Discovering Creative Ketosis

Discovering Creative Ketosis

I’m on this new diet (I hate the connotations that are associated with that word; every one of us is on some kind of diet, right?). Anyway, it’s the Keto Diet, and I can’t have more than 27 (ideally 20) net carbs a day.

Perspective: I was downing probably 300 net carbs a day. So this is a big change for me.

The purpose of the diet, in simple terms, is to switch your body from burning carbs to burning fat. This is what is known as entering a state of ketosis, where your body becomes this incredible fat-burning machine. It’s magical, and it’s beginning to work for me.

But the transition has been tough. As my body goes through this adjustment into ketosis, it is very possible that it is resisting the change of burning carbs to burning fat. That might very well explain why I have been so fatigued these last few days. My body is searching for carbs to burn, and it hasn’t completely learned just yet that burning fat instead is a completely acceptable concept.

I’m feeling it kick in today, though, and it’s pretty magical, like I said.

A few weeks before I started the Keto Diet, I also decided to deactivate my Facebook and step away from most of the social media scene. I did this for myriad reasons, but mostly because I didn’t like the energy it was taking away from my writing. I had a bad year last year, and I’m trying to reclaim my creative game.

At first, leaving Facebook was instantly liberating, but lately, I’ve been struggling with getting the creative juices flowing. Then  this morning, it struck me: I think the resistance I was feeling in my diet can be true as well about my transition from a social media life to a writer’s life (I’m not really saying that we need to choose one or the other, but in my situation, I’ve made such a choice).

There is resistance. My creative soul is looking for social media to feed its appetite, and it is just now learning that it can be far more healthy and productive by working on meaningful pieces like my novel, Fossil Five; my blog; and other original writings and creative works.

Here’s the point: The writer (or artist, or creative) strives to stay in a complete state of creative ketosis, where the mind, body, and soul are working optimally to produce the greatest works possible. This is the very essence of Samadhi, the state of superconsciousness, for the writer: Aware of all things, in all ways, to make the most of his or her creative journey toward polished products, whatever they may be.

I have said for some time that the energy we spend on social media takes away energy that could be better spent in healthy ways. Indeed, social media is nothing more than a high-carb fast food, filling us with nothing and leaving us feel, paradoxically, empty and bloated all day long.

So, as I continue to lose weight in this dietary state of ketosis, and as I continue to forego the energy-sucking platforms of social media and stay in creative ketosis, I am eliminating the “un-creative” carbs from my life in every way, allowing my body to burn optimal creative fuel for its energy: a heightened sense of awareness and mindfulness of all around me. It’s space that fosters healthy growth for my novel and other creative endeavors. The energy is pure, accessible, clean.

It takes time. Everything does. I’m glad I’m sticking with both.

The Writer’s Craft: Rethinking Structure When Drafting

The Writer’s Craft: Rethinking Structure When Drafting

I’m not much on labels, but in 1981, Betsy Flowers published an article in Language Arts that talked about the four different kinds of writers. Without going into too much detail, here they are:

Madman: Unleashed, uninhibited writing that’s a free-flow from brain and heart to parchment.

Architect: Planned structures of the story, plotting out the beginning, middle, and end with precision and perfection.

Carpenter: focused writing with an understanding of the bigger game plan. This writer likes to get to work and get the work done.

Judge: Critical, judgmental, stickler for details. This writer can’t sleep at night without making firm decisions about semi-colons and Oxford commas.

In most of my larger writing projects, such as Fossil Five, I’ve been the avid architect to a fault. When I get into the actual writing, though, the madman takes over and tries to push the Carpenter to the margins, giving him little to no respect in the process of writing.

Frustrating, to say the least.

This has, very unfortunately, created a 100,000-plus word document that is nowhere near finished, with scraps of solid writing that is woefully disjointed from the rest of the story line. For months, I have been trying to sew it all together like some kind of Frankenstein story, but to no avail.

That’s because it’s impossible to sew up the works of a madman and stick to the carefully constructed plan of an architect. For more times than I care to count, I have jumped eagerly into the story, determined to finish it and get it ready for publication, only to hit the brick wall of this impossible scenario and walk away screaming, pulling my hair out, and moving on to…nothing.

A few months ago, I decided to take a slightly different approach, and stick with the core manuscript and just work from chapter to chapter, adjusting the story as I went along. But even that didn’t work out, because I still felt too glued to the original architectural plan that, on paper, seems perfectly logical.

Frustration emerges, and I shut down once again.

I will never finish this book, I thought.

Fast forward to this weekend, where I started re-reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Great book. I recommend it highly. As I’m reading the story, I’m thinking the whole time that his planning must have been crazy tight to make this work. That led me to pull his memoir, On Writing, from the shelves and give it another read, too.

Instead of gaining great wisdom from one of my writing idols, I wanted to throw the how-to book across the room and burn my own manuscript-in-progress. I don’t think I ever felt more like a failure up until that moment.

I found my fellow creative Jodi Cleghorn on line and shared my thoughts with her. As always, she offered sage advice from halfway around the world in her Australian home.

First, she reminded me that the present is the perfect time, always, to write. And what we create in the present is exactly the way the story is meant to me.

Great advice. I absolutely swallow this medicine full-spoon.

Second, she offered me a plan that seems so simple, yet so brilliant. Stuff your pack and fill your water bottle and go on a 5-day writing hike with just the manuscript. Then, on days 6 and 7, break out the maps, check your course, and plan the next 5 (loosely).

Brilliant. By this time, I’ve thrown the spoon over my shoulder and am now taking full swigs from the medicine jar.

So today, I did just that. I let go of the maps, the outlines, the plans, and I listened to the whispers of what I’ve written on the pages, and what still needs to be written between them.

What I realized in re-reading both works by King and listening to my fellow creative Cleghorn is this:

Somewhere in the middle, between the madman and the architect, the carpenter has to be given the chance to modify the plans. Both the madman and the architect need to take a break, release the creativity to the hammer-hitting writer, and trust the process.

Yes, trust the process within the process.

The result? After writing, revising, and reconstructing for nearly 7 hours today, I now see new possibilities in the major structure of the story. It’s simpler, but deeper; more chronological, but suspenseful. It’s like nothing I ever imagined for this story, and yet it does not alter the major plan for the full story.

Jodi is exactly right. Today’s story is perfect, because it took everything I’ve done in the past few years to get to this point today to let go. To let the story and its structure emerge from the wild writings of the madman and the over-structured planning of the architect.

So tomorrow the boots go back on, I sling the backpack over my shoulder, and I fill my water bottle for another day of writing.

After all, there’s no time like the present.

Follow me on Instagram: @rusvanwestervelt, and Twitter: @rusvw13 for writing updates on Fossil Five and other projects.

 

Engine 23 And The Lookout Man

Engine 23 And The Lookout Man

Engine 23 And The Lookout Man

An Original Short Story by Rus VanWestervelt

(Note: I wrote this story last fall for a local horror story contest. Although I did not win, I am extraordinarily happy with how this story turned out. The word limit was 3,000, and I had overwritten by 1,500 words, which I had to cut from the story. I think the edits made it tighter, to be honest. Enjoy. It’s a blend of fact and fiction, as are most of my stories. ~Rus VW)

October 30, 1997

Samantha, now a senior at Towson High and desperately ready to wrap up her final year of school, left the public library and went straight to her favorite place to write: the old abutment at York and Towsontown. She jogged up the small, grassy hill and reached the top of the stone structure, where she looked across York Road and scanned the horizon south to north. The stone abutments here on each side of the road were some of the last reminders that the Ma & Pa Railroad ever ran through Towson.

Not another person in sight. She loved how the skyline of buildings in west Towson opened up a path that curved subtly to the left, just like the rails would have run for the train coming into town and through the center of Towson State College.

She sat on the cold stone, opened her backpack, pushing Focault’s Pendulum aside, and found her journal.

Samantha turned to her latest poem, “When Time Runs Out.” She stared at the messy lines below the title, with colorful edits scribbled along the margins. This had been a particularly tough poem to write about the passing of a classmate five years ago.

Samantha re-read the first stanza, made one change to the third line, then scratched it out. How do you capture the best moment with another human being when you think they will live forever?

She felt a shiver, an almost rumble below her as an invisible wind rushed past her.

Suddenly chilled, she turned away from the poem and looked up at the other stone abutment across the street.

There, a man stood on the stones, staring directly at her. He was statuesque, wearing a black peacoat, heavy work pants, and black shoes. He looked as if he was in his late 30’s, and his thick black hair waved in the October wind. His sideburns fell to his jawline, and Samantha was certain he never blinked the entire time she stared back at him.

Samantha turned to pull a marker from her bag, and when she turned her head to look at the stone structure, the man was gone.

The late October afternoon was brisk, and she was glad she had packed an extra sweater. She threw it on and thought about the man she had just seen, and how he looked at her so intently. Growing up in Towson and walking to school most of her life, Samantha knew the locals who spent time along the York Road corridor. Many were harmless; a few she kept her distance from. This stranger was no one she recognized.

The traffic light was just about to change below her, and she savored those few seconds of quiet from the usual bustle of cars desperately trying to get through the town center. She took a deep breath and exhaled, finally feeling the calm settle in after a very stressful day.

She took a sip of what was left of her after-school frap, savored the sweet, rich caramel at the bottom of the cup, and reached around to get a book from her backpack.

Samantha froze. Instead of feeling the smoothed canvas cloth of the pack, her hand fell on cold and callused fingers.

She looked up and saw the man in the black peacoat, standing over her.

“Howdy,” he said.

Samantha screamed and felt her body lunge away from him. Her back hit the ridge of the stone cliff, and she could feel her body falling over the edge and toward the street below. She waited for her head to snap against the underside of the rock, then felt a jolt as if she were on some mad fair ride, jerking her back up toward the sky.

The man had grabbed Samantha’s heavy sweater, pulling her to safety.

Thankful and terrified in the same breath, Samantha looked up. His hair was thick, black; his sideburns dropped like western boots along his jawline.

“I’m not here to harm you. I’m only interested in asking you for a little help.”

“If it’s money you want, I have change from my frap in the bottom left—“

The man chuckled, then looked a little embarrassed.

“Oh, no ma’am. It’s nothing like that. I’ve got plenty of loose change to tide me over while I’m here. The help I need is, well, different.”

Samantha’s fear eased into curiosity.

“Why were you staring at me that way from across the street?”

“I wanted to make sure you were the one who could help me. You see, when I was your age 20 years ago, I was asked to help somebody, too.”

Samantha, intrigued now, moved a little closer on the rock and wrapped her arms around her chest. “Go on.”

He motioned to take a seat on the rock. “May I?”

Samantha nodded.

“In 1977, I used to hang out here on The Rock just like you. I met a woman pretty much the same way you are meeting me now. She called me ‘The Lookout’ and smiled at me in a flattering way. I know I was being a dumb boy just graduating from high school, but I liked the name, and I liked the way she was looking at me. So I listened to what she had to say. Changed my whole life.”

“Why did she call you ‘The Lookout’?”

The man leaned in, and she studied his icy eyes as he spoke.

“Do you know anything about this pile of rocks we’re sitting on?”

Samantha shook her head. “Some railroad, but that’s it.”

“Not just any railroad. These stone abutments carried the steam locomotives from the old Ma and Pa Railroad across this busy intersection. The Rick-Rick-Rickety sound of those steel wheels clicking their way across the tracks was pure music.”

Samantha watched the man close his eyes, as if lost in some kind of dream.

“I didn’t know they were still running here twenty years ago,” she said.

The man’s face froze, and he opened his eyes and stared directly into hers.

“Barely, ma’am. They slowed down in 1954 and stopped altogether in ‘58. But my grandfather laid track through the college, and he told me stories that made me feel as if I had been a passenger all my life.”

“Of course,” Samantha said. “My great-grandfather would tell me stories when I was younger about being on the horse-drawn fire engine when he fought the fire in Baltimore in 1904, and how the sparks would fly from the horses’ shoes hitting the cobblestones at night.”

The man smiled. “I knew you would understand. I knew you were the one.”

Samantha looked at her watch. She would soon have to leave.

“I hate to rush you,” she said, “but I have to get home by four.”

“Of course,” he replied. “When that woman approached me and asked me to do her a favor, she got pretty serious, and I did too.”

“What was the favor?”

“She told me that, in 1957, when she was still in high school, they used to hide out by this abutment when the bridge was still here. It was practically abandoned after the trains slowed down, and one day, when she got there before the rest of her friends, a man approached her from the hill behind us. It was all woods then, and pretty thick, too.”

He looked around the library and beyond, and Samantha was sure she sensed a touch of melancholy.

“Anyway,” he said, turning back to her. “The man had just about the saddest story in the world. Said that 20 years ago, in 1937, his son Charlie was up there on the bridge playing chicken with Engine 23, trying to impress his girl Lorraine. He had grabbed her by the wrist beforehand, trying to convince her that they could beat the train together. But Lorraine refused, and Charlie went out there alone. He stood on the plate girders taunting her while she screamed, ‘Look out, Charlie!’ When that whistle blew from Engine 23 and drowned her out, it was probably the last sound Charlie heard before he was knocked off the flange. He was dead before he hit the road.”

Samantha was struck by the sorrow on the man’s face, and she dared not say a word.

“When the man finished telling the story, he asked a favor. He said that ever since his son was killed, he had these nightmares where his son wanted to come back in 20 years and kill that girl for making him show off. Every single time in the dream, he told her, he would meet his son by the bridge and calm him down. Tell him it wasn’t her fault. Let him know that he was still remembered and loved.”

“That is so sad,” said Samantha.

“I know. I thought the same thing. The old man pleaded her to stay with him that night, and maybe if he saw her, he would think that she was Lorraine, and she could tell him she loved him and she was sorry.”

“Did she stay with him?”

“She did. And you know what? Charlie really did show up that night. She said she heard the sound of Engine 23 coming through, and she saw him up there on the bridge, waving to them both. They started shouting at him to run, and that they would always love him.”

“Did he listen to them?”

“He did after she said she was sorry, and he ran harder than ever to the other side of the bridge and beat that train. When Engine 23 passed, he stood there on the abutment holding on to the edge of the bridge, staring across at them both. Then there was a final whistle blow, and he vanished. That was in 1957.”

“So why wasn’t that the end of it?”

“Turns out, the old man started having more nightmares when his dead son figured out he had been tricked, and he vowed to come back again in 1977 to seek revenge by any means. By that time, the bridge had been removed, and the elderly father was scared beyond measure in what to expect. In fact, just a week before Halloween night, the old man died of a heart attack. That’s when the girl — now 37 — approached me and wanted me to play the role of Charlie’s father. How could I say no? I was scared out of my mind, but she had a charm about her that made it impossible to do anything but help her.”

“That’s why she called you The Lookout?”

“Yes. That night, it was getting pretty cold and late with nothing happening. No whistle, no Charlie. Nothing. We were beginning to think his ghost had gone away with the old man when he died the week before, but just then, right before midnight, we heard the faint chug-chug of Engine 23 coming up behind us. No track. No bridge. But the train was coming nonetheless.”

“And Charlie?”

“That’s when we seen him on the other side on that abutment, staring us down, waving to us like some kind of madman. I followed the woman’s lead, shouting how much we loved him and were sorry and that he had to run away from the train. I’ll never forget Charlie looking me in the eyes, unblinking, just lingering there on the stones before vanishing with the rush of the invisible train as it blew by us. That was in 1977.”

“So that should have been the end of it then, right?”

“I had really hoped. But about a month ago, Charlie started visiting me in my dreams, still raging on about Lorraine. Said he was going to come back. I tried everything I could think of to get him out of my head, but I couldn’t do it. Horrible nightmares telling me that I had to get out here again on the 31st of October and let his ghost know we hadn’t forgotten about him.”

“That’s tomorrow night,” said Samantha.

“And that brings me to you.”

The man stared again into her eyes.

“You want me to be Lorraine?”

“You would be perfect. I gotta do this for Charlie, and for his father. I’ll even buy you one of those caramel frap drinks. What do you say? Will you help me be The Lookout?”

Samantha looked down at her hands in her lap and turned her wrist. It was nearly 4:30.

“Yes. Of course. But I have to run home now, or I’ll be grounded for a week.” Samantha stood and grabbed her pack. “See you here tomorrow night, around 8?”

The rugged man with the long sideburns smiled as he watched the girl run to and down the grassy hill.

“That would be perfect, Lorraine. It’s a date.”

 

*                                  *                                  *

 

The next night, Halloween, Samantha dressed up like the rebellious Ginger Spice of the Spice Girls and told her mother she was going to a dance at the school. Her mother bought it, and Samantha was out the door immediately.

She ran as fast as she could to the library and stopped at the bottom of the hill leading up to the edge of the abutment. She wondered if The Lookout Man was already there. She didn’t see his silhouette against the skyline, and with a deep breath, she walked up the hill and stood atop the large, flat stones.

Samantha looked around; she was completely alone. She turned to her watch every five minutes, and after a half-hour, she started to feel a little foolish, believing some stranger’s story about ghosts and a now-extinct train coming through town on Halloween Night.

“Ten more minutes,” she whispered. That’s all I’ll give him, and then I’m out of here.”

She rubbed her bare shoulders, trying to stay warm, when she felt a faint tremble and a strong, invisible wind envelop her. Samantha heard a whistle behind her, unlike any sound she had ever heard. As it grew louder, she could feel the stones under her feet begin to vibrate. She turned to see if there was actually anything coming toward her — there wasn’t — but the sound grew louder. She looked at her watch and noticed a cup at her feet. She bent down to pick it up.

A caramel frap, just as The Lookout Man had promised.

“Hello? Where are you?” She yelled, shouting above the screaming whistle behind her. Somewhere beyond the grassy hills, she could see a single beacon of light approaching.  She turned to face York Road, and there, in the illumination of the train light, was The Lookout Man on the other abutment, staring at her with an intensity that scared her to death.

“Why are you over there? Engine 23 is coming! Get over here!” she screamed. “Help me tell Charlie he is loved!”

The Lookout Man smiled before vanishing. Samantha blinked hard, and when she reopened her eyes, he was inches from her face.

“How did you— That’s impossible.”

The Lookout Man smiled, his icy eyes burning through her.

“You’ve come back for me, Lorraine. I knew you wouldn’t leave me.”

Samantha tried to turn away, but his stare was too strong.

“Char—Charlie?”

“That’s right Lorraine. We can make it this time.” He grabbed her wrist. “We can run across the tracks together and beat the train. I know we can.”

Charlie tugged her toward the edge of the abutment.

“Charlie, No! There is no train! There isn’t even any bridge! Didn’t you learn all that 20 years ago?”

But Samantha could hardly hear herself shouting over the deafening roar of Engine 23, blowing its whistle against the Rick-Rick-Rickety run against the old tracks.

Charlie yanked Samantha’s arm, looked her in the eyes, and laughed. “Time’s Run Out, Lorraine!”

“Charlie! NO!”

But it was too late. Digging his grip deeply into her arm, he leaped off the edge, taking her with him.

The last thing Samantha heard was the sound of a whistle in the wind as she fell helplessly.

Below, the screams and screeches were quick, followed by that silence that Samantha often loved, as onlookers stood in shock at the lone body of a girl lying in the center of York Road.

 

*                                  *                                  *

 

            October 30, 2017

Kaleb sat on the cold stones next to the library, Face-timing with his friend Matt in California. It was just after noon on the west coast.

“Take a look at how beautiful it is up here, Matt.” Kaleb turned the phone around and did a pan of the skyline, a cacophonic quilt of colors covering West Towson. “The leaves piqued a few days ago, but it’s still beautiful.”

Matt laughed. “Meanwhile in Sunny Cali…” Matt showed off the shores of the Pacific. “It’s 78 degrees here. I think I win.”

Kaleb turned the phone back around to speak to Matt, whose face changed almost immediately.

“Whoa, dude. Looks like you got company.”

Kaleb turned around to see a woman dressed in a cute skirt standing behind him. Her icy blue eyes left him speechless.

“Hi,” she offered, sipping a caramel frap through a pert smile. In her other hand, she clutched a copy of Foucault’s Pendulum.

“I’m in need of a little help, a favor, really. Do you have a few minutes?”

Kaleb stood up to face the woman, who was now nearly giggling.

“My name is Kaleb,” he said. “How can I help you?”

Kaleb felt a faint rumble below his feet as a whistle blew in the distance.

The woman took another sip of the frap and held out her hand.

“I’m Lorraine,” she offered, shaking his hand. “You remind me of an old friend, and I think you will be able to help me just fine.”

 

 

Baltimore’s Nasty Press Holds Fundraiser, Provides Platform For Local Voices

It all started last summer with a cool sticker at Open Works in Baltimore.

For five consecutive Fridays, I had the good fortune of working with 25 teens in Baltimore City through the Bloomberg Arts Internship Program. We met at Open Works, a collaborative space for creatives. In the main lobby, between the classrooms and the Greenmount Coffee Lab (highly recommended), local literature rested on a small wooden table. Sipping the daily roast, I walked over to see what literary opportunities were happening in Baltimore.

A small sticker, with the words “NASTY PRESS,” stood out. I picked it up out of curiosity, stuck it in my pocket, and returned to the workshop.

That night, I did a quick search on Facebook, and there they were. I was immediately drawn to their quick surge in Baltimore providing what I call “Literary Advocacy.” In just a few short months, they had created a space for locals to share their stories that, until now, had no real platform to be heard.

How appropriate to discover them in a place called Open Works.

I reached out to the founders of Nasty Press and asked them three simple questions. Here are their responses, just as they supplied them. Any attempt on my part to paraphrase would be ridiculous and, quite frankly, rude.

They’ve got a fundraiser happening at the end of the week as well. See below for more details.

The need for these voices to be heard cannot be overstated. I support Zoey, Em, and XoChitl in the work they are doing for all of us.

The Baltimore Writer: Please tell us the origins of Nasty Press, the purpose for starting, and its current state.

Nasty Press: After the election last November, the three of us separately noticed a shift in Baltimore’s creative energy. It felt almost like a power-outage. There were expressions of rage, sadness, fear, and joy all over social media, but it seemed like the artistic communal hub that we’ve each grown from was at a stand still. We each separately concluded that artists needed a push to re-direct their energy; that maybe they needed an unbiased, open and inclusive place to showcase their emotions and artistic responses about what was happening socially and politically, instead of only ranting on the internet. There needed to be a place without labels that doesn’t exclude anyone, but which uplifts the creative voices of Baltimore, no matter who you are or how you feel. We wanted to generate constructive discussion, even if that meant pissing some people off.

We are in the throes of formatting our second issue which tackles mental health and mental illness in the Baltimore community. We were blown away by the submissions we received and we can’t wait to release this issue to the public. Our FundRager will help fund the printing of the zine along with raising donations for select local non-profits.

TBW: What kind of space are you providing Baltimore citizens, and how might publishing their works further your mission?

NP: Much like collectives before ours in Maryland, we are cultivating space and time for voices that feel and are unheard. We provide a space for visual art (illustration, painting, drawing, etc.), poetic and creative writing, film and photography, and live music and performances. Our collective exists in print format as well a literal venue for local artists. We cater events toward current socio-political issues aiming to benefit the people that are directly affected. This past September, as a result of the potential ban on trans people in the military, we hosted a mini art fair in which we showcased visual art, poetry, and music from our POC and trans/queer family in Baltimore. This event was entirely free to participate in and to attend, and the artists kept 100% of their earnings. We are planning a similar but larger event in April 2018.

TBW: Your work is important, even essential. But you are just one opportunity where we need many. How might you encourage others to do what you are doing to strengthen your larger mission?

NP: We are transparent and tangible. We are open about the way that we operate, and we are accessible to all communities. We never have a cover charge at our events and no artist is ever charged to submit work to the zine nor to participate in our events. We are showing people in our community that it isn’t difficult to get the ball rolling; all you need is passion, drive, and friendship. You don’t need a degree or money, you just gotta stand up and speak up, and people will listen. Recently, we’ve met with organizations, such as Planned Parenthood of Maryland, to discuss future collaborations in hopes to generate more active socio-political dialogue in our community. 

Their upcoming event, FundRager², will be held on Friday December 15, from 8pm to 1am. For more information, including the venue address, please visit their Instagram at @nastypress, email them at thenastypress@gmail.com, or find them on Facebook at Nasty Press.

 

 

Paralyzing Times for Creatives

Paralyzing Times for Creatives

Raw Thoughts of a Creative: November 2017 Edition

At the beginning of the year, I set some very realistic goals of submitting six unique pieces in competitions or for publication in new markets, an average of about one every other month. I thought this was setting the bar a little low, to be honest with you. I had just come off a phenomenal end to 2016, hitting the Amazon best-seller list with my Christmas anthology of fiction, essays, and assorted ponderings.

So here we are just days away from December 2017, and a quick check at the submission checklist leaves little room for interpretation of how this year has gone:

Submissions: 7. Rejections: 7.

As if that isn’t bad enough, my journaling has dried up to a wandering banter of nothingness, stale air of words that, when pushed together on the page, signify nothing.

Depressing, to say the least.

I’m wondering if other creatives are feeling the same way, experiencing the same funk, and questioning the quantity of quality work still in the creative well.

I’m certainly not short of assumptions why this might be. The situation in our country has polarized most of us, and nothing is shocking us anymore. Terrorists are killing Americans on our own soil by the dozens per incident, and we are tired of lifting thoughts and prayers, angry that our efforts in action are not enough, furious of the partisan politics that comes into the double-standard ways of American Life here in 2017.

There have been paralyzing challenges within my own family and friend circle, and that’s enough to strangle the creative quill from budging across the page.

It seems like everything I want to write about I can’t, or won’t, because I don’t want to deal with the politicization of it.

These are indeed paralyzing times for creatives.

So what do we do? I feel like I just need to keep writing, push through it. But the truth is that I don’t even have a passion anymore for what’s on the other side of the product. I’m not interested in marketing my work, making a point, even changing a life.

I’m just so angry and fed up with where we all are. It seems like the older I get, the more I see so transparently how exhaustive the battle is just to keep things at status quo.

I want to make a difference, but I wonder if that’s possible anymore.

I’ll end this post with an encouraging (I hope) thought:

We all get tired from time to time, worn and beaten down by the frustration, the attacks against us, the bewilderment over how we can get to where we are as a society. I think all creatives, for centuries, go through this. We end up lying on the mat, bloodied, tired, near resignation. We’ve been here so many times. Is it really worth it to get up one more time?

The answer: Yes. It is always worth it. Push your bloody knuckles into the sweat-covered mat and push yourself up. Grab hold of the rope and lift yourself to stare all that fights you squarely in the face, and carry on, whether it is with a pen, a brush, or a guitar pick. We are still alive, and we are still here. We are still commanded to do our work and capture this time as only we can.

So reject me another seven times. I don’t really care. And another seven. And maybe even another seven. Go right ahead. Because one of these times, I’m going to break through, and you are going to know what this relentless Creative is all about.

No. I will not go gently. And to all the other creatives out there struggling: Hang in there. I believe in you as I know you believe in me. Together, we cannot be silenced.

Life Story Strategies: Understanding the Difference Between Memoir and Autobiography

Life Story Strategies: Understanding the Difference Between Memoir and Autobiography

(Each week, I will be responding, in depth, to questions I receive on my Memoir Writing Group on Facebook. The group is free, and we focus on the art and craft of writing our life stories.)

A few days ago, a new writer to our group, Billy, posed this query:

I have several ideas for memoirs I wanna write but not sure where to get started. I am a basketball coach and have been close to 30 years….This is one subject I do plan on writing but I am unsure if I should write about all of my experiences in one memoir or possibly write several. For example I started a travel team in 2013. I considered writing about just those experiences and [then write] other memoirs concerning other time periods from my coaching. Any advice from you veteran writers would be appreciated.

This is a great question, Billy, and it’s one that most individuals who want to share their story ask. How much do I include? What do I leave out? Why?

Writing your memoir is a lot different than writing your biography, which includes a more exhaustive story of your entire life. You — in a compilation of unrelated events — are more the theme than any other event or defining aspect of your life.

If we consider your biography to be an all-encompassing, chronological look at your life, a memoir is a magnifying glass into one particular aspect of your life where you want to focus on a theme, or showcase a particular aspect of who you are. Consider the four possible examples below.

  1. A musician might focus on the hardships of “making it” in the music industry, selecting the key events that helped her become an established singer/songwriter.
  2. A teacher might focus on the hardships in his life that helped him become a more selfless educator.
  3. An addict might focus on the events that led to addiction, the struggles to break the addiction, and the challenges faced every day in staying clean.
  4. A coach might focus on the road to the big state championship, which might include 3-5 experiences as a child/young adult that molded his or her unique and perhaps unconventional coaching style.

What all of these examples have in common is that the events are selected to contribute to a greater message, a greater theme, rather than serve as a nice, broad survey of what might be a very interesting life.

If I am a coach writing about the success of one particular group comprising castaways from other teams, I might include the story of when I, as a young player, was cut from three teams before an unconventional coach saw unrealized promise in my game. Because that coach believed in me, I was able to believe in the once-discarded players that took us to the championship game.

Every detail, every story shared contributes to the bigger theme of the memoir.

As a review to some, and new to others, Lee Gutkind and Philip Gerard, the gurus of Creative Nonfiction, have outlined the basic characteristics of the genre. You can see how memoir fits nicely here:

  • Has an apparent and deeper subject (it’s that deeper subject that the memoir focuses on);
  • Is timely and is also timeless;
  • Tells a good, entertaining story (has a strong beginning, middle, and end);
  • Is crafted with intent (the author is deliberate in how the story is written); and
  • Includes a reflection on behalf of the writer (written in first person).

The debate rages on whether it must all be true. Hardcore believers in the genre will tell you, affirmatively, Yes. Those who might fall a little left of the strict journalistic style of writing believe it is okay to “modify” the story in a way that contributes to the overall truth of the memoir. Those completely to the far left of the continuum will tell you that “part fact, part fiction” is perfectly acceptable to be called a memoir.

I guess you could say I’m a hardcore memoir writer with tendencies to glance a little to the left, now and then. More on that debate in another post, though!

When selecting the parts of your life to include in your memoir, the process can be a grueling one, as there are so many variables to consider. My recommendation is that you spend some time brainstorming everything that is seemingly related. Keep a running list in your personal journal (it’s for your eyes only, so no worries about being judged about what’s on your list!), and begin to narrow the field of choices when you figure out what you want your memoir to focus on.

Ask yourself:

  • What changes in me do I want the reader to see clearly?
  • What are the events that led up to those changes?
  • What events created tension in my life that are dramatic and suspenseful for my reader?
  • What events might my reader relate to most clearly?

As you can see in the questions above, you are writing for yourself, but you are writing for an audience as well. Consider both as you select the events that really represent your life story and your memoir’s focus.

Writing your memoir is a very personal endeavor. Write for yourself first; you always get to choose what you share — and when — with your audience.

Here’s to you and your story. May the words flow freely today.

Rus VW

Coming Soon: Your Story Matters: An Essential Guide to Writing Memoir, a new eBook for writers of all levels, filled with the fundamentals of memoir, suggested strategies, and takeaway prompts to help you share your life story.

Crafting The Unconventional Story

Crafting The Unconventional Story

I’ve been writing a long time, and when I go back and read my earliest works written in the 1980s, I see a lot of experimentation and non-conformity while still sticking to the basics of story structure: a defined beginning, middle, and end falling neatly within the boundaries of the standard plot sequence.

Although I have never strayed fully from the unconventional (and those who have read Cold Rock understand what I mean), I have tried, unsuccessfully, to play on both sides of the fence, breaking into traditional markets with rather unconventional works. I have had little patience for the game, and I have made the decision to stick with self-publishing. It gives me unlimited creative license to publish my works while still reaching my core group of readers. If more comes of it through word-of-mouth because my readers like what I am doing, then more power to the self-publishing approach.

So yesterday, I started reading Into The Woods, a book on story structure by John Yorke, which takes the works of story analysts like Joseph Campbell and story strategists like Christopher Vogler to the next level.

I am no stranger to Vogler’s work, and I have been using the 12-stage journey he outlined years ago in many of my works.

Yorke challenges such structures and ultimately asks two vital questions:

  1. Most analysts of story, such as Vogler, posit completely different systems, all of which claim to be the sole and only way to write stories. How can they all possibly claim to be right?
  2. Not one of them asks: Why?

And herein lies the main question. There is no doubt that the story analysts are correct; they have identified what works with readers and viewers for centuries, and they have offered reliable story structures for creatives to use in the most predictably formulaic style that meets with success nearly every time. Ask them why and most writers and directors will say it has something to do with what we’ve been experiencing all of our lives; it’s what we are used to. It’s built into our DNA.

Probably one of the most indefensible but satisfying answers ever spewed, and the meta-conscious generations of the 21st century aren’t going to buy it for much longer.

I’ve had the extraordinarily good fortune of working with two writers living in Australia who are not afraid to take risks, to bend the boundaries of those conventional structures, and explore the connections with readers in very unconventional ways. It has made me a stronger writer, and it has given me greater confidence to develop my writing through my own eyes, and not necessarily through the more narrow confines of what traditional publishers are looking for.

Yorke is absolutely right. Creatives — writers, artists, musicians, producers — need to understand why that connection exists with their audiences so they can abandon the more formulaic structures of story and still connect as strongly — maybe more powerfully than ever — with their readers and viewers.

What This Means For Creatives

We, as creatives, need to continue to boldly experiment with form, crafting unconventional ways to reach our audience that don’t necessarily follow a story structure identified by Joseph Campbell in the middle of the twentieth century.

In other words, we can’t let numbers dictate our craft of story, and just continue to crank out the formulaic pieces that publishers want that are going to sell the highest number of copies and pull in the highest number of dollars.

I believe and know that this is continuing to happen all too often. My hope is that, with the explosive opportunities offered in self-publishing, creatives of all kinds will begin to take greater leaps of faith in experimenting with their structure and approach to storytelling.

Give yourself the freedom and the license to create, to experiment, to discover uninhibitedly the storyteller within you that, in your own unique way, still connects and resonates deeply with your audience.