Flipping Perspectives – Writer Unboxed Redirect

MC-Escher-Hand-with-Reflecting-Sphere-1935The good news? I’ve published an essay (good news if you enjoy my essays, anyway). The better news? I have the honor of having this essay appear on Writer Unboxed. Yes, that’s made it a very good day, indeed. Think I can make things better still? I think I can. If you keep an open mind. You see, it’s all about the way we see things – even our problems. I recently went through the deliberate exercise of changing my outlook on my writerly circumstances, and I challenge you to do the same.

So please head over to WU and start the metamorphosis. And if you’re so moved, I’d love it if you’d share your thoughts, either over there or here if you’d prefer. I hope you end up feeling as changed as I do as we head into summer.

Thank you for your support!

Oh, Sweet Blindness

Laura Nyro Livin the artist's life“Oh sweet blindness

A little magic, a little kindness

Oh sweet blindness, all over me…” ~Laura Nyro

 Really, Subconscious? I woke up at 4 am the other night with the song Sweet Blindness playing in my head. On repeat. When I got up, it stayed with me. I thought it was odd, as I don’t think I’ve heard the song in at least 20 years. Although it’s not so odd that it would be echoing around in the recesses of my subconscious. My parents were big fans of the band The Fifth Dimension, who made a hit of their cover version of the song in 1968.

I must’ve heard the song hundreds of times growing up. Looking back, it’s just a little ironic that my parents, who rarely drank, would play a song for their children about underage drinking. But The Fifth Dimension were one of those acts with generational crossover appeal (believe me, I know – I was even taken to see them in about 1970, along with many other kids and their “square” parents – young and old clapping along).

But why now, subconscious? A song I haven’t heard in ages, about underage drinking, by a group my parents loved? The song, and the question, stuck with me.

You Know Laura, Right? I eventually found my answer the next day, starting with an online search of both the song Sweet Blindness, and its lyrics. The lyrics were no surprise—I’d remembered them correctly. But the beginnings of my answer came at the bottom of the lyrics page, in the form of the songwriter’s name—Laura Nyro. “Oh yeah,” I thought. I immediately searched for the original Laura Nyro version of the song, and listened. The songwriter had been lurking in the back of my mind for some time. I had been pre-intrigued.

Now things were unfolding for me. Last summer I’d followed the recommendation in a Steven Pressfield post and watched the documentary Inventing David Geffen. Near the onset of his career, long before he became the star-making super-agent, Geffen courted and signed 19 year old Laura. He speaks of her as the one of the brightest, most talented, most underappreciated finds of his multi-decade career. As a huge, lifelong music fan, I was a bit chagrinned that I didn’t know her name. But I surely knew her music, and I’ll bet you do, too.

The songs Laura wrote that became big hits all made the charts as cover songs done by other artists. Besides Sweet Blindness, there were several others made famous by The Fifth Dimension, including Blowin’ Away, Wedding Bell Blues, and my favorite, Stoned Slow Picnic (in which Laura invents the verb “surry,” which I love—more on that later). There were many others, perhaps most notably Stoney End, which only hit the top ten as a cover by Barbara Streisand. There was also Eli’s Comin’, taken to the charts by Three Dog Night. I would be remiss to leave And When I Die from the list, a song made famous by Blood, Sweat & Tears. What amazes me about that last one is that Laura wrote it when she was sixteen. “And when I die, and when I’m gone, there’ll be one child born in this world to carry on…” Pretty deep stuff (sorry, no pun) for a sixteen year old.

“Four leaves on a clover, I’m just a shade of a bit hung over…” ~ Laura Nyro

 An Artist’s Artist: After my 4 am sweet blindness, when my “morning after” arrived, I spent it watching videos and reading interviews and bios, and listening to Laura. Turns out Laura was one of those artist’s artists. You know the ones—artists that never really came to be broadly known, but who are embraced by other hugely talented artists as an inspiration or a seminal influence. I found several interviews and quotes alluding to Laura in this capacity from a broad range of artists, from Elton John to Suzanne Vega to Todd Rundgren; even musicians as diverse as Paul Shaffer and Alice Cooper cite her influence. It’s said that Stevie Wonder wrote If You Really Love Me in tribute to Laura’s style.

Laura with David Geffen in '68

Laura with David Geffen in ’68

In the Geffen documentary, he bemoans the fact that she never really got her due, but he admitted that she never really wanted fame. She disliked being “handled” in the studio, and was uncomfortable in the spotlight. She just wanted to make music. You could hear the regret in Geffen’s voice. You might now better understand my intrigue.

 “Come on baby, do the slow float…” ~L.N.

Cherished Freedom: One of the documentaries I watched was filmed in 1995, less than two years before Laura’s untimely passing at the age of 49. It’s shot in her home, and she’s shown alone on camera, with the interviewer off camera. Her first words are: “It was a beautiful life—very joyful.” She goes on to discuss her life as an artist: “For me, singing is like… It’s the closest I can come to flying. Writing music is like creating musical architecture. It’s my favorite thing to do. I use everything—my spirituality, feminism, motherhood, relationships… It can be frustrating sometimes, if you let yourself check into that energy. You just have to work every day. It’s an important part of my well-being.”

“I don’t accept limitations. I can use whatever I want to in my work. And that, to me, is freedom. It’s a freedom I cherish.”

“It’s a very simple feeling I have about all of this. It’s about an integrated spirituality, built into having an artistic life. It brings me peace.”

In the film she certainly looks and sounds like she’s at peace. And it was filmed after she’d been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the same type that killed her mother, also at age 49.

“Now, ain’t that sweet-eyed blindness good to me…” ~L.N.

Laura’s Lessons: At the time of my 4 am sweet blindness, I hadn’t been working on a manuscript in several weeks. I’d been flailing back and forth about possible changes to a recently completed manuscript, even before all of the feedback was in. I was certainly in a place where I needed to be told to, “come on, baby, do the slow float.” In contemplation of Laura’s life and her work, I came away refreshed, and with a fresh outlook. Here are the lessons I’m taking to heart:

*Get back to work! Writing is my favorite thing to do. I enjoy using everything—my spirituality, my intelligence, my curiosity. Why would I allow weeks to go by without doing what I love?

*Don’t check into negative energy. There will always be ups and downs, and contradictions in feedback. Those are externals. Why should that have an effect on what I do from day to day?

*Forge your own artistic trail. Laura’s music can be somewhat polarizing. Even her voice is unique enough to be off-putting to some. You either get her and feel her, or you don’t. “Laura was not someone who copied people,” says veteran arranger and producer Charles Calello, who produced her second album. “She was original in every sense of the word.” In spite of that somewhat polarizing originality, it seems to me she never compromised on her art, never altered the path of her musical exploration in response to how her previous work was received. Now that’s a sort of sweet blindness I can aspire to.

*Find your peace through the work. Laura never had a top ten hit as a performer. But she had many top ten hits as a songwriter. She found herself—her identity as an artist—through the work itself. She did her “favorite thing” every day. She cherished the freedom, the expression, the outlet. And she found peace. Even in the face of an often fatal disease, she was able to smile at the camera and say, “It was a beautiful life—very joyful.” And I believe her.

Now, ain’t that sweet-eyed blindness good to me? You bet.

“Can you surry down to a stoned slow picnic?…” ~L.N. (from Stoned Slow Picnic)

Can You Surry? As I said, much ado has been made over Laura’s coining of the verb “surry” in the song Stoned Slow Picnic.  And no, this has nothing to do with a “surrey with the fringe on top.” When asked what it meant, Laura usually said something about liking the sound of it. When asked if it was a contraction of ‘let’s hurry,’ she was resolute: “Absolutely not. Quite the opposite.” David Geffen (who obviously knew her well at the time) explained it as being “a feel. It’s about allowing yourself to experience the joy of life. It’s about slowing down to recognize your happiness.”

I think “to surry” is to live without buying into negative energy, to do what we love, and to recognize the beauty, the freedom of it. If that’s true, then to surry is to move toward finding our peace in an artist’s life. To be able to honestly say, at the end, “It was a beautiful life—very joyful.”

Laura in '96, at peace

Laura in ’96, an artist at peace

So thanks, Laura, for surrying into my life when I needed you. Thanks for the inspiration and the life-lessons. Continue to surry, and be at peace.

How about you? Do you ever wake up with an old song in your head? Are your parents to blame? Will you help me to bring the verb “surry” into the lexicon? Would it matter to you if you were denied the recognition your work seemed to deserved? Can you find your peace through the work? 

Serenity Amdist Uncertainty – Writers In The Storm Redirect

121914 Best place to get the bluesSorry I’m late on this. I did a guest post for a very cool blog called Writers In The Storm this past Wednesday. It’s about facing the storm of uncertainty that is a career in writing fiction. And about measuring growth (or my seeming lack of ability to do so), and gaining a capacity for self-evaluation, and finding a bit of inner peace. I’ve been honored by the invitation, and by the essay’s acceptance by the WITS community. It seems to have been a balm for a few folks, as it certainly has been for me. And so I’m sharing it here, in the hopes that it continue to serve that role.

I haven’t been writing for a while. I’m trying to catch up on other, spring-related chores around here. But last night I woke up from a very clear dream about the characters from my recently completed manuscript. And the events of the dream clearly take place after the ending point of the last story. Book two is calling me again, and it fills me with wonder and writerly joy. No matter how far I stray, the world of Dania never fails to call me home.

And so, whether you have the time for the essay or not, I hope you too are always called home. I wish you writerly serenity… Or at least more good days than bad ones, and a semi-serene writing life (as the post explains about mine). Happy Spring! Have a great weekend!

Story Archeology: Unearthing My Vision

“As a writer, one is busy with archaeology.” ~Michael Ondaatje

Bones by Dr.Narin SapaisarnAccidental Archaeologist: Honestly, I didn’t even know I was digging, let alone what I was digging for. Through the decades before I started, I always thought I’d write a book. I’d write someday, you know: “in the future.” Before I started, it really didn’t feel like a burning desire. More like a romantic notion of having an interesting occupation as I moved toward and through my golden years.

Turns out there was a steady pilot light of burning desire deep inside of me all along. And I think that the banked fire within led me to take notice of the archaeological artifacts I had been stumbling across, and to gather and store them away, like curious fossils found on a leisurely beach stroll. Each item was interesting, but they hardly seemed interrelated or valuable.

I’m not sure which of my little found treasures provided the nudge that led to my putting carpenter’s pencil to jobsite notebook, with the spark of a story idea. I’m guessing it was the cumulative trove, so to speak.

Return of the King: Although I’ve credited Tolkien for my interest in history and myth, starting in the sixth grade, it likely began even earlier. Thanks to my parents, I was surrounded by history, via books and through visits to historical sites. After loving Tolkien’s work, and while I took every history class available, I read quite a bit of epic fantasy. But I was always left a bit dissatisfied. During the decades between college and embarking on my writing journey, I read mostly historical nonfiction, with a dash of historical fiction thrown in. But then Tolkien returned to my life with the coming of The Lord of the Rings movies. After enjoying the movie version of Fellowship of the Rings, I reread the trilogy.

The experience reminded me of an elemental part of myself that I’d buried away. Through fiction, I was feeling things I hadn’t felt in half a lifetime. And, although I couldn’t grasp the personal dynamics of my being so moved, I knew I wanted more.

Roots Reach: So I started reading epic fantasy again. I enjoyed some of it, but again, it seemed much of what I found was lacking. Which led me to ponder what I was actually seeking. Was it something about the world building? I would’ve guessed this was it. After all, I was the kind of reader that had read all of the LOTR appendices, who knew Gondorians from Rohirrim. But I came to see how even the most intricate setting and backstory by themselves could not make an epic successful. I also quickly realized that it didn’t matter to me if there were dragons or elves involved. Nor did I care about the type of magic, or even whether there was any magic at all. I started to wonder whether it had to do with the characters. But if what I sought wasn’t necessarily their backgrounds or worlds, was it their goals? Was it the villain, or what they were up against?

Little did I realize, my digging had begun.

From Bits O’ Bones: So while I pondered what to read, and what made a fantasy story more or less effective for me, I sifted my mental sands and came across my aforementioned fossils. One such nugget I’d squirreled away years prior was a former teacher’s theory that Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan were modeled after the Goths. That’s right, he suggested that Eomer and company were based on the barbarous heathens that had been the first to sack Rome. With that fossil already in the sifter, I next came across a distant relation’s theory that our family’s descendants were not only Germans who’d fled persecution in the Rhine region, but that we were descended from the Goths. Yep, Goths. And not just any old Goths, but Goths who’d been ceded land by the Roman government, for their service in fighting for the empire.

Eomer side-glanceWhoa! Another find for my basket. We’re related to the Riders of Rohan? And they weren’t simply barbarous pillagers, but fought for the empire? And they also weren’t necessarily heathens, but somehow ended up being protestants? Huh. So, were these supposed ancestors good guys or bad guys? It suddenly seemed to depend on one’s perspective.

Now I had a couple of bits o’ bone that seemed to fit together. I’d stumbled across enough to fuel my enthusiasm for a large-scale dig.

To Exposed Skeleton: Mind you, I still hadn’t admitted to myself what I was up to. But my excavation was in full swing. I started reading about Goths and Rome online. I ordered a related book or four. Only when a friend asked me why, and I blurted the answer, did I realize it. “I’m going to write a book about them.” From there, I went full throttle. I depleted all three of my region’s libraries of books on related topics. After about a year’s worth of digging, I started to lay out what I’d found for examination. There were a lot of fragments that didn’t exactly fit. And in some cases I’d set aside pieces that I later realized I needed. Construction began in earnest. And before long, I’d laid up an admirable set of connected bones. I didn’t know it wasn’t quite complete when I started writing, but that didn’t matter. Nothing like coming up against an incompletion in your skeleton to motivate a supplemental dig.

Eventually I was satisfied with my story skeleton. Which, of course, incited me to want more.

The Lure of the Flesh: Isn’t that what every good archaeological exhibit does—inspires us to wonder? To seek? In the case of a skeleton, what did this creature look like? Was it a he or a she? How did she behave? What was life like for her? How did she interact with her fellows? Who else lived in her world?

Even though at this point I’d done no study of story craft, I began to see how these questions would flesh a story out, so to speak. This is when I took the facts I’d found in my research and began to apply them to actual humans. It started simply enough. Questions like: How do they look? Where do they live? What do they do all day? Then I went deeper, asking things like: What do they eat? How do they dress? Where do they sleep? And proceeded on with: What sort of rules bind them? Who is in a position of authority over them? What is their level of mobility? How are they restricted?

As I fleshed them out, the issues that arose quite naturally had me asking questions that took me to the next layer: How do they feel.

The Empathetic Archaeologist: Um, yeah—feelings. What a discovery! Feelings would be a big part of envisioning a story. Huh, who knew? So I asked myself a new set of questions. Who do they care about? Why? Who cares about them? Why? What do they want to do? Why? What’s stopping or restricting them from getting what they want? Do others want the same things? Or the opposite?

This is the layer that gave me the clearest vision yet of road ahead. I didn’t know it, but I was plotting the story, creating a rough synopsis via my disorganized notes. And, although I don’t consider myself a plotter, this is where the process came to life for me. I didn’t know much about the craft of writing yet, but I forged ahead, informed by the stories I’d loved. Elemental as they were at first, I found my way to character goals and motivations and conflicts.

One. Step. Beyond! Archaeology: The next layer for me is the most difficult to pinpoint or describe. I think I’ve gleaned various facets of it since I first beganMadness_-_One_Step_Beyond composing. And I’m still working to grasp it all and incorporate it into my work. Beyond our bones and sinew, beyond our obvious needs and desires, human beings are amazingly complex creatures. So much is built into our goals, much of which we veil even from ourselves. So many of our motivations are multi-layered. Many of our best intentions are laced with fear and shame, guilt and selfishness. Hence our conflicts, both internal and external, are just as intricate and complex. And that’s before we add the amazing stuff we humans are capable of feeling and expressing—like love and generosity, loyalty and honor. Comprehending this extra layer—this One. Step. Beyond!—it’s the makings of writerly Madness. I mean that in the best possible way (i.e. addictive, contagious, life-altering, incurable).

You’re Soaking In It: As I say, this step beyond laying out the bones and adding the flesh to a story is the part I still strive to capture. And I’ve only just come to realize—I always will. This is the gig! This is what brought me to the blank page. And I’ve come to understand that’s what brings us to read, as well. We’re searching for ourselves—for what it means to be human. We’re all grappling, and we want to slip into the skins of our favorite characters to see how it’s done, how others are coping and faring. It’s just that some of us are lured to start our own dig. We already have our bits of bones, and we simply haven’t stumbled across another excavation that offers up the right fit for them.

V's Fossils and Artifacts

V’s Fossils and Artifacts

Exhibit Ah-ha! If our stories are like archaeology, my books will be my display pieces. Come over to the glass case out front. Take a peek at the bits of bone I’ve collected and laid up. Interested? Okay, next check out some of my artifacts. Now, are you drawn to take a closer look? Are you willing to take the time, to make the effort, to perceive this archaeologist’s interpretation of time and place—his findings and how they relate to the human condition? Will you find answers? Or at least better questions? If you suspect so, step inside my exhibit. Take a look at my complete rendering—my story. Together we can grapple with the complexities of being human.

Now it’s your dig, my fellow story archaeologists! Tell me about finding your artifacts. Did you know you were digging or collecting? Did you know the bits of bone you’d found fit together? How’s your exhibit coming along?

O.P.B. – On Giving Critique: Writer Unboxed Redirect

Portrait of a Man Reading, by Joseph Wright of DerbyI’m so pleased to have contributed an essay to Writer Unboxed. I’ve said repeatedly that I consider it an honor, and I still feel that way. But I’m particularly pleased today because I haven’t read this essay in while ( I often write them and turn them in weeks in advance). When I wrote this one, I’d just finished critiquing a manuscript for a dear friend, who is so brilliantly talented. The experience had fired me on all cylinders, and I think my enthusiasm comes through. It’s sort of a Karmic coincidence that now, as the essay reappears, I’m in the final stages of readying my own WIP for others to read and critique. A wise mentor of mine said that the best thing we writers can do for one another is read and be read. And taking his advice to the next level, that to really stretch ourselves, we need to strive to earnestly offer and receive and process thoughtful critique.

I’d be honored to have you stop by Writer Unboxed and share your experiences with critiquing. Or feel free to do so here. Here’s to reading and being read!

To Miss Helen, With Appreciation

Miss HelenMissing Miss: I’m already missing Miss Helen. For those who haven’t heard, my mother passed away a week ago last Friday, six days after her 87th birthday. She left us quietly and seemingly painlessly, at home, in her own bed. This was important to her, and a mixed blessing to us. Of course we’re very sad she’s left us. But she did not want to leave the home in which I grew up–a home into which she moved as a young wife and new mother when the house was new, in 1953. We were increasingly concerned for her living there alone. My sister Colleen and my cousin Cathy had been doing a stellar job taking care of her there (thank you both!), but it was becoming clear that a few stop-ins a day were no longer going to be enough to ensure her safe care. In typical Miss Helen fashion, she took the matter into her own hands, and saw to it that we did not have to worry. Strong-willed and independent to the end.

Quite a few people know I refer to my mom as Miss Helen. But I’m not sure how many know the origin of the moniker. You see, she was a remarkably capable retail manager, for a fashion apparel chain called Gantos. All of Gantos’ female employees wore name tags that identified them as “Miss.” For a brief time, she was my boss there, when I was a teen and became the morning maintenance man. Working in four locations, I stayed with Gantos through my college years, and with thanks to Miss Helen, the Gantos location near the MSU campus is where I met my wife. Hence, calling her “Miss Helen” is a nod to her as a competent, take-charge leader; a role model; a source of discipline, determination, and good taste.

Formative Foundation: I lost a lot when I lost my mom. Because of her I: love the beach, know how to cook and clean and do laundry, understand that the world owes me nothing, and that anything worth having is worth the work required to achieve it.  And because this is a writing blog, perhaps most importantly to this aspect ofThe formative novels my life, I am grateful to say that through her came my love of reading. And if I hadn’t become a reader, I certainly wouldn’t have aspired to write. When I left the house where I grew up after the funeral services, I only took a few mementos: a dozen or so pictures and an armload of books. These were books of hers that I know were formative to my writing journey. They are dog-eared and worn. But to me they are treasures.

My cousin Jim, a Methodist minister, performed the funeral services, and beforehand he asked my siblings and I for our recollections and impressions. As you will see if you read on, I am no poet, but this tribute to my mom just sort of flowed out of me before I met with Jim. I’m not sure it’ll translate well for those who didn’t know her, but since many who attended the service asked me for a copy, and I’m not sure who all I promised to send it to, I thought I’d share it here.

To Miss Helen

Bright of eye, a smile so wry, from under thumb but ready

A mate to suit, an anchor root; quiet, kind and steady

With rolled up sleeves and dirty knees, they build a sturdy nest

To family life, to mom and wife, Jane Wyatt knows what’s best

Through frugal years no time for fears, the race is with the rat

But apt our dress, no more—no less, “Oh, you’re not wearing that!”

The homework’s done before our fun, with sass best left unsaid

We claim done chores to head outdoors, “You swept under the bed?”

When two leave home, go out to roam, a ranch becomes a cage

The fresh-faced beauty hits midlife and comes to fear old age

How Stepford, Steel, and valley’s dolls made Cosmo’s ways seem festive

The Feminine Mystique revealed a prism for the restive

Lest we forget the day’s dictate, a woman’s job was flaunting

But out she strove onto a stage, defying dogma daunting

She swiftly found her suited role, purveyor of high fashion

And even quicker did she rise, with wits and guts and passion

As for me, her lessons stuck; I’m clean, I cook, I strive

I’ve made enough mistakes to claim, it’s good to be alive

To Mom I’m grateful for so much, beyond the rent at State

Beyond my life, her greatest gift: my longing to create

She opened up a doorway to a place where I’m unbound

Where Pillars of the Earth were sought, and Far Pavilions found

It seems she never understood her role inside my work

I pray that now she clearly sees this writing gig’s no quirk

If I could send an ending note to reach her up above

I’d let her know she lives on still, there is no end to love

I’d say to her, “Your task is done; we’re clean and try our best,”

I’d tell Miss Helen, “Job well-done. And now it’s time to rest…”

Harbor Springs Porch-Sitters (68 or 69)

Thanks, Mom. For everything. Love you, miss you. Be at peace. Till we meet again. 

Storytelling Tools: Experience and Instinct

Large Forklift - Large LoadAn odd juxtaposition of topics arose during a wonderful recent discussion with a mentor. The topics? Lumberyard procedure and storytelling tools. See? I told you it was odd. But it got me thinking about utilizing tools in a new light. Allow me to explain.

Versatile Tool: My insight starts with the forklift. Some may know the tool by the names fork-truck or lift-truck. Anyone who’s visited a lumberyard has likely witnessed the importance of the forklift to the business. Building materials are often heavy—dangerously so. Unloading trucks and railcars, storing stock, picking specific lots or tallies, and jobsite delivery are all tasks that rely on this marvelous piece of equipment. In a former life, I managed a lumber facility that operated over two dozen forklifts, ranging from small indoor propane models, to very large capacity diesel models. We even had one behemoth capable of lifting and hauling other stalled forklifts to our service shop. Even though we milled, prefinished, and delivered lumber on a broad range of equipment, the forklift was the piece of equipment that was indispensable to all aspects of our operation.

A forklift is really many tools in one piece of equipment. It lifts and lowers loads, as well as tilting them, and is often capable of shifting a load from side to side. It also transports both load and driver, forward and back, and in some cases with a multi-speed transmission, capable of going upwards of 30 mph.

The Daunt of Big Tools: Over the years, I oversaw the training of scores of employees in their operation and ongoing safe use of the forklift. It was a responsibility I never took lightly. Handling a powerful machine that can lift and move loads of massive weight and scale, in close proximity to others, calls for serious and ongoing diligence. One can never allow himself to become blasé about it.

Over the years I noticed that some forklift trainees were daunted by this fairly complex and dangerous machine. Sometimes to the point of becoming overly-cautious and hesitant in their use. Rightfully so. In such cases, it was necessary to build a trainee’s confidence by giving them simple tasks and small loads, out of harm’s way. At the end of the day, you can only read so many manuals or watch so many training videos. At some point, you have to get behind the wheel. The only cure for inexperience is to gain experience.

I suspect you might be starting to glean what my forklift background has to do with my writing epiphany.

An Impetuous Baseline: Allow me to use myself—as a former forklift driver as well as a writer—to illustrate the analogy. I started driving a forklift before I was licensed to drive a car. No, it wasn’t legal. Or safe. But it was a long time ago. Jobsite safety was not the priority it has rightly become. And I was under the supervision of men who had their own jobs to do, and who expected young men to have a natural aptitude for driving and tool use. And, as a typical teenage male, I was anxious to prove them right.

“The young are always ready to give those older than themselves the full benefit of their inexperience.” ~Oscar Wilde

In other words, I was a hotdog, a showoff, eager to test my own limits as well as the limits of this powerful machine. I’d had a few experimental, off-road experiences behind the wheel of a car before my first time on a forklift. And I’d watched a lot of others, both driving cars and operating forklifts, with an avid interest born of the anticipation to drive. So I had a baseline of experience from which I drew my confidence to try my hand at operating this complex piece of equipment. I didn’t know what I was doing, and my early efforts demonstrated my inexperience. Yet I somehow managed to get quite a bit done. And managed to not kill or maim myself or anyone else in the process.

“Never let inexperience get in the way of ambition.” ~Terry Josephson

The same goes for writing fiction. When I started, I was excited to “just do it.” I’d done some experimental, off-road (read: not to be shown) writing in the past. And I’d read a lot of books, with an avid interest born of the anticipation to become an author. What more did I need?

Needless to say, I didn’t know what I was doing, and my initial efforts clearly demonstrated my inexperience. And yet I managed to get quite a bit done. (And the only resulting injuries suffered were by my characters—unless you include the bafflement or boredom of some early readers.)

Caution Born of Experience:

“Intuition is reason in a hurry.” ~Holbrook Jackson

As the years went by, I not only gained skill that eventually became expertise, I came to more fully appreciate both what a forklift was capable of accomplishing, and just how potentially dangerous and costly its ill-use could be. I’d gotten to a point where operating a forklift seemed to come by rote. It felt intuitive. But I was often reckless and rushed. I had near misses and spills. More than I care to admit. Thankfully, my recklessness never led to injury, but it often came with a cost, in time and money due to damage. But with maturity came the wisdom that hurrying with a forklift often led to delay and mishap.

 “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” ~Albert Einstein

I was once a prolific writer. I don’t say this to show off. I produced many pages per day without pause. In the rush to “be finished” and to submit and be read, the words just poured out. It honestly felt good. I got to a point where it felt intuitive. I knew how to drive, and wanted to step on the gas, to get to the damn destination, already. The first draft of my epic fantasy trilogy was over 650,000 words. I was so naïve, I didn’t even know such a length might be considered a pitfall.

It was only through being read and critiqued, and then through trying again, and again, that I realized the cost of my hurry. Six years later, and only through many rewrites, through working with a professional editor and coach, and through many critiques, have I come to realized how much I didn’t know—to find pause to consider how much I still don’t know.

Taking Stock of the Lesson Load: So here I am, a decade into this new gig, experienced but cautious, still eager but mindful of the patience required for success. I doubt I’m as skilled a writer as I once was a forklift operator, but close enough to illustrate my point. The epiphanies I reach are manifold, but the biggest lessons seem to fall into two categories:

1)Structure and Efficiency: As a forklift operator, I learned to see a load of lumber to be built as a series of steps to be addressed. Each order becomes a unit, built with a solid foundation and a stackable shape. Units must then be carefully placed on the truck, in the proper order; delivery routes in the proper succession, to achieve any sort of efficiency. Knowing the optimal structure of a load allows you to more easily handle the addition of complexity. Once beyond a load’s basic size and shape, one must consider geography, urgency, fragility, perishability, to name a few. It’s wise to know the rules, but it also pays to learn how to best break them and when.

As a writer, I’ve learned to see story structure as an aid—a series of steps to be addressed in pursuit of efficient storytelling. From inciting incident to crisis to reaction to climax and resolution, it’s wise to know how to stack the basic blocks of the story I seek to build. If I know the basics of structure, I can then take into account the setting, timeline and peripheral obstacles. To maximize its impact efficiently, I must consider not only the goals and motivations of my characters, I need to be conscious of their worldview and the state of their psyche. After all, it’s not just about delivering my characters to “The End.” Rather, it’s about the changes accrued in making the journey, and the state they arrive in.forklift-auto-dash

2) Complexity and Intuition: As I pointed out, the forklift is a complex and versatile tool. If an operator stopped to think about each and every step, carefully considered each and every lever and pedal individually, with each successive use, it would either slow progress to impracticality, or completely debilitate the attempt. With practice, the operator gains the intuition to size up the load in question, find its center of gravity, lower the forks while steering and accelerating to scoop, tilt and lift while backing, shift gears while steering to avoid obstacles in route, gauge the proper height and alignment upon the approach to a truck bed, etcetera. Advance planning of the steps, and constant surveillance of the surroundings and assessment of the progress are needed, but these additional considerations also come more naturally with experience.

As I said, I’ve become a cautious writer. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also allowed the lessons to make me hesitant, allowed my awareness of the tools to overwhelm my progress. I have put in a lot of practice, and I’ve found my way to successes. I know how to plan and assess progress, and I’ve demonstrated I’m persistent enough to get to “The End.” I long to make progress, and yet I’ve become tentative.

Deliberate Intuitiveness: Thinking about my former skill operating a forklift reminds me to have faith in my experience. I need to get to a place of trusting my instincts again. Not in an impetuous or immature way. It’s not that I believe I have instinctual talent. But I do believe in my innate ability to adjust based on experience, to sublimate my story impulses, to unconsciously apply practiced lessons.

Hefting the Writing LoadI need to trust that I know my way around the levers and pedals of story by rote, and get this story built and delivered. After all, you can’t build an order file until prove you can deliver. And I’ve got a lot of back-stock to work through.

Fork it Over: What’s your intuitive skill? Does it provide a baseline for accumulating expertise? Do you ever find yourself worrying too much about all the levers and pedals of storytelling? Please deliver your load in the comments.

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