Writing is a Battlefield (Earth)

To err is human, but to really mess things up, try justifying the err and wind up building an entire system of fragile excuses, self-pity, and loathing that lean on each other like a demented house of cards waiting to topple over at the slightest hint of wind.

Or maybe that’s just me.

The point is, we all make mistakes. Thankfully, most of them are not fatal to ourselves, career, or family. In most cases, the worst case scenario bears only a passing resemblance to what actually happens. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we still have to cope with and process those mistakes and figure out how they fit into our lives. At the very least, most of our errors aren’t quite as public as being a credited writer on one of the worst movies ever released, Battlefield Earth.

I’m not writing this post to crack on Corey Mandell, because I actually admire the guy. Not for Battlefield Earth, because that would probably qualify you for a padded room and losing your scissor privileges for life. We’re talking about a flick that the first screenwriter, J.D. Shapiro, tried to avoid being given a writing credit. This is not the beginnings of a beautiful story.

What I took out of Mandell’s story is that it takes a lot of missteps and failures to get where you want to go. In this case, he wound up finding what he believes is his true purpose, writing. Would he have ended up in the same place without writing lines for a hero named Jonnie Goodboy Tyler? Maybe. But unless you’ve got the Eye of Agamotto hanging around and want to nip off to check out all the millions of alternate timelines, I feel pretty safe in saying that we can’t be sure.

(Seriously though, if you have that thing hanging around, drop me a line – I have some questions.)

This is in line with what posted yesterday – something I thought I was pretty good at that I’ve had to re-examine. Looking at all the parts of my life that have happened so far and accepting them all as part of what has gotten me here.

Even that time I rented Battlefield Earth.

Enduring the Edit

“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.”Don Roff

The best thing about having two writing projects going at the same time is there’s always something to work on. Get stuck on this one, move to the other, and then vice versa. The worst part about having two writing projects going at the same time is that if you’re timing is off, you can wind up in the edit phase with both of them at the same time.

That’s where I am now.

The first project, a screenplay, was sent out for feedback awhile ago and came back with plenty of notes (totally expected) and an encouraging pat on the back (bonus!). I rewrote the first 15 pages, sent it back for some more feedback, got more notes, and am now in the process of working a full draft. The other project is a book of poems where I’ve stopped writing new material and have been focusing on revising what’s been written to assess where I’m at in the overall scheme of things.

One of the gifts from this process has been coming face-to-face with things I’ve often said but now have to question if they’re really true. The first thing is that “I know that all my poems aren’t great and I’m willing to write through the bad ones to get to the good ones.” The second is that “Because I only write for myself, it’s okay that I don’t revise things.”

Looking at those on my screen, it’s pretty easy to see the cozy log cabin of lies and deception that I constructed for myself. I mean, inside my head or coming out of my mouth, those things sound great. But sitting there in front of me, it’s tough to not call it for what it is.

Really, it’s an excuse to not do the extra work of editing and rewriting. In fact, now that I’ve exposed my own lies for all the world (or at least the couple dozen people who might stumble on this) to see, I’ll go a step further and say that I’ve been neglecting an entire portion of the writing process itself to my own detriment as well as the work itself.

Much as discouraging people to talk politics and religion leads to people not knowing how to talk about politics and religion, not editing and rewriting means you’re absolute crap at them. Even if I am writing primarily for my own pleasure, that doesn’t mean it has to suck, right?

So here I am, enduring the edit and trying to find the joy in it.

I may need a flashlight.

Getting To Do Done

Am I an organized person by nature or a disorganized person who is forced into being organized so that I can get things done and find my car keys on a regular basis? It’s the classic chicken-egg question, and one that I’ve yet to satisfactorily answer for myself.

For other people, I usually go with the second because it sounds better and I suppose also gives me a slight ego boost for overcoming natural bad habits. However, it’s probably a little closer to the first than I’d like to admit. My room growing up was rarely the complete disaster I’ve seen from most kids and even when I was in college, things were pretty well kept. After cleaning our kitchen for the first time, my wife thought she’d wound up with the guy from Sleeping With The Enemy. In my own defense, all of the labels weren’t out.

Which is all to say in a roundabout way that I have a daily to do list. I write it out by hand with little checkboxes and then take great joy in adding a check to those boxes throughout the day. If I neglect to have my list, then the day tends to wander (see also: yesterday’s post and guess which days I’m best about making that list).

For a season, I tried a method that it seems other “wildly productive” people use, which is to schedule your day out completely by time – down to the quarter hour. Sounded like a fantastic idea until I’d done it about a month and realized that much as doing just one thing might work for some people, that this wasn’t for me. I can see how that would work, but for me it caused paralysis and aggravation because it always seemed I was going off schedule. So I went running back to my list.

And you know what? It works. Maybe not in a “wildly productive” way, but it works. Things get done and between my list and my calendar, I have a pretty good look at my day and can plan accordingly. And if things don’t get checked off the list? I either add them to my list for the next day or reevaluate whether it’s something I should be doing.

See, I think the best lesson I’ve learned from the list that I couldn’t quite get with the schedule was to be a little more kind with myself. Maybe it’s a crossed wire in my head, but the schedule never allowed me that breathing room whereas missing one item on a list elicits a shrug from me. After spending a fair amount of time beating myself up over the years, I figured I owe me one.

Probably more, really.

A Case of the Mondays

The funny thing about being self-employed is that days lose a bit of their meaning. Sure, Friday is nice because there’s some respite in the weekend, but it’s not like you get to escape your boss or anything – you share the same mirror.

For me, Monday is a busy day. There’s all the messages to catch up from over the weekend, planning the week ahead, a staff meeting at church, ballet for my daughter, and trying to get some actual work done. I have many reasons to dislike Monday, but I actually don’t.

When I was in high school and college, my best semesters (academically speaking) were the ones where I was busiest. In the Fall, I’d have marching band, jazz band, and concert band all going at once in addition to a new year’s worth of classes to get a grip on. Rather than wilt, I’d excel in those months and pull my best grades of the year. Come Spring when things would slow down and I had much more time to breath, there would be the inevitable slide.

Maybe that’s why I enjoy Mondays and Fridays, then have trouble with those pesky middle days. At the beginning of the week, there’s the challenge of establishing momentum and working my to-do list in order to get off to a strong start. At the end of the week, I’m trying to clean everything up so that I can enjoy a day of nothing on Saturday with a clean conscience. In the middle… not quite sure what happens.

I always thought the word doldrums came from nautical roots and then proceeded to land – a sort of evolutionary word crawling from the seas and then growing legs and lungs at some point. That the doldrums that described a sailing ship bereft of wind and unable to make way became a way to describe those on land who were in low spirits or depressed. Maybe it seemed more poetic that way. At any rate, I was wrong – it was the other way round.

Perhaps the middle of the week is my doldrums – where the wind goes away and I have trouble making any progress. But the beginning of the week? Ah, that’s when I have wind in my sails and can take on the world!

At least until Tuesday morning.

And if you read this far wondering where the link to Office Space reference is, here you go. I just couldn’t leave you hanging.

Heath

“The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.”  – Mark Twain

I have never been accused of being obsessed with health. Growing up in a house where the family business was filling vending machines, there was plenty of access to foods that were built on the twin pillars of high fructose corn syrup and artificial coloring. As a kid, if it was time to run the mile in gym class, you best believe I was the last one puffing around the track by a wide margin.

Somewhere towards the end of high school, I started thin out and be more active. At the end of college, I learned to enjoy running. Of course, back in the day, I also did lots of stupid things like jumping off loading docks and running around on concrete floors with little to no disregard for my joints. At 43, my running days are behind me and it’s now all about the exercise bike. Much like a pitcher who’s lost some speed off their fastball, you either adapt or hang it up.

Aside from physical health, I’ve also come to realize how poor some of my creative, emotional, and spiritual disciplines were and how that was affecting my health as well. Which is why I’ve started on building small daily habits that will start putting me in line there too. Typing out these blog posts is one of them.

I had no idea what I was going to write about today and honestly, this post might not do anyone else any good at all. That’s fine. Sort of like me getting my 9 miles in on the bike this morning, it’s not about where I went (after all, it’s a stationary bike). It’s about getting my ass in the seat and putting in the work. Maybe it doesn’t pay off today, maybe it doesn’t pay off tomorrow. But it will eventually.

Breakdown of a Breakout

I’ve structured most of my working life around staying home. Most of my communication is through email (because it’s quick and also allows me to have a reference of the conversation), I don’t have a lot of face-to-face meetings, and nearly all of my work is easily and efficiently accomplished here at my desk. Not to mention there’s a great coffeeshop with snacks directly upstairs and I don’t have to wear pants unless I really want to. It’s a pretty sweet arrangement.

However, as part of my responsibilities leading the band at church, I do have the opportunity to attend conferences from time to time, and in spite of being around 80% introvert, I actually enjoy them for the most part. There’s one part of conferences that always seem to be a bit lackluster though, and that is the dreaded “breakout” or “workshop”.

This is the part of the day when everyone goes from one room listening to one person and disperses into a series of smaller rooms where we can all be cramped and uncomfortable while listening to people who we have no clue about. It can be similar to enjoying a nice slice of pie and then having someone come along, take your pie, and say “Here, eat this day-old scone that was baked by a first year culinary class of elementary school kids.” Okay, that might be a little harsh, but you get the overall drift of the thing, right?

Since I spent yesterday at a church conference where they had workshops, I had plenty of time to think this whole thing over and figured I’d share some thoughts.

  • First and foremost, unless you have some sort of all-star in their field leading the breakout, it should not under any circumstances last more than an hour. If possible, I’d say 45 minutes is enough when dealing with most people below the all-star level. Nothing personally against them, but I’ve sat in too many breakouts where it’s obvious the person hasn’t put much thought into organization so the whole thing drags and eventually devolves into a poorly wrangled, meandering Q&A session.
  • About that Q&A… unless a previously mentioned all-star is running that session, the Q&A portion should be no longer than any other segment of the session and answers should be quick and to the point. In my experience, Q&A’s that aren’t tightly run turn into people asking questions that are thinly-veiled justifications for telling their own stories – most of which aren’t all that helpful.
  • A word about this whole “all-star” thing… I’m not against people who aren’t at the top of the field leading a workshop or giving a talk – I’m a firm believe that you can learn something from anybody, even if it’s what not to do. What I’m referring to here is someone in the top 10-25% of their field who is far and away more qualified than the people attending the breakout. That’s the person I want to listen to speak for a long time, not someone who is about a month and a half ahead of me.
  • In my opinion, the optimal breakout breakdown is one quarter info for beginners, one quarter info for upward movement, one quarter general theory or philosophy, and at most one quarter leftover to tidy up questions. Spending the entire time talking about stuff for beginners shortchanges everyone in the breakout who isn’t a beginner, unless the entire thing is labeled as for beginners only.
  • Better yet, have breakouts with a specific focus instead of these general mosh pits of information.

One more thing. I’m not trying to trash on anyone here while pretending that I’d be miles better than them. In fact, most of the sins committed above are ones that I would be knee-deep in myself were I asked to do a breakout session. They’re easy to do, especially if the person handing the session has a full-time gig they’re already doing along with responsibilities at the conference itself – chances are, they’re just trying to survive the thing and get home to a cold one. I get it. But one thing that I’ve learned along the way is that most of the time when I’m just getting by, it could be a little easier with some extra planning and thought up front.

Now, I just need to implement that and I should be all set. Right?

Sitrep Saturday

I’ve recently started a weekly accountability email with my friend and fellow writer Charles where we share what we’ve managed to do that week. Sometimes it’s uplifting,  others it’s a bit of a downer, and sometimes it’s downright comical. So I figured it was worth a shot also broadcasting these things to the entire world. Because why not?

As you may have noticed from previous posts, I’ve been reading through A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett and will probably finish that up towards the beginning of next week. This was a lender from Charles along with its companion, A Blink of the Screen, which is a collection of his shorter fiction works. I tried the fiction first but couldn’t quite get into it – almost how I love everything Tom Robbins has written but couldn’t get into his collection of shorter works, Wild Ducks Flying Backwards. However, I do believe some of Pratchett’s novels will be making their way into my To-Read pile very soon.

Last week, I got feedback on my screenplay and started the process of re-writing when I realized that there were enough changes to the first fifteen pages that it would fundamentally change the tone of a couple characters and at least one relationship. A bit daunting. So I polished those fifteen pages up and sent it off to the person who gave me the feedback to see what they thought. Heard back from them that there’s still work to be done, but they feel I’m on the right track. I’ll take it. To page sixteen and beyond!

I’ve also been at work revising poems for another project I’ve been at work on this year and which I’d like to see done by the end of December. After an initial burst of deep editing the first session, I’ve come to realize that four to five poems is my limit for one day. I’ll start off hot by digging into the text and making change after change… and then a few poems later, realize there were no marks on the page at all. Perhaps that poems was actually fine as is, but more than likely I was going far too easy on it. Poems need tough love as well.

Plumbing

I’ve just spent the better part of an hour trying to get the drain in our bathroom sink to drain properly. Since a lot of the more wondrous and corrosive chemicals don’t play with with septic systems and ours is roughly 30 some odd years old, I tend to lean into the more gentle and natural solutions whenever possible. So a box of baking soda, a gallon of white vinegar, and new plunger were my weapons of choice for this mission.

It’s pretty interesting the things that can be accomplished with baking soda and white vinegar. Baking soda is a nice scrubbing agent for things you don’t want to go medieval on with steel wool and vinegar helps to take the stink out of laundry. Fun stuff and they also work pretty well on drains (in my experience). Well, this time around, it took a few rounds and a bit of work with the plunger, but we’re draining again.

What struck me afterwards was that a bit of regular maintenance would’ve made this job simpler or perhaps eliminated it altogether. The next thought that came to mind was that creativity is a lot like that too.

By keeping the creative muscles somewhat in shape, it’s a lot easier to get into some heavy lifting when you need it; rather than trying to lift a car off someone when you’ve barely done more than lift cans of beer for the last five years. I’ve found myself seeking out new ways to keep creativity supple, or to borrow one of Tom Brady’s favorite words, pliable.

Finding those little routines and disciplines that are the creative equivalent of stretching has been a challenge but also a lot of fun. It’s the reason why I’ve been journaling more on a daily basis and also part of the reason for my yearly reading goals (which I’ve already surpassed for this year!). Even taking in creative helps keep the thinker ticking along rather than seizing up. Because if there’s one thing that I know, things tend to seize up at the worst, or most inconvenient, times.

Tricks Of The Trade

“More than half the skill of writing lies in tricking the book out of your head.” – Terry Pratchett

I’ve been reading through A Slip of the Keyboard as of late, which is a collection of Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction writing. It’s interesting to read thoughts on writing from someone whom I’ve never read before. It feels to me like there was a time when I probably would’ve devoured his entire catalog, but I somehow missed the moment and have spent a bunch of time now dancing around his books. HIs work has been very important to several of the authors I’ve been reading the last couple years, but it’s like we’ve played phone tag this whole time or something.

At any rate, A Slip of the Keyboard. It’s quite good and chock full of humor that ranges from cheeky to full-on wiseass, but it’s written by a Brit, so even at its most snarky, Terry’s writing has a certain dignity. I have no idea how the British pull this off, but I feel it borders on a superpower. Maybe it’s just me.

All right, so it’s obvious that I won’t be able to rationally get to the book in any kind of timely manner, so let’s just focus on the quote above, shall we? Fine. He’s right. Thank you for coming to my TedTalk.

More? Okay. I feel Pratchett’s ideas about writing line up neatly with what Stephen King had to say in his book On Writing – that stories are really fossils hidden inside our minds that only need us to uncover them in a careful, deliberate way. Sometimes, that involves being extraordinarily careful with a small brush and a set of fine pick tools. Other times, it involves dynamite and the type of “careful” that sometimes leads to missing fingers or toes. Don’t think that’s careful? Damned lucky, because it could’ve been the whole foot or hand, right?

In mulling this idea over, it seems to me that it’s not exactly the content of the story but the shape of the story itself that’s the fossil. It’s the skeleton that you unearth along the way on which everything else has to hang – the meat and organs and skin of the thing. And I do believe that trickery is involved at times – that not all stories want to jump out into the spotlight. Some stories seem to be extroverts and some want to sit quietly in the corner until someone draws them slowly and gently into a conversation. Neither one is righter than the other, they just are.

No Fans

This morning, I was informed that fans are no longer acceptable curbside trash. To say the least, this was utterly shocking and turned my worldview upside down. Granted, it was early and I hadn’t taken down any coffee yet, but still.

I usually don’t meet up with the garbage man at the curb. Not because I have anything against garbage men, but because the chances of me being at the end of my driveway for the roughly 90 seconds they’re also there per week are relatively slim. And I’d also like to say that I have nothing against garbage women either. Fine people all the way around and no gender assumptions are being made in terms of the overall composition of the trash collecting workforce. The person who picks up my trash is a man. Yours might not be and that’s fine too. I think what we’re all most concerned with is whether they pick up the trash and where they leave the buckets afterwards, aren’t you?

Which is the issue I experienced this morning while dragging out the recycling to the curb and met up the garbage man as he was pulling a fan out of the bucket.

A word about this fan… We’ve had this pedestal oscillating fan longer than either of our vehicles and it’s served us well. Probably too well. We’ve now reached the point in this particular fan’s life when it doesn’t always start up right away. Instead, it’ll hum for a few minutes and eventually kick over. I could deal with that if it did what it does half the time, which is go about it’s business soundlessly. However, there’s the other half where it makes this awful screeching noise that, if it happens when one person is sound asleep, will cause them to jump out of bed into a karate-esque crouch ad bump their heartbeat somewhere into the hummingbird range. It’s not pleasant or conducive to getting back to sleep any time soon.

So it was this fan’s time to go, I wanted it to go, and yet here was this good gentleman seemingly refusing to let it go.

“No fans,” he said.

“No fans?” was my quippy reply.

“Nope. Gotta take it to the transfer station.”

Which means putting the thing in the car, driving across town, and delivering it to the transfer station and more than likely paying them for the privilege of taking my busted fan. I’m sure it has something to do with the motor or some other component that shouldn’t be tossed directly into a hole somewhere and I’m okay with that. Although it does seem a little redundant considering that I’m sure his truck will be going past the same place.

I would’ve liked to ask more questions and perhaps tried to persuade him to take my fan, but somehow, I don’t think he would’ve been much of a fan of that.