On Books (On Writing)

“I have found that collecting books and reading them are two very different hobbies.”

I own quite a few books. Years ago I signed up with LibraryThing and put my bookshelf in by hand, but haven’t updated that list since … probably the initial draft. I’m on GoodReads as well, and here I make a more good-faith, though admittedly sporadic, attempt to keep up with what I’m currently reading.

My bookshelves are generally organized by subject. One shelf for games, one for anthropology, one for history, one for spirituality, one-half for comic books, one-half for To Be Read, one-half for novels … and one for creativity.

The creativity shelf isn’t just for writing. It includes inspirational fluff from people like SARK (whose colorful, childish spirit of play I continue to admire in my late forties, thank you very much) and publishers like North Light and HOW Design. It includes some rather optimistic books on “Making a Living Without a Job” and, oddly enough, on stock investing. There are a few books on other hobbies such as leatherworking, and some books on topics of interest to genre authors, such as worldbuilding and language construction.

But it certainly includes books on writing, and today I’d like to share my personal top five.

Steering the Craft by the marvelous Ursula K. LeGuin is one of three pillars which rescue me in times of creative despair. A workshop in a book which can be used independently or in a group of any size, I find this collection of exercises and reminders sparks both joy and imagination. With dry wit and sly winks, the late LeGuin has become a favored professor and a cherished memory. It is slim – many of my choices are – but meaty, and the nautical metaphor of writing as a river-journey unsurprisingly calls to me. While your mileage may vary, it’s the first book I would recommend to any young person seeking to learn.

Poemcrazy, by Susan Goldsmith Woodridge, is the second pillar. Perhaps even slimmer than LeGuin’s, and focused entirely upon poetry and language rather than technical craftsmanship in terms of prose, each chapter is a tiny bite of Woodridge’s reflections on her own path and inspiration for how one can find magical words of their own. I love poetry, from the bottom of my heart, though sharing it online is even more fraught than sharing fan fiction; and being able to spin magnificent, meaningful language – without fretting over verb tense – is a balm to my soul. I often make a small poem before starting any serious writing, in order to get words flowing.

Make a Scene, by Jordan E. Rosenfeld, is the book that … well. It hasn’t stopped me from writing meandering, meaningless paragraphs of dithering protagonists and conversation which goes nowhere, but it has stopped me from trying to get them published. Dryer and more to-the-point than the two above, Rosenfeld truly helped me understand how much every scene has to mean in a well-crafted story. Chapters on tension, intension, theme and subtext all do wonders to help me edit what I’ve written and pre-edit what lies ahead.

The Plot Thickens, by Noah Lukeman, is the best-selling and probably most well-known of my top five. Its first half is a marvelous checklist of things to think about while creating your characters: from hair style to relationships to food and authority. After this, Lukeman discusses the far more relevant application of characterization. How can you best build tension and conflict between two characters? Within a group dynamic? Why does this character’s journey matter in the end? What part of this characterization is going to change by the end of your story, or by the end of your scene? It’s a remarkably practical reference book, though reading it end to end may be a bridge too far.

Hamlet’s Hit Points is a queer little gem by author and game designer Robin D.  Laws. Technically more a book for role-playing gamers than for authors, Laws’ “beat theory” nevertheless makes a good deal of sense to me – and is easier to apply to individually written stories than to collaboratively narrated games. In addition, seeing a story I know well (Hamlet) broken down into individual beats gave me a way to look at the overall structure of the things I write, rather than the scene-specific focus of the two above.

Now, I know the classic answer from most writers of my generation is the much-beloved On Writing by Steven King. It is a good book, to be sure, and one I did read cover to cover. Overall, though, I didn’t find it as valuable as those listed above. Perhaps a contrarian streak, perhaps just a preference for workbooks and exercises over collections of thoughts. I honestly don’t know.

So tell me – what helps you write? Or, in other arts, from cooking to calligraphy, what are the reference and inspirational books which let you steer your own craft?

The Naming of Things

And the power thereof.

Many of the things I own have names. Part of this is human nature, part of it is a joyful animistic pantheism, and part of it is the joy of imagination.

My last car was named Beez, short for Beezle, short for Bealzebuddy, a friendly little daemon who ferried me wherever I wanted to go. When an accident took Beez to the great big scrapyard in the sky, I found Buzz, who is bigger and bulkier Subaru, and whose primary attraction was a much wider windshield that reminded me of the Apollo missions.

Not that I was there, of course. Still sparked a memory.

My first iPod, a surprise birthday gift from my wife pre-loaded with Gorillaz, was named Goblin. I’ve had three Goblins in succession, but my newest iPhone is Maury, not after the conspiracist on Stranger Things but a corruption of Mawhrin-Skel, the artificial intelligence in Iain Banks’ marvelous novel The Player of Games.

You want plants? Oh, we got plants. Roo and Drew and Hazel and The Twins. I am sad that it took me this long to think of Basilbub just this moment, but then, I probably ought not ingest anything with that name, given my history with demons under the skin.

I’m typing this on Skuld, my PC, named for the youngest of the Norns in Norse myth, who decide the fate and destiny of every man, woman, and child. With as much time as I spent on the keyboards, it’s best to accept a certain hand of fate. Perhaps my next will be Manos?

My paintball marker is Lady M, after Shakespeare’s grandest queen, pushing this gentle soul into the fields of fire and flame, where I seek to slay my closest friends … all in play, of course. All in the name of fun.

My kitchen knives are from Victrinox, but are collectively The Children. Not my children, but The Children, who will feed me in my dotage but whom I now hone and shine and sharpen into the forms which suit me best.

Some things are not yet named, but will be – the bicycle and kayak, once they grow closer to me. The endless journals of paper and leather and black and silver ink.

Some things will go ever nameless, it seems; my clothes as one example, the tools of the dayjobbery another.

Which makes me wonder: What summons a name? Is it familiarity? Commonality? Perceived usefulness to the giver of names? And while we know the magical power of knowing a name, how much greater to bestow one unsought?

Send me your names. What inanimate, or partly animate, friends fill your own home?

And then he woke.

So, um, hello. Been a while, hasn’t it? Looks to be just over one calendar year since I posted anything to this page.

It’s also been just over one calendar year since I created anything I felt was worth talking about, but that, my friends, is changing.

I told my publisher and friend a while ago that I had gone back into therapy, and I have to level with you. Hearing her tell me she was proud of me for doing so made a bigger difference than she could have realized. Words mean a lot to me. They always have.

While that encouragement is important, the fact is that only I can do the work that stopped so long ago. I see people everywhere online doing so. How much music is being made? How many words are being written? How many writers, performers, costumers, photographers, leatherworkers, mapmakers, worldbuilders, sketchers, and digital artists do I follow and envy every day?

I pushed myself away from the only table where I’ve felt I truly belonged, and chose a bog of my own cultivation. By ignoring the nobility of effort, the dignity of work, the excitement of learning, I did not just slip away from creativity.

I slunk away, under my own power.

Success, to me, looks like attention. That’s hardly a surprise to me and shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me. But …

It is the Attention Age. When I realized just how many people were shouting into the void about efforts and work which I judged less worthy than my own, I became disillusioned. Twitter became a nightmare void of incorporeal shoggoths, babbling from a thousand mouths at once, trumpeting the end. Hashtags are fun to play with, but people using the same tag on every post become dull as February ice, gray and worn and never-changing. I can’t abide it, and I fear becoming an obsidian mirror of sameness, I fear being lost in these endless tides which move and shake but do nothing in the end.

And when I compare myself to those whose work I adore – the wondersmiths and wendigos, the ministries of constant love and constant hope, the furious lions of political change, the sheer volume of prolific authors, the youthful vigor of success – ah, how much more do I despair? Because I tell you something true, I haven’t believed I deserve to sit at that end of the table.  Slink away, little charlatan, and lose yourself in the mosses and cattails of your beloved bogs.

Yet … still.

Yet still, I want to watch the light of creation stream through every window of my home. I want to see the waters glow, streaked violet and naranjine from firefly skies, to watch the fire pour from eyes and fingers and chakras. I want to feel the chariot pulling me forward, pulling us all forward, riding everywhere and nowhere for the simple joy of moving, dancing along with the invisible driver as music fills the endless air.

I am so, so tired of slinking. I am tired of the nails I’ve driven into my own eyes and hands.

I don’t think I’m alone. So if you needed a message, this is it …

Wake up, little wonders. The table’s not going anywhere. Your seat’s still warm and waiting.

Wake up. Every day.

Ostara 2018

Spring is so many things to me.

Today, it’s the pull of thick black mud, rich with possibility and riven with seeds, but difficult to get through. It’s a felt-gray sky sliced through with chilly raindrops, pelting your scalp, your hat, the back of your neck. It’s a cold breeze from some unseen high country, carrying a voice which counsels you to stay indoors, to cultivate your patience just a little longer, to light one more fire at the hearth to keep the cool at bay.

It’s not the ideal spring equinox, is what I’m saying here; but it is my forty-seventh, and expecting each one of those to be beauties is simply silly. Particularly in northwestern Illinois. Yes, I’d prefer to plant my butt on the warm and ripening earth and dig bare toes into fresh green grass, to wait for the chill to flow up my spine and welcome me inside come evening with a mug of warmed wine; but I’ll make the day lovely with some braised greens in place of the grass and a hearty frittata in place of the sun.

As if to call it further, I saw a neighbor this morning on my drive – not a rabbit, symbol of the season, but a raccoon, ungainly and waddling, bright of eye and sharp of tooth, held to the hours of darkness rather than day. I don’t mind it. Little clever thieves have always had pieces of my heart, and I was glad there was so little traffic in the hours of my driving to threaten his own little peace.

“The First Time I Got Paid For It …”

So, I’d like to share an update on my first professional presentation.

Several months ago, I shared with several friends at Toastmasters that I was interested in professional speaking. As both friends and mentors, they encouraged me, and within two weeks I had an email in my box from the Indian Trails Public Library in Wheeling.

The library was interested in a presentation on “active listening,” and I’d been recommended. Would I be interested? Well, certainly! Of course, there’s the question of what exactly “active listening” meant, but we were months away from the presentation – and it sounded like a skill I’d like to cultivate regardless.

As it turns out, I was already an accomplished active listener. I just wasn’t aware that it had a name. At its most basic, active listening requires us to listen to understand, rather than listening just enough to form an intelligent reply. I found a great deal of information online about the roots and history of the skill, what steps were recommended, and how individuals can become more effective.

From those multiple sources and my own experience, I pulled together a script of around 4,750 words over the course of a week. Based on research, that should take about an hour – the agreed-upon time for a speech. When I rehearsed the speech as written a few times, it came in closer to 50 minutes, so I re-worked some sections, moved some pieces around, and finished preparation over a month in advance.

As the deadline grew closer, I became more nervous. It was obvious that I wasn’t going to be word-for-word with the speech, but I was nailed at some level to the words I’d so carefully crafted. I remembered the last long-form speech I gave, in which I repeatedly returned to my notes and – at least to my mind – appeared less prepared for it.

So I decided to take a different track. I went through the speech as written and distilled it into a two-sided list of bullet points, each with a quick reminder of the topic I wanted to cover. I also pulled four of the most important paragraphs and put them as “pull quotes” on a separate sheet of paper, then noted on the bullet points where I should quote those – and worked to memorize just those four.

Based on the topic – active listening – I made a point of not creating any visual presentations. I wanted to show how powerful the art of listening is, when there are fewer distractions between yourself and the person speaking. Finally, I ran off a one-sheet page for people to take home, listing the most important aspects of the speech.

I arrived about 40 minutes early, not uncommon for a guy who gets lost easily, so I could get some time with the admins and review the room. We figured out together how to lower the shades, adjust the temperature, and she informed me of a wrinkle I hadn’t known – most of those signed up were not born here, and English was their second language.

This is what could be called a curve ball. Fortunately, I work with several ESL folks at the dayjobbery, and am comfortable watching my speech for idioms. Watching my vocabulary is trickier, but hey, who doesn’t love a challenge?

As it turns out, we had 26 people signed up, of whom 10 arrived. That’s not a disappointment – ten people in a theatre hall is sad, but ten people in a conference room is okay. It allowed a bit more intimacy, and allowed me to take more questions that I might otherwise.

As it turns out, I had no trouble making the 60 minute mark. In fact, I was able to cut a few of the fluffier moments in the speech, which I think added value overall. We had a 30-minute question and answer period, in which I provided more individual feedback and recommendations. I was careful to preface those with “It’s my opinion,” or “When this comes up, I will usually …” rather than passing it off as carefully researched work.

In the end, I believe it went well! Everyone stayed until the end, and a few thanked me personally, which is nice. My library contact and I spoke for a while and she had pleasant things to say in my feedback form. We’ll be talking again about future work, and I enthusiastically agreed that she could pass my name around the library districts.

In the end, it was a modest start, but a good one! I’m pleased with the result and with look forward to speaking more frequently in the future.

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