Spartans, What is Your Profession?

The Spartan (Sparty) MSU CampusFaltering Fandom:  I don’t often talk about sports with my writing friends. Other than the occasional, “You knocked it outta the park,” I’m not even a big fan of sports metaphors. They mostly seem clichéd or contrived. That’s not to say I’m not a sports fan. I am. Back in my days in business, watching professional and college sports was not only entertaining but an undemanding diversion from the work-a-day life. On occasion I still watch entire games, but I think since I started writing I’ve filled the majority of those hours with reading. In spite of my faltering enthusiasm for sports, I still follow the progress of my favorite teams.

Loyalist or Masochist? I suppose largely because football (of the American variety) was my dad’s game, it’s always been my favorite as well. Seems like an old-fashioned notion, but my dad believed in staying loyal to a team. When I was a boy, because they were successful at the time, I once told him I was a Green Bay Packers fan. This did not sit well with Dad. His disapproval must’ve struck a chord with mini-me. Because of this, since I’ve always considered Michigan my home, and since I graduated from Michigan State University, my two football teams have always been the Detroit Lions and the Michigan State Spartans. Yep—I’m one of those: a (mostly) longsuffering fan. A sports masochist, so to speak.

Magic in the Air: There’s been a stirring in the late autumn air here in the Mighty Mitten. A sort of gridiron magic that is lingering longer than the typical cold snap. This time it’s gaining momentum—like a winter storm front sweeping across the Great Lakes. As of the writing of this, the Lions are leading their division at 7-5. Just before I started writing I actually heard an analyst call the Lions: “The most talented team in the NFL.” (Reality check: He also called them sloppy and inconsistent, but still…)

Prepare for Glory! Then there are the Spartans. Saturday night I was up very late (for me) watching my alma mater’s teamSpartan logo white on green win the Big Ten Championship game and a Rose Bowl bid. And they did it in convincing fashion, by soundly beating the #2 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. I haven’t been that worked up about a sporting event… well, since the last time MSU won the Big Ten and a Rose Bowl bid… In 1987 (in a game against Indiana that I attended).

The play of these kids (let’s face it—I’m fast-approaching being old enough to be the players’ grandfather) has really captured my imagination and enthusiasm. As we did in January of ’88, my wife and I are even considering making the trip to Pasadena to watch “our kids play ball” on the big stage of the 100th edition of the Grand-daddy of All Bowl Games.

Just an Arcadian: Although I am excited by my Spartans, I am not a player or a coach. I don’t have any kin playing. I have rarely attended games in the past ten years (as I age I’ve become increasingly less fond of crowds and traffic). These Spartans are merely kids playing a game for a school I attended over twenty-five years ago.

If Spartan King Leonidas had asked after my vocation, I would’ve dropped my gaze to my sandals and murmured, “I’m but a scribe, sire.” But that doesn’t mean my heart wouldn’t swell in hearing the reply when Leonidas asked the same of his 300 men. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t feel inspired by the bravery and determination of  those who share an institutional alliance and a common sense of place with me here in The Mighty Mitten.Spartans. what is your profession

Sleepless in Sparta: I went to bed after the game, but it left me tossing and turning, unable to settle to slumber after the exhilaration of witnessing sporting history. So rather than counting invading Persians (or blitzing Buckeyes), or reciting memorized lines from 300, I contemplated how these Spartans have captured my imagination. And I actually concluded that it has much to do with the current state of my writing journey. In the spirit of citizenship with my fellow scribes, I thought I’d share the ways:

*Quiet Competence: As sporting teams go, in this age of swag and brag, this Spartan team has stayed relatively quiet. There’s little talk and much devotion to a work ethic. They seem to understand that results are what matter. Even though they are amateurs (kids, as I mentioned), they’ve maintained a workmanlike professionalism about the game.

The same goes for writing. Impressive word counts, blog stats, even pretty pages of prose—none of it matters in the face of a successful manuscript. For each work-in-progress, I need to focus on the result of a finished story arc that satisfies. A pro seeks success and doesn’t bother himself with distractions or peripherals. If I choose to be a novelist, only successful novels count. I’m in this for the long haul. I want to write many more books. I want to be a pro. I should act like one.

*Adapt and Grow/Play all four quarters: The Spartans have come a long way since their only loss in mid-September (yes, Domers, we remember—to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish). The Spartans have learned from their mistakes. Even within the context of a game, the Spartans—particularly on defense—are constantly adjusting and adapting. Even when they were down this season, they continued to endeavor to find a winning formula. Their game-plan is fluid, and includes discarding what isn’t working and finding success through a willingness to change. They continued to adapt and grow—each drive, each defensive stop, each quarter, each game… All season.

My original game-plan for my trilogy included a prologue and opening with an examination of the childhoods of five primary characters. Even after six major rewrites, and an opening quite different from that of the first game-plan, I’m still not sure I’ve found the formula for success. But I know the season is far from over.

*Momentum is All About Attitude: There was a point in the Big Ten championship, late in the first half and early second, that the Buckeyes scored twenty-four unanswered points. They had clearly gained the momentum. The Spartans were on their heels and behind. But there was no quit in their eyes. They kept at it. You could see the ongoing effort, the upright postures. They worked down the field, grinding out an ugly drive that netted them a mere field-goal. They still trailed. Then the defense held the Buckeyes to a three-and-out. They gutted out the most unlikely of momentum shifts late in the game… Against a team that everyone expected to win—not only this game, but a national championship.

We’ve all had rejections. I know I have. And I am subject to bouts of writerly sulk. No matter how many people have read my work and said they’ve enjoyed it, there are days when I am utterly focused on the lesser number of readers who never finished, said they weren’t drawn in, or simply didn’t care for it.

Let’s face it—there are always going to be others who are picked to win. Sometimes it seems like others get all the breaks. If we allow ourselves to get down about it, we’ve already lost. Every game has momentum shifts. There will always be difficult periods. We must keep fighting, with our backs straight and our heads up. Even gutting out a long-shot, low-points score—such as a personalized critique in a rejection or a positive review for a short piece—can change the momentum in our favor.

*Don’t Listen to the Experts/Play Your Own Game: At the season’s onset you would’ve been hard-pressed to find many who would’ve picked the Spartans to win-out their Big Ten schedule, let alone defeat OSU in the championship game. They started the season unranked, and even as late as the kickoff Saturday night, few reckoned them more than a footnote to the collegiate football season. All season long, sports media analysts said they were: too reliant on defense, too reliant on an average running game, had an inexperienced quarterback, etcetera. Today they are calling the Spartans Rose Bowl-bound champions.

I’ve always heard things from “the publishing experts” that boded ill for me. Over the years I’ve heard: I must keep manuscripts under 120K, that women warriors are insulting to women, that fantasy must include a well-ordered system of magic, and that the quest of a protagonist to leadership was the kiss of death. I suppose I’ve decided to play my own game. But then again, when I started ten years ago, I often heard that epic fantasy was passé, that it didn’t sell. Things change.

Spartans Never Retreat, Never Surrender: I know that not every try will result in a win. Finding my way to my own vision of a satisfying story—seen in my mind and felt in my heart—and then finding it again and again, is the only thing that will make my writing journey a success. I’ve been at this quite a while, but I feel like the end of a long but successful first season is in sight. And, with the right inspiration and attitude, I could have a long career ahead.

So yes, Leonidas, I know what my profession is.    Leonidas

Have you ever been inspired by an athlete or a sports team? Are you ready to answer Leonidas with pride? 

Fatherly Inspiration

gaylord0001 (2)This coming Monday is Veterans’ Day. My father was a veteran and a week from Wednesday is his birthday. He would’ve been 95. It has also been 20 years since his passing, in September of ’93, just two months short of his 75th birthday. So he’s been on my mind.

Brothers of the Greatest Generation: It’s become a bit of a cliché, but I honestly think the WW2 generation deserves the moniker, and will keep their special place in history. And it wasn’t just that they grew up in the depression and fought and won one of the greatest conflicts the world has known. It was what came after, too. They came back, educated themselves, and got to work. They managed this, in part, through a couple of attributes that my dad exemplified: quiet courage and humility.

My dad grew up on a farm in south-central Michigan. He and his brother Gordon, just one year younger, both joined the army before America entered the war, right out of high school. By all accounts, my dad and Gordy had always been very close.

Quick story to illustrate. After my dad passed away and while I was still doing outside sales to lumberyards, I called on a little, old-time lumberyard near my dad’s childhood stomping grounds. I entered and a bell clanked on the door, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around. I navigated aisles of nail bins on creaky wood floors, making my way back to the contractor’s sales desk. There sat the lone elderly employee, leaning back behind the counter reading a newspaper. He didn’t say a word as I introduced myself, and barely glanced up after I gave him my card. He squinted down at my card through half-glasses, and finally said, “Any relation to Gaylord or Gordy?” I told him that I was Gaylord’s son and said, “You knew my dad?”

“Oh, we met,” he said with a wry smile. “Your dad made a block on me that I’ll never forget. Took me clean out of the play, which allowed your uncle to score the winning touchdown for our division championship. I’ll never forget those two. They really packed a one-two punch. Never was sure which, but one of ‘em broke my nose that night.”

I’d known that my dad had been a fullback in high school, and that his brother had been the quarterback, but I’d never heard such a story. Although he loved the game his whole life, my dad had always waved off any football prowess, saying something like: “I was just a blocking back. Gordy was the real athlete of the family.”

Dad & Gordy mugging for the camera before Gordy shipped overseas.

Dad & Gordy mugging for the camera in front of my grandmother’s house before Gordy shipped overseas.

My dad started his service in the Airborne, but as America’s involvement in the European theater increased, he was transferred to the Blackhawks—the 86th Infantry Division. While he was training to be shipped overseas, he learned of his little brother Gordy’s death. Gordon’s ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean Sea, on its way to invade North Africa. There were no survivors.

Respect Gained Too Late: I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t respect my dad when he was alive. We shared a very special relationship. My parents divorced when I was fourteen. I’m the youngest, and my sister went with my mom, leaving Dad and I alone in the house. All through my high school years, my dad and I learned to cook together. Shortly after the divorce, I helped to paint the house to earn money for a new stereo for my room. He went with me to pick it out. I would pull one of the big speakers out into the hall and crank it up while we made and ate dinner. This ex-GI, a big band lover and fan of The Lawrence Welk Show, indulged my every musical obsession, from The Who to The Clash, at floor-thumping volume, during dinner! Now that’s a cool dad.

But I’ve gained a much deeper respect for him and his life since his passing. He was always just dad. I’d always been a history buff, and read scores of books on WW2 during my teen years. He knew of my interest, and I knew he didn’t want to talk about it. He’d always say things like: “We were just doing our job. All we wanted was to get the job done, so we could come home.”

I once convinced him we should watch the movie Bridge at Remagen together on TV. He knew that I knew that the story centered on his division, the Blackhawks. Even knowing he didn’t want to talk, after an intense action sequence I couldn’t restrain myself. I ventured: “Did you shoot at them like that?” With hooded eyes, he gave me a half-nod. I saw his discomfort, which made me squirm. He finally said, “When they said march, we marched. When they said shoot, we shot. I decided a long time ago that it’s something I don’t want to dwell on.” We watched the rest in silence, and I knew the film was forcing him to dwell.

Over the years, I gained a few additional precious tidbits regarding his war service. One memorable one relates to his unit’s transport to the Pacific theater. The Blackhawks were one of the first divisions pulled out of Europe in late ’44. They were to be the “seasoned veterans” on the front lines for the invasion of mainland Japan. My dad told me that while they were en route, their commanding officer lined them up on deck and told them to look at the soldier on their left, then on their right. They were told that one of the three of them would not survive the first day of the attack. While they steamed toward a sure bloodbath, news came that America had dropped the bomb, and that Japan had surrendered. You can only imagine their relief. It was short-lived. They were rerouted to the Philippines, for “cleanup operations,” rooting out Japanese that would not believe the war was over. Can you imagine putting your life on the line, watching your buddies become casualties, knowing that the war was over? The Blackhawks didn’t make it home until December of ’46.

My Kind of Coach: But it hasn’t just been his war experience that I’ve gained respect for. My dad was a postman for almost 30 years. He trained so many letter carriers, the whole post office called him Coach. He walked from the post office to his route and back every day, never taking a truck although he was offered many. He went to work at 5:30 every day, often before the snow plow had come by. When he had a heart attack at age 64, he had accumulated enough unused sick days to carry him to his retirement—over a year’s worth.

I’ve already written about my dad’s love of gardening, here. He grew up on the farm, and his inner farm-boy remained intact throughout his life. He loved big family dinners after a hard day’s honest work. His dedication to hand-turning the compost into the soil of his expansive vegetable garden each spring was uniquely definitive of his character. Dedication and patience yields results. There was no use jawin’ about it, or searching for a miracle cure (those motorized tillers were “for the birds” according to Dad). Just dig in and get the job done.

Image (22)Parental Guidance Has Been Suggested: Even though my dad passed away a decade before my writing journey began in earnest (almost to the day), I’ve been thinking about his influence on my work. I may not have become a gardener, but in regard to finishing manuscripts, I know that I learned my tendency to “just dig in and get the job done.”

And, in hindsight, I see so much of him in the work itself. It might seem strange to those who’ve read my work, as the primary protagonist of my trilogy feels his father’s legacy is a curse. But that is not where I see him. My MC’s grandfather and elder mentor are both calming and steadying influences. They remind him that what really matters can only be found inside. I see Dad in these elder mentor figures. My dad was 44 when I was born, so many of my most powerful memories of him are from when he was in his fifties (my age now). In a way, he was always very grandfatherly with me (since I was the baby, I’m certain my elder siblings would agree that he was much sterner and stricter with them).

My protagonist abhors the glorification of war. He is honor-bound to creating a peaceful existence for his people, even in the face of being named a coward for his principles. From his elders he’s learned that what other people say about him means nothing, that staying true to himself is all. But when there is no other recourse, he knows there’s no sense jawin’ about it or hoping for a miracle. He digs in and gets the job done.

Yeah, there’s quite a bit of my father in my work. So thanks, Dad. Miss ya, Big Guy.

Do you see your parents in your work? Care to share? 

Orchestrating Impact

The Concert, by Theodoor RomboutsGetting Under the Shell:

“…A story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. The good news is that protagonists… live and breathe and make decisions the same way we do. The bad news is that writers often tend to leave this crucial layer out, giving us only a beautifully written rendition of the story’s external shell – the plot, the surface, the “things that happen” — rather than what’s beneath the surface, where the real meaning lies.” ~ Lisa Cron

If you are a regular reader here you probably know I’m working on another rewrite of book one of my trilogy. Thanks to some amazing feedback and guidance from some fantastic mentors and beta-readers, I’m well into the project. I knew from the start that this rewrite was about adding internal meaning to mostly external events (plot). But even with the insight I’ve gained, I need consistent reminding to dig deeper, to get under the shell and seek the “real meaning” in each scene.

The Lisa Cron quote above came from a knockout of a post on Writer Unboxed. I highly recommend taking the time to read. But if you don’t mind, please don’t go till you’re done here. It’s so thought-provoking, you might never come back. To give you an idea, in his comment on the post, Don Maass said he was unplugging his computer for a week to process what she’d written. Anyway, Lisa provoked at least a full morning of deep thought on my part… so far.

Of Bones and Flesh and Suits of Armor: About a week ago, when I first came up with the idea for this post, on a slip of paper I wrote: “Stripped to bone by revision, now addingSuit of Armor flesh back.” My first draft of this story had good bones, but it was most definitely bloated. I knew it needed to be stripped down, focused on what really propelled the story. So in my revision last fall, I mercilessly cut. The final result in its last incarnation was pretty lean and mean, fairly tightly focused on my two primary protagonists. In the process I’d sacrificed much of my characters’ introspection. This was a big portion of the so-called flesh I’d stripped away. But it was more than liposuction. I know it needed to be done. The introspection was often indulgent and disruptive, occasionally clumsy or unnecessary to the issues at hand, and/or slowing to the pace.

So the metaphor didn’t seem quite right. I don’t believe my characters were mannequins or overly archetypal, or that their goals or conflicts felt contrived. I’m confident I’ve created a unique world populated with multidimensional characters. And I’ve been told the result of my last rewrite produced a competent and polished draft. It was Lisa’s use of the word “shell” that made me think of it. My story had become a suit of armor—and a fairly well-wrought one at that. It was tailored to fit reader expectations, flexible enough to handle the action at hand, even fairly shiny, if I do say so.

But I realize now it was also built to be protective. I’d inadvertently given my story a hardened, slick outer shell, seeking to make it impervious to external attack. Critique of the story could not hurt me, because it was all about external events. Nothing could really penetrate it and get to me, because I hadn’t exposed much.

Turns out it still hurts to be told that your work is indeed slick, but that it’s also too invulnerable to be as significant as it could be. So much for armor.

Digging Deeper to Get Vulnerable:

“What gives a story high impact is that which is most personal and passionate in its author. That includes your own fears. They are your compass. They’re pointing you to what unsettles. And also to what matters.” ~Donald Maass (From Writing 21st Century Fiction)

So a few months ago, in preparation for this rewrite, seeking to gain a better grasp on all of the feedback I’ve received, I scheduled a phone conference with my mentor Cathy Yardley. We talked about how the characters were affected by the events, about how backstory informed their mindsets and thereby their actions, about doing a chart to map the goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC) for each scene, and so forth. It would’ve been a productive session with just those things. But Cathy took it a step further.

Turns out, besides being a wonderful editor and coach, she’s a pretty damn good psychotherapist (perhaps that goes with the territory?). She gently inquired again about what originally inspired my writing and what I’d hoped to capture (something we’ve discussed before). Then, in a flash, with surgical precision, she zeroed in on my fears regarding those passions. Before I knew it, I was wiping welling tears, unable to speak without a quaver in my voice. “Right there—capture that,” she said, “and your rewrite will succeed.”

Don is right, and Cathy showed me it was so. My most personal passions twined with my deepest fears about them guided me right to what matters, and to the beating heart of my trilogy.

Seeking Symphony: Being willing to reveal more of myself is not enough (and I still struggle with just willingness). It’s easier said than done. Adding the internal layers I’ll need in order to achieve higher impact will be an intricate operation. To take it to another level, I will need the internal and external, the backstory and the unfolding action, to work in symphony, building to a crescendo of emotional significance.

I was thinking about this in regards to a documentary I saw on the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, the milestone 1969 album by Simon and Garfunkel. I was particularly struck by the evolution of the song of the same name. Paul had written the song quickly, and turned in an acoustic version, accompanying himself on guitar. You can listen to that early version here. He’d only written the first two verses, and he envisioned it as a simple, stripped-down gospel style song. Both Art and producer Roy Halee wanted it to be longer and to have more emotional impact. They implored Paul to write a third verse to bring the themes of the song home, so to speak.

If you’re like me, you’ve heard this song a zillion times (perhaps you’re thinking one too many?). But take a minute to listen to the final version again. After Art sings the original two verses over simple piano accompaniment, the song comes to a fitting climax, and that could’ve been a satisfactory end. In my opinion, it still would’ve been a hit song. But then comes the third, added, verse:

“Sail on silver girl, Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
…” ~Paul Simon

Now, for the first time, Paul is harmonizing with Art. The lyrics speak to a definitive sacrifice for friendship. “Your time has come to shine, All your dreams are on their way.” Then, “I’m sailing right behind.” My interpretation: things have been tough along the way, but I know good things are coming for you, and I’ll be there for you—no matter what. That’s heady stuff by itself.

But along with the theme enhancement of the added verse we are introduced to subtle bass and drum, and then strings. The instrumentation builds and builds to a symphonic crescendo paired with Garfunkel’s soaring voice. It’s wonderfully powerful. They took what would’ve been a perfectly sound song, probably a minor hit and, in my opinion, made it one for the ages. I’m willing to bet people will know that song for generations to come. All because Simon and Garfunkel were willing to dig deeper, to take it to another level.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Please know I am not comparing myself to Paul Simon… nor even Art Garfunkel. I am inspired by such things. But most of the time I feel like I fumbling forward in the dark, hoping I won’t be tripped on my way to “The End.” And all without a suit of armor. I know it’s still up to me to orchestrate the changes that will take this book to the next level. But thanks to my mentors and my tribe, I feel like I’ve got some moonlight to guide me. Thanks to all of you who’ve supported me. Wish me luck!

What about you? Are you polishing your suit of armor? Are you willing to dig deep and get vulnerable? Or have you heard Bridge Over Troubled Water one too many times, and couldn’t care less about having that kind of impact?

Image credit: mg7 / 123RF Stock Photo

Writing To That Spooky Feeling

Forest Wanderer by Caspar David FriedrichDéjà Vu All Over Again: I had one of those spooky feelings about my work last weekend. I’m sure you writers have experienced something similar, or at least I hope you have. I’ve had several versions of it. I have found myself able to perfectly picture places I’ve never been. I have felt I was in the skin of characters I’ve never met or seen anywhere else. I’ve wondered where story elements came from even as my fingers tapped them out.

It’s been one of the most amazing parts of my writing journey. And even though I have written outlines in the past, and plan on continuing to explore better and more efficient ways to plot and outline in future works, I hope I never stop having spooky epiphanies and instances of literary déjà vu.

Whapped By My Muse: In this past weekend’s instance, I suddenly knew something about my historical fantasy series. I have four finished manuscripts—a trilogy and its prequel. At the end of the trilogy is a built-in spring-board to move the story forward. And I’d always had ideas, nearly a notebook full of them, for the day when I can actually continue the story. My spooky feeling this weekend came when I was noodling and writing my weekly facebook history post about a small group of actual historical figures—Goths and Romans. I started a sentence: “Although none of my characters is specifically based on…” And I got stuck. I stood up, stretched and went for more coffee to work out the rest. I poured the coffee and stood staring out the window, and said aloud to myself, “It’s almost as if the trilogy was about their parents’ generation.”

And voilà. My wheels were spinning so fast, I could hardly get the surge of ideas down on paper. It was as if my muse had whapped me upside my head and was standing there with her arms crossed, nodding in satisfaction, but saying to herself, “It’s about time you got it!” If I can pull this off, it’s going to be as if all four of my manuscripts had been specifically designed to lead into this exact series of events. The stars had aligned, as if it was always meant to be—as if by magic.

Channeling Ancient Terror & Tumult: I said that the spooky feeling is one of the most amazing parts of my writing journey. And my writing journey has been the most amazing of my life. Of course the emotions that surface are not always happy. But the emotions found are my own, and therefore an important part of my journey toward self-knowledge and personal growth. Even the sadness and grief I’ve found in fiction are cathartic. They help me to recognize and order my emotions, as well as to release those that are buried or bound up inside.

The tragic events in Boston this week remind me of my most profoundly haunting and emotional writing experience. It occurred during the writing of book three of my trilogy. Beforehand I’d read an account of a historical atrocity, and I immediately recognized it as a part of the motivation and mindset for my characters’ actions. The account was brief and very prosaic—maybe three paragraphs.

Reading about the atrocity hadn’t particularly moved me. It was just another terrible, cruel thing one group of people had done to another; history is rife with such behavior. But I knew it belonged in my story. When it came time to write the scene, a funny thing happened. Now I knew the characters involved. I knew it meant death for a few and immense pain for many others. I put it off… for weeks.

The day came when I could put it off no longer. I steeled myself and sat to write. The scene poured out of me as if from a broken dam. It came out fully formed, and has required almost no revision since. The moment I finished typing the final, tragic sentence, I leapt to my feet. I walked laps around my house, unable to draw a satisfying breath, tears streaming down my face. I finally threw on a coat and walked to my bench on the beach. I sat and sobbed. Until my black lab, Belle, could stand my odd behavior no longer, and nudged me to play Frisbee with her, as if to remind me that life goes on. She has a way of doing that.

Immortal Feelings: But the experience serves to remind me of the importance of fiction. Terrible events are marginalized by time and distance. Atrocities become history, which becomes prosaic. Until we are brought to the proper perspective. Writers offer that perspective. They say we write to be immortal. They say we write to make sense of the world and to seek ourselves. I think there is truth to those things. But my experience makes me wonder if we write to make sure that events remain immortal as well. And not just to make sure the events are unforgotten, but that the feelings evoked live on, as well. History cannot be allowed to become prosaic. Atrocities should never become statistics, and cruelty should never be a footnote.

Mystical Connection or Cognitive Complexity? I’m still not sure if my connection to the atrocity was somehow mystical, or if I was simply releasing my own pent up, Caspar_David_Friedrich_Cemetery_at_Dusk (1825)subconscious grief. But I know it was a significant moment in my life. Whether my work is published, or whether another soul ever reads it or feels even a fraction of what I felt, it is significant. And I’m grateful.

In my first interview ever, here, interviewer extraordinaire Lara Schiffbauer asked, “Do you believe in everyday magic?”

My answer then applies here: “In a recent discussion about the mystical versus the scientific in regard to writers having a muse, I weighed in on the side of the mystical. I believe there is so much more going on than can be easily explained. Those on the other side claim that the seemingly amazing story elements that occur as if from nowhere are just a byproduct of our brain’s complexity—the result of accessing our cognitive subconscious. Even if the science proponents are right, it’s still pretty damn magical to me. Even if I’m self-deluding, why would I want to live in a world without magic?”

I still stand by my answer, even if I’m still self-deluding.

Have you written to the spooky feeling? Do you think it’s mystical or cognitive complexity? Or does it matter? Would you rather just join me in potential self-deluding than consider it? 

Destiny Calling

11097070_m“Don’t believe the adverts, Don’t believe the experts, Everyone will sell our souls;
Get a little wiser,
Get a little humble, Now we know that we don’t know;
Tell us when our time’s up,
Show us how to die well, Show us how to let it all go;
Here we come, This is our destiny calling…”~Timothy Booth, James Glennie, David John (from the song Destiny Calling, by James)

An Age-Old Question: A recent thread on facebook inspired this post. It was a long and thoughtful discussion among friends, delving the depths of a deep and fairly personal topic: predestination versus freewill. Not bad for facebook, huh? A bit more provoking and inspiring than your typical Grumpy Cat meme.

I’m not sure anything was resolved. Everyone has their own feelings on the subject, and the answers for each of us are rooted in our own brand of spirituality (or, in some cases, a resolute lack thereof). But it reminded me how much of my work is tied up in the issue. You see, I’ve looked at destiny from a lot of angles—to the tune of four long manuscripts.

Bringer of Urrinan:  

The Priestess Amaseila came to offer him blessing. She held her hands out to him. Upon his touch she gasped and convulsed, eyes wide and knees buckling. Vahldan tried to pull his hands away to help her keep her feet, but she clung to him, even as she slumped and grimaced.

The onlookers stirred and murmured, but none dared intervene. Her haunting gaze never left him, but she finally regained herself and straightened. “It is you,” she breathed, as if recognition dawned. Her voice rose, “You are the bringer. You will wreak great pain upon our people. But also will you bring glory, and great joy. What is to come through you will change us all— Gottari and Skolani alike—forever. You shall be the start of it. For upon your doom, the Urrinan shall ride.”~From The Severing Son (Prequel to The Legacy of Broken Oaths Trilogy by Yours Truly)

Destiny’s Child: And so it begins. Not just for Vahldan, but for his progeny, for generations to come. In keeping with the real world, I sought to include religious and cultural dogma and superstition in how my characters perceive destiny. I do not ask my readers to believe that the Priestess Amaseila has any prophetic abilities or that Vahldan is actually doomed, or that his progeny will bring about the Urrinan (a prophesied cataclysmic change in the imperial world). In fact, I hope I’ve left readers free to deduce that Amaseila, as well as her equally outspoken daughter Amaga, are: actually in touch with the divine, lucky guessers, clever enough to manipulate those who think them prophetic, completely delusional, or some combination of the above.

“There is a divinity that shapes our ends; Rough hew them how we will.” ~William Shakespeare

External Impact: It wasn’t the prophesy of the Urrinan or Vahldan’s destiny that particularly interested me. No, what I chose to explore was how our views about our own destiny are shaped externally, primarily by the social imposition of beliefs and the expectations of others in our lives. Time and again, my characters are forced to make choices based on their belief in a destiny imposed upon them. Over the course of the trilogy, they are faced with coming to terms with the concept of fate. They must choose whether to embrace a predetermined vision that had been laid before them, or to hew a path toward their own version of destiny by staying true to themselves. Of course, whatever they choose, there are consequences to face.

“What we call our destiny is inside us. It is truly our character and that character can be altered. The knowledge that we are responsible for our actions and attitudes does not need to be discouraging, because it means we are free to change our destiny.” ~Anaïs Nin

Hewing a New Course: You might be wondering what all of this has to do with writing, besides the thematic exploration of my four manuscripts. For me it has everything to do with it. There is no question that, like my MCs, I have been motivated by expectations. Even my expectations for myself were long shaped by external forces. Based in some measure upon the expectations of others—parents, teachers, community, society at large—I selected a curriculum in school, went to college, selected my major, sought employment, pursued business success. Our perceptions of our destiny can be powerfully shaped by the external.

And yet, in my heart I kindled a hope and a belief that writing was my calling. It certainly wasn’t a part of my parents’ vision for my destiny. Grandchildren and a nice house in the suburbs, yes. A cottage in the woods, pouring myself onto the pages of lengthy fantasy manuscripts, not so much. My mom has adjusted to it. And I’m sure my dad would’ve been proud that I followed my heart. But it certainly wasn’t what they had envisioned.

 “You are what your deep, driving desire is.

As your desire is, so is your will. 

As your will is, so is your deed.

As your deed is, so is your destiny.”

~from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV, 4.5

Fortune Favors the Brave: Perhaps you’re also wondering what I came away with, after nine-plus years and 600,000 plus words worth of literary exploration of the topic of destiny. I suppose you’ve surmised I don’t put much credence in predestination. But to Nin’s point, I do believe we are each imbued with the elements of character. Whether it is an innate gift or a nurtured one, it’s there. Whether it is through our legacy—the expectations and lessons of those who love us in our formative years—or the complete lack thereof, leaving us a clean slate to create ourselves, our destiny is inside us. As Nin points out, our character can be altered. Indeed, I believe it is incumbent upon us to seek ourselves in our deep, driving desire. But only in seeking for that inner calling can we find the will to hew a course toward it. And only through the day to day deeds of hewing that course can we find our true destiny.

My writing journey has been the most rewarding of my life thus far. It can be scary, deviating from what had seemed a fated existence. But my journey has taught me that destiny rewards courage. It takes courage, and sometimes great sacrifice, to embrace our true calling, and to choose to strive toward it, whatever the obstacles. Of course there will be consequences—calvin & hobbessome for boon and some for burden. But even the burdens can be easily borne by those who stay true to their heart’s compass for destiny.

Calvin or Hobbes? I wouldn’t dare invite a debate on predetermination versus freewill in the comments. It might be safer to ask you if you prefer the cartoon kid or his tiger. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on destiny. Is writing your deep, driving desire? Are you up for the challenge of hewing your own course?

Image credit:<a href=’’>prill / 123RF Stock Photo</a>