coughs*

Or you can just read it for Jam’s wonderful take on working and living.

**I’ll also note that the original of that last watercolor example is proudly displayed on our wall: it’s a perfect synergy of Jam’s artistic and comedic capabilities.

On the Importance of the Moment and the Memory

For the past four years, Ari Fleischer (former press secretary to George W. Bush) has tweeted the events of 9/11, as he witnessed them. It even looks like he tweets them at about the same time as they happened in 2001, helping bring back the day as it unfolded.

Important memories and historical moments have a tendency to calcify, to lose dimension or gain a sense of inevitability as we forget how things went (or as we lean toward one interpretation of how those things went). Fleischer’s tweets bring back the chaos of the day and the emotion, the leaping to conclusions and second guessing we were doing even then. I don’t recall Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings criticizing Bush for not returning to Washington DC sooner, for instance.

As 2001 recedes further and further into the past it becomes more important to recall the specific moments of the day and to re-examine our memory. In three short years, the freshman I teach in college won’t have been alive then.  It might be impossible to keep “9/11” from becoming a rote (or even forgotten) phrase like December 7th, 1941, “Remember the Maine,” or “Remember the Alamo,” but it’s something we all have to push back against.

That’s the importance of story and history–to give meaning to other people and other lives.


Farewell to a Fellow Dreamer… 2 comments

© 1971 - Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

© 1971 – Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

People use “one of a kind” too much. “Unique” as well (see Strunk & White, who remind us that unique shouldn’t need a modifier). But in many ways, Gene Wilder is one of those we’re not likely to see again. Certainly he was in the upper echelons of great comedians–the man was hilarious, his timing and energy infectious, elevating so many of his roles to a point that not many else could (his delivery in this bit cracks me up every time). But there are a lot of comedians and comedic actors out there who are also able to tickle the funny bone. There’s something more to Wilder than “merely” the capability of making us laugh.

What I’m getting at is perhaps best exemplified by one of Wilder’s most famous roles as Willy Wonka. He has a whole range of seeming non sequiturs throughout the film, but one of the best is when Veruca Salt, one of the children on a tour of Wonka’s factory, objects that there is no such thing as snozzberrys–what they’re eating can’t possibly have snozzberry flavor. Wonka/Wilder responds with the first two lines of a poem by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (“Ode”):

“We are the music makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams.” (short clip here)

Beyond the humor, beyond the delight at confuzzling one of the bratty kids who won a tour of the most amazing chocolate factory ever, is something that is ineffable and serious at the same time. Why is your thinking so locked down, kid? Why are you so limited? Dream big (good lord, you’re tasting flavored wallpaper, after all)!

Wilder doesn’t just deliver it like a throwaway line, either, something for quick laughs (which many might do). He believes it, heart and soul, and this belief is resonating from his eyes.*

And while not every line of Wilder’s many roles convey such depth, it’s what I will remember about him. It’s important to laugh in the moment, but it’s just as important to be a dreamer of dreams.

*What eyes the man had, too. He was one of those that always seemed to be seeing something greater.

BFS Reviews: The Samurai by Shusaku Endo 2 comments

Many of the initial readers of The Samurai focused on its sense of adventure, where a low-ranking Japanese samurai (think knight, for those of you less familiar with medieval Japan) travels to Mexico, Spain, and ultimately even Rome in the hopes of developing trade between Japan and Spain.

And who can blame them? Adventure tales are adored for good reason—oceans are traveled, mountains are crossed, rivers are forded—they grab hold whether every pebble passed is described in delightful detail or whether whole swathes of the journey are memorably glossed, like an Indiana-Jones-style-line traversing a colorful map.

The stakes are also high in this historical adventure: in early 17th century Japan, the low-ranking samurai and three other envoys are ordered by their feudal lord—the Shogun—to voyage to Nueva España (Mexico) to open trade relations between Japan and Spain. This goal is more difficult to achieve than first surmised, however, and the envoys journey to Spain and even Rome before they can begin to return home. In the meantime, tumultuous seas, harsh deserts, Indian uprisings, and political machinations have to be endured, all made worse by their dependence on their translator, a wily Franciscan monk who may or may not have their best interests in mind.

Now, it can’t be denied that this is one appeal of The Samurai, but selling it as an adventure tale only captures a portion of it. While there is pageantry and drama to spare in a journey that takes years to finish, the real strength of The Samurai lies in its focus on the individual.

The novel’s main character, the titular samurai, is the overlord of a tiny fiefdom of three villages, surrounded by marshland. Lesser writers would struggle with making such a man’s life interesting, yet Endo makes Hasekura Rokuemon’s existence beautiful in its desolation. Rokuemon looks like the peasants that work in the three villages he rules, and he works just as hard as they do—he is not one of those idle samurai with time to paint or write poetry. The only music is that which can be found in a harsh life of labor:

It began to snow. Until nightfall a faint sunlight had bathed the gravel-covered river bed through breaks in the clouds. When the sky turned dark, an abrupt silence ensued. Two, then three flakes of snow fluttered down from the sky. As the samurai and his men cut wood, snow grazed their rustic outfits, brushed against their face and hands, then melted away as if to underscore the brevity of life.

Endo’s writing consistently reminded me of Japanese woodcuttings and paintings, with their clear black lines and sharp colors that imprint even simple scenes with a vividness that cannot leave the eye.

All too soon, Rokuemon is torn away from this world that he cherishes, leaving his ailing uncle, wife, and small children behind. While the ache of this never leaves Rokuemon, it is tempered with the joys he takes in the journey—the broad expanses of the sea, the tableaus and cacti of Nueva España, the immense cathedrals of Spain itself—all are colored by the simple delight Rokuemon takes in the them.

Nor is simple a derogatory adjective when applied to Rokuemon. While he wishes he were wily and canny, like one of the other envoys (or the Shogun, who sent him on the diplomatic mission), he knows he isn’t. All he can offer his steadfastness, his loyalty, his ability to work.

The beauty of the samurai’s simplicity and steadfastness is heightened all the more by being surrounded by schemers. It’s unclear if the Shogun truly wishes to establish trade relations and encourage Christianity (which he has recently begun to persecute), or whether he wishes to gain something else from the mission. And while the Franciscan monk who accompanies the envoys is aware of this possible duplicity, he is also willing to go along with it, all for the sake of Japan’s soul: if Christianity can only take root, it will be worth it.

This Franciscan monk, Father Velasco, is the other individual at the heart of the novel. Like the samurai, he comes from a warrior’s family, but unlike the samurai, he is a cunning manipulator. He truly wishes to help Japan, but his mind and ego constantly get in the way of his more noble intentions. He needs to be the one to save the Japanese, not the rival order of the Jesuits. He is the only one who understands the Japanese and can lead them to salvation, no one else.

If Rokuemon is made wonderful by his honest simplicity, Velasco is made relatable by this struggle. He is consistently told by church leaders that there is no hope for Japan—the Shogun most certainly will continue to persecute Christians, as he has been for the past several years. But Velasco won’t give up; he feels responsibility for all the Japanese Christians and martyrs. He has faith where other church leaders do not, and his belief continues while the Pope falters in the face of international politics and declines to pressure Spain into trading with Japan (or continue to send missionaries to Japan). While Velasco’s actions are at times tainted by pride, faith is at their root, not sin.

These two individuals—samurai and priest—eventually find themselves united in their faith against the mammoth institutions they represent. After years of traveling for his Shogun, Rokumon returns to Japan to find Christianity wholly outlawed. Unfortunately (or not so unfortunately?), he was baptized in Spain, for the sake of his mission and his Shogun. As a result, he is viewed with greater and greater suspicion by the authorities, no matter why he became a Christian.

That’s the great tragedy as well—he didn’t particularly believe in Christianity during his journey. He couldn’t understand how people could worship a broken man on a cross. That man wasn’t noble or lordly, like the Shogun. But in his persecution, he begins to understand and believe. The Shogun doesn’t understand or care for him, nor do the other high-ranking samurai who express sympathy for Rokuemon’s situation but do no nothing else. They aren’t the ones who are eventually jailed or executed.

As for Velasco, he ignores the orders of the Pope and returns to Japan, fully aware he could be executed for preaching there. Inevitably, he is captured, and he learns of Rokuemon’s execution before being martyred himself: it is a seemingly bleak ending, looking at those facts. But in the willingness of these two to go against the inertia of their respective leaders and organizations, it is a moving picture of hope.

The Samurai is one of the best evocations of faith I’ve read from an author of the modern era, but even if this doesn’t appeal to you, Shusaku Endo’s portraits of these two very human individuals should. As this world of ours is more and more characterized by its monolithic institutions that too easily forget the people that make them up, this novel’s embrace of that which makes us human is something all the more to value.


Writing Progress Update 8/24/16: When to Revise

Photo credit: crdotx via Foter.com / CC BY

As promised in my opening post, here’s what I created and worked on last week:

  • A couple of blog posts (one a review, which I’ll post in the next day or so)
  • Tweaks to a finished story so it was short enough for a submission (it was just a shade over a 4k word limit)
  • Story submissions to a few magazines (this is writing work too… otherwise I avoid it)
  • These tweaks helped break the ice for me to keep revising a story I’ve been working on with fantastic elements

That last bullet is the important one. I want to keep the blog going and it helps keep me in the writing game, but I need to get back on my fiction. And that story has also been one of the things I’ve been avoiding, and I need to stop doing that.

Sometimes it can help to sit on a story that is frustrating you when you just aren’t sure how to deal with it, coming back to it when you have the desire to fix its issues (on some levels with writing, you have to want to say something, as Fitzgerald argues for here). But at some point, you just have to deal with the thing–otherwise it’ll never happen.

And I so want this story to happen. It’s my first story that has a clear fantastic element to it. Even better, it’s something of a Ray Bradbury-esque story, where one change from our normal reality makes for terrific and even disturbing insight (like “The Veldt”). I love stories with fantastic elements, but it turns out that a lot of my ideas have just been straight realism so far–for whatever reason that’s just how it’s worked out. I had this idea during my first semester working on my MFA (three years ago!), and I had to start working on it right when I got home, I was so excited about it. I had a great first draft and revised it well that first semester, but then I had to leave it behind while working on other projects.

So yeah… finishing it would be a great milestone for me. The difficulty is that it’s like 95% of the way there, with some really tricky tweaks needed to make its main character and his situation work as they need to. I’ve been tossing and turning on how to make those tweaks, which has led to avoiding it. They’re just not going to happen without me looking into the story and digging into it, though.

That’s me and what I’ve been working on. What have you been creating this past week? How have you been connecting with the world, rather than avoiding it?


On Rejection, Dejection, and That Far-Off Horizon 1 comment

Photo credit: netlancer2006 via Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: netlancer2006 via Foter.com / CC BY

As I’ve heard from more than a few other people, it’s been something of a long year. “Please stop the world, I’d like to get off” is an altogether easy sentiment to agree with. The headlines more often than not are full of death and dark things, and the common response is to draw in, to huddle on yourself and lose sight of all that hurts.

Or to lash out.

But as a favorite musician of mine says, “You’ve already been here before, you already know where it goes.”* Because when you go fetal, when you restrict your point of view to the small space you will allow under your protecting arms, there is only the downward spiral. The same goes for the tunnel vision of anger—so many open avenues are lost to sight and the anger only builds upon itself.

I’ve never been much of the lashing out type. It takes quite a bit to get me going, like a bully at one summer camp that kept flicking my fellow cabinmates and me with a rubberband while we tried to sleep, or the neighbor kids that were filling their snowballs with ice and hitting my younger brother with them.

My tendency is to draw in, to huddle in on myself. Which leads to far too much inaction, sadly enough. And over the past eight months, I have spent too long debating whether working on a blog again is worthwhile, whether it was simply a shouting into a vast cacophony where no one else will ever hear me.

Then there is my fiction writing, which I worked on every day of the week (with only occasional, short pauses) for three straight years before working on and earning my MFA over two years. Despite trying not to, I still hit that dry patch so many do after completing their creative writing degree, a combination of overwork from those four fast-paced semesters (while I was teaching full time) and a heavy teaching load.

But I’m well past that and any valid excuses for why I’ve only been occasionally working on stories for the past year. So what’s the problem? Why can’t I do what I was doing before?

Part of it’s the rhythm. When you get yourself used to writing every day (or at certain times throughout the week), you feel weird when you don’t. I’d actually get a bit grouchy when I didn’t work, like a caffeine addict without a needed daily dose of java. On top of that, though, is that I’m tired of rejections. I know how hard it is to be published (I read for magazines myself), but it’s difficult not to feel a weariness when another form response arrives in the mailbox (or the inbox)… even the notes that compliment the submission and aren’t just the standard rejection don’t give a thrill like they used to. The rejections that particularly hurt are the ones that take a matter of days to turn you down. I don’t want them to take over a year to get back to me (which has happened!), but yeesh, at least let me feel good about the submission for a couple weeks. It might be silly, but having the work out there feels good—you’re at least trying.

And that’s what is stupid about all this foot dragging: I know how to combat this weariness I’ve been dealing with. The only thing that keeps you going is to keep creating, to keep offering stories to magazines (and querying agents). Because 100% of the things not submitted are not published, as they say—no matter how lame that sometimes sounds when you’re swimming the gray-dark sea of rejection—and you’re also not just in this for some magazine to publish your stuff. Yes, you want to share it, you want others to read it. But you’re writing because you have something to say. It doesn’t matter how loud and full of voices media and society seem to be—there are things not being noticed, things not being valued, and you need to stand up for them, to let them have their moment in the sun.

So here’s what this blog is going to be. As best I can, I’m going to make it a brighter spot on the internet, no matter how small a nook it occupies, no matter how few readers it collects. I’m going to talk about writing and stuff that I think is important (nature and education and art and living and laughing and so much else), but I’m also going to review books, movies, and maybe even games, because that’s what I’m into. But when I do it, I’m not going to be one of those people that seem to revel in finding the nastiest ways to put down a creative effort.

No, I’m not going to avoid pointing out shortcomings in what I’m reviewing, but I’m going to do my best to be generous, to see what the creator was trying to do. And appreciate it for that. It is possible, no matter how much the snark out there on youtube and reviewing sites makes it seem like it can’t be done.

More, I’m going to do my best to point out the good things I’m seeing in the world—be it what people are doing, saying, creating, or something in the natural world itself. Maybe things that people are even missing.

And I’m going to share what I did with my writing every week. Maybe it’ll lead me to share something interesting about the process, maybe I’ll just say “this week was terrible and needed to be done on Monday, but at least I got this story finished.” And that will be okay, because I’ll be reminding myself and anyone that cares to notice that it’s worth trying, that it’s worth keeping your eyes on the far off, hopeful horizon and avoiding the downward spiral of depression and hate.

*Thank you, Dessa, for that line. Mineshaft 2 is all too applicable here as well.