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.

Being Relentless in Living Fully: Five Things I Have Learned

Being Relentless in Living Fully: Five Things I Have Learned

The other morning, I found myself rushing out to my car to head to school like any other weekday. The sun was just breaking the horizon, and I was juggling too many bags of work and thinking about beating the early rush along the 25-mile commute.

I could feel the tension building already: stress upon stress from two years of seemingly endless troubles and challenges that I failed to understand: family deaths, loss of work, other matters that are just a part of life itself. I’ve never lost sight on the fact that we all go through this; we’ve all got our stresses in our lives that challenge us to the very core of who we are.

For me, I could see the toll they were taking on my body and my mind; making poor dietary choices and dwelling on those stresses create a very unhealthy lifestyle. And before you know it, the troubles you are experiencing within begin to permeate other areas of your life: friendships, work, social occasions.

So on that morning, as I was fumbling with my keys to unlock my car, I heard the unmistakable song of the American Robin.

“Cheer up! Cheer Up! Cheer Up! Cheerily, Cheer Up!”

Yes. This is the actual song of the Robin.

The bird’s sing-song notes seemed so crisp against the cool Spring morning, and they pierced through the stress building upon more stress. In that one instant, I was carried back to younger days when I was living on Chesapeake Bay, and my mornings would begin with the sweet songs of morning birds like the robin, the wren, and the finch.

Those days weren’t trouble-free, by any measure. My father had just died, and money wasn’t any better, really, than it is today. But nature served as a real solace to me then, and I remained open to the things that brought me peace and that soothed me.

In the busy rush of the world we live in today, I sometimes lose sight of that. Thanks to the song of a single American Robin, I found that peace last week, and since then, I’ve been returning to a relentless approach to living a better life.

While there are so many strategies and structures out there to remain relentless in living fully, I’ve narrowed it down to a good list of five that keep me in my game. My five might be different from what you need. I guess what’s most important is that each of us figures out what works, and then stick to it.

Find Your Focus and Keep It Close. For me, it’s three things: writing, photography, and music. I’ve learned that when I’m struggling, I write less, my camera lens captures nothing but a layer of dust, and my playlists are dark and brooding. It’s almost as if my body is creating an environment to nurture the stress, to make it last as long as it possibly can. I need to be conscious of keeping my journal out in the open where I can write freely and often; I need to carry my camera with me so I can capture life as I see it; and I need to choose the songs that empower me, give me encouragement and strength, that keep my mind clear and my heart open to give, as much as to receive.

Let Go of the Past. Nothing keeps us from being relentless in our living than dwelling in the past. I’m not talking about remembering a great hike along the Appalachian Trail when you were 23 or hearing a Zeppelin song along back roads at 19 with windows down and volume up. Hold on to those moments and cherish them often. I’m talking about regret, or decisions you made hastily, or even opportunities brushed aside or declined. You have to place yourself in the present, embrace what is, and seize the songs that remind you that there is a life all around you to be lived, experienced, and celebrated.

Stay Healthy. We are so tempted to stray from what keeps us mentally and physically healthy. Just remember: The quality of every aspect of your body, mind, and heart is entirely dependent on what you put into your system. And it’s different and unique for each of us. My diet might be a catastrophe for you, and chances are pretty good that your good choices would nauseate me. We need to be mindful of what our body needs, and then give it the fuel to make us relentless machines of power, love, and balance.

Remove the Triggers That Set You Back. This is an important one, because the first three tools to remain relentless make it sound like we all lead happy, care-free lives. The truth is that the things that can stress us out are still in our lives. Staying healthy doesn’t bring back a loved one; there is still great sadness and stress associated with it. We just need to defend ourselves with these tools. Triggers are going to continue to be in our lives that remind us of what was causing us so much stress. We need to be active in removing them as much as possible from our daily routine, as they can set us back faster than a 12-inch cheese-steak sub with extra fried onions and all the fixin’s. For me, those triggers are hidden in word games, songs, and radio stations. If I’m vulnerable to these triggers, I need to be mindful of this and remove them. That might mean deleting an app on my phone (or burying it on that last screen and hiding it in an obscure folder), making a different playlist, or even turning off the radio and finding a good mystery to read. Don’t set yourself up to be vulnerable. Living relentlessly means always providing yourself a little self-check on how you are reacting to the experiences around you. Stay relentless and stay in control.

Embrace Your Spirituality. Whatever spirituality means for you, find your affinity for something greater than yourself and make it present in your life-always. Our communion with a higher entity — even if that’s in the spirit of nature itself — puts everything in context with your place in this world. It sorts through the challenges and puts them in perspective; it prioritizes the things that really matter, like health, peace, and love; it gives you greater strength to confront the things that bring stress and offers the space and faith to work on resolutions. No matter what you believe, your spiritual foundation reminds you that you aren’t alone, and you have the  strength of a higher power with you every step of the way.

If all else fails, remember this: you are most certainly not alone. Sometimes it takes a simple song of a common bird to remind us of how beautiful life is: in this moment and in the hours and days to follow. It’s all about our perspective and our choices.

Choose to embrace the relentless pursuit of a life lived fully.

On the Morning of My Catholic Confirmation

On the Morning of My Catholic Confirmation

In just hours, I will be confirmed into the Catholic church. The journey here has been a long one, yet there is no doubt that this is the beginning of the greatest journey of my life.

I was baptized on April 23, 1965 at St. Margaret’s Episcopalian Church in Parkville. My parents served as my Godparents; there were no other witnesses on record.

In the years that followed, I was confirmed at Arnolia United Methodist Church on March 12, 1978. It was a process; it was just what we did when we turned 14. I remember wearing a white robe, and getting silver coins from my brothers. I also remember a girl in my class who was wonderfully pious. Susan radiated a spiritual faith that I envied. I did not understand why I wasn’t like her. She was unlike everyone else that I was friends with in school. As we got older, she continued to get more involved with church; I continued to get more involved with my friends.

As a senior in high school, I was pretty open about being a Christian, and I took part in a few Christmas choir events. I even opened my graduating quote in the yearbook by thanking God for his blessed gifts. But other than that, I don’t recall doing much with my faith, except for living a life of general service to others. There were others, like a guy named Rob, who really served others in Christ’s name. I remember hearing that Rob would go to malls on Friday nights to see who was in need of support. That really struck me, but I didn’t have the guts to learn more.

Then, in 1988, while living with a couple of paramedics in Southern Maryland, I hit a low point in early summer. I felt like my life had little purpose, even though I had just completed my first year of teaching in a small, cutting-edge school on the western shores of Chesapeake Bay. I was empty. On a Sunday night, one of my roommates returned from a spiritual revival. He was absolutely electric. I asked him to tell me all about it. He did. I remember thinking that this is what I needed. Christ filled him with joy; I needed to open up to God and (finally) let Him in.

The next week, he and his friend held a small group bible session with the three of us. His friend had his guitar, and he gifted me a bible, dated June 8, 1988. I considered that my date of spiritual rebirth with Christ. Ten months later, my father died, and I wrote a eulogy threaded with Christian comfort, strength, and love. Christ got me through the hardest days of my life, and I will never forget how powerful His love was for me so that I could comfort others, through Him.

Later that year, I joined a Presbyterian church close to my house, and I became very involved with the theater group that would perform weekly scenes of conflict, resolved by scripture and God’s love. It was the group of churchgoers that I had bonded with, and I found the community so supportive; at Chesapeake Presbyterian, it was the first sanctuary that I called “home.”

The greatest event at Chesapeake was when we performed our version of Beauty and the Beast for 700 children at our summer camp. On that final day, with everyone standing and worshiping, I felt an overwhelming presence of God in that sanctuary. It was a moment I will never forget, a testimony of God’s strength in a worshiping community.

In 1992, I left the Southern Maryland area, and I said goodbye to my church family at Chesapeake. I embarked on a spiritual journey that carried me through the eastern religions: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. I considered myself a “wandering Taoist among the Christian fields” and studied the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh and others who embraced the similarities between Buddha and Jesus.

What I missed most, though, was that small-group community, that relationship with others as I focused on my own spiritual relationship with Buddha and Christ.

During the next 15 years, I tried desperately to “create” that community relationship through social media, but it all seemed so backwards. About 10 years ago, I was biking with my friend Trina, and I was trying to encourage her to join an online group I had created to celebrate God’s message. Trina was, and still is, very faithful to the Greek Orthodox Church. Her beliefs and practices run deep, and she called me out for my attempts to create social groups out of thin air. She knew that it wasn’t coming from within; I was trying to replace my experiences at Chesapeake with a lot of words signifying nothing. As genuine as the attempt might have been, the content itself wasn’t coming from a genuine place. I think I was more concerned with creating something that had thousands of followers. She saw right through that.

Gradually, the eastern philosophies became less of a religious doctrine and more of a way of life for me. They gave way to a more central focus on Christianity, a quiet practice but one still without a home.

Then, in 2014, while I was writing for The Sun, my editor gave me an assignment to cover a local church’s Easter service being held at Towson University’s new SECU Arena. The minute I stepped in Church of the Nativity in Timonium and met with Kristin, Stephanie, Alison, and a few others, I felt the same affinity that I had felt at Chesapeake. This is where I belonged. Yes, the church itself felt so inviting and warm, but it was the smiling, welcoming individuals resonating God’s love that made me realize: this is home. A few weeks after Easter, my wife Amy (raised Catholic) and I went to an evening mass at Nativity, and we accepted an invitation at the end of mass to take a ten-minute tour and learn more about joining Nativity. We both loved everything about the church, and within a year I decided to begin the long process of becoming a member of the Catholic faith.

I joined their Vantage Point new member class a little late in 2015, and once again I felt the bonds of Christian fellowship. Yet, as we approached the Easter Vigil Mass in 2016 where I would be confirmed in the Catholic church, I did not yet feel comfortable in understanding, fully, what it meant to be Catholic. My faith was stronger than ever; Trina’s words, however, echoed in my mind and in my heart. I did not want to do this unless it was from within. I wanted to spend another year praying to God with an open heart to learn all that I could about Catholicism.

It was a hard decision to make, and I was somewhat sad as I watched the others in my Vantage Point group be baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil Mass in March of 2016. Following Easter, I did not waste any time in learning more about Catholicism and becoming a stronger Christian. In October 2016, I joined Vantage Point again, became an integral part of our large group of catechumens, candidates, and sponsors, and attended every session. Our mentors, Evan, Peter, and John, were both instructive and supportive. Through their own humble teachings, they led us, week by week, through the pillars of the Catholic faith and strengthened my own resolve to be a better Christian through Catholicism.

And now, as I prepare in these final hours for our Easter Vigil Mass this evening and my first communion, I reflect on the journey I have taken to be here. I am 52 years old, and along my winding, spiritual path, I have struggled with my own faith, I have stumbled in my efforts to love and serve others, and I have grappled with understanding and fulfilling God’s calling. As a teacher of high school and college students, and as a father of three, the temptation is great to have my students and children “get it” immediately and understand whatever message I might be teaching. I want them to have that “A-Ha” moment in our experiences; I want to provide enlightenment so that their lives are happier, safer, and filled with more enriching experiences that provide greater opportunities for love, joy, and happiness.

But just as I witnessed Susan’s love for God in my confirmation class at 13 years old, or watched Rob sit with others at a mall on Friday nights when I was 18, or even as I listened to Trina when I was 42 tell me that I wasn’t quite there with why I wanted spiritual companionship, I realize now that I cannot force anyone to be ready to receive knowledge, or spirituality, or even self-love. All I can do is be myself and offer the love God offers me to the world, to resonate the wonderful things that God does for me, and for all of us, and in everything I do. Just as my roommate resonated his love for Christ in 1988, and just as Nativity beamed with God’s love through the greeters and the leaders who welcomed me in 2014, I know that I am now a disciple of Christ to do the same for others.

All I have to be, Lord Jesus, is who you need me to be.

I chose St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writing and journalism, as my saint to look up to and watch over me. Through humility, service, and sacrifice, I hope to use writing and journalism as God’s instruments of peace and love to help others find faith, strengthen love, and embrace peace.

I leave you with the words of St. Frances de Sales, and I humbly thank everyone in my life path who has offered me love, guidance, and support along the way. We cannot do this without each other; I am grateful for this day, and for all of you.

God bless, and in full faith, I am ready to serve in peace.

“Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering, or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations, and say continually: The Lord is my strength and shield; my heart has trusted in Him and I am helped. he is not only with me, but in me and I in Him. St. Francis De Sales

Offering The Creative Collective To Artists, Writers, and Creatives

Offering The Creative Collective To Artists, Writers, and Creatives

the-creative-collective-coverYesterday, out of a strong desire to create a “safe space” for creatives to share ideas, prompts, strategies, and inspirations, I created a new Facebook group called The Creative Collective.

Here, writers, artists, and all creatives now have the opportunity to share and be inspired to rediscover and strengthen their creativity. Nothing is being sold or pitched here; this is purely for imagination stimulation.

If you would like to join us on Facebook (it’s free and open to the public), go HERE.

The Woman at the Cross

The Woman at the Cross


Earlier today, my lifelong friend Kelly shared the following on Facebook:

You know how the Mona Lisa is so intriguing because there are all sorts of ways to interpret her smile? I encountered something this morning that evoked that same feeling in me, making me wish I could have snapped a picture of it: I saw a middle-aged woman overlooking a darkened chapel At Stella Maris. She had her back to me so I couldn’t see her expression. She was leaning against the entry door with her head cockeyed in such a way that her head rested on the door frame. She stood there just staring at the altar. Was she looking for a buoy to help her? Was she in awe of God’s mercy? Was she just resigned to the sad fact that all life ends? Hard to say.

I was so taken aback by its description that my mind was creating a thousand different scenarios for her being there. I think Kelly did a great job of “painting” a picture with her words, and so I created the image above to help guide me in my response, which is below.

A huge shout out to Kelly for taking the time to share this observation with all of us. As an artist and writer, I was grateful for the connection I made with her words. Enjoy…

The Woman at the Cross: My Response to Kelly

The older altar boy looks on from the entrance of the Tabernacle, and he sees a woman old enough to be his mother. She lowers her head toward the cross. He sees disappointment, as if she feels failure in how she is raising her only son. He rubs the edges of his sleeves with his fingers, a nervous habit he developed when he was younger. It was just another thing he did “wrong” when he would endure the lectures for stealing food from Parkers, or lifting a few cigarettes from her pack of menthols that she kept in her replica Bottega Veneta handbag. He remembers the night her sobbing woke him just before dawn, and when he went downstairs to see if she was okay, he stopped on the third step from the landing, looking at his broken mother, rosary beads laced through her fingers, praying for something, anything to make him a better boy.

When she died later that month from the cancer that consumed most of her organs, he laced the same beads around his own fingers, vowing to do right, vowing to honor her prayers.

He wants to console her, tell her that it’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to work out the way she wants it. He remains in the doorway, though, and lowers his own head as he makes the sign of the cross. “Oh, Lord, for the moms who are hurting today, hear my prayer….”

From the other side of the altar, the young musician restrings her guitar in preparation for the 5:30 mass. She notices the older woman leaning against the wall, head bowed toward the cross, and she smiles. She remembers when she was younger, a “basic” singer/songwriter still trying to find her voice. How she would lean into the sacred space of the cross, pray for musical divination, and vow to keep the creative channels open as she continued to play morning, noon, and night. It wasn’t until her third year strumming a set of new nylon strings when it hit her: it was time to stop playing covers and replicating everyone else’s sound. It was time to write her notes, and her lyrics, and her arrangements.

Soon, she would put her restrung guitar into the simple stand by mic number 3, and lean into the sacred space, praying for continued musical divination, channeling God’s message through C chords played a few frets south of the nut. The musician smiles as she watches her whisper the Lord’s Prayer. Later she will watch her from the stage as she sings along among the others in the congregation. Their eyes will catch for the first time, but that’s all it will take for them to understand the mutual love they share for the Trinity. Heads bowed, prayers whispered, notes played, words sung. The Universal love for Christ knows no boundaries.

From the back of the church, Father Rossi prays for the woman at the cross. He has known her since her baptism. He remembers her reverential fear in her first communion, her shaky but certain voice as she shared her vows at that same altar, the cold, clammy touch of her hand as they prayed before her husband’s funeral, and her muted gratitude 7 weeks later at her own son’s baptism. Today, Father Rossi knows that she prays not just for strength to carry on another day, but she prays as well for strength for her son, now five. She prays for those who have lost their spouse. She prays for divine guidance to lead her where she is needed the most. She prays for her husband, for the altar boy by the Tabernacle, for the singer/songwriter on the stage. Father Rossi knows of her struggles, but he also knows of her strengths through God. Most importantly, he knows of her faith and gratitude in these gifts of strength. She is unique, and she is no different from any of his other parishioners. She has known love, and loss, and hope, and grief.

He knows these are the people of his parish. Unique, struggling, and strengthened through Christ.

The altar boy begins to light the prayer candles, and the woman in prayer makes the sign of the cross, genuflecting before she rises once more and heads to the back of the church.

“Thank you, Father,” she says, and he just smiles.

She grins, walks on, and carries the prayers on the cross with her as she passes through the threshold and enters the world a little more protected, a little more forgiving.

Behold: The power of prayer.

What’s In Your Creative Vision Tile for 2017?

What’s In Your Creative Vision Tile for 2017?

With the new year quickly approaching, it’s a good time to think ahead to what we really want to focus on for ourselves (I know that I preach selfless acts a lot, but we also need to think about what’s best for us). It’s easy to look back at 2016 and reflect on what we did wrong, or where we went astray. That’s important, for sure. It’s equally important, though, that we look at where we are right now and focus on what we want or need to refine or change in the next 12 months.

One way to do this is by creating a vision tile for 2017.


The tile above was created by a few of my students about 6 years ago, but it serves as a testament for capturing a bit of self-love and vision for what we want for ourselves in our immediate future. Whether you are (Super) Dave or Jalagna, you’ve made a statement that you are proud of.

So what’s in your creative vision statement for 2017?

First, brainstorm a list of what goals and dreams you want to experience in 2017. Find words, pictures, and images that capture the essence of what you want to achieve.

Second, find a square paper, card stock, or even ceramic tile and design a powerful layout. You might want to begin with a skeletal mandala frame (see below) that gives you some real focus and forward motion in reaching your vision.

screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-1-21-45-pmThird, be creative in your layout and don’t be afraid to bring your vision to life. Use every inch of the tile to capture the essence of the 2017 YOU. 

Here’s one sample of a polished vision mandala that focuses on new energy for the new season. You can really see the swirl of movement and motion showcasing the interconnectedness with the various elements.


Finally, put the polished vision tile in a prominent place where you can keep your vision present. Take a photo of it and make it the wallpaper on your laptop, phone, or tablet.

Keep focused on your vision for 2017, and capture the energy and possibility of what certainly awaits for you — if you visualize it!

Understanding Opportunity

Yesterday, in my daily email from Church of the Nativity, Evan (the author of the emails) was discussing the plight of John the Baptist, who absolutely believed he was pursuing an opportunity to follow God; instead, he ended up in prison and began to doubt his mission.

Evan posed this question toward the end of his email: 

“Have you ever been totally convinced and sure of an opportunity — all the signs seem to be pointing in the right direction — but the situation doesn’t seem to work out as planned?”

I laughed when I read this, because I thought that many of the opportunities in my life had ended up this way. But if we are to truly understand opportunity, we need to look beyond the initial outcome of that opportunity and see the interconnectedness with new opportunities previously unrealized.

In 1988, I had a great opportunity to move into an old farmhouse with two brothers who were paramedics. The place was close to school, and it was an ideal situation for me. Although that experience was short-lived, new opportunities presented themselves that I could have never imagined. Many of them are still a big part of my life (to read some of the deeper stories, download a free copy of my latest book, Faith, Hope, and Legacy).

My point is this: when presented with opportunities of any kind, we must look beyond our initial expectations and open ourselves to new opportunities that may present themselves, especially when we least expect them. It is a humbling thing to remember that the purpose of any opportunity may be completely different than what we had hoped for. Be mindful, in all ways, and widen your perspective to receive the unexpected.

Photos taken along the trails at Loch Raven Reservoir, 12/13/16.