Busker For The Dead (Part 1)

I don’t have that look. Some people do, but I’m not so lucky. I don’t look like my profession. I’m a busker. Don’t laugh, it’s a living. Problem is, when you shut your eyes and picture a busker in your mind, be they small or tall, slight or portly, I will never fit the bill. I have the unfortunate appearance of someone whose job title is preceded by the word man. Milkman. Mailman. Garbageman. Just not a streetmusicman.

You may be asking why this is important. Fair enough question. When you’re panhandling for money—come on, let’s face facts, street performing is begging with a musical accompaniment—having the look of a starving artist plays as much a part in getting people to part with their hard-earned cash as talent.

“Oh, look at the poor wretch having to sing for his supper, let’s toss him a pittance, shall we, dear?”

Some of the others have nailed the look down from the hair that refuses to be tamed to the ragged clothes just over the borderline from being hip and trendy. Me? I look like a well-fed blue-collar worker trying out a new hobby. That’s why I have to work twice as hard to earn half as much as my compadres. My audiences tend to be tight-fisted, self-absorbed philistines that expect blood for the bits of copper they toss my way.

Oh, I should probably mention that I busk for the dead.

Not the kind of job you rush out and apply for. Me? I kinda just fell into it. Turns out a friend of a friend knew a guy who used to work for the cousin of a woman who lived next door to a guy who was complaining that his employee just up and quit on him. Seems he couldn’t handle the stress of performing in Perdition, which I can plainly understand now.

What? No, I’m very much alive, thanks for asking. My work ID acts as a sort of day pass and allows me to mull about in Hell without experiencing any of the torment and damnation. Kinda cool, but it takes some getting used to.

Although it’s a paying gig, it ain’t enough to cover rent and bills—minimum wage in Hell is murder, no pun intended, so I rely heavily on the gratuity chucked into my hat. And yes, the dead have real money. Don’t ask me how that works. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the day pass into Hell thing.

My spot is the corner of Abaddon and Wretchedness, and while a part of the overall design of Hell, it’s technically Limbo, the waiting area where souls are processed and dispatched according to assessment. And as time moves differently in Hell, the wait can be an extensive one, so you figure folks would jump at the chance to experience anything that takes their minds off the situation at hand. That is so not the case. When facing damnation, the furthest thing from their minds is to listen to anyone sing. This is made evident from the contents of my hat. Today’s take so far consists of three dollars and eighteen cents in coins, a stick of chewing gum, a balled-up snotty tissue, and a punch card from some boutique java spot with one punch away from receiving a free coffee. The coins stay in the hat, the gum in my mouth, the tissue—ick—in the trash, and the punch card in my pocket. I’m not one to go in for designer coffee but like The Police sang, “When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.”

“Not what I expected,” a voice says from behind, nearly startling me out of my skin.

I turn to see a woman in her sixties, seventies, maybe—I’ve never been good at guestimating people’s ages—all done up as if for a night on the town. “You’re not the first person to say that.”

“And is it just me or is it chilly here?”

She was right, you’d figure being so close to Hell there’d be some sort of radiant heat, but there was a constant wind that blew shivers down the spine. “Not just you.”

“You’re not half bad, you know.” the woman said, looking into the hat. “You deserve more than that.”

I look up and down the avenue, We’re the only two people on the street at the moment. “It’s like they say, it all comes down to location, location, location.”

The woman opens her purse, a small clutch bag that’s a throwback to a classier time, and produces a two-dollar bill. “I’m afraid I’m not in the habit of carrying cash, so this is all I have.”

“It’s the biggest tip I’ve received in a long while.” I smile as she places the bill into the hat.

“Not that I’ll have much need for it anymore.”

“Not unless you were crossing the river Styx.”

“You mean the ferryman doesn’t accept the card?” the woman pulls out an obsidian credit card. “I was told never to leave home without it.”

It’s an outdated reference, but we both chuckle at it.

“If you’ll pardon the intrusion,” the woman asks. “How did it happen?”

“How did what happen?”

“How did you die? Peacefully, I hope.”

“Oh, no. I’m not dead, I just work here.” I show the woman my day pass.

“How interesting.” and she appears to actually find it interesting but her expression drops.

“What’s the matter?”

“It would be my luck that the first conversation I strike up in the afterlife would be with a living person. I was sort of hoping to find a travel companion for what lies ahead. I’ve always dreaded doing things by myself.”

“I’m not sure that’s how it works here. I think isolation is part of the torment process.” I realize what I’m saying just a smidgen too late to pull it back.

“Torment. I hadn’t considered that.”

“Sorry.”

“Not your fault. You’re not responsible for my sins.”

“I know I’ve just met you but it’s hard to believe you’d have anything to worry about.”

“Kind of you to say, but we’re all sinners in one fashion or another. I just wish there was a way for me to plead my case. I believe my sins were righteous.”

“You can always try.”

“No, no. I’ve never been good at that sort of thing.”

“Maybe if you practiced, rehearsed what you want to say? You can try it out on me and I’ll give you my honest feedback.”

“No, I couldn’t.”

“What have you got to lose? If you botch it up, you’re still being condemned anyway, at least this way you’ll have had your say.”

“Like my final words?”

“Exactly.”

She contemplates it long and hard. “All right then, if it wouldn’t be a bother.”

I gesture up and down the block. “Not like I’m doing anything else. Ready?”

“No, but go on.”

I straighten my posture and assume an authoritative voice. “You stand here accused of the sin of…”

“Murder,” she adds, sheepishly.

“Murder,” I repeat, stunned. “What say you in your defense?”

“I don’t deserve to be here. I was sent to the wrong place. I did what needed to be done, what no one else had the courage to do and now I’m being punished for my actions.”

“And whose life did you take?”

“My own.”

“Why?”

“Others would have died if I didn’t.”

Not The End…

Do You Blindside Yourself With Your Writing? If Not, Why Not?

“Surprise yourself.  If you can bring the story—or let it bring you—to a place that amazes you, then you can surprise your reader.” — Chuck Palahniuk

Has your writing ever blindsided you? Have your characters ever caught you off guard by saying or doing something clever or revealing a bit of information that you yourself didn’t know? When re-reading a piece that you set aside to cool, have you ever wondered where the ideas, voices, and speculative elements came from and if you have any more of that inside you?

The answer is: Of course, there’s more.

Writing is a journey of discovery, and one of the great pleasures of storytelling is that you discover the amazing things that dwell in your brain, things about yourself and your thought processes that you might not otherwise uncover. And besides self-expression, isn’t that the major point of writing?

So, how do you blindside yourself with your talent? You simply let go.

Get out of your own head and write on instinct. Park the perfectionist on the soft shoulder and write your ever-loving heart out. This is part and parcel of learning to be kind to yourself as you write. Your genius can’t flow steadily with someone backseat editing the entire trip. You can always swing back around and pick up the bugger when you’re ready to begin the rewrite.

And don’t begin your story fretting about how it will end. Your story is smarter than you give it credit for. When it’s done, you’ll see the pop-up timer.

It’s essential to keep in mind whenever you pick up a pen or touch fingertips to keyboard that you’re doing it from a position on the shoulders of the literary giants who came before you, the ones who surprised you with their words, so every time you write, you should follow their lead and surprise yourself.

Until next time, sally forth and be surprising yourselfingly writeful.

PS. If you have roughly an hour to kill—I know, it’s the internet and you’ve got memes to see and threads to troll—you could do a lot worse than lending an ear to Ray Bradbury’s 2001 “Telling the Truth” keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea.

Not only does he counsel aspiring writers to spend their time writing lots of short stories—even if they’re mostly bad, there’s gotta be a couple of good ones in the bunchbut he also suggests to write with joy and for fun, and to let yourself be surprised by your writing and by life.

Tiny Stories: The Million Dollar Choice

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

The cloth bag placed over her head not only prevented her from seeing where she was being taken but also blocked out all sound. Erica had no idea technology like that even existed. When the bag was removed, she found herself seated in a small nondescript room with a high-end tripod-mounted camera trained on her.

On the table before her sat an open attache case filled with twelve stacks of $100 dollar bills, eighty-three used and non-sequential notes to a stack. Beside the case were two glasses of red wine, one untampered with and the other laced with a deadly toxin.

Erica heard about things like this, private rooms on the dark web where people with money, people to whom a million dollars wasn’t life-changing like it was for her, but merely pocket change, wagered on the lives of the desperate and destitute. There were Russian roulette rooms, perverse puzzle rooms, and deadly escape rooms. She had gotten off lucky, she supposed. Hers was a simple fifty-fifty choice.

If she chose correctly, Erica stood to walk away with enough tax-free money to pay off her debts and do things the right way this time around. The smart choice would have been to ignore the invitation in the first place and find some other way to repair her damaged life, but she was inflicted with a serious gambling disease, something she inherited from her mother, and the opportunity was simply too good to pass up.

The catch? She was a lousy gambler, notorious for making bad choices even when she second-guessed herself, and her fatal flaw was that she could never pass up a dare or a bet.

Erica wasn’t allowed to touch the glasses before making her choice, so her eyes darted left to right, from one to the other, looking for the slightest discoloration between the two, and she even sniffed the air above each glass, which was pointless. These people were professionals and whatever lethal venom they used was no doubt undetectable by sight or smell.

She had a feeling in her waters that the one on the left was the dead cert unpoisoned wine glass, but was it strategically placed just a half-inch closer to her to make her select it subconsciously? Then she opted for the one on the right but suspected she was outfoxing herself. Then there was the possibility that both glasses had been tampered with. No, she couldn’t allow herself to think that way. Morty, the guy who set up this bet, had always been a straight shooter. He looked out for her whenever he could. Even when you made a habit of dealing with less than reputable people, you had to place your trust in someone. So Erica girded her loins and went with her initial instinct.

Was it her overactive imagination playing tricks on her or did she feel a static shock of electricity as she lifted the glass on the left by the stem? She tilted the snifter slowly, praying to the gods of luck and good fortune, and the moment the chilled wine touched her trembling lips, she knew…

The Island of Misfit Posts #2: No Enemy But Time

Like its predecessor, Discouraged by Discouragement, this pesky fella here is another one of those posts that didn’t quite turn out as expected and ended up on the cutting room floor (though a part of its sentiment made its way into You’re Where You Are). Caught somewhere between my musings of growing older while still struggling with the craft and my intent of advising impatient writers to slow down, the post started taking the shape of something neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring:

“Do you think, I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable!” — Julius Caesar

When you reach a certain age, you become acutely aware of time, how much you’ve squandered on things you swore were important at the moment, and how little you still have left in your account. Whenever I get the time brain bug, I’m always brought back to the line from Delmore Schwartz’s poem, Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day (quoted in that horrendous film Star Trek: Generations), “Time is the fire in which we burn.” I love that line. It resonates within me.

But I digress.

Many aspiring authors feel the pressures of time, either believing because of their age that they’ve gotten a late start in the writing process and need to play catch up, or simply haven’t got the proper time to devote to a writing regime, so they attempt to bang out herculean writing tasks without bothering to first learn the rules. They assume because they’ve taken on board the advice to write everyday that their skill set automatically improves and mistakes auto-correct themselves. They read, as instructed, but fail to apply storytelling rules—plotting, story goals, scenes and sequences, the purpose of characters, effective use of dialogue—to their own work.

That’s not to say their writing is bad, it simply lacks a consistent quality. A beautiful bit of prose or a dynamic character can easily get lost in the quagmire of weak grammar, poor pacing, and a meandering plot. Recognizing it can sometimes be hard to turn an objective eye on your own writing, here are a few questions to ask yourself, to see if you need to go back to writers boot camp:

1. Do you tell a story?

I assume you’re familiar with the phrase, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” This applies to your writing as well, especially when you’re concentrating on your piece at the word choice and sentence structure level. Sometimes it helps to take a step back and get a big picture view of what you’re attempting to do, what it is you’re really trying to write about. The answer isn’t always as clear cut as you’d imagine.

2. Is your writing concise?

This one’s a toughie, because it calls on you to chuck out everything you learned in school about the proper way to write an essay. Well, this ain’t about writing essays, bub (or bubette, no gender discrimination here) and the rules of pacing language are different in fiction. The first rule you need to learn is: Never use a long sentence when a short one does the same job.

3. Are you addicted to adjectives and adverbs?

Adjectives and adverbs are among the more hotly debated issues in the writing community, and while opinions vary, the common rule of thumb is less is more. It can be hard to spot over usage while writing so when you’re done with your piece, look for chains–a string of adjective and adverb two or greater—and whittle it down until you’re left with one or two essential ones. Also worth bearing in mind, when you feel the need to modify a noun or a verb, make sure they need to be modified. If they do, select the best word to convey your meaning.

4. Are you familiar with the word “subtle?”

Your audience is smarter than you realize. There’s no need for you to spell everything out in exacting detail. And, believe it or not, some folks actually enjoy interpreting things for themselves.

5. Should you be shifting viewpoints?

Hopping from one character’s head to another without causing audience confusion requires a certain level of skill, and I’m certainly not suggesting that you shouldn’t be doing it (and if I told you not to, you’d rush out and do it anyway) but why not baby step your way towards it? Work on mastering the one character viewpoint first.

6. Do you show too much?

Yes, the standard rule is “show, don’t tell” but you don’t need to show everything. When in doubt, refer to Elmore Leonard’s rule,”Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

7. Do you create apathetic characters?

You’re an artist, your work is all about the truth, even in fiction. I get it. I’ve been there. But creating a realistic character based on your current bout of apathy, depression, or (heaven forbid) suicidal thoughts, often doesn’t make for good reading. Your characters must have wants and needs to push the plot forward. Audiences have no need to read stories where the characters have no desire to live or accomplish something.

8. Is your antagonist one dimensional?

Villains that are evil for evil’s sake are boring. Flesh them out with wants and needs like you would your main character. And remember, every villain is a hero in their own mind.

9. Does your dialogue matter?

Yes, leaving white on the page is a good thing as no one like slogging through dense blocks of description, but are you breaking up paragraphs with bits of meaningless chatter? Dialogue should be used as a communication between characters that evokes reaction. One characters says something that another character reacts to, which sparks a reaction, and so on, until the scene concludes. If you have no idea what your character has to say, then you don’t know your character well enough.

10. Can you write an ending?

Some people excel at writing beginnings, and that all they’re good at. Each chapter is a new beginning, with no middle to be found and as for an ending? I’m sure you can work out the answer to that. Other people get off to a slow start in the beginning, come into their own in the middle and peter out at the finish line. Let’s face it, endings are tough. Not only must you keep it clear and simple while you deliver on the promise of the premise (without being didactic), but you have to tie up all your story’s loose ends, and if you’re planning to surprise your audience, it shouldn’t be with an inappropriate twist, added for shock value. Keep in mind that writing the words “The End” doesn’t finish a story if it has no resolution.

In truth, I couldn’t finish it because I wasn’t in the proper frame of mind at the time. Although it might not be visible in the post, that damned time brain bug kept nagging at me, not with words, but with a feeling — the feeling of being left behind in the race for achievement. Before you say a word, I know better. In fact, one of my favorite quotes on this matter comes from the now-famous commencement speech, Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97:

“The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.”

But we’re human, aren’t we? And sometimes knowing a truth doesn’t prevent you from feeling the exact opposite.

Sally forth and be time-ignoringly writeful.

Tiny Stories: Muse For Sale

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

I know the original classified ad read:

WRITER’S MUSE FOR SALE: Well-worn around the edges. Ridden hard and hung up wet. Can handle whining insecurities. Willing to trade for a large meat lovers pizza and a domestic 6-pack.

but I have to be honest with you, I like my muse very much but my super-jealous, super-insecure girlfriend does not, so I am forced to rehome her.

She’s fashion-forward and we’ve been together for 10 long years. She enjoys playing board and card games, is a nite owl, has acquired a taste for expensive meals, is double-jointed (hey, you never know when that might come in handy), knows how to distill beer, grows her own pot (for medicinal purposes only, of course), has constant access to free concert tickets, has an open-minded twin sister (hey, you never know when that might come in handy), knows how to handle herself in a bar fight, has absolutely no interest in learning about your fields of interest, and has a tendency to be a bit of a jerk at times (time-out step not included…you’ll have to build your own).

She also receives occasional visits from her shady brother, Gronte, who, once invited inside your house, is the thing that will not leave. He’s a griffulous, groffulous grue. Nobody likes Gronte. Not. One. Solitary. Soul.

So, if anyone’s bored, lonely, or desperate enough to take a petty, spiteful, and controlling girlfriend off my hands, come and get her. My muse and I want her rehomed as soon as humanly possible because we’ve got some serious work to get back to.

The Island of Misfit Posts #1: Discouraged by Discouragement

When I sit down to write these posts, I never know what they’ll be about beforehand. It’s a first-thought-that-hits-me-stream-of-consciousness sort of thing. Sometimes they’re on point, other times they meander a bit, but as stated in the About This Site section, the posts are less about me attempting to appear clever or knowledgeable (what are the odds, really?), and more about getting myself into a proper writing frame of mind with a warm-up exercise. Mental calisthenics, if you will.

As you might imagine, it doesn’t always go to plan. Case in point: the post below. Inspired in part by Susannah Breslin’s Forbes article, Why You Shouldn’t Be A Writer, and Martin Levin’s, You Suck And So Does Your Writing—which is more about petty squabbles between notable literary figures (how I would have combined the two ideas is anyone’s guess)—it was meant to be a discouragement piece, you know, separating the wheat from the chaff, and all that, that started out like this:

Of All the Things You Could Do With Your Life, Why On Earth Would You Purposely Choose To Be A Writer?

Don’t worry, it’s not a trick question, but one you should be prepared to ask yourself and answer before undertaking writing in any fashion as a serious profession. Among the more common reasons I’ve come across in my travels are:

1. No commuting and every day is Pajama Friday!

I can’t fault your logic here because commuting is generally a nightmare and what’s better than tooling around your house in a onesie all day long like an agoraphobic superhero? Sadly, it isn’t a good enough reason to want to be a writer, especially since there other telecommuting positions that offer more stability and better chances at becoming a career.

2. What better way is there to make a ton of dough and roll around in my piles of cash?

Well, you could try your hand at playing the lottery or betting the ponies, for starters. Rich writers are the exception to the rule. The majority of people who claim writing as a profession, work their mental fingers to the bone, producing material for years before they even get a glimpse at recognition, let alone a healthy paycheck. Instead of rolling in piles of cash, you’ll most likely be rolling up your coins, praying your landlord accepts pennies for rent.

3. Nothing better than being my own boss with flexible hours!

Flexible hours? Been writing long? Writing is a huge commitment that commandeers your entire life with absolutely no guarantee of any sort of financial gain. As stated earlier, there are other work-from-home opportunities that are far more secure and come equipped with a steady payday. And being your own boss isn’t the sipping Mai Tais under a beach umbrella fantasy you imagine it to be. First off, there’s no one to delegate all the donkey work to, and your brain doesn’t simply punch out when the working day has ended. Writing–and the guilt of not writing–never leaves you in peace until the article/book/screenplay/project has been completed.

4. It would be amazing to see my best-selling book in a bookstore/my script turned into a blockbuster feature film/win the Pulitzer Prize for my groundbreaking article series.

Who wouldn’t want any of those things? While we’re daydreaming, I’d also like to be an astronaut so that I can save the planet from extraterrestrial threats, be the smartest man in any room I’m in so that I can solve all the world’s problems and become Earth President, and build a safe-box time machine–that protects me from any sort of injury–equipped with a high end movie camera in order to jump back and forth in time to make the ultimate series of historical documentaries.

Now that my feet have touched terra firma and I’m once again grounded in reality, I can tell you that while it’s great to dream big, fame is one of the worst reasons to choose writing as a profession.

But the post wasn’t really working for me because I could feel myself getting snarkier as the piece went on, which wasn’t my intent going in. So, I decided to step off my soapbox and kill the post. And there it sat in my trash for days, forgotten like Charlie-In-The-Box, Dolly, Spotted Elephant, and King Moonracer. But it miraculously survived deletion during my numerous trash emptying sessions. This had to be a sign. What sign, I hadn’t the faintest, but I decided to attempt recycling it into a less judgmental, more positive message:

Writers are born critics who will criticize any and everything that crosses their paths, especially fellow writers. They will issue their assessments and commentary with the righteousness of having had their opinions validated by the Mount Horeb burning bush. These are the writers who cut open veins and bleed for the love of the craft, whose skulls ring with haunting voices that cannot be silenced until exorcized onto the page, who believe in their heart of hearts that the only words that deserve to be written are the truths that need to be told.

I can’t lie, sometimes I feel the same way.

But I’m not as bothered by it anymore because I know firsthand that the writing process has its own way of weeding out the fly-by-night scribblers, posers, and pretenders with the obstacles it scatters on the long and winding path to a completed project. Whether your driving force is money, fame, to impress a person/people, burning need, or love of the art form, you will still experience your fair share of procrastination, anxiety, writer’s block, time crunches, lack of motivation, fear of rejection, judgment of peers, and impatience of selling a piece.

If you can repeatedly bash your head into these walls, get up, dust yourself off and continue to write, who am I to question your motives? That, my friends, is the best I can do fer ya, today.

Sally forth and be encouragely writeful.

Tiny Stories: The Madd Carnival

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

In the month that shares its root with the octopus, where the days are flush with falling leaves and chilly weather, winds through tree branches scream “Yowza! Yowza!” announcing the arrival of the Madd Carnival which has appeared in a vacant lot from seemingly nowhere.

“Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Step right up, folks, gather ‘round and behold the wonders you’ve read about and heard your neighbors talk about! It’s the stuff urban legends are made of and it’s all here, all live, and starting right now! Forget your fire-eaters and snake girls, your midgets and tall men, those attractions are for lesser beings, not for the likes of sophisticates such as yourselves! In here you’ll see proper freaks! Strange people! Weird people! And downright frightening people! You’ll see what they do, hear what they talk about, so keep your eyes peeled and your ears sharp because you don’t want to miss a single minute of it!”

The booming, melodious trill of the Madd Carnival Barker’s voice traveled impossibly to all the neighboring towns and villages, rousing patrons young and old, which was basically anyone with even the tiniest smoldering ember of the youthful belief in magic in their hearts, from their houses and his witty banter delivered in poetic cadence, aided by the hypnotic designs sewn into his ostentatious suit, lured them all wide-eyed down the colorfully lit midway, like the rubes they were and most likely always would be.

The tickets had been sold and patrons rushed to seek their pleasures, some to behold wonders that defied the laws of science and the boundaries of imagination, others drawn by things supernatural and metaphysical, but one lone bedraggled man was unaffected by the Barker’s siren call.

He stood at the precipice of the Madd Carnival’s entrance, careful not to cross the threshold, staring at a sign that read:

His suit was threadbare, hanging off his unhealthily thin frame, and its pale gray color made his long features look sallow. He pointed at the sign and said, “I am here for this.”

“We’ve just opened, sir,” the Barker said, staring into the man’s faded blue eyes that seemed to be filled with more death than life. “You couldn’t have left a child…”

“No, I was left, years ago, and I’d like to see Madame Destiny, please.”

If the barker was caught off-guard by the man’s statement, he showed no sign, he simply said, “I happen to be excellent with faces and yours doesn’t ring a bell.”

“Neither does yours, so you can’t have been here long, but I’m widdit, you can bank on that. Or you can ask Madame Destiny, she’ll establish my bona fides.”

Widdit was carny slang used to let midway agents and talkers know that the person was with it, or that they worked at the carnival, so the Barker dropped the politeness act and asked, “What’s yer business, mack?”

“Recompense. I come to collect what I am owed.”

Not The End…

Make Art (particularly Writing) Your Life

Out on my daily walkabout through adjacent neighborhoods, I spotted a young lady wearing a t-shirt that read, “Make Smart Choices In Your Life” but the “sm” in smart and the words “choices in” were grayed out so that the message that stood out read:

Make Art Your Life

A quick internet search at home revealed it to be a popular slogan (as made evident by my ability to find the above image) but it was the first time I came across it and it sparked an idea, so naturally I had to blog about it.

Art somehow resonates with us on a positive level, permeating the pleasure centers of our brains to alleviate stress, aid in mental and emotional healing, and alter our thoughts and perceptions of the world around us. It’s also a valuable tool for increasing creativity as well as productivity.

Art offers an escape from everyday life and is, in my humble opinion, the best holistic medicine because it opens your heart and feeds your mind. Art enables us to look within and to listen to ourselves, to realize who we truly are, and what we actually care about. And the right work of art allows us to have an appreciation and gratification for the things that exist in our lives.

Now, when the average person talks about “art” they’re typically referring to pigments brushed on canvas or images molded in clay or carved from stone, but we, as writers, know better than that, don’t we? Art, as defined by the dictionary is:

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination

which means your writing, be it acrostic, a six-word or six-sentence story, flash or micro fiction, haiku, tanka, or somonka, a drabble, musing or journal entry, is a work of art. So, how do you make art your life, or better yet, make your life a work of art? Why, by following a few of the suggestions below (oh come on now, you knew there had to be a list, didn’t you?):

  1. Make time to sit in solitude and just imagine. Henry David Thoreau once said, “I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude” and I have to agree that there is a simple kind of joy in taking a break from human beings (spoken like a true introvert, I know). Solitude-by-choice not only gives your soul a chance to recharge, but it also opens the imagination gates and lets your mind run barefoot in the garden of creativity. And while you’re there, feel free to explore and be willing to get lost in the undiscovered country (don’t worry, you’ll somehow find your way home again).
  2. Let unnecessary things slip through your fingers. We all have our own special brand of toxicity (anger, self-loathing, self-doubt, etc.) that sometimes prevents us from starting or completing a writing project. Learn to treat it like you would any other bit of clutter and bin it in order to make space for something a little more productive. And yes, I realize that’s easier said than done, but nothing beats a failure like a try, and don’t you owe it to yourself to at least make the attempt?
  3. Be bold in your intention to write. I know I keep banging on about this but commitment is what transforms an idea floating around in your noggin into reality. Putting pen to paper speaks boldly of your intentions and are the actions which speak louder than the words. It’s making the time when there is none. Coming through time after time after time, year after year after year. Commitment is the stuff character is made of; the power to shape ethereal things. It’s the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism. You can do it. I believe in you.
  4. Become your own best audience. Sometimes you have to ignore what’s popular at the moment and what you think people want to read and simply write something that you want to read. Write something that makes you happy, that makes you cry, that makes you angry enough to want to scream it to the world, as long as what you write makes you proud that you’ve written it. And if you really enjoy the finished product, because we’re more alike than we are different, chances are that someone out there will appreciate it, too.
  5. Embrace the act of self-attaboys<—(gender-neutral). Wake up to the truth that praise need not only come from an outside source. When you’ve sculpted the quintessential sentence or paragraph, you know what? That deserves a pat on the back. Created a clever turn of phrase? Found an ingenious way to yank your protagonist’s butt out of an impossible situation? Painted pivotal poetic pictures of pure perfection? Pat, pat, and pat. Acknowledging and complimenting yourself on even a minor accomplishment gives you an emotional boost that will make you happy and hopefully encourages you to continue creating greatness (yeah, I called your work greatness, wanna make something of it?).
  6. Stop being afraid of change. It’s oh so easy to get stuck in a writer’s rut, the telltale sign of which is Oculos Computator, better known as The Stare, and you know exactly what I’m talking about. When you’re parked in your favorite writing chair, knuckles cracked, fingers nimble and hovering above your keyboard…and nothing happens. Your brain vapor-locks and creativity has hung a “Gone Fishing” sign on the door. Now, I know I don’t need to tell you this because you’re much smarter than I am (I can see it in your eyes) but your tummy (how dare you mock my use of the word tummy!) isn’t the only thing that requires sustenance. If you want to keep the creativity engine running, you have to get in the habit of feeding your grey matter and the best way to do this is to try something different. Visit a new place, try new food, hell, even take a stab at an activity you think you wouldn’t like or that holds no interest for you. Inspiration sometimes comes from the damnedest places and when you least expect it and like that old saying goes: If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. So, I double-dog dare you to put a twist on your average day (that oughta motivate you).
  7. Hang your expectations on a hook outside, and concentrate on creating. You’ve done all your research, you’ve studied the rules of writing, and that’s all well and good. But when you first begin a new writing project, put all that stuff to the side, as well as your determination to create the bestest thing ever written in the history of writing, and just let go and have fun. Embrace your inner child and mess around! Throw yourself into the process of being a creative entity and just play. Right about now, the author in you is giving me pushback because you want to be viewed as a professional and taken seriously, but take it from a guy who turns off the editor and perfectionist and starts his writing day with stream of consciousness freewriting (which I usually post on this blog). The act of uninhibited writing, of making art, induces feelings of stress relief and positive energy, and once my positive mood is achieved, then I turn my attention to “serious” writing. I began this practice because of the two essential phrases I came across while taking various writing courses. The first is:

Nothing is written, it’s rewritten.

and the second:

First you get it written, then you get it right.

“But what does this have to do with making art your life?” I hear you ask.

Patience, Grasshopper, patience.

The above list was designed to help you achieve what mystics describe as being in ecstasy (get your mind out of the gutter, this is a family channel), which is just another way of saying getting into the flow or being in the zone. It’s when you become completely absorbed in the act of writing, when concentration and enjoyment become one and time simply vanishes.

To make art your life, you need to become an artist, which means you need to master the skill of writing to the degree where you don’t consciously think about it, thus giving you the freedom to focus on creating something from nothingness. And the best way to develop your craft is to ease your foot off the gas pedal, quiet your mind, and allow the process to swallow you whole. At this point of the process, your concern shouldn’t be about creating a masterpiece, but instead finding that sweet spot where creative imagination begins to rise to the surface.

A few of you are probably going to take me to task for using the phrase, “creating something from nothingness” because we all know our writing comes from somewhere. Emotional truths, cultural values, sensory experiences, any and every thing that forces us to dig beneath the surface appearance down to the bone where honesty and inevitability exist.

And we’re the perfect one’s for the job because writers pay attention. We have the ability to alter our senses and perceptions to see through new pairs of eyes and find the beauty in ugliness, the elegance in coarseness, the rhythm in incoordination, the harmony in discord, and the composition in imbalance.

Making art your life or living artfully is about finding ways to transform the mundane things in this sometimes gray and frustrating world into the beautiful and awe-inspiring things that we often overlook or ignore completely. But simply being imaginative, picturing things in your mind, isn’t enough. To truly be creative you have to act, because actions bring ideas to life.

Sally forth and be making-art-your-lifingly writeful.

Tiny Stories: When Death Offers Hope

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

I wake up hard, cold sweat running rivulets down my clammy skin, from the type of apocalyptic nightmare that makes me thankful it was just a—

There’s a stranger standing at the foot of the bed!

I want to bolt, to leap out of bed and tackle the intruder, but I find myself constricted within the straitjacket of night-terror-soaked sheets. How long has he been standing there, watching us sleep? My children are next door! Did he go to their room first? If something’s happened to them—I want to say I’ll kill this person, it’s what I’m meant to feel, but honestly, I’ll never be able to forgive myself for being paralyzed in fear instead of being the protector my family needs me to be at this moment.

“Do not be alarmed,” the stranger says. His voice is the faintest whisper yet I can hear him perfectly clear because the silence in the bedroom is a level of quiet I have never experienced in all my days. “I realize my sudden appearance in your home has come as a surprise to you due to the fact that you and I have never met and I am obviously a ghost.”

This would explain the optical illusion of being able to see the chest of drawers against the far wall through his ephemeral body. Of all the questions buzzing in my hypnagogic brain, the one that bubbles to the surface is, “What do you want from us?” and my voice cracks in a manner that shatters any illusion of bravery.

I beam thoughts to my wife, trying to will her awake, hoping that she might be able to move, to collect the children and get them safely out of the house while I somehow distract this spirit. I even slide my hand beneath the duvet, slowly as not to draw attention, in order to nudge or pinch her awake…to no avail.

“Please know that I have no intention of haunting you or bringing any harm to you or your loved ones,” the ghost announces.

“Then why are you here?” I reply loud enough to wake my wife but not the children because I don’t want to risk them coming into the bedroom to inspect the commotion.

The transparent man smiles, “You may speak as loudly as you please. I have spread a calming essence over your wife and children so that they might rest soundly as you and I converse.”

I don’t know jack about ghost lore or sleep-inducing essences, but I don’t get the feeling the apparition is lying to me, so I ask, “What could we possibly have to talk about?”

“As I explain my situation, I ask that you refrain from pitying me and my circumstances for life is not a gift we keep but one we borrow and must one day return. Death is inevitable as you will one day learn.”

“Pity you? Pal, I don’t even know you!”

“Of course, where are my manners? The things one forgets once the embers of life have been snuffed. My name is Hamid Tahan and I am—pardon me, I was an Emirati merchant in Dubai.

“In the latter part of my short existence, I had been diagnosed with prostate and esophageal cancer. Sadly, it was discovered in its very late stage due to my laxity in caring for my health. My illness defied all forms of medicine and treatments and according to my physicians, I had only a few months to live.

“I am ashamed to admit that I had not lived a particularly good life. I never really cared for anyone, not even myself. All that mattered was my business. Though I was very rich, I was never generous and I tended to be hostile to those around me.

“But when it was far too late, I regretted it all. I discovered that there was more to life than the mere acquisition of money and I knew in my soul that if the universe in its infinite wisdom bestowed upon me a second chance I would live my life in a different, far better manner.

“As my mortal time drew to a close, I willed most of my properties and assets to my immediate and extended family members, as well as a few loyal friends and schools in the United Arab Emirates. I gave alms to charitable organizations across the globe, as I wanted this to be one of the last good deeds I did on earth.

“And I almost accomplished the task in its entirety but my health had deteriorated more rapidly than was originally estimated and I lost my battle with cancer before I could close out my final account. This is my reason for contacting you.”

“I don’t understand,” I say.

“I have studied you from the great beyond. I see that you are a good man, a kind and generous man even though you are struggling to keep your lovely wife and beautiful children comfortable in the face of the impending bankruptcy of your company. I can help you with this.”

“Help me? How?”

“I could reveal the location of my final, secret account to you, provide you with the codes and information to transfer the funds into your account. Trust me when I say it is more than enough money to pay off all your debt, provide for your children’s futures, and allow your family to live comfortably for many years to come. The only thing I ask in exchange for this life-changing abundance…”

“Ah, the catch,” I sigh. “There is always a catch.”

“…is your life,” Hamid Tahan continues.

“My what?”

“I have come to an arrangement with The Powers That Be that I can be reborn if I performed a random act of kindness on a complete and utter stranger and of all the several billion candidates on the planet, I choose you.

“The only drawback for you is that this gift requires a sacrifice. Now you must ask yourself if you love your family enough to die for them? I have seen what lies in store for you and your family and I could not in good conscience live with myself, pardon my turn of phrase, if I did not try to help prevent it.

“You might be thinking to yourself that this is some sort of hoax but if you take a deep breath, turn your gaze inward, and reflect on it for a moment you will feel the certainty of my offer because it has been classified as a Universal Truth, which cannot be forged because they originate from a source that has existed before humankind was even a concept.”

There’s no reason to believe this literal shade of a man, but in this instant, my fear shifts on its axis to awe because a sixth sense I never knew I possessed awakens and confirms his claim. I open my mouth, then close it. There are no words for this experience, this level of understanding, clarity, and certainty.

“You need not give your answer at this moment,” he states. “But I would advise you to decide before the week has concluded. The money will be of little use to your family beyond that point.”

“Wait! What’s going to happen to my family? If you know, you have to tell me!” I want to leap from the bed and take hold of the ghost and shake the answers from him, which is an irrational thought but it doesn’t matter because I’m still unable to move from this spot.

“I apologize that I am forbidden to reveal any more to you. Please think deeply on my offer and despite your decision, know that you and your family are in my prayers. May the universe be with you, sir,” the phantasmal being who was once Hamid Tahan says as he evaporates like the figments of a dream and is engulfed by the dark shadows of the room.

And as I watch the gentle rise and fall of my sleeping wife’s chest I am left to wonder if, despite my wedding vows and duties as a father and provider, I value my own life over the financial security of my family.

Home, At Long Last

girl returning home to high roofed house

The car pulls into the driveway. It’s called an Uber and at first, I think it’s the make and model of the car but the driver tells me it’s the name of a car service and although he’s patient and friendly in his explanation, I can feel my face flush red hot in embarrassment. There are so many things I don’t know that I don’t know. The entire world has a steep learning curve for me.

I wouldn’t have recognized the house, couldn’t have picked it out among the others because I haven’t seen it in over sixteen years and the memories are fuzzy because those years haven’t been kind. I’ve been told that it’s the house I grew up in and I nod with no acceptance or conviction because when I think about where I grew up all I can picture is being trapped in a dark and cold basement in a strange location. This house has never once appeared in my mind not even in my dreams.

From the moment the car arrives, people surge out of the front door but they don’t approach the car, perhaps because they’ve been advised not to, or perhaps they’re as afraid to meet me as I am to meet them.

I thank the driver as I close the rear driver side door and walk toward the crying and smiling crowd, desperately trying to untwist the constrictor knot my stomach has become. I’m sure they don’t mean to be but each and every one of them is too loud and although they’re careful not to touch me, they’re too close and I want to run. I want to run into the basement and lock the door behind me and go down as far as I can manage and find the darkest corner to curl up into and if that place doesn’t exist, I want to dig a hole into the earth and bury myself in it until the world becomes a quiet place again.

It’s unmistakable, the feeling of warmth and comfort and community that exists in this place and I hate it almost instantly. I’m not supposed to as I’m a human being and we’re known to be social animals but if truth be known the only peace I’ve ever experienced has always been in complete isolation.

Nothing seems right. The sound of people’s voices expressing gratitude and the low volume music in the background blend into some abnormal din that assaults my ears like the opposite of white noise, even though I know that isn’t right because the other end of the spectrum from a combination of all of the different frequencies of sound would be silence and silence would be a welcome change at this point.

Even faces are foreign and I’ve known most of these faces for the first nine years of my life but the arrangement of their features is wrong. Even my own reflection is out of place and unfamiliar. I want to leave, to pivot on my heels and push past this closeness of flesh, flag down a police officer and ask them to take me back to where I was found a fortnight ago.

I miss that basement because it’s the only home I know.

I want to back away but there are too many people behind so I push forward looking for a little elbow room, a safe barrier of personal space where I don’t have to feel the nearness of others or fight off a wave of nausea when someone’s aura scrapes against mine and makes a teeth-clenching noise like God raking His fingernails across the skin of the universe.

In the crowd I spot a face I don’t know and because I don’t know this woman and have no expectations of the way she must look she appears less odd than the rest. I lock onto her eyes and feel a transfer of knowledge between us. She is like me. She understands the words I’m unable to speak, words that will never be uttered by me in my entire life even if I live for two centuries. I want to move to her, to be closer to her, to stand within the sphere of her understanding but another woman, an aunt, I think, appears from nowhere and pulls me into an unwanted embrace and whispers into my ear with hot breath laced with wine, “You are such a brave girl.”

Brave? I want to say. What’s so brave about being afraid to let myself die? But instead, it comes out as, “Thank you.” I’m not even sure that’s a proper response, I simply need to say something to break the hold and by the time I manage it, the other woman, the woman with the understanding gaze, is gone.

And I’m aware of the people behind me again moving in closer pushing me forward without making contact with me when I come to the realization that their action is purposeful, they’re urging me forward from the front door through the foyer and into the living room for a reason and that reason being my mother and father are standing in the center of the empty room. I step in eagerly, not because I’m particularly glad to see them, I love them but the real reason I’m eager to get into the room is for the space so my soul can breathe again.

There’s this moment of silence and it’s like heaven and my mother takes on the form of Lucifer Morningstar by attempting to shatter paradise with the calling of my name that turns into a shriek that eventually ends in tears and hitching breath. Before I realize what’s happening, she’s on me wrapping her arms around me and lifting me off my feet. I am nearly as tall as she is and outweigh her by thirty pounds easily but this thin woman lifts me as though I was still the same nine-year-old who went outside to play and missed her curfew by more than a decade and a half. My face is buried in her hair and unlike this place that used to be and is once again my home, unlike the matured faces of the people I vaguely recognize as family, the smell of my mother’s hair, the scent of her coconut shampoo smashes through the floodgates of my mind and I am buried beneath wave after wave of memories which scare me and my eyes leak tears because I now realize how much emptier my life has been without this woman, although the world she inhabits still feels alien to me.

I say, “Hi, Mom,” and the word Mom feels distant, like I understand what the word means but the direct connection with it has faded and I don’t want to call her Mom at the moment, I want to call her by her first name but I have no idea what my mother’s name actually is.

She sets me down gently and her arms loosen and slide from around me but her fingers never leave me as they trace sweaty contrails across my back, under my armpits up to my neck where she cups my face in both hands. A move only mastered by a mother.

“Hi, baby,” she says and I both resent it because I’m not a baby anymore and miss it because I would give the remaining years of my life for the chance to be nine again in the company of this woman if only for one day.

She calls my father over while carrying on a constant stream of nervous and excited chatter in an attempt to catch me up on all the events that occurred since the last time we laid eyes on each other.

My father approaches with caution as if I come with a warning. He has undoubtedly been told what has been done to me while I was in captivity and probably some of the things I had to do to myself in order to stay alive. He doesn’t know everything because I am the only survivor, there’s no one else to bear witness and I will never tell another soul everything that I’ve been through in order to be here today. And it would break him to hear it so it becomes one of the many burdens I must bear alone.

His haunted eyes are misted with tears that he fights to control as he offers me that sidewinder smile of his–a name Mom gave him because he only smiles and talks out of one side of his mouth as if he’s a stroke victim. “Hi, kiddo,” he says.

All the others unknowingly crowd me and the only person I would not mind that of, my father, does not. He sees it, the invisible property lines that mark my personal space and respects the boundaries. I want to tell him, forget the signposts, just come hug me, Daddy, but those are words I don’t know how to speak so I say, “Hi, Dad,” and I manage to dig up a smile from the recesses of some long-forgotten happiness. At least I hope it looks like a smile, I haven’t done it in so long, I fear I might’ve lost the knack.

Mom is still babbling away nonstop when she remembers her basic etiquette, “Oh! Are you hungry? You must be famished!” And before I can answer,

“Get her something to drink,” Dad says. “Something cold.” And Mom takes off like a shot into the kitchen.

My father just stands there looking at me, taking in my measure. I can’t see the missing years on my mother but on him, I see every second, minute, hour, day, month, and year. Beneath his thinning hair, deep wrinkles crease his face. He’s worried and afraid of me and for me but he manages a smile.

In a voice low enough for my ears only, he says, “It’s gonna bother you, what you did, but just know you did the right thing. You ended the man who stole you from us and found your way home again. That’s my girl.”

I’m stunned. Of all the things I expected from this moment straightforward acceptance was never in the running. I rush to my daddy and throw my arms around him and break down and cry and he squeezes me tight and all the things that I can’t say and all the things he can’t say, they’re all there, transmitted on a biological level and he doesn’t move, doesn’t speak, doesn’t loosen his grip on me until my body stops shaking, until I have no more sobs and no more strength left.

He scoops me up into his arms and for the second time today, I am nine years old again. “I think she’s had enough excitement for one day, so thank you all for coming but now it’s time for us to be alone,” Dad says, as he pushes through the crowd and carries me upstairs to my old room.

He sets me down gently on the bed that’s now too small for me, brushes the hair matted by tears and snot from my face, kisses my forehead, and says, “When you’re ready.” and I know exactly what he means.

He leaves, taking Mom with him, assuring her it’s the right thing to do and as their voices get smaller I get up from the bed, lock my bedroom door, draw the blinds shut and crawl until my bed and ball up fetal, relishing the dark and the quiet.

Tomorrow I’ll begin trying to locate the house I was rescued from because although this house is nice, it’s no longer a place for me.

I want to go home.