When DIY Shouldn’t Be

danger-electricity

 

It’s spring, and based on all the Home Depot commercials, it’s time for all things DIY. While I do think it’s awesome to plan a project, execute it, and then revel in what your hands have done, I also think there are times when you should bring in the professionals.

Recently, I’ve had trouble with lights in my house. The flickering turned into a short, and one short into two. Since I know next to nothing about working with electricity, it is abundantly amazing that my brother-in-law is an electrician.

He stopped by the other night and quickly found the root course of my problem: frayed and blackened wires in the recessed light in one of bathrooms, which I had thought I’d fixed. Great, problem solved. No, not yet. He then checked the recessed lights in my other bathroom. Not as bad, but getting there. I hadn’t touched them yet. Therefore, yesterday he spent hours replacing all four lights because…I’ve been using the wrong type of light bulb, and in essence was melting the wires. My “fix” only hastened the issue.

I felt like an idiot. However, this isn’t a first for me. Countless times I’ve tried and failed at projects, only to need my father’s or brother-in-law’s assistance in the end. Which is why there are so many little things not quite right in my house (my non-working doorbell for instance), because I can only beg for help so many times without it completely eroding the father/provider portion of my ego. Which I know is a dumb notion, but what can I do?

Blame HGTV, of course. They make it all look so easy.

In reality, I have to look at it in terms I know. Even with writing, there is only so much I can do on my own. Yes, I am a professional writer, but that doesn’t mean I get things right the first, second, or even third time around. Fortunately, I have an agent who lets me know early on where all my missteps are. Later, I have an editor who does the same, for all the issues I’ve created even after cleaning up the first ones.

I can’t do all the marketing and publicity, either. I rely on my publisher, my filmmaker, and all the people on social media. When it comes down to it, I’m good at ideas, at bringing them to life, at making them work. But making them pretty and then making them known, I need all the help I can get.

And I’m okay with this. Even as much as I’m not. It’s embarrassing to think I could have burned down my house because of light bulbs and my ineptitude. It would be demoralizing to put out a rough draft of any of my novels before the treatments they receive. Fortunately, I’m getting comfortable with my strengths and weaknesses and realizing that I will always have some of both. The task now is to embrace, to keep the professionals happy by not destroying things too much, and having the sense to know early on when I’m in over my head.

So here’s to spring and to projects, be them household or writing. If you stop by, however, understand that my next novel will most likely be underway before I ever get to that doorbell.

Knock hard.

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Expectations: Writing vs. Teaching

I have expectations as an author and I have expectations as an educator. One is not necessarily exclusive of the other, but I haven’t had the opportunity to see the two merge. That is until last Friday, when I delivered a presentation/lesson on plotting for fiction writing at a school different from my own (Queensbury for the locals).

As an author I expect to nail the nuts and bolts when writing. At this point I should have an easy ability to construct a story premise out of thin air and see how the foundation for it will emerge to support the rest. Once the foundation has been poured, I trust in my ability to design as I see fit. The story that rises will hopefully not be a cookie-cutter model, but rather, a distinct and intriguing dwelling. This can often take an extensive amount of revising, but that is fine, because everything stands on a firm base. I can tear down and begin again until it is complete.

As an educator, the goal is not about me. It is about what I can extract from my students. The constant thinking is: What can I do to tease out their knowledge of the topic? Along the way I facilitate this extraction and fill in the spaces where gaps in understanding exist. In short, I make them work in order to understand. If the following adage is true, this approach makes sense: “We remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we discuss with others, 80% of what we personally experience, 95% or what we teach others.”

Therefore, on Friday, I approached a Creative Writing class hoping that I could provide them with a way to build a foundation for story-writing through a lesson that centered on the higher end of the percentages.

It was intriguing, because I was not Mr. Devine. I was Eric, and I was there as an “expert” someone who has written multiple novels and short stories. This lent a credence to the lesson that I otherwise would not be afforded as a teacher. The irony, though, is that I don’t think I could have pulled off as good of a lesson if I only wrote and did not teach.

Regardless, my blend of advice from Anne Lamott and  her ABDCE structure, combined with Jo Knowles’s storyboarding, mixed with one of my short stories and then the students’ own designs, made for one fantastic class. Every student in the room walked away with the bones of a fully formed story–the structure.

I left feeling very accomplished, because as an author, I knew it was sound advice I had given, mostly because it wasn’t all my own. However, as an educator, I had no idea if what I did had any impact, because the time for feedback from the students was limited. Even though the majority of the lesson was focused on the 80-95% realm, I had no idea if it would stick.

I checked my work email on Sunday and found a message from a student in this class, who offered thanks for my appearance and then discussed his writing and shared links to his work on a popular teen writing site. He wanted feedback. He wanted to know if the structure was sound. He had worked his way through my lesson and then viewed his previous work in a different light. He had taken what he had learned and applied it.

Moments like this are few and far between for an English teacher. It’s difficult to know if students fully “get it” because comprehension and communication are processes that continue to develop through adulthood. But this was evidence that I had succeeded on both fronts.

I could not have been happier. My two expectations converged with success. Maybe I know what I’m doing? At least I did in that moment I did.

That’s an expectation I can live with.

War Stories

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I’ve been rejected by over 200 agents.

I’ve failed to sell as many books as I’ve sold.

These are two of my war stories from writing. I have plenty more, like how I lost my first two agents. How I spent the entirety of one Christmas vacation editing a novel. The list could go on and on.

Over the past month I’ve also heard many war stories from parents and nurses about dealing with type 1 diabetes. I’ve shared my own:

I had to use a syringe after I’d dropped it on a filthy bar’s bathroom floor.

I was so embarrassed about my disease I never talked about it.

We tell these stories, not necessarily because we enjoy what they reveal about our failures, but rather what they demonstrate about life. There is a universal desire to speak about how we have been there and have done that, not to boast, but to educate, to possibly save someone from the same mistakes we have made.

But these stories come at a price, as does anything told honestly. We are vulnerable after the telling, and may appear weak to others. But I don’t care about that. I have always been a staunch advocate for telling the truth, even when I couldn’t. I believe that transparency is fundamental in understanding our own lives, but that doing such is most often easier said than done.

I am an awful person when I am editing for a deadline. I might as well move out of my house.

My heart breaks every time my daughter says she likes having diabetes. I know she’s coping, but I also know what’s around the corner.

In Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece, The Things They Carried, he dedicates an entire chapter to “How to Tell a True War Story” and the message is thus:

“In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh.'”

Writing and chronic illness are not Vietnam, and I do not mean to belittle the atrocities of war. However, there is truth in O’Brien’s words for us in these battles. We may not be able to listen to the story told and immediately know how it applies to our own life. And possibly we never will. But we may also, out of the blue, have a sense of recognition so profound that the “Oh” is more epiphany than confusion.

Keep telling your war stories. They matter. Possibly more than you’ll ever know.

 

The Unique Aspects of Authorhood

Recently I went to another author’s book signing. When my eldest asked where I was going that evening and I told her, her face folded into a look of contemplation.

I said to her, “Honey, I’m not the only author around here, you know? There are a lot of us.”

She laughed and said, “I know that, but nobody else at school has a dad who writes books.”

I could only assent to this, knowing the families at the small school she attends.

She then said, “It’s just…” I swear I watched her pick the word out of her brain. “It’s…unique.” And she smiled a much broader grin, proud of her accuracy with word selection.

My smile matched hers, because it was nice for me to know the degree to which she understands the world, as well as because of the bit of perspective she provided.

Being an author is unique, in spite of the fact that there are millions of us. Each book is its own slice of life, a story within a story. I can remember so much about what occurred within my personal life via frames of reference to what I was writing.

I also get to create and express myself in ways that most people do not. There is an amazing liberation in this, one that I fully believe most people would find addicting. So often, if we are wise, we censor ourselves, because it’s the right move for a myriad reasons. However, the walls of decorum come down when it’s a character, not me, who gets to speak.

And, I know many people find it nerdy, but writing is damn cool. I am successful in an activity that I love, get to meet all sorts of amazing people, and have opportunities to enjoy the unknown, the whatever’s next. That is not always the case for people, personally, professionally or both. I am lucky.

So yes, it is a unique job, and yes, I’m sure my daughter didn’t imply a fraction of what I just wrote about. Or maybe she did. Because she’s living this life, right next to me. And this uniqueness is contagious.

*For Fun* Here’s a list of 10 “Unusual Jobs”. I’d be willing to clean a crime scene, and think being a Whisky Ambassador has to be phenomenal.

Imagination

I recently read an interview in which an author of Young Adult fiction was asked, “Why are you the only one who could have written this story?”

The implication of the question seems to be that this fictional tale is a metaphor for the author’s life, that her experiences (non-fiction) are simply being recast as fiction. I don’t like that notion. While author’s do draw from their own lives–I’m not arguing that we don’t–whatever happened to the element of imagination?

I’m currently reading Death, Dickinson and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres, and in the story is a scene where the protagonist (Frenchie)–a smoker–is asked to take a deep drag off a cigarette because another character (Andy) wants her to describe what she feels. He can’t get past the taste of cigarettes, but loves the idea of how it seems to feel so relaxing. Frenchie takes that drag and describes it as such:

And when you exhale, it’s like you’re letting everything go. Like the smoke scoops up all your worries and expels them from your body and they’re gone for that second.

Whether you’ve ever smoked or not, there’s a truth in those words, because you’ve seen others feel this way, or have felt this way yourself. Now, is Torres a smoker? Once was? Had a family member or friend who smoked? I don’t know and I don’t care. Because there is an honesty in those words, and that’s all that matters. Because that is the heart of storytelling: delivering a truth.

Truth comes to us in many ways. Through our lived or vicarious experiences, but also through our pure imagination.

In Tap Out I wrote many difficult scenes, because they were violent or vulgar or heartbreaking, and one of the worst is the scene where Tony attacks his mother. Both my agent and editor noted this scene with asterisks and questions in the margin. It’s as raw as they come.

I didn’t live like Tony, never saw such violence firsthand, or ever heard of something similar from others. I made it up. It’s pure imagination. I was close enough to Tony’s heart and soul, as if he were real, and so I knew what he would do. That’s all there is to it.

I don’t know what that says about me, or any other author who has the ability to go there. But it happens. And in beautiful ways as well. The Art of Racing in the Rain comes to mind, and The Life of Pi, as do so many other titles.

So, for me, had I been that author, I might have said, “I don’t know that I am the only one. I think I’m fortunate to know what I know, and to use that in writing, but to also have the wherewithal, the imagination, to fill in the blanks as necessary.”

Volume

My family vacation had many moments just like this:

Fortunately, I had my notebook with me and have an understanding wife who gave me moments to scribble what I needed. Because now that I’m back I’m using those notes and it’s all about volume.

For the next three weeks I have the luxury to write from whenever I get up (usually 6 am) until 1 pm. My wife is co-teaching three, week-long, art camps that my daughters are attending. Therefore, it’s just the computer and me.

Yesterday I wrote for five hours. Today four and a half. I am not used to this volume, and I have to admit it’s a bit scary. I am very used to writing brief scenes every morning for months on end and hoping like hell they all string together well. Never before, because of various work commitments over the summer, have I had such luxury to spin and spin and spin the web. I’m honestly afraid that I’ll go too fast, will get too far ahead of myself and will not have the ability to reign it in and reflect.

Then again, I may be able to produce a massive volume now, and with the remainder of the summer, go slower with introspection. Or possibly I’ll just keep churning, caught in the turbulence of the story I’m now creating, and will get spit out come fall.

Right now, I have no idea, but I am enjoying the change of pace. I am also revising my next work, under the superb guidance of my agent, Kate McKean. Granted all goes well with revision, the manuscript will be off to my editor, Lisa Cheng by August. It’s another high octane story, so for those of you who will fall in love with Tap Out come September, get ready for another ride.

Here’s to the summer.

3, 2, 1…Write!

In CrossFit, a fair amount of our training is completed “under the gun” of a running clock. Workouts are performed at high intensity with the aim of completing the work under a certain time, or seeing how much work you can complete for a specified duration. I have used this methodology in my training for the past six years, and, unknowingly, have structured my writing schedule similarly.

I write in the morning, starting at five and continuing until I need to pull myself away from the computer to go to work, usually around seven. I do this every day of the week, and only on occasion write on the weekends. Therefore, in a year (260 days without weekends) I average 520 hours writing. That’s not a significant amount by most standards.

It was only recently that I began to understand how I can still produce a novel a year (90-100,000 words) in such a limited amount of time. That metaphorical gun to the head of the clock in my workouts applies to my writing.

I waste no time in the morning, usually eating my breakfast as I check email and wake up. The it’s immediately to the writing. I often start with longhand in my journal, clearing out the debris from the day before so I may concentrate. This doesn’t last more than 10-15 minutes. I immediately turn to the notes on the project I’m writing, make a mental list of what needs to be addressed, check my outline for the scene I’m creating and go.

At this point I usually have an hour and a half to crank. And I do. There’s little to no rest (coffee drinking and refills are allowed) and I try not to over think what I’m doing. Much like in training, the “paralysis of analysis” is crippling, and the running clock keeps me motivated to keep it simple and to avoid the unnecessary.

Therefore, when finished, I have crisp, active writing and have produced a fair volume of work.

Now, the paramount question: Is it any good? Yes and no.

Most often my first drafts are skeletal. The plot is hung, but the characters need fleshing out, the themes refined, the foreshadowing placed appropriately, and on and on. It is reasonable to say that my method is ridiculous since I have so much to do the second and third and fourth times around. I’d agree, if I had more time each day.

But I don’t. I can’t pause and reflect. I get those “first thoughts“–ala Natalie Goldberg–out. I try to get the entirety of the story complete within a season–ala Stephen King. Then I wait. Like with exercise, I recover. I mull over my weak spots–plotting or characterization–and I work on those in smaller stories, mere exercises for my “sucks” (those elements of craft I need to work on).

Then I attack the second draft with the same energy drive and determination as the first, now with different aims, but with the same running clock.

I repeat this process as many times as needed. It’s not pretty. It’s often a bit stressful at the start, but once I’m moving, like with any demanding workout, I’m fine. Because I know at the end I will be satisfied that I’ve written. Perfection comes in the revision. These sessions are about production. And under the clock, the 3,2,1…go! I’m on fire.