Monday, December 28, 2015

Touching Creativity

I would like to touch on a phenomenon I have experienced many times, and I am always awed and very grateful when it occurs. I call it, touching Creativity.

I look at creativity as something much larger than what goes on in my head when I write. I see it as weaving through this wondrous universe, something that infiltrates all life and binds us life forms together. Some people call it God, others call it Life. I call it Creativity. When I write I feel myself open up to this force. I sometimes feel it in the room with me as I struggle over some bit of prose, as if it were something substantial hovering above me, like a muse.

When I let go of my own ego-driven thoughts and just let the words flow, this force seems to take over, to replace me and spill onto the page. At other time, it seems to draw what I need to me.

For example, last week I found that a line from a Yeat’s poem I had used in my upcoming release of Changi, I had also used the same line in my first published novel, Island Song. So, red faced, I pulled out my volume of Yeat’s works to search for different poem. Before even scanning the table of contents, I randomly opened the volume to a middle page and read the first poem – it was perfect, exactly what I was hoping for. I flipped to a different page and read another poem only to find that it was perfect as well. Coincidence? I don’t believe in chance. I believe that Creativity guided me, and the reason I have come to believe this is because it has not happened in only a few isolated circumstances. It happens often.

When it does happen, when I feel something larger than myself take over, guiding my thoughts, my fingers, a joy washes though me. I am not a religious person, don’t believe in a God, but I must say that at times these feelings seem spiritual.

There is something out there binding life together, and tapping into that force never fails to amaze and delight me. It is probably my most passionate motivation for writing.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A thought for the day. A wish for the New Year.

A thought for the day: Gandhi once said, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear.”

I believe, actually I know, this statement is true. Hate is born out of unbridled fear.

I’ve often wondered why so many straight people, mostly religious people, seemed to hate gay people so fervently. It finally occurred to me that it’s because, by going against their set of religious guidelines, gay people actually challenge those rules, which challenges their entire belief system. Even gay Christians and Muslims challenge those beliefs they profess to follow.

It seems a bit strange to me that Christians and Muslims are so insecure that any challenge to even a single rule sends them into a hateful dither, but as Gandhi points out, it comes down to fear. They must be deathly afraid of anyone poking holes in the blanket of faith they have wrapped themselves in. I can only think that it must be a very thin blanket indeed if there is so much fear of losing it.

I for one have no wish to strip anything away from religious people, even through I think in many cases organized religions do more harm that good in the world. I believe everyone has their own path to follow, and every path eventually lead to the same place.

My wish for the New Year is that we all walk our separate paths hand in hand in a spirit of love and acceptance.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

One of My Favorite Painters

Last night, Herman and I attended a gallery opening of one of my favorite artists, Vladimir Cora. He is of Mexican  ancestry, and creates engrossing paintings, which feature distinctive heads inspired by the Cora tribe in Southern Mexico.  I fell in love with several of the portraits on display, but unfortunately, they are light years out of my price range. Below are a few examples of his work: 


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Writing Tip: The Protagonist’s Gap

Your protagonist, indeed all your characters, at any moment in the story should take the easiest route, from his/her point of view, in the pursuit of their desires. It is human nature. But of course, what is the easiest route is relative to each character. 

What generally happens in life is that we take an action to achieve our desire or goal, while thinking: If I do this conservative action, the world will react in such a way that I will move a step closer to achieving my goal. And in life, if we’ve thought it out, we are usually right. This is how we want life to work, we think the problem through, we take action, and we get the desired results. But we NEVER want that to happen in our stories. 

In your story, you need to concentrate on the moments where the character takes an action, expecting a helpful reaction from his/her environment, but instead the action provokes an unexpected, more powerful response. That produces conflict, and conflict is what makes the story interesting. 

For example: I see a younger man in a bar. He looks my way, smiles. I think to myself, Cool, he likes older men. My desire is to take him to bed. I know my first action should be to strike up a conversation, so I walk over, smile and say, “Haven’t we met before?” – and he shouts, “Don’t you wish, grandpa.” Then turns his back to me. Suddenly, the scene is more interesting, because in order to get what I want, I have to do something more forceful than my first minimum action. 

When that happens, when the protagonist takes actions that s/he thinks will move him/her closer to an object of desire beyond their reach, and gets an unexpected reaction that pushes him/her further away from said desire, it creates a gap between the character’s subjective thought and their objective reality. This gap is where the story should focus. In fact, this gap IS the story. 

So what happens when a character finds him/herself caught in this gap? Simple, s/he has to regroup. The world is now different from before the character took the first action. The character must assimilate the change, then decide on a bigger, bolder plan of action to achieve the goal. Then they must take action again. But, of course, the same thing must happen. The world must react in an unexpected way to this new action, pushing the character even further away from the prize. Thus, the gap widens further, creating the need for even more dramatic action.

In our example: assuming I still want to bed the young man who insulted me at the bar, I might lay a hundred-dollar bill on the bar and say, “Let me buy you a drink.” And after the bartender brings a round of drinks, I tell him, “Keep the change.” So the young man knocks back the drink, then turns to me as says, “I’m no whore, old man. I can’t be bought.” Now the stakes are raised, I’ve gambled $100 without getting what I want, and what will I do next? At this point the reader should assume I’m wasting my time and money.

Two key things happen when the character takes this second action. 1) the stakes are raised and the tension level goes way up. He is doing much more than he originally wanted to do, but he is now committing himself. And 2) by committing himself, he opens him self up to risk. This is not only key, it is a pillar of good fiction. The second action MUST put the character in a position where it forces him to dig much more deeply into his human capacity, or stand to lose something valuable in order to gain what he covets. In short, the protagonist, now in a state of jeopardy, must risk something he already has, in order to gain the thing he desires. 

The measure of the value of a character’s desire is in direct proportion to the risk s/he is willing to take to achieve it. The greater the value, the greater the risk. 

So again, the protagonist must take a much more dramatic, risky action. And, of course, YOU NEVER GIVE THE PROTAGONIST WHAT HE THINKS HE WILL GET. You always want to keep that gap getting even wider with each action. Every time s/he takes action, the gap should widen, pushing them further from the goal, until the end when subjective and object collide head on. That is what keeps the tension in a story escalating. At some point, it should seem like the protagonist will surely lose what s/he has risked. But of course, they may or may not, depending on the story.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Two Glasses of Wine

When things in your life seem almost too much to handle, when 24 hours in a day are not enough, remember the mayonnaise jar and the 2 glasses of wine...

A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly, he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls.

He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full.

They agreed it was.

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar.

Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full.

The students responded with a unanimous 'yes.'

The professor then produced two glasses of wine from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

'Now,' said the professor, as the laughter subsided, 'I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things; your family, your children, your health, your friends, and your favorite passions; things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.

The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house, and your car. The sand is everything else; the small stuff.

If you put the sand into the jar first, he continued, there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls.

The same goes for life: If you spend all your time and energy on the small Stuff.

Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness.

Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner out to dinner. Play another 18 holes. There will always be time to clean the house and fix the disposal. Take care of the golf balls first; the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.'

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the wine represented.

The professor smiled. 'I'm glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there's always room for a couple of glasses of wine with a friend.'

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Another Life Lesson I Keep Relearning

I can, of course, only speak for myself, but in my years of practicing Zen, one of the lessons I have to relearn and relearn is that of letting go of the past.  Sounds easy, right? Oh so wrong…

Zen practice is all about staying in the moment, to be open and fresh for whatever this moment offers, or in some cases, whatever this moment throws at you. It’s about not carrying the weight of the past around on your shoulders. Believe me, personal history becomes heavier by the day until you become bogged down by the dense mass of it.

I don’t have to keep defending or explaining my past. It’s over. It’s not who I am anymore. And most importantly, it doesn’t have to influence the decisions I make now or in the future.

The lesson I have to keep relearning is to forgive myself, for both my failures and triumphs, and move on, focusing on discovering what is right before me in this moment.

On of my favorite quotes is related to staying in the moment: If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light. Leave behind all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness, and fears. – Glenn Clark

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Writing Tip: Idea versus Counter-Idea

Idea versus counter-idea comes from the Greeks. It is the dialectical approach to telling a story. Socrates and Plato defined a story as a three-step conversation: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The thesis is a statement of the proposition. The antithesis is the discovery of a contradiction to this proposition – the opposite. Finally, the resolution of this contradiction that necessitates a correction of the thesis is called the synthesis – the combination of the two. Lajos Egri elaborately explains this in The Art of Dramatic Writing on pages 49-50.  

In a dramatized dialectial debate, thesis events echo the contradictory voices of one theme. Sequence by sequence, often scene by scene, the positive idea and its negative counter-idea argue, so to speak, back and forth. At climax one of these two voices wins and becomes the story’s controlling idea.”

The positive and negative assertions of the same idea contest back and forth through the story, building in intensity, until at the crisis they collide head-on in a last impasse. Out of this rises the story’s climax, in which one or the other idea succeeds. By following this controlling idea, every dramatic sequence and scene should argue the theme. Each subsequent sequence should escalate the argument, and both sides of the debate should be argued with equal intensity. The bottom line is that there must be continuous escalating conflict through positive and negative charges. Each character must win some and lose some. 

Karl Iglesias suggests that the theme should be turned into a question rather than a premise. For instance, rather than state the premise for Romeo and Juliet as “Great love defies even death,” you should ask, “What does great love defy?” or “Can love survive even death?” and let the story reach a natural conclusion. 

So if I understand this correctly, a story should swing back and forth. If for example, your story’s theme is that living a life of integrity wins in the end, you first show that integrity wins by having your protag succeed using his integrity, then show that deceit wins by having the protag lose to someone through deceit, then switching again, building in intensity each time it switches. The reader should not know which is the true central theme until the climax. It is this pulsing back and forth that gives the story its rhythm, and keeps the reader wondering how it will end. 

Dramatic writing is about conflict; therefore, the point vs counterpoint approach seems to make sense. I somewhat agree that at the climax the “Idea or the Counter-Idea” must win. Yet I am not sure how that would work with an ironic ending where the protagonist wins by loosing or looses by winning, then it is more difficult to define the controlling idea. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Goodbye Old Friend

This week, Herman sold his Mercedes to our mechanic. He owned that car eleven years before I meet him, which means he had it for a total of thirty-two years.

As much as I’m ready for a new set of wheels, it saddens me to say goodbye to an old friend. This car, for the last twenty-one years, has delivered me safely over a hundred thousand miles, to countless destinations across the western United States and Canada. It became a part of our family, part of us, with its old comfortable seats and rattling diesel engine. We’ve made so many happy memories meandering down the road looking for adventure. She was our gilded chariot, sometimes our magic carpet, and whenever despair for the world grew insufferable, she would set us free on the road to wander in the peace of wild things.

Goodbye old friend.