Category Archives: Writing

Blogs about writing

Pilgrimage: To Taste Joy Again

Today I am practicing joy, allowed myself the grace and naivety of a child. I no longer want to feel self-conscious for child-like wonder; I seek to exorcise shame, to scrape clean my palette for awe where too long cynicism has calcified like plaque. Today I feel refreshed, the way characters in a Coca-Cola commercial appear. I am determined in the same way fictional athletes seem in inspiring sports films the morning of the big race or big fight or big race.

Recently, I have forgotten too simply the purpose of joy. Having allowed self-indulgent misery to conquer my mood, I have moped through my break, alone too often in the dingy dorm underground. For a week, I have been sequestered in my subterranean single room by torrential downpours. But today the rain stopped, and the sun peeked out its head. Emancipated from late May storms, I traveled with my mother and Oma across the state of Baden-Würtemburg to an ancient Danube-neighboring city. Ulm.

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Standing under the neo-gothic spires and buttresses of the Ulm Munster, a sense of awe dawned. There exists perhaps a limit to one’s ability to experience wonder, and lately, I’ve felt as if I reached that limit. Small joys, luscious landscapes, and even stark coffee failed to inspired in my the unnamable intensity for which I craved. Instead, I have betrayed my curious adventurous nature in service of irrational fear. I have spent too many bright afternoons working, subsisting on cream cheese and jazz. I am afraid of something, though of what, I’m unsure.

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So I must re-establish my purpose, an unknown direction, to experience each droplet of experience, to lick the dew of life from each blade of grass. Lately, I have been a man abandoned on an island housing the last block of ice, and I have watched the ice become a puddle.

But today I tasted joy. I balanced on the spine of the Ulm wall as we searched for food. The wall slithers beside the wide river, a twin artery, one red and the other a greenish-blue. The sun came out to massage our necks we stared across the Danube into Bayern. Swans soared above the water’s surface, wide wing flaps slapping the river. In that moment, I too recalled what it meant to feel wonder, to look upon something for the first time.

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Moment arrive again and again when we must re-affirm our faith in the beauty of living. This is a religion with no holy book other than the days we inhale. We must be reminded often that life is worthy of our presence—our conscious presence—our sense of being in the now, now, now.

I do not wish to imply that I must be constantly astonished to escape doldrums, but rather that I search for meaning in the quiet moments. This may mean the boring-in-between, the train ride, the wait at the bus stop, the long afternoons eating and drinking, but, if we wish, we may reclaim these moments as grandiose. We may experience even the familiar as new. In the mind-frame of now, there exists no nostalgia for any time frame other than the present.

There is always time for joy, which stares refreshing like a sliver of ice on a sultry summer day. But joy is no feeling, like happiness; it is instead a practice, a habit that must each day be reinforced. So today I am practicing joy, even if I’m writing emails inside, even if I’m doing laundry, or even if I’m experiencing the myriad dull rituals of the day; I will look back to yesterday and recall wonder, and I must think, it’s that simple. It’s really that simple, to wait and appreciate, and know I will feel this awe again.

A Solipsistic Writer’s Guide to Writing About Yourself on the Internet

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I’m not sure what they’re calling my generation now—Generation Me, The Facebook Generation, The Slacker Generation, Millennial Generation, whatever. The diagnosis, no matter the given title, is clear: self-obsessed, self-entitled, bratty, morally weak, and eternally cynical. That about sums it up, the portrait painted by the other generations about our generation—courtesy of Generation X and the Baby Boomers (which sounds, to be frank, like twin circus rocket-men stuck in the bodies of infants). When we hear the criticisms arraigned against us, we often retaliate—this was your fault, anyways; you’re generalizing; blah, blah, let me Tweet about this.

When it comes to the current generation of writers, however (let’s say 15-25 years old), perhaps these modifiers are correct. Perhaps too are these modifiers useful. We are a generation that passed through adolescence with access to Tumblr. We can talk incessantly about ourselves on Twitter, update each grueling low and ecstatic high of our relationships on Facebook, and upload videos of ourselves talking to ourselves on Youtube. We mastered the act of the confessional in the sixth grade, learned to craft personal narratives in under 140 characters. In other words, our tendency to be solipsistic, to express the world through our particular lenses, allows us also to be some of the greatest marketers in the writing world.

Even now, I am only writing this blog in hopes you might become curious about me as a person; so invested, perhaps you will read about my book and later buy my book, and so invested, you will buy every book I ever publish.

See what I just did? Self-marketing. We were born for it. Ain’t no shame or self-awareness for us, no, we grew up writing essays about our feelings in secret AOL chat rooms.o-THE-REAL-ME-GENERATION-facebook

The strange phenomenon of being a “modern writer” is the new wave of marketing techniques, namely writing blogs and tweets and Facebook statuses. Did you know that some writers keep a schedule of the tweets they’re going to send out? I would also totally do that if I were more organized, though it’s a hubris we can pass off as generational, right? The days of locking yourself away in a log cabin to clack out a masterpiece on a rusty typewriter are long over—we’re the generation of Microsoft Word, the generation of the #amwriting hashtag, the generation of getting paid to muse about celebrities online and create lists for, seriously, literally anything.

The internet for the writer offers both an incredible resource and a black hole of time-wasting activities. On the one hand, we can access research materials faster than you can mutter Google, we can connect with other writers via Twitter and complain about all the work we’re not doing, we can save money on query letters with the advent of email, and we can read purchase almost any book with a few mouse clicks; on the other hand, we can waste oodles of time on social media sites and reading Lists of The Cutest Quokas.

But perhaps most significantly, we can blog. WordPress recently alerted me that I had been blogging on Word Salad for four years, and while I’ve experienced an extreme downtown in readership, I have continued to write about the writing life, about movies, about my travels, and at times about cats. There exists a special danger to blogging—over-sharing. At what point does the humorous confessional become the admittance to childish activities? I have been reading writers’ blogs for many years, especially those with whom I am contemporaries, and there exists a trend of sharing what could be potentially harmful to the writer or to the writer’s acquaintance.

Of course, some stories shared on the internet could be shared for the sake of hilarity. Sexual encounters, drug use, and petty theft have become a hot topic for blog-writers. But if one writes these essays, these articles, and these blogs with the hope of one day becoming a writer and then fails to become a writer, where does that place the context of what the writer has written? What will future employers think while reading about you at age seventeen, stealing cigarettes from the gas station?

Maybe there are actions the Internet should not know about, spurring articles like 10 Disgusting Habits I Formed While Living on My Own, The True Reason I Will Never Find Intimate Love Is That I’m Selfish, or Seventeen Slurs Not to Call Someone Interviewing You for a Job. Maybe file these under, things the world should never hear; or maybe file them under, The Internet Is a Great Therapist But Only Until Trolls Begin Berating You and Sending Death Threats.

To write about oneself is a balancing act. While we want audiences to believe we are relatable, that we are human, we wish also not to come across as unemployable.

The true question to pose: am I writing for an audience at all or only for myself? Am I writing to entertain or to create “buzz?” And if I take the focus away from myself, if I reject the paradigm of the Me Generation, if I abandon the internet in hopes of writing “pure prose” and “technologically-unadulterated poetry,” then why am I writing in the first place?

There must exist a love of self or at least an analysis of self (which is an important step toward love-of-self) before a writer may write about themselves. This isn’t a memoir. It’s a blog. This isn’t a bookstore or a job interview. It’s the Internet. The anarchic no-rules-ever, blog-with-aesthetic Internet. If you didn’t come to read about someone talking about themselves, why are you even here?

Pilgrimage: Maybe Holy Is Just The Easiest Word to Pronounce, Maybe It’s Just The First Word That Comes to Mind

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It is 5:20am. Laura rides on a train headed in the opposite direction toward Stuttgart, and I ride home toward Tübingen. For the past week, we have been exploring Germany together. We snuck through the holy silence of a monastery, drank beer and ate Wurste in the jubilant expanse of the Botanischer Garten, walked through endless parks with an eye for mischief, sampled every piece of equipment on every playground we passed, trekked to the top of a mountain to explore a Prussian castle, pretended to understand contemporary art in Freiburg, and got lost in the Black Forest.

But she’s got a new adventure to pursue—study abroad in Russia. She will arrive in St. Petersburg this afternoon. There is pain in parting and joy in joining. There are words I am still learning to pronounce and emotions I am still learning have no words. In the week she has been here, we’ve navigated extremely frustrating situations (becoming lost on trains or in downtowns on rainy afternoons) and have come to better terms about what it means to work together, to trust one another even when we’re both fairly clueless. Now there exists an ending, a finale, a closing credits for our small and strange adventure.

But stories do not end. They just fade to black, to be continued imprinted across the screen.

The sun rises above the horizon, first its pink tentacles and then its orange halo, bathing the sky sherbet. There is sadness in parting, but have you ever seen pollution paint the sky so vivid? Have you ever gotten so much cloud stuck on your face, its candy floss sugar won’t scrub free for days? Have you ever kissed someone you love?

You should try this, at least once. It’s like walking into an abandoned church, praying among the pews of teeth, and knowing the meaning of grace. And knowing that grace is just a word for something we cannot yet say. It’s a grunt for the non-verbal secret we can never quietly tell.

Creativity Is a Muscle

“Art is craft, not inspiration.” —Stephen Sondheim

“Sometimes you’re writing to learn how to write a book.” -Julia Fierro

Writer's Group, circa 2011

Writer’s Group, circa 2011

Somewhere in the center of a dark forest stands a cauldron bubbling with black-tar potion. Magic-muse juice percolates within the cast-iron bucket, fumes of inspiration rising toward the night sky. Writers-become-pilgrims trek through this forest every year in search of creativity, the end-all-be-all-cure-all medicine for frustrating writer’s block.

Or perhaps we might imagine creativity in a lighter setting, a golden fluid imbibed by the gods of Olympia. The mind’s ambrosia. Perhaps a secret, clear formula hidden in the storage cache of Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory.

When writers converse about creativity, we tend to mythologize the trait as something almost-unattainable, as something holy—manna falling from Heaven. Words dangling like strings from the fingers of God, alighting like snow on the tongue of a poet or novelist. We tend to engage with hefty, lofty metaphors in order to ensure others that creativity is a sacred attribute.

But creativity is a myth, indeed, if we cannot discuss concretely what we mean when we utter the word. Where does one acquire this magic muse-juice? Give me coordinates, longitude, latitude.

Maybe creativity is not a secret at all.

Creativity is a muscle.

Creativity is a habit that must be cultivated, strengthened through continuous use.

Much like the formal tools of writing—syntax, spelling, grammar, word choice, etc.—one becomes better at using creativity the more one engages with its practice. Practice being the operative term here.

I mean not to malign certain would-be writers, but I have encountered again and again English majors (with creative writing minors) who proclaim their intentions to float into the hallowed halls of author-hood post-graduation without having ever truly written anything. Maybe a story or two, a half-finished manuscript, but nothing more. They harbor the belief that one day, with degree and good juju, they will emerge as writers like a butterfly from a cocoon. Except that they never built a cocoon in the first place.

One must practice a craft in order to learn the craft. Creativity works the same way. I should preface also that “being a writer” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve published a book or will publish a book; publication is merely process validation for story-slingers, not the goal in and out itself. Writers write. If you write, then you are a writer.

When learning about writing—whether that means taking a creative writing course, interning at a publishing house, or reading blog posts like this one—one becomes aware only of the craft’s silhouette. This is akin to reading the autobiography of Michael Jordan in preparation to become a basketball player; a more playful analogy—a man reading the Kama Sutra so that he may become a master lover without ever having had sexual intercourse. Learning craft from a source outside yourself is merely supplementary education: writing will teach you to write better. Editing others’ stories, that’s even better.

Often, the first novel you will write is only going to be practice. Maybe you’ll get lucky and publish the novel, but this will be still practice for the next. I was about eleven or twelve when I decided I want to become a writer. On that day I sat down at a computer and wrote a book. Took about a year. A horrible, short, badly-plotted, cliché book, but hey, I was twelve! I forced my mother and fifth grade teacher to read said book, and looking back I can imagine their horror at the violence and pessimism of the story. A year later, I was bored with the manuscript, as children may be, so I wrote something longer, more complex. Still childish, but nevertheless, book-length. Ninety-thousand words or so. In about two years.

This trend of writing sloppy manuscripts continued throughout my adolescence. I was singularly determined to be published before the age of sixteen, and of course I’m overjoyed that I was not published. During that time, however, I learned about craft; I learned about characterization; I learned about the economy of words. I even learned to write query letters and write a decent synopsis. Although at the time my purpose was only to publish these stories, I realize now that these experiments informed my later writing. Even now, I recognize that I am still building up toward something better, a story more precise and beautiful than anything I could create now.

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A collection of lovely notebooks from my teenage years.

Around the age of sixteen, after having penned six or seven bad novels, I began The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County (which was, I should mention, my first foray into realistic fiction after a string of fantasy and super-transgressive noir-crime). This novel too was a sloppy mess, and I spent about two years editing and re-writing before I began sending it out to publishers.

Three years later, I finally got the “yes.”

The above anecdote is not designed to brag on my adolescent ambitions, but only to provide a point. One must write to learn to write. Of course I took a few classes and workshops during these teen years; I scribbled notes while listening to panels at book conventions. But the experiences of story-telling, the ritual of always working on something new, created a habit of writing: now I write almost every day, clocking in particular hours of writing or editing to get the work done. Since writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I have written three other manuscripts (two of which are serviceable and that I’m currently whipping into shape). Through this, I mean to infer, I’m still writing. I’m doing work.

Naturally I still encounter “writer’s block” or a lack of inspiration, but that doesn’t stop me from getting my work done. Like a runner straining through the pain on his final lap, a writer can be creative without feeling any special inspiration. Therefore, the myth of creativity and the muse, of stories-come-God—I don’t buy it, not one bit.

Writing is hard work. Yes, it is an incredible fun, eye-opening, soul-searching experience, but at the same time, it’s work. The writer must first practice his free throws before he becomes Michael Jordan; for the record, I’m still trying. For the record, I’m still on the community court  throwing free throws. Dear aspiring writer: you are too.

There is no secret to creativity, then. There is only sweat.

You want muse-juice? Drink some coffee, some green tea. Chew gum. Crack your knuckles. Then get to work.

(Oh, yea, and if you want to learn more about the book I am using as an example, click here to read a synopsis. You can also read a preview here! The novel drops in November 2015)

On Poetic Activism Featuring Omari Fox

Originally posted on Echo Chambers:

The artist is an activist, especially in the spoken word community.

More than once has the words of a poet changed my outlook on any number of social-political issues.  In part, this is the beauty of the form.  Those who know more than I do seem so willing to share their ideas all with the aim to better the world around them with their collective voices.Watch-Baltimore-Riot-Coverage-Online-665x385

Recently I was in Charleston, SC for a Diversity Conference.  The conference was taking place only days after the killing of Walter Scott in North Charleston.  Needless to say, the conference was abuzz with the controversy.

Enter Omari Fox.

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Fox arrived with a solemn face and reserved energy that afternoon.  Having just attended Walter Scott’s funeral, he was a man drained, but unerring in his mission.

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Praying at the Altar of Democracy

AMERICAN_FREEDOM_by_rtrev               There exists often in our ideas of government and law a virtue of holiness. The notion of democracy as institutionally supreme, the notion of three branches of government, the notion of political parties, and notion of neo-liberalism enjoy a sacred place in our political culture. Because these notions seem unchangeable and in some cases ingrained in our Constitution (a holy text), one must grapple arduously to imagine anything new. While there may exist no ready alternative to democracy, surely there may reside in the recesses of our imaginations avenues through which we might improve democracy. I do not mean to propose anything specifically but rather elucidate the flexibility of our political culture. Although many American citizens remain dubious of the effectiveness of our current system, it offers us the chance to constantly desecrate the altar of the status quo. But not for long.

Despite many Americans acknowledging the imperfection of American democracy, one experiences too a staunch defense of its principles. Defenders of the Constitution, for example, speak with the rhetoric of fervent missionaries; for many, democracy is no political system but rather a religion. In the same way that many religious sects misrepresent and contort the meaning of sacred texts, so too do groups of citizens warp the Constitution in their favor. This, of course, can be a positive attribute of our laws and amendments, the extent to which they can be interpreted. This power lies in the Supreme Court, but problematically, many American citizens inform their political views based on mis-readings of the Constitution. In the face of change, they shout down dissenters in favor of democratic salvation.

Take, for example, the right to free speech. Americans enjoy the ability to say or write anything, with the exception of libel and “treason in words?” In the age of the internet, however, one experiences a new phenomenon of the anonymous commenter, which has helped create an online vocabulary of vitriol and insults. This reliance on the freedom of speech has continued to gain traction, the idea that one should be allowed to say anything: this includes, however, threats of violence, murder, and rape. In the wake of the highly publicized #Gamergate, for example, internet commenters frequently threatened the life and livelihood of feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian.  When certain websites suggested curbing these violent comments, many claimed that this would become censorship. For many, any infringement on free speech is the barring of free speech altogether. I don’t mean to talk especially about free speech, but rather use this as an example in which the Bill of Rights becomes unclear. Does the right to free speech trump the right to safety? We encounter the same predicament in public in the form of street harassment: does a man have the right to scream across the street and inform her he wants to sexually assault her until she bleeds? (Yes, I know, drastic examples, but they happen every day both in public and online).

In what ways, then, are we ignoring paths through which we might improve democracy? In another thread of thought, in what ways have we already deviated from the ideal of democracy? In 2014, a study from Princeton and North Western revealed that the political system of the United States is more oligarchy than democracy due to the significant impact that individual business interest groups have on policy change (Source: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9354310). Through rampant funding of politicians and funds, businesses have ensured that the power of American politics belong to the elite.  If economic elites, then, control the government, what does that say of our democratic system? When defending the democratic ideals of the United States, this defense becomes arduous when one considers the unfair role that money plays in the political culture.

We often forget as Americans that democracy is not a solely American enterprise, but instead that democracy has become the most widely used form of government in the world; there exist, then, various incarnations of democracy, all of which arose post-Independence. This also means, perhaps, that the ideas espoused in newer constitutions might in fact be better.

This essay, after all, is not to suggest specific change, which would require more evidence and support, but rather to plant an idea—we are not perfect. Democracy is not holy. The United States Constitution is no sacred text. Just as our laws were written by men, they can be unwritten by men (and women and those who don’t identify with either gender). In order to truly envision a radical new America, we must stop praying at the altar of democracy. We must smash the idols. We must revise the holy book.

Pilgrimage: The Big Sleep

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Today classes start back at Tübingen University after a one-week break after a preparatory German course. To call this course arduous would be a disservice to true labor the world over, however, though I did find the course incredibly helpful.  But now I begin tomorrow in earnest, begin a new semester of university at a new school, new country, in a new language, with a new culture to overcome. A tall order, no?

But today I would like to praise the benefit of my long break, or rather my “big sleep.” I have been in academic hibernation for some time now, though I find my time outside of the classroom just as instructional as my time inside the classroom. I have been, after all, working dilligently on a new novel and many poetic projects. Once I arrived overseas, I began helping to orchestrate poetry events back home in Charleston. I have been anything but idle.

I do enjoy my time off. It allows me to delve face-first into things I would otherwise never experience. I have been able to make tremendous progress writing not one, but two books; I have done a first edit of one book and managed and almost-complete first draft of another. In the meanwhile, I have been building a Twitter/Facebook/blog following in anticipation of the release of The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County. Recently I decided to take up drawing, learning how to draw even simple things, which up until now has been beyond me.

I am feeling optimistic. Although a tidal wave of business approaches, I hope to continue writing and working with conviction, with a sense that I will accomplish much in the coming months. At the same time, I wish not to spend all my time with paper and pen in hand. I take advantage of this opportunity to live, to be free in cities I’ve never visited before, to speak with interesting people. These interactions will almost surely translate to new material in short stories and novels to come.

But today is the last day of utter freedom. I have finished writing almost 2,00 words today, though I intend perhaps to write more. Then I will take a bottle of champagne to the park and drink cheap mimosas in the warm tickle of sunlight with friends. I will speak German and look toward the sky. I will finish whatever book I’m currently reading with frantic helplessness as the plot kidnaps my consciousness. I will write, yes, but more importantly I will live. I will wake tomorrow at dawn with a new initiative, a broad, fresh band of obstacles to overcome.

Poem: “Puddle Jumpers”

New poem. Check it out.

Leave thoughts below.

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“Proletariat Love” – Derek Berry

Check out this love poem recorded for National Poetry Month.

 

 

Filmed in front of the glorious Cologne Cathedral. Leave your thoughts below.

 

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National Poetry Month Poem #2: “Jack Bellamy”

#‎NationalPoetryMonth‬ 2/30. This persona piece follows the fictional narrative of an older gay man arrested on charges of sodomy during the 1960s and subjected to electric shock therapy to aid in his conversion.

“According to the American Psychiatric Association, until 1974 homosexuality was a mental illness. Freud had alluded to homosexuality numerous times in his writings, and had concluded that paranoia and homosexuality were inseparable. Other psychiatrists wrote copiously on the subject, and homosexuality was “treated” on a wide basis. There was little or no suggestion within the psychiatric community that homosexuality might be conceptualized as anything other than a mental illness that needed to be treated.” – PHIL HICKEY

 

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