Friday, December 23, 2005

Habits and Discipline

What does a writer do when his daily routine shows a lack of discipline? First, panic. Second, read Don Watson's essay on The Character of Habits (Parts I&II) over at Anger Management. I'll comment more here when I have some time (say, after Christmas).

This seems like a good segue to post one of my favorite quotes on this subject. It comes from the sharp mind of Elizabeth George, a successful mystery author and Writing teacher extraordinaire:

     "Here's what I tell my students on the first day when I teach one of my creative writing courses: You will be published if you possess three qualities—talent, passion, and discipline.
     You will probably be published if you possess two of the three qualities in either combination—either talent and discipline, or passion and discipline.
     You will likely be published if you possess neither talent nor passion but still have discipline.
     But if all you possess is talent [and/or] passion, you will not be published."

Discipline is king—no, he's more like a dictator. Anyway, he should be. Mine is sometimes about as assertive as Winnie the Pooh.

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Mudita: A Beautiful New Word

I just discovered a new word and it's one of the most wonderful words I've ever heard: mudita. Here's what it means according to Joshua Zader:

     Mudita is a Pali word that means "sympathetic joy" or "happiness at another's success in life."
     In Buddhist teachings, mudita is one of the four Brahma-viharas, or "highest emotions," alongside love, compassion, and equanimity. I first learned of the word during a terrific retreat with Buddhist meditation teacher Leigh Brasington. I hold no reverence for exotic terms, and I rarely favor a foreign word when an English one will do.
     But in this case, there is no English word. We have many words with an opposite meaning—envy, jealousy, compassion, pity—but none for feelings of happiness or even approval at another's success. The nearest word might be "pride," but this is usually restricted to one's self.

Personally, I'd rather have a more English-sounding word, and I'm not so sure about the "highest emotions" business, but the concept is still remarkable. In fact, the idea behind the word has always been a part of my own sense of life. As a kid, I remember noticing that so many people around me hated other people for their successes. They spoke as if someone else's accomplishments automatically reflected badly on them because they hadn't accomplished the same. In other words, your having a nice house just makes my modest house look bad. To me, people like that were just miserable grumps, and I didn't have time for them.

I think I held to a different view because I knew that I wanted to be happy. As a child, I always found myself feeling awed and thrilled at the sight of other people doing great and wonderful things. Perhaps this came from my believing that one day I would be able to do the same — that it's my right and my chosen destiny to participate in these wonderful things — even if it takes me many, many years to get there. Then I discovered Ayn Rand, and she said, "You're damn right about that!" (My words, not hers, but her words certainly did have that effect.)

Zader also discusses Schadenfreude on his blog, which is the opposite of mudita. Very interesting stuff...gotta incorporate this somewhere in my story plans.

Dangerous Little Bugs

Earth calling all organic food snobs: 18 people sickened by e-coli in raw, unpasteurized milk. Duh. Here's more on the story from the State of Oregon.

I think we should have a national "Celebrate Preservatives Day". Grade schoolers everywhere would spend a day coloring pictures of e-coli bacteria to put on mom and dad's refrigerator door, since grade school teachers are the only ones who pay attention to those Congressionally approved "holidays" anyway.

But why, you ask, am I including this news on a forum for writing? Because it's material for a specific story I have in mind.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Greek Not-So-Tragedy

Here's a sharp take over at Greek Tragedy about what one writer went through trying to get published.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Submission Status:Complete

I just checked the status of my short story. It said: Complete. That's a euphemism for: “Your story didn't even make it off first base, so why don't you just buzz off.”

That's good news (in a twisted way), because it means that I'm free to send it on to someone else now. Maybe this time I'll find a journal that isn't run by hippies. I'll need some luck, though, so please start wishing for me.

Submission Announcement Looms...

Two more weeks until judgment day, that is, until I learn whether I won The Short Story Award for New Writers at a widely-read literary press (which shall remain nameless because I don't want to shoot myself in the foot). Winners will be announced within the first few days of January. I'll let you know.

Of course I didn't win—and no, I am not being grumpy or pessimistic, nor am I being defeatist in order to protect myself from the inevitable (I've already thought of that). It's just the simple fact that small literary presses seem to be the last in the literary world so far to figure out that real people actually want to read real stories, I mean stories that grip them and move them, and most of all, stories that show life as a kind of promising adventure.

I suppose I do stand an insignificant chance (which is better than no chance) of being listed as an Honorable Mention, mainly just because my hero is a woman and because it's a damn good story, I am inclined to think. Trouble is, she's also a businesswoman. Even worse, she's not just an egalitarian mystic in the guise of a businesswoman, but a tough-as-nuts hard-hitter who stands by her principles, the kind of woman who never thinks to check in with the pollsters before making a decision. She's one of my favorite characters. I really love her a lot. But I doubt the lefties at xxxxx Press will like her at all.

Honestly, I really suck at getting my stories out there. I guess I just haven't found a journal that prints anything that doesn't involve crack addicts, disaffected immigrants, prostitutes, or just plain nonsense a la Franz Kafka. The truth is, I really have my heart into writing longer novels. Short stories are fun, but they're just a means of getting to the meaty stuff.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


I've just been emotionally devastated by a novel. I'm talking about sitting down on the floor and just weeping. I couldn't even breathe. Ugh! I haven't felt that way since my own dear grandmother died. Yes, I'm serious. I cried over a novel as if someone close to me had died. Talk about catharsis! Art is just such an absolutely incredible thing.

The book was The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault.

I have to think that some of my emotions came from the beautiful and agonizing homosexual relationship that forms the spine of the novel. Still, it's a really good story in itself. I would even call it fairly high literature—at least some of the best historical fiction I have ever read.

It seems that most of the people who don't like this story (on Amazon) mainly just have a problem with compound sentences (ignoring the homophobes, anyway). As one otherwise positive reviewer wrote: "The language was very difficult to get through. I had to re-read a lot of passages to get the gist." Are you kidding? This guy must be used to reading Stephen King. Personally, I find Renault's writing to be positively breezy, but maybe that's because I've already made it through Henry James, Tolstoy, et al., in the name of literary fortitude.

I should warn anyone who might happen upon this review (*minor spoiler follows*): This story is patterned after typical Greek tales, so don't expect the gods to be any more kind than usual.

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

No Thought Whatever About Yourself

Isn't this the most ironic statement in Objectivist history: Ayn Rand writes in her journal, "From now on—no thought watever about yourself, only about your work. You don't exist. You are only a writing engine. Don't stop, until you really and honestly know that you cannot go on.... Stop admiring yourself—You are nothing yet." (Journals of Ayn Rand, Pg. 48).

Well, it is and it isn't. It certainly sounds ironic, but that's only because Ayn Rand was not being precise. After all, she was writing in her personal journal, not on a public forum. I can remember being amused by that statement myself. I thought I understood it. At least I assumed that her words made sense in some way consistent with Objectivism. But only now do I really understand what she meant.

After writing fiction for almost two years solid, that is to say, after being up to my navel—no, more like my nostrils—in the confusion, uncertainty, frustration, excitement, disappointment, enthusiasm, doldrums, self-directed anger, unbelievably poor time management, success, failure, and general malaise of the in-betweens, I can say with great confidence that I know exactly what Ayn Rand was talking about. As you wade through the trials of becoming a writer, almost all of them inside your own mind, you simply can't afford to think for even a second that you are farther along in the process than you really are. You can't afford to think that you are worthy of being on headlines, top-ten lists, interviews, book signings, or publicity stunts of any kind. You can't afford to think that someone will actually enjoy reading your stories until those stories are really and truly worthy of publication. And unless you have some really honest friends (which I do, happily), you shouldn't even give their opinions much purchasing power.

If the concept worthy is to mean something in the real world, it has to mean that you won the race—at least one of the many races, anyway. It has to mean that you overcame most of the initial obstacles to your success. You must not only have in your hand the physical proof of your success (a story), but you must absolutely know that the work required to achieve that success came about, not mainly because of luck, talent, fortune, or a happy muse, but because of hard-earned skills. A skill is something that doesn't evaporate when you finish a book and begin to prepare for the next one. It's right there with you from that point on, ready to be put to use again and again and again. It's a tool that did not arise by mysterious forces in your soul; it's something you acquired only by thinking very hard on a problem.

This is an important identification: If you don't know a writing problem inside and out, how can you possibly know that you have acquired a skill to overcome it? Only by understanding the problem will you recognize it the next time and know to reach for this particular solution. This is how a skill is like a tool.

When Ayn Rand wrote those words in her journal, she was struggling with what I think every writer probably faces: the hopeful prospects of youth racing downhill faster than its feet can manage. That orientation might work reasonably well for a young athlete (I don't know), but it's deadly for anyone in a very long-term, mind-intensive career. Brain work is not for Helium-people.


Friday, December 09, 2005

I Don't Write Pornography

Be it known from this day forward that I do not write Pornography, Poetry, or Personal memoirs, which seems to put me in a very tiny class of writers. This is not to say that The Three Pees are somehow offensive or lame; it's just that I swear that a thousand people have said to me, "Oh, gee, I'm a writer, too! Don't you just love being a writer! Wee-hee!" (Not in those exact words, of course.) I can usually tell what's coming next: "My boyfriend and I used to write poetry to each other in high school, you know..." Groan. Next topic, please. (Incidentally, this is one of the main reasons I refuse to go to "writer's" conferences.)

I don't mean to disparage real poets, who probably number around fifty in North America alone. It really does take an extraordinary wordsmith and a keen valuer to be a true poet. I just don't appreciate how everyone—especially family—assumes that I write about my grandmother's unhappy marriage. It's like they wouldn't know a work of art even if its enormous private parts were dangling right in front of their faces.

Notice that Michelangelo clearly was not trying to work out his inner demons when he sculpted David. He was an artist, an A-R-T-I-S-T. That word is holy in my bible, and if you think I'm being over-the-top about this, then you need to get yourself some serious philosophical tutoring before your mind wastes away like some forgotten, shriveled-up, pitted pie cherry. There. That's my little rant. So next time I run into the "Gee-whiz-I'm-a-writer" type, I'll just have to direct him to my website.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

I am

Major Policy Decision: I have decided not to include my name on this blog. I'm very sorry. I know that my vast fan-base of 1 must be devastated. It's just that I am anticipating the day when I will need an anonymous forum where I can rant about my publisher's short-sighted, unappreciative, narrow-minded, prudish, cowardly policies. (I'm gearing up.) Also, I want to feel free to let words just fly, unedited, else I would never post here. Finally, I might occasionally cross the NC-17 barrier, which could come back to haunt me, especially if I should ever decide to publish a book for teens.

I love my job.

I get up in the morning, get in my gas-hogging SUV and drive to the gym (except when I don't), step-master to Pet Shop Boys for about 30 hellish minutes, take a shower with a bunch of guys, go to breakfast either at my east-side office (The J&M Cafe) or at my office in the West Hills (that being my home), then I brew up a frothy over-the-top coffee concoction, and voilà—just like that my day has officially begun. So, I guess you could say that I "require" about two and a half hours to start my day, counting breakfast. Well, that's not really true because I usually work through breakfast, but I'm fudging here a bit just to make a point: Jeesus I have a good life! I love being a writer!

But that's not why I decided to begin this, here, my very own blog. After all, who really wants to read about someone's very happy life. I suppose I could write about crack babies, incest, crystal meth and sex parties, maybe a little name dropping and Euro snobbery or something like that to really get the postmodern juices flowing, the kind of thing that just about everyone else is addicted to writing about these days. But no thanks. Not here. Not on this blog, and not in this lifetime. Not only am I a writer who believes in writing stuff that people can understand—weird, huh?—but I also believe in writing stuff that makes people want to cheer. Happiness is cool in my world, and if you're not cool with that then you won't think that I'm cool, which is cool. Groovy?

Anyway, I plan to use this space to keep tabs on myself. I've been noticing recently that no one has been officially managing my life, so I'm just going to have to do it myself. That means cracking the whip, and I just thought that having a blog might give me some kind of structure for recording my progress.

But wait, there's more: I just realized that as sexy as the word blog might be right now (is that even possible?), in the end a blog is just an online journal, and I have always hated the idea of a journal. It just seems so pointless:

"1/25/05 Today my shitzu named Pamelia started sneezing. It was really gross. I should take her to the vet.
1/26/05 Today I learned that my shitzu has asthma, and I will have to give her a nasal spray three times a day for the rest of her pitiful life..."

To prevent a slide down that slippery slope, me and my mind manager have agreed to limit this blog to all things writerly, or at least tangentially writerly, which is necessarily writerly because no one but a writer would ever say tangentially.