Scorched Earth

“Only you can prevent wildfires.” ~Smokey the Bear

A fire is a conflagration of circumstances. It is a casual match in a dry field, a bundle of sticks, a blowtorch, a spark, smoke, and ashes. It is all and none at the same time, because a fire is within and of itself. It is wind, and breadth, and air. It contracts and expands depending on the air available to it. And the drier the circumstances the better for the fire to flourish. A fire is brilliant to watch, until it can no longer be controlled.

I watch fires all day. No, I’m not a firefighter. I’m a normal person who simply notices the world around him. And there are way too many uncontained and uncontested fires around that could have been taken care of when they were small, before they got completely out of control and those nearby had to run for safety. Of course I’m not talking about the same thing Smokey the Bear has always been concerned with, but rather the harsh words people wield against each other like torches of flame that burn before disintegrating. Continue reading “Scorched Earth”

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The Longer Stories

33,043. That’s the word count on the novel I’m currently writing. It’s crazy how word counts have so much meaning for me now, and they meant absolutely nothing to me before I published my first book. On this side of the looking glass things are much different than they were from the other side. I’m proud of that number too, because it means I’ve written a novella already. It’s more than a short story, but less than a full-length novel at this point (unless I’m John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway), so it has a heft and a weight to it that is satisfying in many ways.

storyI’ve written several first drafts of several novels before. They are as complete as they are going to be right now because I’m no longer sketching them out anymore. Perhaps eventually I will come back to each one and give it the tender loving care that it deserves, but I’ll have to be in the mood for that, and so many new stories come into my mind all the time that need telling as well. But yes, as first drafts go, this one I’m writing right now is solid, perhaps even more solid than the first draft of my most recent published novel.

Maybe I’m finally getting the hang of this novel writing thing.

For years I considered myself a storyteller, but those stories were short fiction pieces. 20,000 words or fewer. Often times they were short shorts. 10,000 words or fewer. Sometimes they were only a page, but a highly detailed page with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. But that’s where they ended, and where I thought the line had been drawn, thick and uncrossable. I would generally tell my story, it would end, the word count would be slightly over 12,000, and I would file it away with the rest of my short stories, I thought never to see the light of day again. (More to come on that later.)

With Detours, my first novel, though, things just flowed, and as I hit and passed 20,000 words I knew I was in uncharted territory. But I didn’t look back. I just kept looking ahead, and I kept writing. Before I knew it I was past 30,000 words and I understood finally that I was looking at my first novel, that the time had come. When I finished the book, edited it, added more dialogue, and finally pronounced it ready to be published, I knew I had found a new way of writing that I would have forever.

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I’ve written at least the first drafts of five novels since then. Two of those novels have since been published. But for me that invisible line of 30,000 words still speaks to me. It’s when I realized my first novel was indeed a novel, and it’s held true for every one since. By the time I got to 30,000 with Leaves in Fall, my most recent novel, I had already fallen in love with the town and the characters who populated it. It’s more than just a moment for me. It’s one I feel I have to observe now. It’s powerful.

When I’m done with this novel, which sits at 33,043 words and counting, I’ve decided I’m editing and compiling my short stories from way back to the present. I’m going to dig through my archives, I’m going to create a few more, and I’m going to put together a book of short stories, because they were my first love, and because it’s time. I know me, though. I’ll probably be writing my next novel in between the editing and compiling too. And I know I’ll still be counting the words.

Because while I’m still a storyteller, the longer stories have begun calling my name just as much as the shorter ones. Shhhh. Don’t tell the shorter ones. They’ll get jealous, and I can’t have that.

Sam

Well… F#*k

41kiWnyMSFL._SY300_I said the F word in class the other day,  because a story I read to my students utilized it. It wasn’t just there as decoration, as I often see it, not merely masquerading as an adjective when another word would have been more appropriate. It was an exclamation of sheer despondence. And that’s just fine. Only, not around my kids.

I rarely use the F word, unless it’s in an aforementioned reading during class, or if it’s in the lyrics of one of my favorite gangster rap songs, or I hit my thumb with a hammer. But I hardly ever use hammers (1998 comes to mind), I only sing gangster rap when I’m alone, and only sporadically does that word show up in my reading material for class.

But somehow a couple of years ago my then 8-year old used it in school. I have absolutely no idea where she got it from, and I was mortified when they told me it was her, and what she said. When asked she had no recollection she had even used such a word, had no idea why we were making such a big deal. But it is a big deal, because words have power, especially that one, even these days.

Time was when the F word would elicit a reaction from everyone in the room, when every PG-13 movie didn’t include it as an afterthought. But that time is long past, and that word doesn’t hold quite the connotation it once did… to many people. To me, though, it is just as harsh to hear as it ever was. That was the point of it after all, to stop people in their tracks, to make them take notice.

Now everyone uses it. It’s become interchangeable for so many other words, probably because people these days don’t feel the want or need to obtain a larger vocabulary, and Parental_Advisory_Explicit_Content__15477_zoom1thus have multiple ways of getting their point across without swearing. It has become the ultimate placeholder, a bitter commentary on the state of our world, and on the state of language itself.

Since that time in class I’ve used the word three times, two of which were in private, and the other was when it was just me and my wife in the room. Oh yes, and I wrote and performed a poem about it in front of about 30 people a couple of Thursdays ago too. You could say I’ve been a bit obsessed with the overuse of the word for a while now, and I was inspired to write a poem where nearly every line had the F word in it, to show the idiocy in relying on that word and that word alone to get across every point you ever need to make.

It was well received, by the way, the poem, but I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps those in attendance got my real point, but I worry they liked it because they got to hear the F word about 30 times in a 40 line poem. And you want to know something? Each time I arrived at it one more time I had to gear myself up to say it, to let it come forth from my mouth. Because I’m still not used to it.

And I hope I never get to that point.

Sam

Dear Journal: Grammar Time

grammarproblemsDear Journal,

My biggest pet peeves are generally about grammar. Is that sad? Too often I find myself reading through my Facebook feed and mentally correcting every single issue I find. The worst is when a meme is making the rounds, everyone is “like”ing it, and I see that it says “to” when it should say “too.” It ruins the whole thing for me, and I’m the one who has to use the new “angry” emoticon. How else can I express my displeasure?

It’s not just spellings, either. It’s when people don’t use apostrophes, when they use big words but they use them incorrectly, when there are run-on sentences, and fragments, and comma splices just because. I can’t stand when people correct other people’s grammar and their corrections are also incorrect. And don’t get me started on the news and how many problems exist at the bottom of that screen.

I guess I’m just fiercely protective of language and its many uses. I know I am absolutely mortified every single time I spell something wrong. Once I posted something on Twitter from my phone and the autocorrect changed what I wanted to say, making it wrong. I didn’t notice by the time I hit enter and it took me forever to figure out how to delete that tweet. It was the worst five minutes of my life, knowing that was out there, that people were seeing it and judging me.

Yes, I’m that English teacher everyone is worried about introducing to their friends. Yes, I’m judging your use of “good” when you mean “well.” Yes, I’m running your words through the strainer of my mind, picking out the good parts and leaving the rest to hang in the air. I can’t help it, but hopefully you can’t tell. Hopefully I’m smiling and nodding along and you have no clue you’ve said anything that rubbed me the wrong way.

Because it’s just words, after all. Right?

Sam

Where I Create

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“My one saving grace as a writer is that, if I’m having trouble with the novel I’m writing, I write something else, a poem or a short story. I try to avoid writer’s block by always writing something.” ~Jess Walter

That’s me in a nutshell. When someone asks me, “What are you writing?” I can honestly tell them something new every day, at least these days, because while I have two novels that are pretty far along, I am also writing so much else. I take the craft of writing seriously, meaning that I spend as much energy on a one sentence character profile as I do on what I hope is the end to the great American novel I’m currently working on.

And I’ve never had writer’s block (knock on wood).

But where do I do all of this writing? On my computer I’ve christened the “Black Lab,” after one of my favorite bands. I’m often listening to them while I write so it’s also fitting that it is labeled as such. Someone asked me the other day why my handwriting is so atrocious, and I’ll admit that my handwriting wasn’t ever a gem, but I just don’t do enough straight “writing” anymore to keep up any pretense of being able to put pen to paper. And yes, I’m old school about a lot of things, but when it comes to writing, whatever works is my mantra.

So I type everything, and I back up everything (usually multiple ways and in multiple locations). I learned the hard way that sometimes words get lost in the ether when there aren’t enough failsafes, so I have several flash drives, and several external hard drives, and a lovely space in something called a cloud where I store and re-store my writings. I even built my own laptop using the Dell site to maximize hard drive space on the unit itself. Yeah, I’m taking no chances this time. Continue reading “Where I Create”

Opening Up

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This is me. Thinking.

I envy people who just sit down and write whatever comes to mind at that moment. You see, I’m not one of them. I really haven’t ever been, even in the wonderful confines of my own journals throughout the years. Indeed, even this post is the result of a great deal of introspection and editing. It’s how I’ve always written, since I started writing. I blame school for starting me on the path, and my own compulsive nature for continuing it.

Recently I’ve begun following a couple of blogs that are obvious windows into the souls and the immediacy of the bloggers who created them. These blogs are basically what I imagined my blog would be when I first started it: a series of posts talking about my life and my feelings. And while I’ve created that with so many of my blog posts, I’ve ventured further into all sorts of other areas as well, which is fine. It’s just refreshing to see the writing styles of others who can effectively just sit down and write as if they’re just baring their souls to friends. Which is what they are doing, of course.

I guess for me it was always about censoring my thoughts and feelings, even from myself, particularly from myself. It was always about dressing them up to go “to church,” so to speak, so as not to offend, and so as not to be too vulnerable. It’s become my crutch, I guess you could say, and while I write fiction, it’s probably where I’ve always been the most “me,” because I can hide behind the facade of the characters I create. Even though they all share small pieces of me. If you were to cobble together all of the parts of me in my characters there would be a room’s full, even if not a single one of them would embody the entirety of me.

Perhaps I would swear more if I didn’t worry so much about offense, if I didn’t care so much what others think of me. Maybe I would tell you about my intense feeling of inferiority around most people that would possibly be paralyzing if I didn’t use pretense as a shield. I’ve tried freewriting on several different occasions, but none of them has truly amounted to me being as honest and as free as I would wish. I’m working on that.

But being vulnerable on here is so much different than being vulnerable in a private journal. It’s the biggest difference between this forum and the name of my blog. It’s my journal, but it’s online, so it’s visible to so many people who I know, and who I don’t know. In order to be truly open, to be really exposed, I have to appreciate the fact that it’s going out to everybody in the entire world, and I have to make my peace with that.

And you know what? In bits and pieces I have done that. I have talked about some very difficult issues in my life on this blog, and some of my experiences and conversations have been truly transformative and mind-blowing. But in this next week I want to explore that even more, to see if I can truly freewrite with no censorship and with no thought for anything except what I’m feeling at the time. Now, I wouldn’t want to do that all the time, but I’m excited to see if I can challenge myself to do that for this week and see what results come to bear.

This is me. Opening up.

Sam

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