Thursday, December 7, 2017

Stronger than Reality

Zestful Blog Post #241 

Today is known in America as Pearl Harbor Day, or the anniversary of the Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. I’m thinking about the entirety of World War II, from the Holocaust and battles in Europe to the Pacific theater and the atomic bombs. 

[A Japanese ivory netsuke, or toggle button, brought home by my uncle, who served in the war. Penny for scale. I have no idea what the writing on the man’s tablet means. My mother seemed to think it had something to do with money or accounting. If you can translate, please let me know! Photo by ES.]

And I’m remembering something a friend told me about violence, specifically how generations are affected by violence. She had worked with Holocaust survivors and their progeny, and she said, “The direct survivors are not as angry as their descendants. I think the imagined terror is worse than the reality.”

That kernel is worth solidifying: Imagination is stronger than reality. What’s the lesson for us authors? Believe in what we’re doing. We can affect hearts and minds with story. We can explore our world, we can explore the depths of ourselves, and we can give, we can give, we can give.

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

It's a Mosh Pit Out There

Zestful Blog Post #240

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which arrogance and principle collide and tango, can be viewed as an exhilarating love story, or as a biting expose of the class system in Georgian England.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which follows a group of shipwrecked boys and their attempts to govern themselves, can be interpreted as a slam against testosterone or a celebration of feral freedom.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, with its sensitive, bungling, iconic teen protagonist, can be viewed as an urban coming-of-age story, or an account of a psychotic breakdown.

Holden's beloved Central Park. Is it a jungle out there?
[photo by ES]

David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross, with its band of cutthroat real estate salesmen, can be read as a scathing indictment of capitalism—or as an unsentimental endorsement of social Darwinism. (Lord of the Flies for grownups?)

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, featuring a charismatic schoolteacher, can be pronounced a story of a foolish drama queen, or a celebration of a visionary ahead of her time.

You understand. Portrait of an idiot—or portrait of a hero? A shallow story—or a deep one? Indictment or endorsement?

The takeaway for a writer who seeks a following is simply this: You’re throwing your work into the mosh pit of public opinion, so best be prepared to accept whatever points of view your readers bring to your work. You might be caught by surprise at what honest, perceptive readers throw at you. And then of course there are the dim, mean readers and their interpretations too. This is our world. If you believe in your work, you’ll be all right. Carry on.

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Random Acts of Thankfulness 2017

Zestful Blog Post #239

Wishing you and yours a wonderful Thanksgiving Day. Beyond health, family, friends, and Marcia, I'm thankful for:

·       Trident gum
·       Terry Laughlin
·       Piazzoni murals at the DeYoung
·       Agnes Martin
·       Bill Gates
·       Patricia Highsmith
·       Cigar boxes
·       The idea of Switzerland
·       Cass Technical High School

[The music room at Cass. Photo by ES.]

·       Orange marmalade
·       Myofascial release
·       The score to North by Northwest (Bernard Herrmann)
·       Blue plastic buddha
·       Best in Show
·       Joseph Cornell
·       Lexus LS400
·       Mad Men
·       Pentel Kerry .07 black
·       Vic Firth timpani mallets
·       Joan of Arc
·       Rear Window (soundscape)
·       Victoria Sweet
·       Ringling College of Art and Design
·       Work pants
·       The Bradenton YMCA pool
·       Bob’s Red Mill
·       Joan Morris and William Bolcom
·       Tahquamenon Falls
·       Rebus
·       Marcia’s apple cake

Do you have any Random Acts of Thankfulness to share? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Politics and Religion? Seriously?

Zestful Blog Post #238

Writer’s Digest magazine has just published a feature I wrote called “Should You Go There?” It concerns writing about politics and religion in your fiction—how to decide if you should do it, and how to handle it if you want to give it a go. As we in the U.S. are about to celebrate Thanksgiving—a holiday when families meet, eat, and sometimes squabble, I thought it would be appropriate to excerpt some of the article for today’s Zestful Writing post:

Most of us learn fairly early in life that starting a discussion about politics or religion with a stranger will lead to one of three things: cheerful agreement; silence ranging from uncomfortable to icy; disagreement ranging from mild contradiction to fisticuffs. The odds vary.

But what if you’re a writer of fiction? If your work gets out into the world, it/you will be ‘talking’ to strangers all the time.

Why do so many authors shy away from dealing with politics and religion? Several good reasons:

► Those subjects are loaded with strong emotion. Many of us picked up religious and political tenets at a young age—or rejected them. In maturity, you figure things out for yourself, and it can be a complex road.
► It’s hard to be well informed, and impossible to be perfectly informed. Nobody has witnessed every conflict, read every history book, examined every religious text, and prayed to every god.
► Religious and political references—especially political—can date a work of fiction. Which can be fine if you’re writing a Civil War romance and somebody swears “by the President’s beard!” But if you’re writing a contemporary novel and a character condemns “that guy in the White House”—well, in a year or few, nobody’s going to be sure who that character is talking about. And using the names of real political or religious leaders timestamps your work from the start.
► Readers can become alienated if they feel pressured or manipulated. They might also write a nasty review or ask for their money back.
► Doctrine can be tedious. Hammering on the rightness of your beliefs in your fiction—by putting your pet dogma into the mouths of your characters—gets predictable, and therefore boring, fast.

That’s the downside. What’s to be gained by embracing themes of religion/politics?

► Let’s say ten people read your book today. If five of them are either left cold or ticked off by your biases, you’ve risked losing them. However, if the five that remain are precisely the demographic you want, well, then, that’s different. When readers find an author whose work resonates with their ideology, they can become loyal, die-hard fans.
► If you lead an active, engaged life, you feel the impact of political ideas, of government, of the movements within your particular faith or of the movements within other faiths. Therefore, if you want to write about your world, you may feel moved to explore such themes in your art. After all, we artists are supposed to be pursuers of all things true and real. We must find things out for ourselves—and art is our vehicle.
► These themes, if done with sensitivity and restraint, can bring great depth and immediacy to fiction.

Let’s look at some fiction that successfully navigated these dual minefields—what they did, how they did it, and how you can do it too.

Realize that the issue is not by itself the story.

Upton Sinclair’s progressive-era novel The Jungle exposed the dreadful conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry around the turn of the 20th century. He hit lots of targets in this one, and became famous. But the reason the book sold so well was because he wrote a good story. The plot follows one man, a dirt-poor Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis Rudkus, as he makes his way into the dangerous ‘jungle’ of inhuman working conditions and slum life of his new country. Sinclair took pains to make Rudkus sympathetic—a good man caught in a nightmare of false promises and treachery. However, Rudkus does make mistakes. He permits wishful thinking to overcome his judgment, he takes to drink and self-pity—and thus is not entirely angelic, and not entirely blameless for his pain. Everyone can relate to this!
The takeaway: Trace the story of one person against the odds, and don’t make your hero unrealistically perfect for fear that readers will reject the story, saying, “Huh, look, he wasn’t as smart as he should have been.” Perceptive readers will not throw the baby of your story out with the bathwater of realism; they will appreciate reading about a flawed hero thrown against a series of challenges.
Also read: The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor, The Yellow Wallpaper (short story) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.

[Good old research can always help when tackling these subjects. Here be the reading room at the NY Public Library. How can such a grand place feel cozy at the same time?]

Challenge the status quo by seeming to support it.

Flannery O’Connor was, personally, as religious as they come, and religion infuses much of her work. But she never set out to tell readers what to believe. In the enduringly disturbing novel Wise Blood, she explores mysticism, madness, courage, and cowardice. Although the thirst for redemption is a major theme, O’Connor also rams home the ugly turns faith can take: hypocrisy, violent fanaticism, and self-justification/self-deception. The journeys of the disillusioned preacher Hazel Motes and the terrifyingly clueless and increasingly unhinged Enoch Emery are compelling for their unpredictability and backwoods brutality. Faith is questioned throughout, and answered in varying degrees of certitude. When one turns against one’s own tribe, humans know on a very elemental level that trouble is just around the corner.
The takeaway: Let your characters plunge down their spiritual paths, even if zealotry is the end game. Allow them crises of faith. In real life, believers question themselves; nonbelievers question themselves. A life-changing event can shake a foundation, or create one. Also, be aware that faith and religion are not one and the same. Characters can have lots of spiritual adventure figuring that out.
Also read: Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.

For the rest of the article, hike out to your local newsstand...

What do you think of exploring politics and religion in fiction—as a reader or a writer? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [Photo by ES.]

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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Guilt-Free Procrastination

Zestful Blog Post #237

No day in history has provided humans easier or more plentiful ways to waste time than the one we’re living now. I don’t have to begin to enumerate. Writers, I believe, are more vulnerable to time-wasting opportunities than other tribes, because OMG, blank pages. Therefore, anything we can do to save time and make life more efficient, we should do. And an easy way for a fiction writer to save time, have fun, and even procrastinate guilt-free (!), is investing an early chunk of time on character naming.

When you’ve got a fairly solid idea for a story or novel going, and you’re starting to flesh things out—either with an outline or just a bunch of pages of stormwriting—that’s the time to create a list of ready character names. Because it’s no good to keep writing ‘Cop A’ or ‘Politician B’ or even ‘Ingenue’ or ‘Hero.’ For one thing, it’s boring, and for another, there’s no personality to it. It’s like eating a handful of flour along with a raw egg and a little sugar, instead of cooking up a nice little pancake. Sure, you might create a name for a character only to later think of a better one. But at least start with some semblance of a usable name.

[This is what I think a Norwegian Elkhound probably looks like, or should.]

A name with a little possibility to it helps you visualize the character as you write. That’s valuable, because it helps you bring that character to life with more verve and efficiency. And for the same reasons it’s so easy to waste time these days, it’s never been easier to quickly come up with appropriate character names. You can search on popular Latino boys’ names, traditional Irish surnames, popular Norwegian Elkhound names (yes), American female names of the 1920s. Of course, if you want a character who is 25 years old in the 1920s, search names given to babies in the 1900s. You can get a surprising lot from just fifteen minutes’ worth of research. Which will stretch easily to half an hour. Come up with twice as many names as you think you’ll need, because minor characters. It’s a good investment.

The benefit is, when you start to write about a fictional person, you’ve got a list to glance at, choose something from, and keep going. No more discomfort with a generic non-name, and no more interrupting your flow to hurriedly think of a name to plug in, over and over. Then when your story is more firmed up, you can dig deeper and toy around with character names. And needless to say, any names you don’t use this time around might prove worthwhile the next.

Do you have any favorite strategies on character naming? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Good Practice for Writers

Zestful Blog Post #236

If you’re a writer, you’ve got a beautiful field of resources that will take you far beyond books on technique and motivation: the work of literary innovators. Reading literature that you find fabulous / moving / amusing / iconoclastic represents your continuing education. Here’s a good practice for a professional author:

-        Assemble a soft pencil, a sharpener, and a few index cards.
-        Get hold of a book you’re interested in.
-        Read it.
-        Underline passages of special interest and make notes as you go. (You’ll find that soft graphite is easier to erase if you ever want to, doesn’t dig into the pages, and is more pleasurable to use in general.) Write in the margins and on your cards. Make little stars and ticks next to passages you find inspiring, impressive, instructive.
-        If the book is wonderful, reread it, carefully.
-        Make further notes, or expand on the ones you have already.
-        If your book is not made of paper, use whatever digital tools you have at your disposal.

Am definitely a Blackwing fan. Sharpener hinge failed; repaired with duct tape. (Yeah, pink duct tape! Home Depot, I think.) 

Your notes will be different from anybody else’s notes. Your marginalia may express enthusiasm, surprise, skepticism, or humility. You won’t remember everything about the book, or everything about your notes. But here's the thing. The very act of attending to the book this closely will feed and build your inner well of creativity, facility with words, and understanding. This is one of those things that are good to do for the sake of the thing itself. Sure, you can read a book just for kicks. But it doesn’t take much more effort to really learn from it. This is also known as scholarship. And that's all there is to it.

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Contradictions in the Heart

Zestful Blog Post #235

Honest authors know the human heart can harbor contradiction. Everybody more or less wants it both ways—a pint of mint chocolate chip every night and a trim figure. Ninety-five miles an hour and the cop gives you only a warning. Cheat on the spouse and maintain that spotless reputation. Essentially, yeah: ironclad principles and a free pass when we stray.

That’s one of the keys to understanding and developing your characters, if you’re a writer. Humans are always trying to figure things out, trying to live as painlessly as possible—but pain there will be, whether one sticks to principles or not.

Needless to say, that’s also one of the keys to understanding ourselves, our loved ones, and those we’d love to whack over the head with a two-by-four.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Thing Presence

Zestful Blog Post #234

The typewriter in the accompanying photograph is a 1926 Underwood 4, so called because the keys are arranged in four rows instead of three, which had been more common for typewriters manufactured in earlier decades. My friend Jay Williams, about whom I’ve written in this blog before, sent it to me as a gift last spring. He’s a typewriter buff, and spends some of his time restoring old machines. He restored this one before sending it to me. In spite of that, it certainly does still show its age and experience. He and I have talked about old things being time machines. Environments can be time machines too. When Jay talks about climbing a stone bell tower at his church to participate in change-ringing, he describes the worn, smooth stone steps and the cool roughness of the stone walls and the sound that one’s footsteps make and he feels that that’s the closest he can get to real time travel.

When he sent me this machine, I called to thank him, and we speculated on the machine’s history, and what it might’ve been like to be with this machine in its early days. This Underwood is a heavy-duty business machine, and they were costly, so this one most likely was used in an office, perhaps a newspaper office. Because Jay is blind, we talked about the sounds and smells and feels of when this machine was new: The newspaper office almost certainly would have had more than one machine, and more than one machine going at a time. These typewriters are wonderfully loud and authoritative, entirely mechanical marvels. This one’s frame is cast iron. In that newspaper office there might have been perfume to smell, cigars and cigarettes, their smoke and their butts and their ashes, there would have been the smell of ink and paper, the squeak of chairs moving back and forth, perhaps rolling on casters, the sound of the boss’s voice, the copyboys’ voices, the reporters’ voices, telephones ringing, telephones being answered, the scratch of pencil on paper as a phone number and address and perhaps a name and other things were written down.

It might have been summer, the windows open, the blinds catching a little on the windowframes in the breeze, the sound of engines and rubber tires outside, perhaps the aroma of manure as well, if horses were still pulling wagons. Footsteps, voices. The sidewalks would be possibly concrete, the streets might still be cobbled, the floor in the newsroom would perhaps be of heavy linoleum that was swept every night by the janitor and polished once a week.

Steampunk? You bet.

Having something in the house that is this big and heavy (about 30 pounds) and old, and so well worn—it has its own presence. It’s a much stronger presence than most things we have in our house, frankly. Why is that? Maybe because every part of this machine is authentic. It was designed to do exactly what it was supposed to do, without extraneous styling. The only decoration on it is the manufacturer’s name. In the photograph you can see the sideways-mounted bell. You can also see the new drawband Jay installed on the mainspring. All the pieces still work, all the parts still do their job. There is a tabulation function. There is a lever to select which half of the ribbon you want to use, the upper half or the lower half. (Many typewriter ribbons were made with the top half being black and the bottom half being red or vice versa.) There is a lever to select the stencil function, which disengages the ribbon, while the carriage moves normally. There is a shift key for uppercase letters, and there is a shift lock key. There are margin controls and numbers and special characters besides the alphabet.

There is a gravitas to this machine, is what I’m trying to say, and the other thing I’m trying to say is that many things have a greater presence then we might give them credit for. So much of our world is digital, and so very fast, that spending time with objects on a personal level can be enriching. You know? Something that was designed and made for function and efficiency is to be honored, isn’t it?

I say, surround yourself first with empty space, then add things to it that are well-designed, sincere, and useful or beautiful or both.

I’ll be performing Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter” on this machine on October 29, 2017 with the South Shore Symphony Orchestra in Sun City Center, Florida. With luck the performance will go well and I’ll want to share the video. After that's safely over, I'll install the new ribbon Jay sent with the machine and do some writing on it.

What do you have that is somehow more than the sum of its parts? Something that offers genuine experience when you interact with it? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

5 Shocking Things I Learned at This Conference

Zestful Blog Post #233

If you’re a faithful reader, you know me, and you already get that this title is to prove a point. But I will share information I found interesting. Shocking? Maybe.

So OK, I’m a member of an organization called Novelists Inc., which is predominantly made up of independently published authors. The annual conference was last weekend in St. Pete Beach, Florida. I saved money by commuting in every day, but it would have been fun to hang out in the bars with presenters and other writers every night. I attended a bunch of sessions and met up with some serious authors, as well as big shots in the publishing business, notably executives from Amazon and other high-profile companies.

Here are five highlights:
1)     Annual book sales are second only to television—which I guess means subscription television—and higher than games, music, and movies put together. I regret not having copied down the actual figures, but I was too busy absorbing the impact, being legitimately and seriously shocked by how much money there is in book sales, especially as compared with other media.
2)     Marketing isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Well, that’s the impression I got from some of the sessions, but the message really is that authors must do marketing and promo, no matter who they are, or risk oblivion. If your marketing initiatives fail, it’s because your product blows. So learn to write well before learning to market well.
3)     Almost no one these days understands geometry. I run into this all the time, especially with writers, who brag about being mathematically illiterate. In God’s name, it’s not that hard. More than one presenter kept talking about one-dimensional characters or one-dimensional this or that. Does no one remember Descartes? Does no one cherish his memory? He gifted us with the concept of dimensionality. A point in space has zero dimension, a line has one dimension, a plane has two dimensions, and a solid has three dimensions. A solid moving through space represents what we sometimes call the fourth dimension, or time. To call a character, for instance, one-dimensional is to call it linear. This is not what you mean. You are trying to say the character is flat. A flat character is a two-dimensional character. A picture is two-dimensional; it is flat. Something three-dimensional would leap off the page, wouldn’t it? When we wish to say a character or scene or anything else is dull or flat or undeveloped, let us please say it is two-dimensional. Thank you very much for sticking with me through this pet peeve.

[This commanding swan was once a gray, uncoordinated cygnet. But it was always a swan. See #6.]
4)     Romance, chick lit, and traditional mystery writers do well keeping profanity and explicit sex out of their material. One of them said she hears from moms who tell her, “I don’t have to turn off the audio of your book in the car when I pick up the kids.” Meanwhile, I was surprised to hear a couple of authors of young adult material tell me they put in plenty of profanity and vulgarisms, and even (well protected) sex, and of course the kids love this. It’s just their parents and teachers who sometimes have a problem with it. Yet the kids are the final audience, and they’re supported by adults who perceive the value of good writing, and writing that speaks to young people with good messages.
5)     Top-earning professional writers get that way by being efficient, tracking their time, meeting deadlines, and spending money when appropriate—that is, gathering collaborators such as cover artists, editors, and publicists, and buying advertising and spending money on promotion while keeping a close eye on return on investment.
6)     Oh, and one last thing. So OK, that’s 6 things; sue me. A catchy blog post title can earn you a click, but if you don’t deliver what the clicker expects, you might be sorry. Bottom line, you have to be yourself, not a cheap huckster. Is this obvious? Of course, but there are so many voices out there yelling “Look at me, look at me, look at me!” that sometimes a quiet, sincere person begins to doubt themselves. Don’t doubt yourself. You have friends right here.

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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Make the Blunder You Love, Love the Blunder You Make

Zestful Blog Post #232

I’m always fascinated by the idea of deliberate imperfection. Most recently, I was touring Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. This was a few months ago. The tour guide directed our attention to the mosaic tile floor of the rotunda in one of the main buildings. The college was built by Henry Flagler, and industrialist who endowed the school and fostered many building projects, both charitable and otherwise, in St. Augustine. The guide told us that Flagler, a religious man in the Christian tradition, ascribed to the same belief that Islamic artists do: only God is perfect, and it is folly for humans to try to imitate God. Thus, if you build in a mistake or two into your project, you won’t displease God; you’ll be OK.

Thus the photograph below, showing a seeming mistake in the tile work of this elaborate and beautiful rotunda. As an artist, this idea should be comforting, and I find it so. Us writers tend to seek perfection, and worse, expect perfection in our work, and that often holds us back from being productive, and it holds our work back from seeing the light of day. It can even hold our work back from being the best it can be: free-flowing, honest, spirited.

[It's in the checkers.] 

I know I’ve touched on this topic before, but mostly I’ve written about the fact that we should accept imperfection in ourselves and in our work. I hadn’t thought about inserting deliberate imperfection, just to be on the safe side. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea, and the more, as a creative person, I find it freeing.

I do remember receiving some criticism on one of my early books, where the reader or reviewer said it would be better if I didn’t tie up every loose end. Readers are OK with a little ambiguity. It just occurs to me now that ambiguity is part of the human condition. Perfection is not.

This is all a little metaphysical, but I guess I’m in that kind of mood today. It’s so easy for writers and artists to lose touch with that inner core that feels and knows so much. It’s too easy for us to close off that core in order to get business done—in order to handle all the things we have to handle in life. Now here’s something funny and imperfect: I’m dictating this post using a headset microphone and my Dragon software, and I’m sitting next to my office window. The wind is blowing very hard outside; it’s whistling across the window frame and I suppose a little air is whistling right on in. When I pause my voice, Dragon hears the wind and types the word will. Will will will. I’ll leave those mistaken words in. I like the word will, and I like the word yes, and God knows what I’ll write next, but you can bet it will be imperfect.

Thank you for being my friend.

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Crying is Beside the Point

Zestful Blog Post #231

Not long ago I watched a video of a young boy in a martial arts class trying to break a board. The instructor was on one knee, holding the piece of wood in his hands, and he was coaching the boy. The rest of the class, all boys around age eight or nine, I guess, were sitting cross-legged in a row, watching. Another instructor stood by.

The boy, as he’d been taught, lunged forward, yelled, and struck the board with his fist. It might be accurate to say he struck at the board. It didn’t break.

You pulled that one, the teachers said. Do it again. The boy did. The board didn’t break. The class was riveted in silence.

You pulled that one too, said the teacher. The boy tried again, and the board didn’t break.

Why are you crying? asked the teacher. The boy could not articulate why. He was, of course, embarrassed, afraid, and frustrated. Why are you crying? the teacher asked again.

At last the boy said, it’s hard.

Yes. The teachers were compassionate in that wonderful simple way some men have, and told the transfixed class that it’s all right to cry. You could see in all the other kids’ faces that they knew they could be the guy up there, the one failing to break the board, the one crying. The teachers didn’t comfort the boy. They didn’t explain anything to the class. It’s all right to cry. If they had told the boy to stop crying, then crying would have become the focus. Crying is beside the point.

To pull a punch is to take away the effort at the last instant. In crooked boxing matches, a fighter throws a punch only to take the force off of it just before it lands, so it looks like he punched this opponent, only he didn’t really hurt him. To metaphorically pull a punch is to hold back from saying something or doing something completely, honestly. It’s related to chickening out.

The instructors encouraged the boy to do it again. Notice they didn’t say try it again. Do it again. This was the most important element of this little video clip, to me.

It dawned on the boy that he was not going to be permitted to sit down until he broke the board. There was no way out except to succeed. He set himself, lunged forward, yelled, and broke the board.

He had committed. He made a literal breakthrough, and I don’t imagine he’ll ever forget the first time he broke a board. He had wanted it to be easier. It was as easy and as difficult as it was.

Commitment, as we see, as we know deep down, takes courage. Wise achievers learn this for themselves, over and over. The moment the boy mustered his courage to commit to breaking the board, he committed, he executed, and he succeeded. There’s belief in there, too, isn’t there? If you doubt the board will break, it won’t.

As it is with our work, every day. Courage. Don’t think you don’t need it. Call upon your supply of it. How do you replenish your supply of courage? What an idea. Let’s think about that, let’s talk about that. It’s all right to cry.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Precision from the Heart

Zestful Blog Post #230

One of my dearest friends had trouble with language. She couldn’t pronounce ‘hierarchy’ properly; the best she could do was ‘hyarchy.’ The word ‘weaponry’ became ‘weapondry.’ There was something about the mid-word ‘r’ sound. She would occasionally use words she’d picked up without being entirely clear on their meanings. She wanted to be thought of as a literate person. And therein lay danger.

One night she invited all of her top friends to a party at her house. I got there in the middle of the evening, grabbed a glass of wine, and went to find my hostess. She was standing with a circle of half a dozen friends, talking. When she saw me come up, she smiled and opened her arms and said—loudly, clearly: “Everybody, this is Elizabeth!” And then, in a very serious, approving tone, “Elizabeth is a pseudo-intellectual!

I stood there silently, as did the crowd. Then I realized that, very possibly, my friend did not understand the term. I murmured, “You just called me a phony.”

“Oh! That’s not what I meant at all!”

“The prefix pseudo means fake.”

“Oh! Everybody, that’s not what I meant! Elizabeth is very smart! She writes for the paper! I’m sorry, hon.”

“That’s all right.” And it was, because I loved my friend, and everybody understood.

However, it does bug me when somebody uses a word in an attempt to be linguistically impressive, especially in print. Not long ago, I read an essay in a magazine about a distinguished, prizewinning novelist. The writer of the piece referred to the author as “prosaic.” Instantly, I knew the writer meant “prolific.” But the writer probably thought about “prose,” and figured, vaguely, yeah, a lot of prose. Prosaic. Yeah, put that in.

This kind of mistake, passed over, I must painfully emphasize, not only by the writer but by the editor of the magazine, and possibly a copy editor and proofreader, in a literary magazine, makes me sigh deeply. It does not make me want to set my hair on fire or throw a hatchet through a window, but it does make me sigh deeply.

Prosaic means commonplace; literally like prose, with the implication that there is no poetry or artistry there. “My wardrobe is pretty prosaic: just jeans and polo shirts.” To be prolific is to be abundantly productive. “He’s prolific, having written ten books in five years.”

Another error I’ve noticed from time to time is the use of ‘ascetic’ for ‘aesthetic.’ They are different words. Ascetic, pronounced ass-HEH-tic, means to practice severe (usually religious) self-denial. Aesthetic, pronounced ass-THET-ic, means having to do with beauty, or the appreciation of it. “The aesthetics of the building will be important, as it will be situated on a promontory for all to see.”

Now you understand. One more for today: the increasing practice of using ‘discomforting’ to mean ‘disconcerting.’ The word that’s mixing them up is ‘discomfiting,’ which they’ve heard somewhere, and they want to use it, but at the last second they bail out to ‘discomforting,’ because they’re not really sure about ‘discomfiting,’ and ‘disconcerting’ is entirely beyond them.

To be discomfited is to feel uneasy or embarrassed.

To be disconcerted is to feel more deeply uneasy; disturbed.

To be discomforted is when somebody steals your pillow.

I am, as always, yours in the love of precision.

What do you think? Any linguistic lapses bugging you today? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [amazing sketch by ES]

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Hurricane Thanklist

Zestful Blog Post #229

Today I’m thankful for:
The National Hurricane Center.
Mike’s Weather Page /
Neighbors John and Fred.
Local pals Marj and Mark and Rick and many others.
My 22-year-old Lexus 400LS.
My mechanic.
My sister, whose diamond/platinum/uranium status in a hotel chain’s system secured me a room in a safe place at the eleventh hour. Actually, it was the fourteenth hour.
My brother.
All other family units.
The Manatee County Emergency Alert System.
Two angry rednecks in a patched-together maroon Chevrolet Lumina who were trying to force me off the road but chose not to at the last second perhaps because I smiled incredulously.
Other rednecks who were even nicer.
Hilton Garden Inn, Pensacola.
Publix liquor store, Pensacola.
Dunkin Donuts, Pensacola.
A waiter named Chuck.
24 linemen and their trucks from Oklahoma, en route to the staging area in Lakeland, ma’am.

This particular line-repair convoy, snapped while driving back home, was from Alabama.

New paperback edition of The Sun Also Rises, supplemented with early drafts and deleted chapters.
The Microsoft electronics company.
Florida Power and Light.
The Frito-Lay snack company.
The Samsung electronics company.
Weather satellites and all the shit they do up there.
Socks in general.
Portable soft-sided cooler technology.
The Florida state highway system.
The U.S. Interstate highway system.
Workers who clean and maintain interstate rest stops.
Katy & Steve.
Ann & Margaret.
Other good friendships too many to count accurately. But my gratitude may be measured by the metric ton.
Spiral-bound notebook technology.
Graphite and those who mine it.
Double-walled paper cup technology.
Costco gas, Tallahassee.
The Florida State Building Code of 1980.
Anonymous Four.
The Shaggs.

Do you have a Hurricane Irma Thanklist? What’s on it? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. Photo by ES.

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Beautiful Challenge of Detachment

Zestful Blog Post #228

Living in Florida gives you lots of opportunities to learn to live with ambiguity. The storm may come and kill you. If it doesn’t kill you because your shelter was adequate or you got the hell out of the way, it may destroy your dwelling, all of your stuff, your neighbors’ dwellings and stuff, and maybe even the whole town.

Or it may not.

It could veer away in a little gust and leave you with a few palm fronds in your yard to clean up. Such it is with so many things. It could go wrong. It could go right. One must watch, wait, make decisions, and act.

[Graffiti in the bathroom stall at John King Books, Detroit, 2016. I think I used this photo once before. Wouldn't it make a good tattoo?]

Detachment is a powerful ally. We can’t take any of those cool possessions along in the end, anyway. Well, then! What if we detach now? We find ourselves with everything else, which is to say, everything: love, honesty, and freedom. It's a beautiful world.

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. Photo by ES.

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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Envy is Your Friend

Zestful Blog Post #227

Well, I bet that’s a blog post title nobody’s ever used before. Before I get to that, though, here’s a link to an interview of me done by Lynne Bernfield, a Sarasota-area psychotherapist who runs an internet radio show about creative people. She was particularly interested in the fact that while I always wrote, I didn’t have the drive to be a novelist from a young age. Actually, I tried to avoid the path of being a fiction writer, but eventually it sort of chased me down. I found Lynne to be a perceptive and thoughtful interviewer, and am grateful to have the chance to tell my story.

On to today’s theme. Not long ago, my colleague Ryan G. Van Cleave asked if I’d give him some quotes for an article he was writing for The Writer, a magazine for, yep, writers. The article (in the August 2017 issue) was about writer’s envy, and Ryan interviewed several other authors about the subject as well.

Here’s what I said:
“For years, I couldn’t even read novels by living authors who were more successful than me, which was almost everybody. In those days if I read a novel by a dead guy or gal, I could appreciate it without stress, because at least I could mutter, upon closing the cover, ‘Haha, you’re dead and I’m not!’
“Although I’ve envied other writers (and still do), I know I’m envied sometimes. Whenever I realize someone is envious of me, I’m like, ‘You poor dumb shmuck, you have no idea that my life is a boiling cauldron of failure and anxiety.’ But I always act super-cool and confident.
“How to conquer envy? A confident front is half the answer. The other half is to commit to being the best you can possibly be; to do at least most of the things you want to do; to meet and even exceed the goals you set for your life. Throw regret to the dogs and meet every day without excuse or self-doubt.
“Also this: If we say it’s OK to be envious, envy loses its power. Because everybody is envious at times.”  [end of quote]

Seriously, the reason envy feels so bad is that we try to suppress it. After all, it’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins (per Western Christian canon, though it’s often listed as greed, which really isn’t the same). And then, because suppression is usually a lousy strategy, we feel guilty when we feel envious, which just makes it worse. We feel we shouldn’t be envious, so if we are envious, that makes us just extra crummy people. So we get down on ourselves at the same time we’re trying to fight the envy, which is just a loser road.

[Portrait of Envy by ES]

The correct way to approach the issue is to be OK with envy. Hey, welcome it! Make friends with it. As you can see from the photograph of Envy I managed to take when we met up recently, Envy might seem fearsome and ugly, but look—it’s holding a bouquet! The bouquet is a gift! And it’s for you! Now, how can that be bad? It can’t. It’s good! Envy really has no power at all—it’s just a big guy who wears lipstick and a little gold skirt and wants to be liked.

So my message today is welcome envy if it ever comes around—and all the while, keep working like hell on your own show.

What are your thoughts on envy? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Power of Unexpected Story

Zestful Blog Post #226

As you may know, I’ve gotten a gig teaching a class in story writing at Ringling College of Art and Design. Last week, about 15 other new faculty members and I were obliged to attend an all-day orientation session. The agenda looked tedious: presentation after presentation from department heads and support teams, speech after speech. But first, all of us had to introduce ourselves and say a few words about our background and what we’re going to teach.

I was a little more than halfway back in the room. I listened to the intro stories, which all went as expected: “I’m [Firstname Lastname], and I taught [subject matter] at [this college, that university] for [X] years. I got my Ph.D. in [subject] from [alma mater], and I’m just so excited to be here.” A few of my colleagues mumbled or spoke softly, as if afraid someone might hear them.

So you know me, right? I was like, this is gonna be a long day, and already we can use a little relief. About five people before me, I started to think about what I’d say. My turn came. I spoke clearly and deliberately, in a cheerful tone.

“I’m Elizabeth Sims. I used to run the liberal arts departments at Harvard and the Sorbonne—in Paris.” Heads instantly turned in my direction and postures straightened. I went on, at the same pace, “I was the boss of both of those programs, at the same time.” Dead, attentive silence. “But I got kicked out of both places because of a series of really juicy sex scandals.” Every last pair of eyes was riveted to me, and people started to laugh incredulously. “So here I am at this fine institution. And guess what I’ll be teaching! Story writing! Making up stories. You see how it works.” Full-on, relaxed laughter. “The truth is, I’m an author and writing authority, and I’m a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest magazine. My degrees are from Michigan State University and Wayne State University—in Detroit. And now on to [name of person sitting next to me].” That person waited a moment for the room to settle down before resuming the ordinary story format. I hoped strongly to be one-upped, but nobody tried it.

During breaks, some of my colleagues came up to talk. One said, “I want to be in your class!” Another wanted my card so she could have me come and talk about storytelling to one of her classes. Another asked, anxiously, “Did you plan that? I mean, did you plan that?” Another simply said, in a low, awed tone, “That was great.” Such a tiny little thing; such fun, positive impact! I guess one reason my performance was so impressive was that the top administrators of the college were in the room. The people you’re supposed to really behave in front of.

I had already engineered a similar success a few years ago when, after arthroscopic shoulder surgery, I was sitting in the physical-therapy waiting room with a few other patients. Everyone started discussing why they were there: knee replacement, knee replacement, wrist tendon. I nodded sympathetically until they all turned, politely, to me. I gestured to my sling and explained that my arm had been torn off in a terrible car wreck, but doctors had reattached it during a grueling 17-hour operation. Judging by their slowly widening eyes and dropping jaws, I could have gone on about how I stanched the bleeding myself and used the severed arm as a club to ward off an aggressive grizzly bear, but Marcia, who had driven me to the appointment, broke in with the truth. (I believe I posted this on Facebook at the time, so forgive me if you already heard it.)

Other than to have fun telling you about my little shining moments, my point here is to remind us that story, when unexpected, can hit people strongly. You can have a lot of fun with story, on the page and off! It’s a gift! Find your balls and give it! Look for opportunities, and then report back to us, OK?
(For more on this subject, see post 145, Lying is Good for You.)

Do you have a story about a time when you fun-lied? Tell us! To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. Photo by ES.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Thematic Rule of Two

Zestful Blog Post #225

I like to use twos in writing.

If you have a work in progress—fiction, that is—most likely you have a theme in there somewhere. Take a little time to think about it and look for ways to develop it. Does love conquer all? If so, throw in more hate and see if you can shake love’s foundations. Or, perhaps, is love meaningless—and noble action the only valuable thing for a human to dedicate himself to? Ramp up the romance and see if the dispassionate seeker can be swayed.

A good technique is to explore more than one theme; then they can carom off each other and build complexity. A tough guy with a drinking problem is a bit of a cliché; what if you have your addicted detective fighting for the right to adopt a five-year-old orphaned beauty queen? Whoa, dude, that is off the wall. It can become a main plot, or a strong subplot. You’ve got a man’s struggle with inner demons, and you’ve got a needy child in limbo. This opens up all kinds of possibilities: family, the circle of life, exploitation, vulnerability, love and sacrifice.

You can jolt some juice into your work in small ways, too. Instead of simply having two characters disagree, have one throw a chair. Or if you already have a fistfight going, make sure somebody ends up with life-changing injuries, instead of just a black eye. Let your characters abandon themselves to their fates—and hey, fate is another theme right there. How do your characters think about it, what do they do to try to beat it, cheat it, or meet it?

[Rocket and capsule, U.S. Project Gemini. Two guys were in there, all the way up and all the way down. Photo by ES.]
When you feel stuck, sit back and throw out some possibilities involving twos, or even threes.

Oh, my God, they’re twins! That’s how the alibi got past the D.A.!

Get out now! It’s not just a twister, it’s twisters plural, coming from opposite directions!

Success in love and achievement both! Wow, what could go wrong now?

I betrayed not only you; I betrayed myself as well.

We’ll use not one decoy, but two. It’s foolproof, I tell you!

You see how it works. The rule of two is an easy technique to visit any time your fiction needs a boost. 

Have you used the rule of two in writing fiction? Tell us about it. Or, if you simply have a good recipe for soft, warm cookies, let us know. We’re getting hungry. To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Mad Scientist's Guide to Fiction

Zestful Blog Post #224

This post is a meaty excerpt from my article, "Fiction Lab," in the September 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine.

For my 10th birthday, I requested and received a chemistry set. It came with all the cool stuff, but the experiments in the instruction book were feeble. You knew what was supposed to happen; nothing exploded, nothing grew over the top of the test tube. I started to think outside the kit. I took apart Christmas lights to create dollhouse lamps, but achieved only a blown fuse and some smoke. When my mother got hold of a fetal pig for me to dissect, I hooked it up to a dry cell in an attempt to trigger reflex motion. I succeeded in giving myself a shock.

Then a school chum told me he’d learned the recipe for gunpowder. It’s hard to fathom now, but children in the 1960s could and did obtain the raw materials for making explosives. The local pharmacist sold me as much potassium nitrate as I wanted, no questions asked, 15 cents an ounce. From there, life got a lot more interesting. (Surprisingly, I emerged from childhood with my eyesight, hearing, and all fingers and toes intact.)

My young mad-scientist days taught me some basic lessons in creativity. Now, as a writer of fiction, I create different sorts of things—equally incendiary and no less fun.

A mad scientist is passionate about a vision of something new. Perhaps because of that, she might seem somewhat unbalanced (hence mad). She’s eager to try anything to bring about success, and willing to endure sacrifice. A mad scientist’s spirit is indomitable and fearless. Most important of all, she’s ready to pick up after a failure and try a different formula. All qualities, as you’ve probably deduced, that would serve a writer just as well.

When your daily pages are looking stale, or your ideas aren’t flowing as fast, free and fun as you’d like—step into your fiction lab and try these approaches to tap into the mad-scientist spirit. 

Throw out the instructions.

We’re talking about a mad scientist, not an ignorant one. Textbooks serve a purpose—one must learn at least the rudiments of one’s craft before breaking new ground—but they can also become a crutch if we cling to them too tightly.

The poet Ezra Pound encouraged Ernest Hemingway to push beyond his journalism training to write short vignettes for The Little Review. Hemingway hadn’t written much fiction yet, but he penned a few vignettes of just a paragraph or so each, then he wrote more of them. It was bold to produce such short things and call them finished pieces; nobody else at the time was really doing that. But Hemingway wanted to write tight and true, and brought war and bullfighting to life with bluntness and cruel beauty in those brief but powerful portrayals.  Later he interspersed them with short stories to form his first collection, In Our Time, which brought him fame. Those vignettes that blew readers away in 1925 are no less effective today.

In 1980, Jean M. Auel broke new ground with the launch of her Earth’s Children series (The Clan of the Cave Bear, etc.), which endowed her preliterate primitive characters with emotion and powers of thought equivalent to those we associate with modern humans. I don’t know where she got the idea, but it sure wasn’t from any classroom I’ve ever heard of. Readers are still buying those rule-smashing stories today.

The point here is to not be constrained by convention. If you’re moved to try something different but a little voice says, “Wait, that’s not what we learned in the workshop!”—then stop and consider. Sometimes the “No!” and its attendant discomfort are really cues that you need to say, “Yes!”

What lies beyond the textbook is your own vision. To bring it into focus, find some stillness. Unplug from all the online crap and let your mind settle down. Contemplate your writing project, at whatever stage it’s in. Pay attention to any thoughts that come up about it, and write them down, whether they’re ideas about plot, or hunks of story, whatever. Even apparent junk tends to morph into original material if you stay open and give it enough time to move beyond stock advice and become wholly your own.

Stock the shelves with interesting supplies.

Of course, to remain perpetually in creation and experimentation mode, you do have to look beyond your own brain.

Dashiell Hammett read widely, seemingly without rhyme or reason: a Shakespeare play after a book on horology after a history of the Balkans after a memoir of a cowboy. This kind of reading was a sort of fertilizer for his brain. The Maltese Falcon didn’t have a clockmaking cowboy from Albania in it, but it did have tight time frames, wild action and international quarreling.

Consider anything and everything fodder for your fiction. Breakthroughs can happen when you draw information and inspiration from unlikely sources. Court transcripts, for instance, can yield amazing material. If your romance novel is lagging, why not look up the transcripts from some juicy, high-profile divorce cases? You won’t necessarily pluck from them word-for-word, but you could come across details that spark novelty.

Comb through belongings left over from your childhood. Remember what it was like to sneak around the neighborhood pretending to be a secret agent. Call up your most humiliating memory from the baseball diamond or Sunday school.

Learn to see possibilities in films, fiction, cereal boxes, weapons catalogs—anything! Throw things together in ways nobody else has dared to try; juxtapose wildly. Drop poison into a sculptor’s clay. Make a planet grow arms and legs. Impose no restrictions! Tinker to your heart’s content.

. . .

Make another one.

If you quit after one attempt, of course, you wouldn’t be much of a scientist—more like a curious visitor. There is tremendous power in setting to work anew, and seeing the next project through to the end. Make yourself at home in your lab. Construct it to suit your purposes not just for a wayward afternoon, but for countless days of discovery and wonder.

The world looks to artists to leave the general comfort zone, then report back. If you do that with intention and verve, again and again, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll look down at a creation and notice something different, something fabulous.

Your heart will race and your blood will pound and you will raise your fists and shout, “It’s alive!”

[For now, the whole article is available only in the current magazine.]

Did you ever blow anything up? Do you have any suggestions to share on this topic, or what the hell, any other? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [Photo by ES]
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