On Authenticity and Taking Things Personally

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.

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I’ve been having some rather candid conversations with fellow writers and non-writers in Towson and around town about the importance of authentic writing, both in polished pieces that we submit for publication and in less-polished posts that we share via social media. Repeatedly, the same troubling concern rises to the primary focus of these discussions: we do not wish to offend, yet we know that, invariably, we will.

Offend whom, you ask?

There’s a book that I refer to often. It’s called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The message is simple and can be found in most “good book” manuals, from the bible to the cub scout handbook. But the simplicity with which this book is written makes the agreements themselves accessible.

One of the four agreements is this:  never take anything personally.

Good advice for both readers and writers, I think, when the latter is doing his job authentically.

On the reader’s end, authentic writing from a son, a father, a spouse, a friend, a colleague can be terribly enlightening, but often it brings contradictions to that “role” that the writer has played with that reader over, perhaps, many years. It took me a very long time to see my parents as individuals; they shared only a fraction of their true personalities to us when we were children. By no means did they not live authentically; I believe that, on many levels, they did, especially Mom. But I didn’t care about any of that; I didn’t know any of that even existed, to be honest with you.

It did exist, though. Despite my every attempt to keep them in their roles as Mom and Dad, much to my astonishment, they were Eileen and Charles, individuals, to the rest of the world.

I imagine it is the same for you, in some manner.

For those of us who do not write for publication beyond social media, it’s not as big a deal, I think. There are fewer chances for us to bare our true souls, put them on the stage for all to see in black and white. But for writers and non-writers alike, we find convenient ways to practice a “don’t ask, don’t tell” lifestyle where we keep our authentic selves from emerging.

We’re good. We play the game and, for the most part, choose our translucent masks from the jar by the door, where they mingle a little shyly with the others of varying thickness. We even find ourselves believing that we are the mask. It shows up in our actions, our words, our beliefs. We buy into these pop-fad crises of global warming and rush to buy our hybrid cars suddenly to save the earth. We are made to feel so good, our egos soothed by our acts, doing our part, living the good, right life.

I don’t mean to mock or offend. I don’t. If anything, I am writing these words in my own reflection. This is my belief about myself and my attempts to be real, authentic, genuine; it’s not about any one of you. It’s what I feel, what I think, what I believe. When we look for hybrid choices when purchasing a new car, we applaud each other for our efforts. Then, in the next breath, we want to know if you are free for an early-spring barbecue next Thursday. These are our choices that we make. This is our place in this world, right here, right now.

I do not mean to offend. I mean to tell you what I think. Please, do not take it personally.

Writers do this as well. We anticipate criticism that we will most assuredly take personally, and then censor our writing to make our audience members nod their head in agreement. That’s what we’re after, isn’t it? Approval? We sacrifice authenticity for approval. We sacrifice genuine honesty to protect the ones we love and to preserve the images they hold of us, near and dear to their hearts.

God bless us all for our efforts. I mean that.

That’s not authentic, though. As writers, we’re faced with this dilemma on a daily basis. My blog is public. But my blog entries are personal. Do I wish to be conservative? Refrain from posting opinions that might offend? Censor my thoughts and censor who I am to save the ones I love from potential hurt because they choose to take my words personally?

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We can’t help it, I know. It’s what we do all day long. We are trained away from seeing and sharing all things with love; we grow suspicious, concerned, filtering all that comes in, and all that goes out.

We are becoming the first generation of artificial intelligence (AI) life forms, higher-level thinking zombies, if you will, who walk through their days and surf in their nights playing the lifelong game of PC-Perfect individuals, never wishing to offend, never wishing to misunderstand.

So many of us wish to do neither. And yet, we do, and in so doing we feel terribly sad that our efforts to live and write with genuine authenticity have somehow missed their mark.

Never take anything personally.

I know. I see myself doing it even now. It’s hard. So hard, when you know that your audience sees you in so many different roles: teacher, husband, father, friend, colleague. They bring those filters to my words and gasp, shake their heads, and maybe even do a little re-read to make sure they got it all right the first time.

Never before, though, have we lived such transparent lives for all our communities to see us so vividly. We’re all making choices, however conscious (or not) those choices may be. Some are retreating, staying low, under the public radar and wrapping themselves around popular causes to insulate them from the dangers of authentic living. It’s a genuine and noble drive, for sure. Still, there’s not much awareness happening at this level; rather, there is much awareness happening for everything but who they truly are as individuals.

I say this with love, and with personal experience. I think we all immerse ourselves into projects that protect us from baring our souls and living authentically. It’s the ultimate shield that gives us personal assurance that we need not walk unclothed into that good night; there is much to be done, indeed, and to think of ourselves and our own authenticity is, well, selfish.

There’s no way I can hide my tears in recognizing this reality.

We’ve had our arts programs stripped out of our schools, we have our students practicing the art of hoop writing with perfecting the tricky craft of composing standardized statements that fit ever neatly in digitized pop-up boxes. We are regurgitating numbers and facts and formulas and processes at lightning speeds so that school systems can boast when the annual reports are published in the morning papers: We are in the XXth Percentile; we have many reasons to celebrate. So many other schools did horribly worse. Hoorah for us.

We are not celebrating the successes of our individual students in their desperate attempts to hold on to their individuality; instead, we celebrate that — collectively — we play a better game of jump rope than half the other schools on our block.

But when they graduate, those expert jump-ropers, what do they know of authenticity? Of individuality?

Perhaps that is why so many of them flock wildly to Facebook and other forms of social media for a little breathing room, a little sanity where they can be a little dangerous with their words, say what’s really on their minds, and feel like they’re living authentically in a bead of water that rests precariously on a dewy leaf, overlooking the rushing waters of domestication and conformity.

The problem, of course, is that when we do that, we assume that such posts are attacks against us or against our beliefs, and we find ourselves taking things personally to an entirely new and dangerous level.

The current presidential campaigns from the remaining six contenders — four republicans and two democrats — are stirring more divisive rhetoric in social media, in print, and on television. When one speaks out against a particular candidate, others are easily offended and trigger an emotional exchange that leads to hurt feelings, anger, unfollowings, and even unfriendings.  Even in our authenticity, we offend. We let it get personal. We think it’s about us.

But it’s not. None of it.

We’re all doing our best to navigate through these days of stress, tension, and transition. None of it’s easy, and all we are doing is making it worse.

Look, I know it’s hard. We both need to work on it, Reader and Writer. But maybe, just maybe, if each of us comes to the page with a little sensibility, doing our best to take none of this personally, then maybe, perchance, we will not have offended the other.

And then, just maybe, if we are fortunate enough, our authenticity will lead to clarity; our clarity will lead to collaboration; our collaboration will lead to solutions.

Just maybe.

But first, we need to take nothing personally. Even if our presidential candidates are struggling to do this themselves, we can set the example for others –and most importantly, for our younger generations who need a better model.

The Story Had To Be Told: On Writing The Christmas Rose

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday, I published my short story, The Christmas Rose. It’s been less than 24 hours since I shared it with my readers, and I wanted to answer a few questions about why I wrote it.

Q: The story is pretty long — almost 8,000 words. Most people aren’t reading pieces that take more than a few minutes to read. Why didn’t you cut it down to under 5,000 words?

A. It is one of the longer shorts that I’ve written. Most are around 3,000 words. I’ve been trained well by the competitions and requirements of the print journals where I submit most of my work. I knew this piece was going directly to the web and to an eBook format, so I worried less about the length.

There’s another reason, though. First and foremost, the story had to be told, and I couldn’t hold any part of it back to fit a generic reader’s tolerance for a sustained reading. In other words, it doesn’t fit into the criteria of a social media read (that’s one of the reasons why I created a PDF of the manuscript so readers could download it and read it at their leisure).

Q: Aren’t you afraid that it won’t get more widely distributed then? It seems like the length is a real roadblock to it taking off.

A: Then so be it. I know the formula of what makes things go “viral” in today’s fast-paced world. Maybe this is an “anti-viral” piece. I’ve stopped caring about that. I’m going to be 50 years old in a few months, and I have a lot of stories to share before I go. I’ve stopped worrying about what works in this immediate world. If my story is 50 words or 500,000 words long, then that’s what it is. I’ll let my present and future readers decide what they want to do with it.

Q: How long were you working on this story?

A: Not terribly long at all. The basic premise came to me about 3 weeks ago that “believing” in something, like Christmas or Santa Claus, is not just for kids. We have a responsibility to continue our efforts to believe in our power to change the world — whether that is the “world” in our local town or community, or an entire nation or nations.

In the middle of writing the piece, we took a trip down to 34th Street to look at the lights in Hamden in Baltimore City. We never made it because a flash mob shut the streets down as they sung “Silent Night.” I thought that was the greatest thing to happen. Shut everything down with music. Stop driving by the world and take a few minutes to celebrate the beauty with friends and strangers alike. Wonderful stuff.

Here’s the video that was released from that special night:

After I wrote the first draft, I knew there was very little I wanted to revise. It’s a Christmas story, all right, but it’s so much more about what we can do for others. Our nation is in a stressful place right now. We can focus on the pain, or we can focus on acts of kindness for all that can begin a genuine and long-lasting healing.

Q: Is any of it real?

A: None of it and all of it. Luther’s Village is a micro version of historic Lutherville; Hunter’s Valley is Hunt Valley. Emily Starling is an extension of the kind elders I knew in my neighborhood in Loch Raven and Towson who gave so selflessly to others.

Q: What about the Christmas Rose?

A: The Christmas rose itself (Helleborus niger) is not very “rose-traditional” looking. And, more importantly, it is poisonous. I loved the story behind the flower, but using this exact plant for my story just wouldn’t work. The hybridization of flowers happens all the time; it is not unrealistic to believe that Emily was able to create a hybrid that would be safe and offer a nice fragrance.

I think planting and giving flowers is the greatest gift we can give to others, both for now and for the future. I’ve always enjoyed the stories about the hope flowers bring. It doesn’t take much to bring a little color and hope to others, does it?

Q: How can I read “The Christmas Rose”?

A: You can read it online HERE.

You can also download the eBook (PDF) to enjoy on your phone or tablet: Christmas Rose Story.

Thanks, readers, for reading and, possibly, sharing my story of The Christmas Rose with others. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

as always………………………….rvw

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Writers Must Find Balance Between Art And Audience

My friend Brad at Starboard Society sent me an early-morning email, asking my opinion about an article published today in the New York Times. The piece, “As New Services Track Habits, The E-Books Are Reading You,” discusses the latest use of reader data from e-book sales. Publishers and authors are using the data to determine reading habits and how to write the “perfect” book that delivers, keeping the reader hooked to the very last page.

Nothing wrong with that on the surface, right? Writers have formulas that they have been using for centuries to connect with their readers. There is the generic plot sequence that just about all of us remember from our school days: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution (or that ever-cool word, denouement, that we just loved to say over and over when we were writing the end of our stories). Then there are more sophisticated story structures, including Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, a 12-stage cycle that taps in to the very core of every human being’s journey through life.

So what’s the big deal, using reader data to track exactly what today’s readers are, well, reading? The data are telling us that readers prefer shorter chapters, and that we not stray too far into the surreal (probably a mistake I made with my novel Cold Rock). I think the results are going to tell us other common-sense findings, such as more action, less telling; more what-happens-next, less here’s-what-happened. No surprises there.

I welcome the feedback, to be honest with you, as long as writers keep one thing in mind.

There’s a shift in online writing that scares the hell out of me, and it could very easily creep in to this trend with writing to the specifications of an insatiable audience.

First, let me address the latter point. Authors used to crank out a novel a year, and that was a great pace. Our readers would wait with anticipation for the next big book to be released, and then they would devour it, discuss it for months, and then look forward to a sequel, or a new original work. Authors would tour for months after its initial release and then go into hibernation to create that next big book.

That’s just not the reality anymore. Authors have insatiable audiences, and publishers are demanding that writers feed them often with online content and other smaller stories in print and online periodicals. Authors must have an online presence via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets, where they are staying connected to their readers.

The incessant “More! More! More” chant continues to rage on, dictating an author’s life to stay one small step ahead of the masses who are publishing anything, and everywhere. Believe me, there are plenty of writers out there who are more than happy to do whatever it will take to make it. That’s always been the case, even before the word “Internet” was muttered for the first time in some coffee house pow wow.

Authors will need to take a firm stand, in my opinion, with what they do with the e-book statistics about reading habits and patterns. Just like any other artist, a writer must hold her ground in her creative work. If we sacrifice the originality of our work and submit fully to the ever-shifting trends of readers, we will be nothing more than prostitutes of the trade, delivering to our readers whatever they demand, and as often as they demand it, with little to no regard for preserving the sanctity of our unique and creative efforts.

How in the world will we ever be able to advance in a society that merely provides what is demanded? It seems to me that, just as happiness can never be found in pursuing such empty and materialistic treasures, we will never be able to stop this insatiable need for “More! More! More!” if we stop asking our readers to consider something new, something unique, and something completely unimagined.

Bring on the stats, and I will do with them as I wish.

Now, if you will excuse me. I have a story to finish writing.

 

The Artist’s Pose: Ready For The Risk

kimhoseymantisphoto: Kimberly Hosey. copyright 2013. www.arizona-writer.com

11:53 p.m., October 31, 2013: I am sitting at my desk surrounded by the chosen books I have pulled from my shelves for this 30-day journey. I have filled my backpack with some Thoreau, Whitman, and Emerson; accompanying them are the contemporaries Goldberg, Lamott, and King. Throw in some dictionaries, thesauri, and other word reference books, and I feel pretty confident about this leap of faith that I am about to take. Oh– and my emergency ‘chute? That would be seven books about a boy named Harry, who spent most of his childhood under the cupboard at 4 Privet Drive. I am ready to jump. I am ready to leap. I am ready to — 12:00 a.m.

I read a lot of original writing created by writers of all ages, and I have come to the conclusion that skim-the-surface stories are the result of one of the most basic obstacles we all face: the fear of taking risks.

The stories all look the same. In a fiction work, a general setting is established, and nondescript characters enter the scene. A general problem is introduced, and a rather uncomfortable deus ex machina is contrived to wrap everything up.

He entered the diner and looked around at all of the people sitting in the booths. There wasn’t a place to sit, and he was feeling impatient. he looked at his watch and figured he had about 10 minutes to wait for a seat. Fifteen minutes later, he was finally seated, but his table was still filled with dirty dishes. “Just my luck,” he thought, as he waited for his waitress.

In nonfiction, a basic and over-discussed topic is danced around with emotional statements, weak comparisons, and sweeping conclusions.

The topic of gun control is out of control! Both sides of the argument really have lost touch with reality concerning the use of guns in America. One side argues that it is our right to shoot guns. Another side says guns kill people. Both sides have it wrong! It really frustrates me when people can’t learn a little about what they are talking about and make a good argument for or against something. It seems like everybody wants to have an opinion, but what they don’t have are the facts to back it up. This really frustrates me, and it is exactly why I don’t talk about gun control with anybody.

Both examples, Flat. They lack the details that come with taking risks.

The Five Reasons Why Writers Don’t Take Risks

  1. They are too lazy to take risks. Too often, writers just don’t want to invest the time needed to write well. They procrastinate until they are up against a deadline to submit their work, and then they are happy that they made the deadline. Period. The focus shifts from quality of writing to crossing a finish line. The work suffers, but there’s too much elation from making the deadline to even notice.
  2. They don’t understand the power of process. One of the dangers of being too lazy is that writers don’t understand the magical process of crafting drafts, writing revisions, and putting the final touches on a polished manuscript. I believe that most writers, if they actually experienced the process of writing and reworking a manuscript, would take more risks with their writing.
  3. They don’t know how to take risks. It’s heartbreaking to even think this is true, but many writers have long forgotten how to write uninhibitedly. Writing has become an academic endeavor of grades and evaluations. Their imaginations are mined — absolutely robbed — of a creative thought, all for the sake of theses, controls, and a fixed number of paragraphs. And, in the most tragic of scenarios, all deeper writing that requires a strong, authoritative voice that understands the target audience is missing completely from any curriculum. Young writers are denied the opportunity to experience the beautiful process of unbridled and imaginative creativity free of judgment.
  4. They are afraid of failure. This is a biggie. The “safe” writing that writers often do is nothing more than playing to the largest population possible, without the fear of really upsetting or offending anyone. The reason why it is called a “risk” is because there is a pretty high chance that you could fail. And what are we taught in schools? Failure is unacceptable. It warrants a big red F, a call home to the parents, and remedial classes on the weekends and the summers. We play it safe. We stand in the middle of the field. Nobody wants to fail. Ever. The problem is, we have to fail to succeed, which leads us to the fifth and final reason why writers don’t take risks.
  5. They are afraid of success. They are afraid of what comes next if they are successful. They fear that the world will see them for the fraud they believe they are. They are fearful of accountability, responsibility, follow-ups, and getting on a train that is moving faster than they have ever imagined possible. They are scared to death of losing control. They are terrified of showing up, day after day, ready to play at this level.

Like the Praying Mantis in the picture above, we need to strike the Writer’s Pose and be ready to take that big leap, that big risk, and let go of any worries of consequence, judgment, or failure. For my fellow writers participating in NanoWriMo this November, they are doing just that: Taking risk after risk after risk. They have kicked judgment’s ass and left him on the curb, completely done with him.

Let’s try this again with a little risk-taking.

He entered the diner and looked around at all of the people sitting in the booths. He didn’t recognize a single face, but he saw in each of them the stereotypes that he never wanted to be — hometown losers stuck in a whirlwind lifestyle that went nowhere, all the time. There wasn’t a place to sit, and he was feeling impatient. He looked at his watch, tried to remember what time the train was leaving Penn Station, and figured he had about 10 minutes to wait for a seat before he would be cutting it too close. This was his last supper here in Boring Town, and he didn’t want to miss a single drop of the local grease if he didn’t have to. His father always told him it was what kept the pipes clean inside of him and everyone else in Boring Town. It didn’t matter that the old man died when he was just 42. He still believed it was true. And fifteen minutes later, when he was finally seated, he couldn’t resist sticking his fingers in the greasy fries left on the table. He picked one up, and as it drooped in his hand, he placed it in his mouth. Oversalted, overgreased, and just exactly perfect. “Just my luck,” he thought, as he waited for his waitress. “I got me some seconds before I got me my firsts!”