Tag Archives: Dubious Advice

Re-Motivator: Bookwise


Books are the lifeblood of the writer. Not just because we traffic in them, But like water, we depend on them. We cannot function without them.

But while water in its purest form is a thing we can’t live without, not all water sustains us. Thirst may be a thing we can’t survive, but if you drink muddy water from a scummy pond, you may soon have worse problems than thirst to deal with. The man marooned on a desert island reaches for seawater to slake his thirst and only hastens his death.

Book, Books, Circle, Curly, Education, Knowledge, Learn

I think part of the reason I’ve been in something of a creative funk lately is because I haven’t been reading as many books — or I’ve been reading the wrong kind of books.

A little while ago, I reached for a book that I thought I was going to love: Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn. Flynn is the author of Gone Girl, which I loved in all its twisted darkness, so I figured another book by the same writer would be a sure thing. So I jumped into the book one night, and I read about twenty pages, and I just wasn’t feeling it. No big deal. I was tired; try it again another night. Tried again a few nights on — still nothing. Thirty pages in, it wasn’t clicking with me.

I should point out that this isn’t a review or an indictment of the book. My wife loved it. But it just wasn’t working for me. Now, I’ve got a stack of books on my bedside table just waiting to be read, but I’m this weird creature. I don’t love reading multiple books at a time. I like to take on one thing, drill through it, and move on to the next. If I read too many things at a time, I get overwhelmed, distracted. Like in that old Missile Defense game, where you’ve got like thirty missiles aimed at your base, and you can only blow up so many of them? That game stresses me out.

My blood pressure is spiking just looking at this picture.

No, I prefer to keep to one book at a time. But I also don’t like to leave things unfinished. So here I was with this book that I wanted to like. But I didn’t like it, so I didn’t want to read it. But because I wasn’t reading it, I couldn’t move on to other books I might have liked more. I had sipped from a scum-covered pond, and I was, as a result, not only thirsty for proper, refreshing water, but convulsing with dysentery in the meantime.

The bad book was clogging my system, and it was making me feel unmotivated and gross and even, stupidly, bad about myself. (Why don’t I like this book? What’s wrong with me?)

It sat there on my bedside table for a month, and I never got past page sixty. Shameful! And at the same time, I was becoming creatively blocked, as well. Unmotivated. Uninspired. Unproductive.

I don’t know what caused the wake-up, but one day I finally decided to dump the bad water out the window. I moved Sharp Objects to the bottom of the pile and picked up Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King instead. (Yeah, I know, I should be pulling my reading material from lesser-knowns, since I’m hoping to become a lesser-known myself soon. What can I say. I suck.)

And what do you know? Within fifteen pages, I’m fascinated and repulsed by the antagonist, frustrated and sympathetic to the protagonist, and before I know it, I’m 45 pages in and my eyes are drooping because I’m up way too late.

And — wonder of wonders — all of a sudden, a day or two after I ditch the bad book and pick up the good book, comes the thunderbolt from the blue that starts me off on my newest jag. (3000 words in so far. Not exactly awesome progress, but as I mentioned yesterday, it’s summer, and my Getting-Things-Done-ometer wobbles like a weasel in a windstorm over the summer.)

So here’s a reminder to myself. Read more good books. Toss out the bad books. Stay inspired and keep fargoing writing.

Also: bookwise is not a word, I was disappointed to find out. But it should be.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Lose Yourself on the Trails


I’m a creature of habit and routine. (As are we all.) The only way things work in my life is if they find a way to fit into the routine. That goes for writing, obviously (which is one reason I haven’t written much lately: because the school year is almost out and that’s basically like tax time for an accountant). But it’s true for running, too.

Any exercise routine needs … well, it needs routine if it’s going to work. You can’t just squeeze it in when you get the chance, because who ever really feels like running three miles just because? (Well, aside from lunatic runners like myself.) The routine is what keeps you honest on a day like today, when I shut off my alarm and laid my head back down instead of getting up to go run, and then 15 minutes later the guilt took over and I suited up for a couple of miles anyway. And my routine works because it’s simple and accessible: I just step out the front door and go. If it wasn’t that easy, I wouldn’t be a runner.

And I live in the suburbs, so the runs are routine, too, even if I change up my route. There’s no danger of getting lost. No chance I’ll be unable to find my way back. When you’re in town, even one that isn’t familiar to you, there are landmarks everywhere marking the safe path. Buildings. Street signs. Rusted out shopping carts in the ditch. You can see these things and construct the path that brings you back.

Which is awesome, but let’s agree, pretty boring, too.

Which is why every runner should take it to the trails every once in a while.

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I could go on about the physiological benefits to running on trails (dirt is softer, ergo easier on the legs and feet; the uneven surfaces force you to recruit more stabilizing muscles and result in a better workout; the roots and rocks in your path force you to be present and focused on what you’re doing), but that’s not why I like trails.

I could also extrapolate on the mental benefits of the trail (studies show that proximity to nature confers clearer thinking and reduced stress levels; the smog is replaced with the flowery, earthy scent of nature; and let’s not underestimate the value of not having to dodge traffic), and those are great, but they’re not my favorite thing about trails.

I like trails because you could get lost out there. Even on the well-cultivated, clear-cut trails at the parks and preserves near my house, there are side trails and detours and twists and turns not marked on any map that, were you to ignore good sense and plunge in unprepared, could turn your one-hour excursion into a two-hour one, at the very least, or a three-day-weekend surprise-camping-trip at worst. Landmarks are few and far between if they exist at all. What you’re left with is a boundless sea of green all around with a tiny ribbon of dirt that swerves off into the thicket. Not much way of telling where you’re going, nor of telling where you’ve been. One tree looks much like another, and when the canopy grows together over the top of the trail (as it does on most of the trails I frequent), you don’t even have the sun to help you navigate.

You’re lost, except for the blind trust that you’ve read the map correctly (which, let’s be honest, you probably haven’t).

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And this is the best part! Because this is when you realize that for all that humanity has tamed the world and the wilderness, there are still great stretches of it everywhere, just waiting to swallow you up. Which is — wait for it — just like writing.

You start your project with an idea. Maybe you map it out deliberately and painstakingly, or maybe you just jump in and start writing. One way or another, you take those first steps off the well-cultivated road and pretty soon it’s nothing but identical trees in every direction but for the tiny scrap of trail disappearing behind you and stretching off into more trees ahead. And your cultured, educated brain tells you that it’s not so far ahead that the trail should jerk hard back around to the right — the way back to civilization — but all of a sudden the path dips and bends off to the left.

Was that the way? Or are the woods playing tricks on you? Suddenly you’re filled with uncertainty, and you think you’re heading in the right direction, but all you really have is your hope. That, and the tiny bit of story you just wrote and the tiny bit you can see from where you stand. Every now and then you break through — the canopy parts and you can see for a stretch down the river or across the valley — but in moments, it’s all swallowed up again in the green maw of the forest.

As runners, I think we have to leave behind what we know and go get lost every once in a while. Partly for the benefits it confers, but mostly because running is one of the few sports that encourages us to enter and explore the world all around us in its natural state.

And as writers … well, I think as writers we should maybe spend more time lost than found.

Happy trails.


Not By Any Other Name


For so long I struggled with a question of identity. Actually, struggle is the wrong word, because I wasn’t thinking about the issue at all, but by virtue of not thinking about the issue, I was missing out.

Okay, that’s vague as hell. Let me try again. Self-perception is a big deal. Not so much in thinking of yourself as a big deal (although I guess that’s maybe not a bad thing now and then), but I mean just the way you think of yourself in general. The way you define yourself matters.

Sounds obvious, right? But it’s the simple truths that are the most powerful. For a long, long time, I thought of myself in a really negative way. Not actively — I didn’t sit around thinking to myself: “I’m a loser, I’m never going to amount to anything, I might as well just not try.” But that perception was lurking in the back of my mind nonetheless. I hadn’t amounted to anything, so I didn’t know that I ever would amount to anything. I had aspirations, but I had no confidence that I could achieve them, so I didn’t bother even thinking of myself as being on that track.

Case in point: Writing. I always wanted to write, but the idea of actually writing a book felt so insurmountable I just took it for granted that I could never get it done. Without really thinking about it, then, I named myself not-a-writer. By the same token, I could define myself by virtually any yardstick you could think of. Not-an-astronaut. Not-a-millionaire. Not a super-genius. But there’s only so much you can learn about a thing by determining what it isn’t, and that goes for yourself, too.

So, a little over a year ago, I decided to try something different. I told myself, you’re going to try being a writer. And so I started thinking of myself as a writer. And lo and behold, I suddenly found myself more committed than ever to writing well and productively and regularly. Well, that was pretty cool, so I started thinking of myself as other things, just to see what effect it would have on me. I never thought of myself as much of a dad, but now and then lately I remind myself, you’re a dad now, and I find myself being just a little more conscientious with my kids.

I’m willing to bet that this works with almost anything, because as good as we are at fooling ourselves about life in a direction that hurts us (I’ve got plenty of time for that project, or a few extra cookies won’t hurt), we can fool ourselves in a positive direction, too.

So, this post is to remind myself that I’m a writer. And a runner. And a dad and a husband. And a teacher. And a thinker. And a goofball and a nerd and a reader and a slew of other things. Positive things.

The names we give ourselves, I think, become the names we make for ourselves. So pick good ones.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


TheMe (a Quandary)


That’s right, enough screwing around. This post is all about THE ME.  The big ol’ me, in all my… whats that?  Oh.  OHH.

Theme.  *ahem.*

Yeah, I guess that makes more sense.

Now, I’m not here to get all heavy-handed about theme.  I may be an English teacher and a kind-of-avid reader and a self-professed almost-amateur writer, but I don’t think the world or any narrative starts and stops with theme.  Not even a rolling stop.  Not even an oh-I-didn’t-know-that-was-a-stop-sign non-stop.  It’s important, sure.  But there’s more to life than theme.

But not that much more, right?  I mean, for any narrative, there’s a theme.  Any story, any poem, any six-second video of a guy texting and walking into traffic and getting obliterated by a bus has a theme.  Theme bleeds out of the story’s every orifice, it leaks out through the eyes and the nostrils and the earholes like a thick Ebola slurry.  It infuses every chapter, every sentence with its rosy, heady fog.  It’s there and unavoidable, like a screaming baby on a 5-hour flight.  You can’t have literature without it.

But how do you create it?

No, I’m really asking.  How do you craft theme?  Or, maybe more importantly, should you even try?

Theme is bouncing around the inside of my skull thanks to a conversation I had a few nights ago with a friend of mine about a story she wants to write.  Interestingly, she and I come from entirely different schools of storybuilding.  Like, she’s been pondering this idea for weeks if not months, has characters and names and costumes and really specific details of the set mapped out, and I… well, when I have an idea, I get about as far as thinking, “maybe it’d be cool if this thing happened and there was a guy with a thing like that” and then I start writing.  She’s analyzing possibilities and eventualities and the implications of interactions between these two characters and the symbolism of this character’s color scheme and I’m wondering if in my story one of the characters can get away with another fart joke.

So I shared with her my particular thoughs on attempting to convey a grand message through the narrative: it feels wrong.  Or, rather, it feels wrong to start there.  I should further clarify that it feels wrong to start there for me.  I feel as if theme, much like the all-female non-reproductive dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, will find a way.  Like weeds in a garden or mildew in a bathroom, it’s always there, lurking just out of sight, waiting for you to neglect it for a scant moment so that it can spring forth fully formed.  Trying, therefore, to cultivate theme makes about as much sense as trying to grow weeds (not weed, STAY WITH ME PEOPLE).  Why put all that effort into something that’s going to happen anyway?  Isn’t it a waste of my time trying to encourage mildew to grow when I could conceivably be building entirely new bathrooms?

But then I take a moment and I wonder what my story is all about.  I mean what it’s about.  You know, the big about, the one that seems super-important after four or five whiskey sours and you’ve just gotten finished talking about how every speck of dust in the universe is connected to every other speck and THAT’S why the government puts those chemicals in the water, man, to keep us from being absorbed by the cosmic ether, even though that’s obviously the next stage in human evolution.  You know, what my story’s ABOUT, man.  And it’s about sticktoitiveness, it’s about determination and the will to overcome, it’s about magical typewriters and Greek gods and mobsters.  It’s about believing in yourself and accomplishing anything, as George McFly once put it.  Isn’t it?

I mean, that message is there, certainly.  It’s a part of the story like bones are part of a person.  It’ll shine through when the editing and the rewriting and the rebuilding are done.  Right?

But what if it doesn’t?  What if, like the tin man, I forgot to build the heart into this thing, and I’m trying to bring it forth into the world to rust and wander aimlessly following the whims of some tart from Kansas?  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  You can’t build a house without a blueprint unless you don’t much care about trifles like structural integrity or roofs that don’t leak or, you know, functional plumbing (there’s a joke in there somewhere about how my story is total unredeemable sharknado, but I won’t be the guy to make it).  I’m counting on the theme to spring forth like flowers after a spring rain, but I’ve salted the earth with my failure to plan ahead.  To nutshell all this, I suddenly feel a bit silly about professing any sort of “expert-ness” about any of this writing business.

At any rate, I dispensed all this “advice” to her.  Put thoughts of theme aside for now; focus on making the story compelling first and let the theme follow after.  Upon further review, I wonder if I sound like that guy at the party wearing the bellbottoms and insisting that they’re coming back into style.  What, after all, do I know about any of this except that I’m having a heck of a lot of fun giving myself headaches and tearing my hair out over whether this story is ever going to actually work.

So, I’m really asking.  Where does theme come from?  Will it bubble to the surface like a bath fart or does it have to be coaxed out of the darkness like a feral kitten?  Do you have to plan for it for a theme to resonate or does it just happen like water spots on your wineglasses?  What, in short, makes theme work?


Occam’s Toddler


Occam’s Razor is a simple scientific precept that I probably misunderstand, but I’m going to hijack it anyway.  It states that for any number of given solutions to a problem or any series of explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest one is probably the best one.  Did I screw that up?  I probably screwed that up.  Anyway, toddlers make this almost impossible to do, and with that in mind, I posit a corollary to the Razor: Occam’s Toddler.  Occam’s Toddler states that for any number of given solutions to a problem or any series of explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest one is probably the best one; however, if there is a toddler in your charge, it’s dangerous to use razors around toddlers, so put that thing away, and now the toddler is spilling cotton balls and lotion all over the bathroom floor and JESUS GET AWAY FROM THE CURLING IRON —

Ahem.  In short, it’s impossible to wield the Razor if you have a toddler.  So if you have a toddler, I have a smidge of advice for you:

Throw away that piece of crap you’re holding on to.  You know the one.  It’s the appliance or tool or bit of furniture that you know is a little bit wobbly, a little bit crappy, a little bit worthless that you’re hanging onto because you can “get by” with it. Continue reading


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