Don’t Discount Your Courage

the-frontiersman-N.C. Wyeth (1911)Reflecting on my Deflecting: I’ve been deflecting. Ever since my friend Tonia Marie Harris, an inspiring and courageous writer in her own right, started her #BeBraveIn2014 campaign a few months ago. Each time the topic arises among my friends I say something along the lines of, “I’m not sure what being brave this year will mean for me.” I said it again recently on a small group thread, and in response Tonia posted a fabulous (and inspiring!) post called What Being a Brave Writer Means to Me. You should go read it.

As great as Tonia’s essay is, I still don’t know. Sounds like a cop-out, doesn’t it? Sorry. But the post got me reflecting on courage. In the interest of showing my support for the #BeBrave theme, I do know that in whichever direction the next steps of my writing journey lead, it will take courage to take them. And I am committed to taking them.

A Bit of ‘Smalley’ Talk: I hate to get all Stuart Smalley, but, okay—haul out the looking glass. Let’s sit stuart_smalleyand have a little affirmation together, you and I. Say it with me: I’m good enough, strong enough…

But seriously, I realize that I’ve already taken some steps that require courage. And I’m pretty sure you have too. And I think it’s important that we acknowledge these things once in a while. In the interest of affirming my own fleetingly-felt courage, and fostering yours, I’ll want to share a few of the brave bits of the writer I’ve become.

“Courage is knowing the sum of all your fears, and proceeding anyway.” 

*I Am A Writer, Dammit: I’m not sure how many years I dreaded the inevitable question. You know the one, at the dreaded social event—the kind where you meet strangers, and they almost always say: “So, what do you do?”

I’m not even sure how I finally got over it, but I’m beyond the squirming and the hemming and hawing (not to mention the dissembling that preceded it). I can now, without batting an eye, say, “I’m a writer.” And unsurprisingly, the more unhesitant the assertion, the less they prod you about it.

For me this took time and practice which, in hindsight, resembles courage. Small steps of it, but courageous steps nonetheless. I now realize most new acquaintances are not asking to see your tax returns, or looking for a way to judge you. Most just want some interesting small talk (and the others shouldn’t matter to me anyway). They’re looking to get through the dreaded social event, same as you. Talking about writing really isn’t so bad (after all, it’s why we’re here, right?). And if they aren’t interested, or if you find it uncomfortable, you can always throw it back: “And you?” Problem solved (most people love to talk about themselves).

*I’ve finished something: Four somethings, actually. Sure, I recognize that all four of my manuscripts are all still works-in-progress. And they will be until they are published. But I persevered through to “The End” four times now. It takes a leap of faith and no small amount of resolve to finish a manuscript. As Barbara O’Neal recently said in a great post on Writer Unboxed: “Over and over I have said to you that writing requires such a weird combination of gifts and faults that anyone who has written a novel hasn’t done it by accident. The work called you, made you insane for it, and you followed. The world might not understand that, but I do. So does everyone else here.”

By “everyone else here,” she means us. Those of you who’ve finished a draft know. And I’m sure that those of you who haven’t yet are determined enough to know it, too. It’s not just that it doesn’t happen by accident. The faith and resolve required throughout are borne, in some measure, by courage. Regardless of what we face afterward, we should own it.

*I’ve Submitted to Feedback’s Four Stages: This is something ongoing for me. And I think all four stages require some measure of courage. They are: 1-Acknowledge I need feedback. 2- Actively seek it. 3- Evaluate it without reacting (or overreacting) to it. 4- Formulating a plan based on it, and purposefully executing that plan.

I must admit, I still struggle mightily with this one. My stomach still twists every damn time I hit the send button. And I’m jittery each time I hear back from someone reading—both excited and terrified. Initially, I’m usually overly focused on the negative (often to the point of being temporarily blind to praise). I remind myself that everyone who takes the time to read and provide any amount of critique is offering a great gift. One they most likely would not offer if they didn’t believe in me. Their belief lends me the necessary courage to endure the stages. But lent or not, it’s courage nonetheless.

*I’ve decided I’m committed to Dania! This last one is rather personal. And some might interpret it as stubbornness rather than courage. But it feels like courage to me.

Allow me to explain. It seems like every time I turn around someone is advocating that writers should be willing to shelve a manuscript and move on. Especially a first manuscript. I’ll admit to occasionally considering it—wondering if this might be “the brave thing to do.” But let me tell you, nothing gets my characters riled up like considering shelving them. They invade my brain in open revolt. Makes it tough to sleep, let alone consider other courses forward.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot abandon them. And it’s not just to quell the voices in my head… Well, maybe that’s part of it. But after all we’ve been through together, after all they’ve taught me, after all the laughs and the tears, I feel like I owe it to them to make the books worthy of their ongoing inspiration. It’s fitting, since so many of them are brave. I know they make me a braver writer. (Even if some of them are also pretty damn stubborn.)

Eowyn and MerryThe Courage of Friends: I hope I was able to remind you of your own bravery. But I know I’m more lucky than brave. My writing journey is blessed with the time to write, and the perfect place to do it. I am blessed by a loving spouse who not only encourages and supports me, but who reads and offers brilliant input and suggestions. I have friends who read and believe in me, and who pick me up when I am down. Thank you, one and all.

In contrast, there are writers I know and have heard about who overcome so much to pursue their literary dreams. I routinely hear the stories of writers who struggle to find an hour or less a day to write (often at the expense of sleep); of writers who overcome health issues and difficult living conditions to practice their craft; of writers who continue to write with little or no support or encouragement; even writers who write in spite of the discouragement or open opposition of those who surround them. These are the truly brave writers. I am humbled and inspired by their efforts.

What about you? Have you given yourself credit for your courage? In what ways are you a brave writer? Are you inspired by your friends?

What If…

Today I have a special guest for you. Please meet and welcome Peggy Duffy. Besides being my awesome sister-in-law, Peggy is a yoga instructor and the founder of Miss Fit Girls—a wonderful yoga-based mentoring program for girls aged 10-16. I encourage you to check out Miss Fit Girls, either at their website or their Facebook page.

I said Peg is a “special” guest, and she certainly is. She’s special in a lot of ways, but once you read this post, you will undoubtedly be surprised by one of those ways—she’s not a writer. (Well, not yet. She’s certainly a natural storyteller, so she’s more than halfway to being one of us. 😉 )

From the moment I read this wise essay, I knew I needed to share it with my writer friends. After all, we are the ultimate askers of “What if,” aren’t we?  Enjoy!Megan and Peggy

What if…

We all do it. What if it works? What if it doesn’t?! What if I don’t pass this test? What if I can’t get out? What if I can’t find a job? A partner? What if I fail? What if…what if I don’t?!

May 10th, 2010 – She just came home from her first year of college. The next day was starting her internship at a swanky ad company. It was a beautiful May day. She was shining too. She had so much energy that a quick bike ride would help dispense it.

I answered and heard: She’s going to be fine.

It’s funny how time blurs, instructions are not ‘heard’ but understood. I was one mile from the accident. I pulled up wherever. And I saw… I saw a car, and the back tire of a bike sticking out from under it and the ambulance. It’s true when they say all sounds disappear. I heard nothing. I only wanted to see… her.

I stepped into the ambulance. There she was, head brace, strapped down, bloody. As I stared at her head, she rolled her eyes back to see me.

“I’m fine. I’m fine.” Oh, she’s always trying to protect me. I looked down at my girl. I looked her up & down, watching the EMT’s prepare her arms for IV’s.

“No. I’M FINE. YOU just got run over by a car.” She gave me a look of “Really? Sarcasm now?” It’s my go-to.

“So, you’re ‘fine’, right? Have you seen who is working on you?” I was referring to the fine looking EMT boys saving my girl’s life.

She smiled and raised her eyebrows. She’s fine.

“Fine” can be defined in many many ways. She was driven to the hospital in an ambulance, her clothes cut off in front of 27 nurses and doctors, cone of shame, iv’s, X-rays, poking, pinching, blinding flashlights to the eyes. All for good reason: what they found… road rash, tire skid mark on her back, a small crack in the transverse process, and a bunch of pulled muscles. They left us alone. She was fine… then the shock wore off. It was like the blanket that had covered and protected her was now of no need and slowly pulled down off her body. Her face changed, she looked at me wide eyed and became a very scared, very young child. She wailed. And so did I. What if her head had hit the cement, the bumper, what if her back was crushed by the tire? What if…yes.. what if I had lost my girl that day? We both LOST it. Deep deep belly cries that filled the room. It filled the halls all the way to the nurses’ station. I knew our cries were heard because a few minutes into our bawl-out, a little nurse slid in like Joel in Risky Business with her finger raised and a loud “HEY!”

“STOP IT. STOP IT RIGHT NOW!” She was pissed? Sort of.. but more than that, she had a message. Mid-bawl we both stopped.

“SHE is fine. She’s alive and not broken, not dying. She’s here … Now.” (… and this next line changed our lives).

“Those ‘what if’s’… those ‘what ifs’ will only steal from you!! What ifs will kill you.” and she left us. *perfect entrance, perfect exit.

I looked at Meg. Laying in her hospital bed, scraped, bruised, sore. She was here. I would get to see her grow more into the beautiful girl she already is.

The next few weeks were rough. A frustrating recovery and a joyous journey to full-on enjoying life and all it has to offer. No accident, illness, disease leaves you the same as you were before. It changes you, challenges you. What are your ‘what if’s’? WHAT IF… you lived it without the fear of losing it, rather living it with the love of having it. That is my only ‘what if’ question. I don’t even ask it anymore, I know the answer so well.

What are your “what ifs”? Do they ever get in the way? Please share.

Miss Fit Girls LogoAbout Miss Fit Girls:

Connecting, Encouraging, Strengthening, Accepting, Celebrating

Miss Fit Girls is a unique yoga-based  program for girls ages 10-16 years old. With fast and intense changes going on in their bodies and minds, Miss Fit Girls, gives them the time they need to slow down and enjoy. At MFG, they learn to trust and listen to their own thoughts and emotions, embrace the movement of change and learn to respond rather than react. They come to the mat to practice so they are prepared for the ups & downs in their daily lives.

Lessons on Burning Brightly

V & Belle at Sparkly Time“Life is no brief candle…. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” ~George Bernard Shaw

[Be forewarned: If you are not a dog person, you may not be interested in this post. Conversely, if you are one, and dislike discussions of losing one, or of pet grief, I won’t be offended if you choose to stay away. My wife stubbornly refused to read or watch Marley and Me for this very reason, so I get it.]

Our Bright Star, Dimmed: Those of you who know me or follow me on Facebook know not only that I had Belle, but that she was a star in my life. My wife and I lost our beautiful girl this past Wednesday. She had recently lost the use of her hind legs to a cancerous tumor on her spine. We took her to the Michigan State University Veterinary Hospital, seeking everything in our power to help her to beat it, but it was not to be. It was left to us to put an end to our stoic girl’s worsening pain.

She may have lost her battle with cancer, but she never lost her spirit. She could not have faded, or slowly withered. She burned brightly, undiminished, right up to the final day, the final moment. Till this last year, even as she slowed her step slightly, she was an eleven year old puppy. Even though it’s difficult for us, I know in my heart it is rightful.

Utterly Unique: This is a difficult post for me to write, on so many levels. But it’s one of the things Belle helped to teach me: I am a writer; I deal with life by writing. About the only thing I’m sure of is that I won’t be able to do her  justice. (Maybe in a novel, but…)

For those who never met her, you need to know she was utterly unique. Some dogs are called sweet or gentle, but not Belle. She’s been called quirky, funny, intense, an exuberantWinter walk, Jan. '12 008 greeter, a hard charger, and more than one observer has remarked that they wished her energy could be bottled for human consumption. She was vocal and bouncy, and at times seemed barely within control, but it was always due to an abundance of enthusiasm—not such a bad thing. When you think about it, wouldn’t the world be a better place if more of us had too much enthusiasm, rather than too little?

We Are Family: We had another black lab before Belle who taught us that Life’s Too Short, and I’ve already written about Maggie, here. Belle was most certainly blessed by Maggie’s sacrifice and life-lessons. Because of Maggie, we no longer left a dog alone all day while we worked our lives away. Because of Maggie, Belle led a pretty stellar life, if I do say so. She walked twice a day through forests and on the beach. I can easily assert that she swam in Lake Michigan on more than half of her days on this earth.

As difficult as Belle was as a puppy (an entire story all its own), she settled in to our lives with absolute symmetry. She was a sentient being in our home, a powerful presence in our lives, and an integral part of the triad of our family. Some dogs are relatively unattached to humans, some are one-man/woman dogs, but not Belle. As my sister put it, she was: “our daughter, sister, and best friend, all wrapped up in one.”

We Are FamilyAs a demonstration of how important our togetherness was to Belle, as we made ready to go out on either of our daily walks, she would literally herd the one of us who seemed to be lagging (which was usually my wife – sorry honey). She would walk behind, nudge, and bark at the laggard until they had their coat, and all three of us were ready to go. Once out on the porch, if one of us lagged even a pace, to pick up a toy or grab a leash, they were scolded and urged forth with a bark or two (even at 7am, much to our neighbors’ chagrin on a summer Saturday morning). If one of us had to stay back from walking, for whatever reason, Belle had to be all but dragged away, with much glancing back—fret written upon her expressive face—until the house was out of sight.

My Writing Partner: Since this is a writing blog, I do want to share the parts of my writing life that involve Belle. Many of you have undoubtedly heard me refer to Belle as my writing partner. This is not just a clever nickname. She was with me at a carpentry jobsite the day I first put pen to paper with an idea for a story. She was with me every day throughout the drafting of the trilogy and through dozens of rewrites. She tilted her head when I asked questions aloud, and followed me around the house when I paced and muttered over a plot point. She was a vital component of every break, every brainstorming walk, every reflective hour sitting on our bench atop the dune.

Canine Writing Lessons: But most importantly, she taught me so much that enhanced the writer that I’ve become. Here are just a few lessons that spring to mind like a lab springs onto the tailgate of a pickup.

*Be patient; Find joy amidst the chaos. Belle was always a handful. When she was a puppy, I fought to find a way to control her—to bend her to my will. She was having none of it. She was so damn smart. She knew entire sentences, let alone words. She knew: come, sit, lay down, stay, fetch (on land or water), drop, heel, halt in place off leash, get in her bed, bring various toys (by name)—and most of those either with hand signals or verbal commands. But if someone came to the door, or met us on the beach, it was all forgotten. No matter what I did, she danced and wiggled, wagged and barked for the first ten minutes of any visit with most anyone—moreso for those she knew and loved. I learned to accept it, and to even smile over it. Over the years we had a noticeable decline in visitors. But what did it matter? We had each other, and who needs visitors who dislike joyful enthusiasm over being seen?

She taught me to be at peace over what I couldn’t control. But also that I could rely on the fact that I worked and had gained mastery when it mattered—in issues of safety or when someone was genuinely afraid of her. She was the living embodiment of my version of the Serenity Prayer (Lord, grant me the patience to accept that which I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.)

*Show up every day—there’s joy to be found in routine. Since Belle’s been gone, we are up and out for our morning walk. It’s as she would’ve wanted it. Indeed, while she was alive, she Belle of the Balldemanded it. We never eat breakfast or have coffee first. We don the appropriate gear and go out into whatever weather. And we fill our lungs with fresh air, and watch the sky turn amber with the dawn. We see deer and hear woodpeckers sounding on hollow trunks. And the day is vital, from the moment we rise. Same for evening. At five pm, if I hadn’t stopped typing, I felt her stare, or heard her not-so-subtle hums: “Um, V, it’s getting to be time to shut it down. And you’d better text Mo to come home.”

She taught me that routine is a useful tool in the writing life. That start times and end times were important to the process.

*A job well-done is a reward in and of itself. Belle’s job, besides being there for me while I wrote, was to fetch. Which fetch toy did not matter. If it was a Frisbee, it had to be caught and brought back, preferably before it hit the ground. If it was a bumper, it had to be brought to shore. If it was a squeaky ball, it had to be subdued and returned to my hand, with as many squeaks as possible in the process. Although she was a phenomenal athlete, and often made leaping catches to the ooos and ahs of onlookers, she did not do her job for the acceptance or admiration of others. If it was just she and I alone on the shore, and she made a great catch, with the surf crashing around her before the Frisbee hit the wash, she pranced and shook it with the same proud zeal as she would’ve if there had been an audience.

She taught me that the effort and practice that lead to success are fulfilling on their own, and meant to be enjoyed—each and every day.

Gratitude and Resonance: Our house feels so damn empty. She is everywhere I look. There are moments when I don’t know how I’ll go on without feeling this intense sense of loss and sadness. But I know I will. We are already laughing over the memories. Not quite as much as we are crying, but that will change. We’re taking it day by day. The well-wishes and condolences of those who knew her, or of her importance to our lives, has been a healing blessing. We are thankful for the love of our friends and family at this difficult time.

Our hearts are broken. And I know there will always be an empty space in mine, carved by her absence. But Belle’s joy continues to resonate. And I know it will go on, for the rest of my days on this earth. And for that I am immensely grateful.

I will share with you one of the last things I said to Belle, in an intensely personal moment. I share in the hopes that it will help to cement her lessons, for me and for my friends. I share in the hopes that her joy will resonate all the stronger. I said: “Thank you, Miss. For everything—for all the lessons, all the stories, all the laughs and tears. I promise you, they will not go to waste. I will never forget. Thank you for being my partner and my friend.” I buried my face in her fur, and she nestled her head against me and sighed, letting me know that she believed me.

The Last Walk

[Photo credit for the shot of the three of us goes to Harrington Photography, Three Oaks, MI]

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?