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.

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.

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.

21 Writing Lessons A Wise Man Would Share (and no, I’m not calling myself wise)

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  1. Commitment is what transforms an idea floating around in your head into reality. Putting pen to paper speaks boldly of your intentions to write and are the actions which speak louder than the words. It is 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 is the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism.
  2. No one is perfect. The quicker this is realized the faster you can get on with being excellent. Start every morning ready to write harder than you did the day before and plot further than you ever imagine.
  3. Avoid over-explaining yourself in writing. Be confident that your audience is intelligent enough to understand.
  4. Write down what’s most important to you in your writing career and the steps to accomplish that goal and show up for it. Sometimes we tend to do the things that are most important to us when it’s written down.
  5. Play the hand you’re dealt. Stop envying someone else’s talent or success. Have the courage to face your own writing challenges head-on. It builds character. Start looking for a way through instead of a way out.
  6. Become a student of life. Learn something new every day. The day you stop learning is the day you become obsolete so keep learning and keep writing.
  7. No more excuses. Stop making excuses for not writing and replace them with ways to do better writing. Excuses are a waste of time and energy.
  8. Never be ashamed to tell anyone you’re a writer, whether you’re published or not. The definition of a writer is a person who writes or is able to write. Being ashamed to acknowledge this fact to people speaks to self-doubt, which is a desire killer.
  9. Never be afraid of a writing challenge. If you never strive to be more than what you are, you’ll never truly know what you can become.
  10. Be of service to other writers. Pointing people in the right direction is such a small thing. Give advice to those who ask for it. Offer support to those who want it. We’re all here to teach as well as learn.
  11. Work like hell. If you want to earn a living as a writer, that is. Treat it like a profession, put your absolute best foot forward and be thorough. Cross every “T” and dot every “I”.
  12. Discover yourself. Find your passion, and life purpose, and pursue them…then write about them.
  13. Don’t take it personally. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge and laugh at something that you’ve written in the past that’s just plain awful. Self-awareness and self-confidence show that you’re comfortable in your own skin.
  14. Manage your time. Our situation and environment are ever-changing so be careful not to confuse the things that are urgent with the things that are important. Look for time wasters and eliminate them.
  15. Ask for help. Writing can be tough and although you do a majority of it alone, you should never write in a total vacuum and there’s no shame in seeking advice when you’re stuck.
  16. Do your homework. Know what you’re getting into before you start writing in a particular field, format, or genre. Doing your homework reduces uncertainty and fear.
  17. Daydream often. Your imagination is a muscle that requires exercise and daydreaming is an excellent way to flex it. Embrace and preserve your daydreams at all costs.
  18. Forgive and set free. Freeing your mind to write is almost as important as actually sitting down to write, so cultivate a healthy dose of forgiveness and set someone free. Learn to forgive others and stop carrying those bags of hate, guilt, or regret.
  19. Stay one step ahead. Avoid big fish/small pond thinking if at all possible. If you’ve mastered a particular style of writing, why not be proactive, take the initiative, and see what other types of writing challenges are out there for you?
  20. Love yourself. Become your own priority. Strive to be the you, you want to be. Once you accomplish this, it will show in your writing, trust me.
  21. Finish what you’ve started. Avoid the urge to stray. Distractions are the writer’s most fearsome adversary. Avoid jumping off a project because a better idea has come along. Jot the better idea down, set it aside, and come back to it when you’re done with your current project.

Sally forth and be wisely writeful.

50 Questions That Can Help Free Your Mind (to concentrate on writing…hopefully)

 

The common advice for freeing your mind to write is to create a journal. I’m fairly certain that most of you have either 1) created a journal that you may or may not keep current, or 2) heard the advice and decided journaling isn’t for you (hey, it happens).

So, what other options do you have when you’ve lost your self in a quagmire of self-pity, mundane daily obligations, and insurmountable life woes and can’t quite seem to maintain your true identity or nurture your creative center?

Why, you slap on your pith helmet, turn your gaze inward, and explore that largely ignored country of your core self, naturally. And the best way to accomplish this is with the list below. Why a list? Because you’re a writer and writers love lists.

Be advised that there are no right or wrong answers because sometimes simply asking the right questions is the answer.

  1. How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?
  2. Which is worse, failing or never trying?
  3. If life is so short, why do we do so many things we don’t like and like so many things we don’t do?
  4. When it’s all said and done, will you have said more than you’ve done?
  5. What is the one thing you would most like to change about the world?
  6. If happiness was the national currency, what kind of work would make you rich?
  7. Are you doing what you believe in, or are you settling for what you are doing?
  8. If the average human life span was 40 years, how would you live your life differently?
  9. To what degree have you actually controlled the course your life has taken?
  10. Are you more worried about doing things right, or doing the right things?
  11. You are having lunch with three people you respect and admire. They all start criticizing a close friend of yours, not knowing she/he is your friend. The criticism is distasteful and unjustified. What do you do?
  12. If you could offer a newborn child only one piece of advice, what would it be?
  13. Would you break the law to save a loved one?
  14. Have you ever seen insanity where you later saw creativity?
  15. What is something you know you do differently than most people?
  16. How come the things that make you happy don’t make everyone happy?
  17. What is one thing have you not done that you really want to do? What’s holding you back?
  18. Are you holding onto something you need to let go of?
  19. If you had to move to a state or country besides the one you currently live in, where would you move and why?
  20. Do you push the elevator button more than once? Do you really believe it makes the elevator faster?
  21. Would you rather be a worried genius or a joyful simpleton?
  22. Why are you, you?
  23. Have you been the kind of friend you want as a friend?
  24. Which is worse, when a good friend moves away, or losing touch with a good friend who lives right near you?
  25. What are you most grateful for?
  26. Would you rather lose all of your old memories, or never be able to make new ones?
  27. Is it possible to know the truth without challenging it first?
  28. Has your greatest fear ever come true?
  29. Do you remember that time 5 years ago when you were extremely upset? Does it really matter now?
  30. What is your happiest childhood memory? What makes it so special?
  31. At what time in your recent past have you felt most passionate and alive?
  32. If not now, then when?
  33. If you haven’t achieved it yet, what do you have to lose?
  34. Have you ever been with someone, said nothing, and walked away feeling like you just had the best conversation ever?
  35. Why do religions that support love cause so many wars?
  36. Is it possible to know, without a doubt, what is good and what is evil?
  37. If you just won a million dollars, would you quit your job?
  38. Would you rather have less work to do, or more work you actually enjoy doing?
  39. Do you feel like you’ve lived this day a hundred times before?
  40. When was the last time you marched into the dark with only the soft glow of an idea you strongly believed in?
  41. If you knew that everyone you know was going to die tomorrow, who would you visit today?
  42. Would you be willing to reduce your life expectancy by 10 years to become extremely attractive or famous?
  43. What is the difference between being alive and truly living?
  44. When is it time to stop calculating risk and rewards, and just go ahead and do what you know is right?
  45. If we learn from our mistakes, why are we always so afraid to make a mistake?
  46. What would you do differently if you knew nobody would judge you?
  47. When was the last time you noticed the sound of your own breathing?
  48. What do you love? Have any of your recent actions openly expressed this love?
  49. In 5 years from now, will you remember what you did yesterday? What about the day before that? Or the day before that?
  50. Decisions are being made right now. The question is: Are you making them for yourself, or are you letting others make them for you?

Sally forth and be free-mindedly writeful.

Tiny Stories: Aeton and Ioasephyn

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

Minds Eye

Aeton was made for Ioasephyn, and she for him, of this there was never any doubt. Formed during The Great Making and united in an unbreakable union when the world was in its infancy, the couple consummated their love as the molten planet cooled. Theirs was the first love and the fulcrum on which all love that followed would be balanced.

In the days before there were others, Aeton and Ioasephyn relaxed in fields of spun gold and stared upward, watching as the void caught fire, pinprick flames burst into life throughout the inky black and became stars. As the landmasses grew restless and pulled away from one another, separating the waters into greater and lesser portions, the pair frolicked while the planet went through its growing pains.

When others came, some as a byproduct of their union, and the rest from elsewhere, they watched as gatherings became villages became towns became cities, and the overpopulated cities became nations. There were those who sought to rule these nations, some successfully, others less so. Aeton and Ioasephyn had seen the noblest of endeavors corrupted by pettiness, jealousy, and greed and wished to separate themselves from the inevitable outcomes.

Time passed for everyone but the young lovers. Their children grew older, as did friends. Not all were accepting of the fact, so they vanished from the daily workings of societies, and only visited occasionally when curiosity got the better of them.

One such visit proved disastrous for Ioasephyn when someone in a new city recognized her. She thought enough time had passed and the world had forgotten them. How could she have known that she and Aeton had become the stuff of legend? A legend planted in the soil of truth, watered by myth in each retelling until it sprouted the belief that their blood, the liquid of pure first love, granted eternal life.

They surrounded her, the entire city did, and forced her into a prison until they consulted with an elder on the precise details of the ritual needed to extract the blood for the immortality elixir.

Aeton was on the opposite side of the world when he felt Ioasephyn’s fear tug at his heart. He pleaded with the moon to create a tide that would carry him to his true love’s side. It obliged and he rode the waters day and night without rest until he arrived at the city that held her.

Without delay, he met with the officials who held the love of his life and attempted to reason with them. With a father’s patience, he listened to their wild tales and struggled to dispel the myths. He told them the truth in the Voice of Authority, but they paid no heed and took him prisoner as well.

The legend warned that the couple’s invincible power was only focused in their union, so the jailers locked Aeton and Ioasephyn in cages separated far enough apart so they could not touch. Upon seeing one another, the lovers wept for they knew their demise would soon come. But they were not angry, instead, they pitied those who were unable to see the world through their eyes. The love they declared for one another stood the test of the sometimes wondrous, sometimes terrifying times they lived through, and it would survive this as well.

Though they accepted their fates, Aeton couldn’t bear the thought of Ioasephyn not existing, so he hid her away somewhere no one would ever think to find her. He hid her in plain sight, tucked away in the corner of the mind’s eye of everyone in existence. He spoke the words of the incantation in his native tongue, acquired at the dawn of language when words contained magic.

Unbeknownst to Aeton, Ioasephyn had done the same to him. They truly were of one mind.

So now they lived where visionaries and dreamers created and though they often tended to their own affairs, sometimes they could be glimpsed frolicking on the cusp of thoughts or relaxing in fields of gossamer daydreams, staring upward and watching as the void caught fire, pinprick flames burst into life throughout the inky black to become brand new ideas and art.

 

Swing Away, Merrill…Even If Every Editor Rejects Your Best Work

 

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“Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” — Newt Gingrich

Recently, I chatted with a fellow writer in dire need of commiseration. She slaved over a story for nearly two years, rewriting draft after draft following feedback from writer friends and polishing and refining it until she was not only happy with it but considered it her best work to date. And she wasn’t wrong. It’s a pretty damn solid story.

When it was old enough, she released the story from the nest and let it fly to her targeted list of the publishing houses a story of this type was properly suited for. It wasn’t her first time at the rodeo, so she knew precisely what she was doing.

Skip ahead past the anxiety-filled months of the story crossing the desks of slush readers and editors to the point of contact, only to discover that her baby, the best story she’d ever produced, had been rejected by everyone on her list. Majors and minors alike. Which, of course, raised the question:

What does a writer do when they’ve put their all into a story and no one wants it?

The answer is obvious, and I’m sure you’re already thinking it before you’ve read it here:

You put your best, unwanted story away for later use, and you start writing again. Instead of moping and getting down on yourself and allowing them pesky writing demons to take up valuable real estate in your head, start your next project. And it doesn’t have to be some laboriously over-complicated piece. If you’ve got something easy-breezy on the back burner, something you can bang out relatively quickly, why not give it a go? A sort of cleansing of the palate before your next magnum opus—and there will be another magnum opus, trust me on this.

My old man was a fountain of homespun wisdom and one of his favorites was:

“Nothing beats failure like a try.”

And he was right. Perseverance trumps rejection. That’s the advice I gave my friend and that’s the advice I’m giving you. Since she’s a diehard Mets fan—a trait she shares with my mother—I tried delivering it with my best baseball analogy:

When you submit your work, you’re like a hitter crowding the plate in order to have a better swing at pitches on the outside half of the plate. Rejection slips are the brushback pitches, fastballs coming at you high and inside, designed to intimidate and force you away from the plate. If they make you quit the game, you didn’t really come to the stadium to play ball. And sometimes opportunity also comes at you high and tight, so—to quote M. Night Shyamalan’s movie, “Signs”—Swing away, Merrill. Merrill, swing away.

Of course, she laughed at this because she knows I don’t know squat about baseball and my analogy stunk, but it lifted her spirit, so despite looking like an idiot, job well done, I’d say.

Well, it’s half past wrap-up time, but you know me, as long as there are famous authors to quote, I never travel alone. They’ll take the mic in a second and talk to you a bit about rejection—sans the baseball references, I promise. Until next time…

Sally forth and be swinging-at-the-pitches-ly writeful, my friend.

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“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.” — Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“Was I bitter? Absolutely. Hurt? You bet your sweet ass I was hurt. Who doesn’t feel a part of their heart break at rejection. You ask yourself every question you can think of, what, why, how come, and then your sadness turns to anger. That’s my favorite part. It drives me, feeds me, and makes one hell of a story.” — Jennifer Salaiz

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“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” — Henri J.M. Nouwen

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” — Sylvia Plath

“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” — Ray Bradbury

Related articles:

Taking It On The Chin: The Graceful Art Of Accepting Rejection

It Ain’t Impossible Once Somebody Gets It Done

Wanna Succeed as a Writer? Buddy Up to Failure, it’s the Best Friendship You’ll Ever Make

You’re Where You Are Because of Who You Are (but that ain’t necessarily a bad thing)

One Hell Of An Offer

Modestine was aware of the gap in her memory, the section of consciousness that had been removed, and two separate events seamlessly spliced together in a non-jarring, dream jump-cut fashion.

The first partial memory was of Modestine stepping out of the shower. Her petite foot missed the rubberized shower mat by inches and instead slid along the wet tiled floor. Her vision shifted up toward the ceiling and her eyes locked on the one hundred watt energy-saving fluorescent light bulb. The next instant, at the point of the splice, she found herself standing inside a pair of pearlescent gates, waiting as patient as the lamb she was in life.

She was dead, of this there was no doubt. There was also no cause for alarm. She had no memory of either fear, pain, or the precise moment of her death. That was the portion that had been mercifully removed from her awareness, no doubt to aid in her acceptance of events.

Modestine watched the hubbub of nervous yet joyous chatter and a flurry of feathers as angels tested their wings in the air above her. They flew from structure to structure—she hesitated thinking of the impossibly tall spires as buildings because their various shapes defied her limited perceptions of architecture—getting the lay of the land. Though no one told her, she somehow knew this commotion was normal for the first day of new arrivals in Heaven.

While she waited, Modestine’s eyes drifted over to an ornate pulpit offset to the right of the gates. This, she assumed, was where the welcoming saint was supposed to have been stationed, but Peter was nowhere in sight. She noticed a few pages had fallen from the ledger on the pulpit, so she spent a little time laying the leafs out, deciding the order they should go in, and locating the exact spots in the book they had fallen from.

Finally, an angel arrived. He was tall and thin, wearing black horn-rimmed eyeglasses he obviously no longer needed. It was a remnant of his physical life that he clung to, a misconception that it was a permanent part of his appearance. A trapping that would fade in time. This was yet another thing Modestine had known without being told.

The glasses made the angel look bookwormish and out of place in their surroundings. Then she felt guilty for judging his appearance. Who was she to do this? She, who had always been short and mousy in the physical world, what her mother affectionately called the unsundertall and unassuming. She wondered what she looked like to him and if the same rules of beauty still applied here.

“Hi, I’m Modestine,” she offered a hand and a smile simultaneously.

Bookworm eyed her head to toe and back to head again, before taking her hand for two firm pumps. He opened his mouth and let out a high-pitched screeching noise, intense enough to rock her celestial molars.

Modestine, who graduated magna cum laude in never let ’em see you sweat university, replied, “Pleased to meet you,” and she tried her best to match the noise he made…but came up a little short. A lot short, actually.

Bookworm let out a burst of short laughs like a semi-automatic weapon. “Just messing with you. My name’s Phil. Welcome to Heaven!”

Modestine didn’t really get the joke but smiled anyway. “Are you here to give me the guided tour?”

“Heavens no, that’ll come later, once all this dies down. Saint Peter sends his apologies, by the way…”

“Oh, that’s no problem at all.”

“I’m here to take you to class,” Phil said and with a single flap of his wings, shot into the sky.

“Oh, okay.” Modestine imitated Phil’s action and was understandably a little unsteady on her wings, but through sheer determination managed to keep up.

Phil led her past fields of flora and fauna, the likes of which she could never have dreamed existed and finally into a structure that housed a vast amphitheater that was unmistakably set up like a classroom. Packed to capacity, its seats were filled with the most grotesque and vile creatures imaginable.

“Here you are,” Phil gestured in the direction of the amphitheater and was about to fly off.

“Wait! Wait!” Modestine caught his forearm and pulled him down to eye level. “Where do I sit?”

“At the podium, where else?” Even in Heaven, the duh-look carried a sting.

“What? Why?”

“Don’t tell me no one let you know?” Phil looked at the class with his best can you believe some people look. “You’re a teacher, right? Or were, before, you know…”

Modestine nodded, “Underprivileged kids. Twelve years.”

“Well…” Phil swept his arm in the direction of the class as if to answer.

“Oh, no…no way. I’m not qualified for this. I barely know what I’m doing here.”

“The information will present itself as you need it. Heaven’s cool that way.”

“But, this class…” Modestine whispered. “Not to be rude but what are they?”

“Our version of underprivileged students. They’re bussed in every day.”

“From Hell?”

“We tend not to use that term in front of the students. We call it The Basement.” Phil checked the invisible watch on his bare wrist. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve gotta run. Too many new recruits and not enough ushers. You’ll be great. I’ve got a feeling about you.” he smiled and shot into the sky, leaving Modestine’s jaw swinging on its hinges.

The once and now future teacher straightened out her ethereal robe, cleared her throat, turned, and faced the class. “Pleased to meet you, class. My name is Modestine. Welcome to Introduction to Heaven.” The name she took off the lesson booklet on the podium. The completely blank lesson booklet. Beside it was the roster. “Hopefully you’re all in your assigned seats because it’s the only way I’m going to learn your names with a class this size.”

Modestine went through the attendance sheet and called her students one by one, each responding with a grunt or bodily noise that she assumed translated as “Present!” When she completed her check, surprisingly every student sat quietly or whispered inaudibly to their neighbor.

“Well, class, as some of you might have figured out, I’m new here, but don’t let that stop you from asking questions. My goal is to teach you everything about heaven, which means I’ll be learning it as you do, and if I don’t know an answer to your question, I’ll do my best to find out as quickly as possible. Today, though, I’m going to outline my expectations of you, and how you’ll be graded.”

The time passed swifter than Modestine had anticipated. Quite frankly she was surprised to be aware of the passing of time at all. For the most part, her students were orderly. A few class clowns, but nothing she couldn’t handle. She’d straighten them out before the course was over.

The entire class watched her closely, she never felt so scrutinized before, and a good deal of the period was spent answering questions about Earth. It wasn’t long before she realized these students were born in Hell, and Earth was like some mythical place to them. When the earth questions began dying down, she introduced several ice-breaking games before the class broke for recess.

As the class filed out of the amphitheater, some by flight, a few in a puff of eye-watering brimstone, and the rest on cloven feet, one student hung back.

“Miss Modestine,” the young demon said when all the others had left.

“Just Modestine, and yes?” she searched the attendance sheet for the section he came from, hoping one of the names would jog her memory.

The demon shook his head. “You won’t find me on your list. I’m not one of your students.”

“You’re not? Then who…?”

“Many names have I, from those who live and those who die, but for you, I wish to be known as Mister Thatch.”

Modestine frowned, looking down at this creature who straighten itself in an odd regality. “All right, Mr. Thatch, what is it you want?”

Thatch pulled a file folder from seemingly nowhere and opened it. “Interesting session today. I’m assuming you taught the class off the cuff, as I am unable to identify any of what was discussed in the pre-approved syllabus, correct?”

“As I stated at the beginning of class, this assignment was thrust upon me at the last moment, so if you have any objections…”

“No, please, you mistake my meaning. I’m not here to condemn you, I was simply assessing your performance. It’s what I was hired to do.”

“By whom?”

“Your superiors would call them Basement Management.”

“And do my superiors know you’re here?”

“They should. It would make for a shoddy operation if they didn’t. Now, as to my assessment,” he pulled a document from his folder, stapled in the top left-hand corner. “Here is an offer from my employers for you to teach your course to a larger audience of underprivileged students. Please study it carefully and feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns. Please be aware that agreement to the terms as stipulated in the contract will require you to abandon your post here. Out of curiosity, are you willing to relocate?”

Modestine stared dumbstruck at the professionally worded document in her hands. An immediate and instant “No” rested on the tip of her tongue but never quite made it past her lips, because, in her quick scan, she found a list of perks that tickled each and every one of her many interests, as any temptation worth its salt should have done.

“I’ll need to read this more closely, Mr. Thatch, before I can respond, of course.”

“Of course. I think you’ll find the compensation quite reasonable. If you have questions, you may summon me at any time. We have high expectations and we’re positive you can fulfill them, Miss Modestine.”

“Just Modestine, and why me?”

“You’re new and, as yet, unjaded by the caste system. We look forward to working with you,” Thatch held out a hand, which Modestine took. It was remarkably soft, despite its texture. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”

Modestine watched as the demon simply evaporated from the room. She looked at the contract. Am I willing to relocate? she asked herself as she walked over to her desk, sat, and read the agreement more thoroughly.

Again, she found it difficult to verbalize the word No. Chiefly because she loved working with underprivileged students and they didn’t come more disadvantaged than the denizens of The Basement. The second reason was she’d always preferred warmer climates and there was an odd constant chill to the air in Heaven.

A Message to My Younger Self: Try Harder

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In an earlier post, I made mention of my Story Box Full of Regret that contained all the stories that had never been completed. My goal is to finish them all before I shuffle off this mortal coil, so every now and then I dip into the box and reread some of my earlier works. Most times I cringe at the contents, but on the rare occasion, I marvel at the workings of my younger mind. I only mention this because I came across a story written—judging by the handwriting and the browning pages of the composition notebook—in my late teen years. It was an H.G. Welles The Time Machine rip-off (*ahem* I mean homage) about a brilliant young man who somehow managed to make a jacket out of time, hence the story’s title, The Very Fabric of Time Itself.

Sometimes I record myself reading these stories and listen to them during my routine morning strolls and one passage stuck with me:

I have no doubt that my story will end in very much the same manner as it began, with a secret. And as I stand at the crossroads, caught at the precise moment where a lifetime of secrets left untold should either be revealed or die forever, I stare at the younger man, eyes full of dreams that have not yet been crushed ‘neath the heel of reality, and find it difficult to believe that I was once him.

As I let the weight of this passage settle in, I began wondering about sending a message to my younger self and how difficult a process it would be to write. The younger me, we’ll call him Li’l Madd for the sake of this post, was a card-carrying member of The Bronx Chapter of the International Skeptics Society who wouldn’t have believed:

  1. The letter came from the future, and more importantly,
  2. That his future self had written it.

Also, I’m sure if I flat out told him of the obstacles he would face, that information would be redacted by some faceless wage slave at the Temporal Post Office, so the message would have to be as succinct as possible. I’d have to offer Li’l Madd one simple, yet key, piece of advice.

The next problem was offering the exact piece of advice Li’l Madd would listen to. That’s a toughie, that one. Yup. Yessiree, Bob. Sigh. I guess it would all have to fall under the category of Try Harder, as in:

Love fiercely and try harder not to break hearts. Befriend the friendless and try harder not to burn bridges. Laugh more and try harder not to take life too seriously. Follow your bliss and try harder to stave off the darkness. Turn off the TV and try harder to think deeply. Take your time but try harder to avoid procrastination. Dream bigger and try harder to stop worrying about dreams not coming true. And stay away from Jane Hester. Sure, she’s pretty to look at but she’s nothing but trouble and It. Will. Not. End. Well.

I’m sure that last bit will get redacted, but here’s hoping!

Author’s Note: While Jane Hester most certainly exists, Jane Hester’s name is not Jane Hester. I wouldn’t out anyone like that, not even Jane Hester. But if you ran into Jane Hester in the real world, you’d know exactly who she was, without even checking her scalp for the Mark of the Beast.

Love’s Love Lost – A Valentine’s Day Tale (sort of)

Once upon a time, in New York’s gloomy and perpetually rainy Alphabet City, there was born a girl who was said to be the living embodiment of love.

From the doctor’s first slap, the girl giggled instead of crying and flushed the neighborhood of all its gray. Her smile was a bottomless thing, its roots branching up from her soul, and it beamed so brightly as to cause blindness if it caught you unawares. Her large jade eyes radiated an innocence so pure it momentarily took your breath away. Given her birthright, she was destined to have but one mate throughout her lifetime, and that person would live a charmed life ever after.

Or so the story went.

While an urban legend to most, Cadogan believed the girl existed and based on the age of the story’s telling, surely had to be an adult now. He also was convinced it was his mission to locate the girl and put an end to love, once and for all.

Cadogan worked fingers to the bone for years and all the wealth he amassed selling off his various successful startup companies was spent on all the matchmakers who claimed to have an in with the living embodiment of love. Most were scammers, of course, the rest were simply delusional and bestowed the honor upon the wrong women. Only one woman was genuine. She knew the embodiment’s true identity and so deep was her jealousy that she gladly agreed to arrange a match if it meant obliterating the anomaly from the face of the planet.

When Cadogan met the matchmaker in a single occupancy room off Delancey Street, he thought of all the people he had ever encountered, this woman was the flipside of the living embodiment of love’s coin. Emaciated with a rat’s nest for hair, her features were packed together tightly as if God had pinched her face when she was born and left it to set that way.

“Your fee’s been paid in full, so why haven’t you set up the introduction?” Cadogan asked.

“You’re not ready.” the matchmaker spat the words like a cawing crow. “As long as you wear your true intentions like armor, she’ll dismiss you outright.”

“If I pretend, she’ll spot the ruse instantly. I’m sure she’s developed the ability to detect friendly facades. I’ll approach her as a man scorned, which is the truth, and win her over from there.”

“Interesting. And how do you mean to kill her?”

“Those were not my words. I mean to put an end to love.”

“The difference being?”

“I intend to woo her, make her love me, and when she’s at her happiest moment, I’ll argue with her, break her heart with harsh words and hurtful actions. And I will not let her leave, and I will not stop, not until the shine dulls in her eyes and the smile becomes a rootless tree, and even then I will continue until she withdraws, from our relationship, from her happiness, from the world.”

“That will take years if it ever happens at all.”

“It will. I’m a patient and persistent man,” Cadogan said.

“But I doubt you’re strong enough.”

“Then refund my money and I’ll find her on my own.”

The matchmaker leaned in closer and eyed Cadogan head to toe. His nose was full of her scent, decaying food left to stew in its own rancid juices.

“A deal is a deal,” she said. “So we’re clear, when I make the introduction, my part will be done. Should you fail in your attempts, the fee won’t be returned, understood?”

Cadogan nodded and she led the way out of the Delancey room. Under the cloak of night, they dipped down into a subway station marked, Closed For Restoration. Past the turnstile and empty platform onto the train tracks. Cadogan masked his apprehension as he gave the third rail a wide berth and occasionally peered over his shoulder at the sound of distant train rumblings.

Between stations, they encountered a society of people, homeless and long abandoned by the surface society, who barred their path. Cadogan thought he would have to fight his way through, but the matchmaker had things well in hand. She mumbled something to the leader, a password perhaps, and pulled a tin of potted meat from her handbag and placed it in the man’s bony hand. When he stepped aside, the pair carefully waded through a field of displaced people’s bedding and cooking stations until they finally reached the service passageway that led to a room not much larger than the one the matchmaker used as an office.

In the room were two chairs that faced each other. The matchmaker sat in one and gestured for Cadogan to sit opposite her.

“If this is some sort of trick…”

The matchmaker waived off the comment before it could become a threat. “She will be here, I promise.”

“Why here?” Cadogan asked.

“There’s an interesting story behind that,” the matchmaker said, clearing her throat as she spat a gob of phlegm to the side. “It seems the gift of unconditional love that Everleigh was born withthat’s the name of the woman you seek, Everleigh—the gift that flowed freely from her, the gift that touched everyone within her sphere of influence and filled them with ecstasy, proved too much for most people to bear.”

“Are you telling me people fell too much in love?” Cadogan asked.

“To the point of delirium. It drove them mad. Imagine the feeling when you have loved someone or something in your life, more than anything else in the world, loved it so much that it hurt. Now multiply that by ten, a hundred, a thousand, a million, even. Never any hatred, or indifference, only a love for everything that increases exponentially the longer you remain in Everleigh’s presence.”

“I never considered that.”

“Most people don’t.”

“So what happened?” Cadogan leaned forward in his seat.

“Nothing like a good story, eh?” The corners of the matchmaker’s mouth curled slightly. “Everleigh’s parents, immune to her gift, fearing for their daughter’s safety as well as their own, moved in the small of the night to parts unknown, somewhere far removed from society at large, and remained in seclusion.”

The matchmaker stopped talking. Cadogan waited, thinking she paused for dramatic effect, but after nearly ten minutes of silence, asked, “Is that it?”

“All the true bits. The rest is apocrypha. I figured that wouldn’t interest you.”

Cadogan shrugged, his disinterest unconvincing, “Since we’re here…”

“Well, the way I heard it, the family managed to get along fine. True, they were isolated but they were also together and safe and Everleigh’s constant state of happiness helped the situation be less stressful. Their lives remained uneventful…until the day their daughter reached puberty.

“On the fourteenth day of the second month of her eleventh year, Everleigh began growing distant, her once innocent eyes darkened and the luster faded from her smile. The gift once thought to be good was slowly transforming from its former sham and ruse into the corrupt curse it truly was.”

Cadogan’s brow knotted. “So she’s not actually a child of love?”

“Why would you think that? Everleigh is the physical embodiment of love. At birth, she was the love that was new and innocent and when she entered womanhood, she became the other side of love, the dark side none of us admit to feeling or acting upon.”

“Well, whichever side she represents, when I make her mine, I will cause it to wilt away to nothingness.”

“Do you have an alternate plan?”

“A what?”

“Should she find out what you are attempting, is there a fallback?”

“The only way she would find out is if you tell her…”

“Oh, I won’t have to tell her anything…you already have.”

It took Cadogan a few moments to piece together her meaning. “You’re…?”

The matchmaker spread her arms wide. “The genuine article.”

“But you’re…”

“A hag? Not at all what you expected? It’s the only bit the urban legend got wrong. I was born an ugly child, but people viewed me through the eyes of unconditional love, so my looks didn’t matter.”

“You tricked me!”

“How? Hello, Cadogan, I am Everleigh, pleased to meet you. Consider yourself introduced. Now, live up to your word,” Everleigh said as she moved from her chair and sat on Cadogan’s lap. “Woo me and put an end to love. I dare you.”

Cadogan wanted to push her off…but perhaps he hadn’t really wanted that at all. Up close, Everleigh wasn’t that horrible to look at. Her mottled skin was actually clear and smooth. Her nose once bent and crooked, appeared aquiline now. Her lips, full and delicious. Her build, athletic.

“Something the matter?” Everleigh asked.

Cadogan’s heart beat in his throat. “What are you doing to me?”

“Giving you a taste. I can control the power now. Love, hate, passion, jealousy…to greater and lesser degrees.”

Cadogan tried to scowl but his face wouldn’t cooperate. “What are you going to do to me?”

“Offer you the opportunity to become my mate,” said Everleigh. She climbed off his lap and drew her power back into herself, allowing Cadogan to see her in her true form again. “If legend is to be believed, a charmed life awaits you.”

“And if I decline?”

“Then you join the loveless,” Everleigh gestured toward the door.

“You mean the people we passed…?”

“Men and women, not much different than yourself, unable to deal with heartbreak or rejection. Selfish people who, being denied love, sought to prevent others from experiencing it.”

“But why do they remain here living like rats in a sewer?” Cadogan asked.

“They were unable to fulfill their supposed heart’s desire of removing my influence from the world and refused my offer of companionship. Once you turn your back on love, what else is there?” Everleigh drained the dark room entirely of love and let him ponder the notion as he sank deep into loneliness and wallowed in abandon and despair.

After an eternity of brooding silence, Cadogan spoke up, “I…accept your offer. I will become your mate.”

“And will you woo me, make me love you, and when I am at my happiest, will you break my heart and make me withdraw from the world?”

“That I will indeed, even if it takes the rest of my life.”

“Challenge accepted,” Everleigh shook the man’s hand firmly.

The contract sealed, Cadogan put his plan into effect by telling the living embodiment of love his story. Of the woman he loved, that he did nothing to deserve but was blessed with nonetheless. Of their happiness together. Of the sharp knife of cruel fate that cut their time short. Of the anguish that swallowed him whole the instant her body was committed to the ground.

And when his tale was through, Cadogan pulled her into his embrace and kissed her with every ounce of his intent, and Everleigh was forced to admit she felt a slight tingle. They battled for years in this game of hearts, each giving as good as they got, and if he actually succeeded in putting an end to her, it was with kindness. Despite the competition that continued to their dying days, the couple wound up living happily ever after.

Oh, and they had one child, who was said to be the living embodiment of peace…but that’s a story for another day.

Happy Valentine’s Day!