Saturday, May 30, 2015

Only Through Experience Can You Know Sympathy

I’ve been reading some writings from Joseph Campbell, author of Hero With A Thousand Faces, where he talks about the idea that only through experience can you know sympathy. He says, “It is through experience that the soul grows, by learning to extend its horizon of sympathy and understanding.” In other words, a person can’t sympathize with sorrow until they have been sorry enough to know what deep sorrow is.

I’m not altogether sure I agree. As a teenager, I had many peers who seemed extremely compassionate to poor people and the plight of non-whites in our society. Back then, we were a generation against the Vietnam war, though few of us ever served in the military, and we were all for civil rights, even though most of my friends were white. We came to these conclusions through logical consideration and, for some, peer pressure.

On the other hand, as I grow older—I’m now in my mid 60s—I have become much more compassionate to all my fellow human beings, and I credit that attitude to having experienced a long series of, lets call them learning opportunities, where I suffered as a target of discrimination. In short, I’ve had more than my share of sorrows, and I like to think that I have learned a great deal from them. And the older I grow, the more I understand that there is no good and bad, no right and wrong. There is only experience, and what we do with that experience.

I’ve also learned that each of us humans have accumulated a different set of experiences that shape our lives, and that makes each of us unique, no one person any better, worse, or more valuable than the rest.

Campbell argues that it is through having experienced all experience that the soul finally achieves perfect sympathy and understanding. The soul comes to a point where it has learned everything experience can teach, and that point is called enlightenment. Campbell takes this idea a step further to suggest that all people should do everything they can do to accumulate a vast wealth of varied experience, and that getting tied down in any routine where one practices the same thing day after day for years at a time (like a dead-end job that does nothing more than put food on the table) means stagnation, and is tantamount to death. Again, I must disagree. I believe even so called “dead-end jobs” provide opportunities for growth and understanding, and the job is only ten hours in a day. There is so much more to life and learning.

Although I must admit, my life improved a hundred fold after I abandoned corporate America to pursue a career in writing where I manage my own time, goals, and interests. So perhaps Campbell is on to something.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Writing Tip: Write More To "Give," Than To "Get"

This is an overall practice and approach to writing (and life) that is perhaps the hardest, but most important thing I have learned in my twelve-plus years plugging away at the blank page.  It's ironic that it seems as though the only way to really achieve success is to put your energy into continuously bettering yourself, your craft and your work, and trusting that the rest will take care of itself. 

This not from the perspective of one who has mastered it (far from it), and preaches "perfection" (which is impossible), but as one who has learned this lesson over and over, and continues to see it as a best practice.

A writer’s job is to work on their writing until it is viable in the marketplace.  When it is, there is no stopping it - doors open when they didn't before.  When it doesn't, there is little one can do to successfully "market" it.

Of course, it’s hard to know when we're ready, or how close we are.  There are no hard and fast rules on this - it is all subjective.  I think that writers tend to underestimate the amount of continuous forward motion that is required for any project (and ourselves) to be "viable," and focus instead on trying to market what we've done - to see what we can "get," if you will.  I believe our energies are always better expended on diligent creative progress - with professional feedback and guidance, if possible.

We all struggle with this (self included) - no matter how many years we've been doing it.  We're focused on getting the sale, getting the positive reaction, getting our agent to do something, etc.  Getting, getting, getting tends to be our obsession.  But more focus on getting almost never seems to have the desired effect.

However, continuous focus on giving - as in bettering and improving what you're offering to the world, staying upbeat and open, never giving up, seeking to grow and serve – is, I believe, a winning approach.  I'm not saying don't try to move your career forward.  I suggest taking every step that seems right to you at the time, especially if you can do it in a positive way - be it query letters, contests, pitch fests, etc.  My point is that the real business of building a writing career is not about that.  It's about the writing, the craft, the creative process, and your own growth; so that what you have to give is something others find huge value in.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My Inspiration for Buddha's Bad Boys

Bold Strokes Books recently published my first anthologies of short works, Buddha’s Bad Boys. Each story is about fifty pages in length, so they have a bit more red meat on them that the average short story.
The idea for these tales came from the main temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Wat Pra Sing. The first time I visited the Wat I saw a sign that read, Monk For A Month Program, where for a cost of $350, tourists could shave their heads, don orange robes, and live the life of a monk for thirty days. I was intrigued, but was only staying in town a week. When I went back a year later to enroll, they had discontinued the program. But the idea took hold, and I began writing about Western men, all clutching the end of their rope, who find wearing the robes brings about the last thing in the world they expected.
At first I wrote these stories as give-a-ways on my website, as a way to introduce people to my writing style. The response I received from readers who read the first two stories—Monk For A Month and Handcarved Elephants—was so overwhelmingly positive that I planned an anthology, which resulted Buddha’s Bad Boys.
I’ve been writing these monk stories and giving them away on my website for four years. Some are romance, some adventure, and there is a bit of high drama in all of them. Of the six stories, two are based on real people and real events. The other four are purely fictional.
I’m very pleased to have them all together, and I’m hoping my readers will enjoy them. I know this is a cliché, but they really are a work of love.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day is a Time of Mixed Emotions

Memorial Day is always a time of mixed emotions for me. On the one hand, I wholeheartedly wish to honor the men and women who have fallen in battle so that I can enjoy the freedom this country offers. And make no mistake, this country has many faults, but I know I live with the freedom to follow my vision, my aspirations, my soul’s yearnings, and that is everything. I am grateful, not only to the fallen soldiers, but to everyone who has helped build this country.

On the other hand, I believe that this country’s war machine is no longer about protecting freedom. It has become, rather, big business. Astronomical business, actually. War is what keeps our economy afloat. It also seems to be the preferred method of siphoning dollars from the middle class to line the pockets of the 1%. The Iraq war alone funnel two trillion dollars from the Middle Class to the stockholders of Halliburton, Raytheon, DynCorp International, Hewlett-Packard, Pratt & Whitney, General Electric, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Boeing, Lockheed Martin. Lockheed alone bleeds over thirty-five billion from taxpayers each year. The list of corporate fat cats goes on and on, like pigs at a trough.

I’m convinced the powers that be—the people who manipulate our puppet politicians—didn’t want the war to end, they want to keep that cash cow flowing for as longs as the American public had more money to pinch. The American defense industry is the most powerful, most profitable, most corrupt industry in the world. And the cornerstone of its foundation is trading lives for profits.

So while I bow my head to give thanks to those who have fallen in defense of my freedom, I can’t help but be angered by soldiers who willingly risk their lives and taxpayers who allow their money to go to wars that do nothing to safeguard this country, wars that only make the 1% richer and keep the wheels of commerce turning.

It’s possible I’m simply an old fool, but I like to think that if America were to put as much time, energy, and recourses into international diplomacy coupled with helping to eradicate world poverty, then this country could reduce our military spending by 90%, perhaps eliminate the military altogether. Imagine a world at peace because everyone on the planet has adequate food and shelter. I dream of such a place.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Ireland Gives the Vatican the Middle Finger

Yesterday was an historic victory for the gay rights movement. Ireland gave the Vatican a huge FUCK YOU by voting with an overwhelming majority to legalize marriage equality.  It was the first time any country—let alone a Catholic/Christian dominated country—approved gay marriage by popular vote.

I’ve read that young voters turned out in droves, many voting for the first time. Also, out-of-country citizens flying home in time to vote booked all the airlines’ available seats. It was a huge emotional battle, and love won the day.

I am thrilled with this news, not merely for the advancement of gay rights in the world, but also for the strong statement that people, especially young people, made by standing on the side of justice, rather than religion. To me, this is one more important step in the long road of people thinking for themselves rather than letting some pious bigot push disparaging myths down their throat.

I like to envision a day when the all humans worships compassion for all living beings, rather than worshiping myths of a supreme being. Yesterday, the world took another step toward that day.

And yes, I consider myself a spiritual being, yet I don’t believe in any religion’s version of God.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Writing Tip: Get Feedback From The Right People

When it comes to writing, I don’t put much store in "natural talent," or that "some people have it, and some don't".  I think "talent" is a combination of passion, persistence, hard work, and openness to feedback - through which a writer continues to improve his/her craft.

But where to go for feedback, and what to do with it?  Ideally, you go to other writers whose opinions you trust and respect.  Friends and lay people who don't meet this criteria will tend to be vague, too easy or too harsh, and not particularly helpful, because they don't really grasp what you're trying to accomplish and/or how to help you.

If you don't know any professional writers, book editors, literary professionals, you can hire a professional to evaluate your work. If you can’t afford a pro, then find peers—fellow writers or people aspiring to be one—who are at your level and willing to trade serious feedback on your work for the same in return.  (Please realize how huge an imposition it can be to ask someone to read your material and give a detailed and honest reaction to it - it takes valuable time, may not be enjoyable to them, and they risk alienating you with what they say about it, or visa versa.)

Writers—especially new writers—need encouragement and people who read their work and offer constructive feedback.  Getting demoralized about your work is not helpful, but we do need a reality check and perspective from others—all writers do—and that can be painful.  But that's how a writer grows.  I recommend encouraging your readers to hold nothing back - and not get defensive or try to convince them they are wrong, which just shuts them down and makes them not want to give more.  You should get as much out of them as you can, collect the information, and then determine what to use and what to ignore.   

You don’t have to agree with everything they say, or follow their specific guidance.  I like to have multiple readers, and I look for what there's a consensus about. On the other hand, being defensive and stubborn may stifle you as a writer, and alienate those giving you feedback. The key is to uncover the real problems and not get distracted by minor/personal whims. For that, you may need back and forth dialog with your beta reader where you ask probing questions to dig down to the heart of the issues.

And then, YOU decide how to fix whatever they have uncovered, through the filter of your sensibility. You want others to help you find the problems, period.  Only use their suggested fixes if you really believe in them.  If not, find your own.  They may be trying to help with suggestions, but it's not their project, it's yours.

Your work has to please you first, but ultimately you want it to please others too.  Getting quality feedback is essential to achieving this.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Buddha's Bad Boys excerpt

My short story, Monk For A Month, is the first of six such stories in my anthology Buddha’s Bad Boys.

Two men, Reece and Darren, are almost done with the “Monk for a Month” program at the temple in Chiang Mai, where they have been living like Buddhist monks. But on the same night that Reece finds out that Darren is having an affair with another Thai monk, there is a murder lose in the town. Reece sees the killer hiding near the temple and goes about trying to help him escape the police. In the process, a love affair begins.

I sat at the bar sporting my saffron robes and shaved head, sipping a Singha beer and listening to the bartender who was clearly agitated. I couldn’t tell whether the man was upset over the recent murders, or the fact that it was raining hard, or if he simply didn’t like serving liquor to a monk, even a Caucasian one.

“His name Somchai,” the barkeep said. He spoke English, but with the usual Thai singsong-clip that I had come to love. “And yes, he kill American expatriate named Warren. Tony Warren.”

I had seen a dead body once before, and it took a moment to get my nerves settled. I had never learned the invaluable art of staying detached in the face of tragedy, of not identifying with the victim. I had no way to shield myself from the reality of how brutal humans can be to each other, what brutal lengths they will go, and the pain they are capable of inflicting on each other.

Across the street, four soldiers trudged along in the rain.

“When did Somchai kill the American?” I asked, my voice scarcely a whisper.

The barkeep didn’t know exactly, sometime at the beginning of the afternoon that had now come to an end. At the same time that he killed Warren, Somchai had also killed Warren’s Thai girlfriend. Both victims had been found two hours earlier at the apartment belonging to Warren.

The barroom was already dark, due to the lateness of the hour and another power outage. Candles flickered on the bar and at each table; their yellow light mingled with the blueness of the dying day.

The shower stopped as suddenly as it had started, as it often does in Thailand.
“How old was she? The girlfriend I mean.” I asked.

“Very young. Nineteen.” Regret passed over the barkeep’s face. “A real beauty.”
“I would like another Singha,” I said, “but I don’t have any more money. Can I buy on credit?”

The bartender’s look of regret turned to disgust. As he walked away, a customer two stools over ordered beers for me and himself, and also shots of cheap Thai whiskey.

The barkeep busied himself with our drinks while the man who ordered moved to the stool next to me. He introduced himself as Ty Poe, and did not shake my hand, as it is consider disrespectful to touch a monk. Poe was courteous, offering the customary wai gesture of respect. He was somewhere in his forties, and had a smoking-induced cough. The polluted streets of Chiang Mai didn’t help his lungs any more than his chain-smoking, I thought. I gave him my name, Reece Jackson, and told him I was from America, San Francisco in fact.

“I overheard you talking about the murders,” Poe said.

“I wonder why they haven’t caught him yet. Chiang Mai is so small a town.”

“They have him trapped within the walls of the old city, but you should know how it is,” Poe grunted. “We’re talking about an American expatriate and his whore who got themselves killed by a homeless gay kid. I mean, there are limited resources available to the police department. The police force, as a rule, is not well trained. Officers have to buy their own uniforms, their own guns. They are poorly paid. Not much would be happening now except that this dead girl happens to be the daughter of an army Major. The army is doing what they can but they do not know the town as well as Somchai.”

Poe was right, I thought. What could anyone reasonably expect of this situation? The unvarnished fact was that in this country, any given police station’s cases were ranked according to priority. And priority in Thailand had to do with money, wealth, and status. Those on the low end of the spectrum were unlikely to receive much attention. And for a homeless gay boy with no family who happened to murder a bit of riff-raff, then it was probably the victim’s fault. Why bother figuring out all the sordid details?

I felt thankful that I lived in a country where every death warranted respect, every victim merited justice, no matter how far down the social and economic ladder that victim might fall. At least I like to believe that bit of hype.

The barkeep placed the beers and shots before us. I lifted my shot in a toast to Poe and knocked my head back, taking the drink in one hot swallow. Poe stared at me in obvious surprise.

“I’ve never seen a monk drink like that,” Poe said.

“I’m not really a monk. My partner and I paid good money to enroll in the Monk-For-A-Month program here at Wat Phra Singh. He’s on some damned spiritual quest that I, frankly, don’t understand. Me, I’m just a system’s engineer along for the ride.”

“So you’re not alone,” Poe asked, exhaling a stream of smoke.

“Technically, no. But it often feels like I am.”

The bar stood only a few doors down from Tha Phae Square, which spread before one of the four main gates of the old city, where two of the town’s chief avenues collided. The square was bordered by the city wall, built of ancient stone and brick, and butted against by the city moat on the north and south sides.  The top of the wall was wide and strong enough to walk on, and just then a horde of children scampered along the wet stones, heedless of the danger of falling. Among them ran Archer, my adopted son, also sporting a shaved head and wearing the robes of a monk.

The children looked down on the tourists who gathered in the square, clutching their umbrellas in case the rains returned.

It must be between six and seven in the evening, I thought.

Another shower started and people in the square ran for cover.

Archer hopped down the wall steps and dashed across the road like a fleeing deer. He entered the bar and huddled against me, giving Poe a cautious glance. Archer was a handsome seven-year-old who had a round face that gave way to a large jaw and a brilliant set of teeth. He had an impishness and good humor in his eyes, and was strong for so young a boy. But what I admired most about him was his gentle and trusting disposition. Unlike most boys, he was incapable of hurting anything. His only flaw was that he was fathered by two gay men, which made him an outcast back home, someone to be pitied, stared at, whispered about, and occasionally laughed at by his peers.

Strokes of lightning lit the sky, coming so close together that they seemed like one, and the thunder was continuous. It was a noise that burst like metal fireworks, but which would immediately rise again, its modulations that grew less and less defined as the shower let up until there was only the sound of rain striking paving stones.

“This rain will last all night,” Poe said, lighting another cigarette from the butt of his previous one.