Insomniacs and Broken Things

So I fully admit that I’ve never expected to break the internet when I claimed this little piece of virtual real estate and resumed a blog I’ve had in one form or another for the past way too damn long.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Between my rantings and ravings about the trials and tribulations of my life and the stuff that the cool people like Wil Wheaton, Lena Dunham or -insert celebrity name here- chucks up in the internet on a given day, even I’m more inclined to go see what they have to say before I ever think that my chicken scratches matter at all in the grand scheme of things.

Because of that and a prolonged struggle to channel what’s been going on in my head for the last two months down in here in some constructive manner, I stepped back and took a break, but that doesn’t mean I’ve sat on my butt and did nothing.

During that span, I’ve settled into the routine of going to the gym in the morning and work in the afternoon. On my weekends, I go exploring parts of New England that I hadn’t been able to visit as a child, getting away from the city and by extension, people.

I don’t mind it so much, really. I’ve had more than six years of practice in anonymity, being just another guy getting a bite to eat in a restaurant or walking down a street or sitting on the subway. It’s also afforded me a chance to brainstorm a new story to write for the first time in close to fifteen years.

It’s the ultimate cliche of being a storyteller that we should write what we know. I’d like to think I’m  fairly educated man, but if there’s two things I have had to learn to the point of expertise, it’s trauma and how to survive it.

Believe me, for all I’ve learned in my life, I would’ve been just fine to have been spared that particular curriculum.

As a culture, we have so many opinions on how a person is supposed to handle trauma, even though there’s as many types of trauma as there are theoretical ways to deal with it.

I’d be remiss to not admit that I have a keen interest in that process, figuring out how people who go through things which leave lasting marks can overcome them, even if doing so means they emerge as a different person than they were before.

So I sat down and started conjuring up a story of a man who deals with his trauma, both minor and major, by not being able to sleep until he gets the answers he needs to understand why supposedly better people seem to relish in inflicting that very trauma upon others. As a writer, I’m not about to suggest that I’m pretentious enough to manufacture my characters out of whole cloth with no connection to the things which drive them to do what they do.

My protagonist, Damon Flynn, is yet another avatar I’ve built to channel my own emotions into, a relatively simple guy trying to carry on with the understanding that the trauma he’s trying to come to terms with also comes with an additional price of having to do so alone. That the things he valued before his life was irrevocably altered, relationships, trust and love, are no longer within his reach.

I heard it said once that a good writer has to be willing to torture their characters when the story dictates that such a decision is both logical and essential to get from the start to the end. So far, I haven’t had much reason to subject Damon to that yet, but I know it’s going to happen eventually in some form or another, because Damon understands the same reality I’ve had to understand for a long time now.

Once you’ve been broken, either at the hands of someone or something, the act of putting yourself back together leaves you uneven and baring jagged edges that can cut anyone who gets close enough. So for their own protection, as much as for your own, you have to keep them at a distance because the last thing you want is to be the reason why someone you care about ends up just as broken as you are.

At the same time, you’re also able to understand the broken people around you a little better. The cracks make sense in a way that pristine people can’t comprehend. Worse yet, you begin to understand just why so many take a certain amount of satisfaction in damaging the pristine ones, even though nothing good ever really comes from doing so.

I guess if I’m supposed to write what I know, then this is the best thing I could do for the time being – tell the stories of a broken man trying to figure out how he can sleep soundly at night even while other broken people do dastardly things.

Scaling the Wall

Wall 1I’d love to tell you this past weekend was as productive as the one previous, where I managed to crank out nearly 4,000 words in about eight hours of writing and finally concluded Chapter Four after what had been a prolonged creative standoff.

To be honest…I’d really love to be able to tell you that, actually.

After giving myself some time to rest up from what had been a rather grueling work week capped by back-to-back 12-hour shifts, I sat down on Sunday and hoped I could at least get the ball rolling on the Chapter Five.

About 600 words in, though, I did something I hadn’t done for quite a while. I highlighted about half of what I’d written, punched the DELETE key and stepped away from my computer for the rest of the night.  It wasn’t because what I thought I’d written wasn’t any good. To the contrary, I knew I was on to something which would be a key emotional point for my protagonist.

The issue was that getting there required me opening up a part of my own memory bank which I’ve kept bricked off for a very long time, and even the act of prying away one brick and taking a peek proved too difficult to bear at present.

All too often, I’ve come across something either in a magazine or especially on the internet, trying to differentiate what makes someone mentally strong or weak. For the most part, such pseudo-psychological drivel is crafter by someone who’s premise is predicated on even more pseudo-psychological drivel like the following:

Happiness is a matter of choice. Mentally strong people find ways to be happy all the time, whereas weak people do not.

What usually follows are the standard 10-30 boilerplate steps to theoretically transforming yourself into the ultimate happy person, with the majority pretty much plagiarized wholesale out of books like The Power of Positive Thinking, for example.

Then it’s the prescription of take these three times a day and you’ll be on your way to having everything you ever wanted!

Except there’s only one small problem in listening to the advice of these quasi-intellectual snake-oil salesmen…

…what they’re selling you, sorry to say, is a considerable batch of bullshit.

Now that is not to suggest there is nothing to be gained at all by trying to see the positive in things, especially when circumstances seem to be at their most dire. In those moments, finding a silver lining or a star to wish upon or the faintest glimmer of hope is not only necessary, it’s essential for any measure of survival. I know that better than most people, given the roads I’ve had to travel.

But here’s the kicker. Because each of our lives is unique on to themselves, there is no singular panacea which will magically transform the way we process the world around us or the experiences we have in that world.

I wish there was, believe me, but there simply isn’t. Not religion. Not pills or drugs. Not psychotherapy. Not gurus or new-age holistic living, or adrenaline-fueled acts of sheer lunacy. Not even love.

Depending on where you’re at in your life, what’s needed is a cocktail of multiple things, love, purpose, security, meaning, awareness, empathy, knowledge, etc. It’s never one thing, but we love to presume that human suffering and melancholy can be instantly eradicated by somehow choosing to be happy.

In the thirty-plus years I’ve lived with both my depression and PTSD, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up in the morning and before I got out of bed, had managed to convince myself that today’s going to be an absolute shit of a day.

Were I to guess, I think I could probably count those days on one hand and have at least four fingers left over.

Even during the times where I was in such a state that I wanted nothing more than to stay curled up in the warmth and security of my sheets and tell everything and everyone I needed to deal with that day to just come back when I felt up to it, say in 30 to 40 years, I still remember telling myself that it would do me a lot more good to get up and go do something, anything even marginally productive.

But there’s also been times where I’ve been in such a positive groove that everything is just working, even beyond my own expectations, and I find I’m having a really good day…and my subconscious can decide to do something which brings it all to a screeching halt with the ferocity of an 18-wheeler jackknifing on a packed freeway at rush hour.

That is how Depression and PTSD works for a lot of people. It’s not just a case of that person making the decision of not being happy. It’s what happens when a stimulus, either external or internal, that you either trigger or you have no control over whatsoever, can turn your state of being on a dime from good to bad.

And all you can do is just live with it the best you can.

Some days are easier than others, but what I’ve come to understand is the only way I could ever be rid of the things which fuel my own depression would be to literally take them out of my brain so I couldn’t access them anymore. Call me crazy…but I don’t find the idea of a lobotomy all that appealing.

What a lot of us end up doing instead is creating the coping mechanisms we need to just get by without making ourselves even crazier. We build our mental walls and try to partition off those parts of our minds which generate shame or guilt or fear or pain, even though they still manage to find ways over, around and through them.

It’s hard to rationalize why a person would do that, but to do so means possessing enough empathy to truly understand how those kinds of experiences shape someone’s life, and few people are able to do that. For all my inherent sensitivity and apparent predisposition to empathy, even I fall way short of it more often than I’d like.

The reason I stopped writing the other night was I cracked open a hole to a part of my life where, even more than half a lifetime later, I still felt an abundance of all of those difficult emotions. That’s hard for anyone to take, I would think, and I don’t blame myself for having the reflex of not wanting to open that hole up any further.

I know I’m inevitably going to have to, if for no other reason than it will hopefully help me get past it, but it’s a wall that I’m not yet confident enough in myself to be able to knock down and handle what’s on the other side.

That doesn’t make me a mentally weak person. If anything, I’d like to think that recognizing my own limitations and not rushing headlong into something I’m not fully prepared to handle makes me stronger than even I’m willing to admit, most of the time.

The question is, what am I going to do when I’m to the point where I don’t have a choice but to face what’s on the other side of that wall? Will I turn and run away from it again, or will I stand my ground and finally confront it?

 

Finding the Slipstream

Terminal Offender Cover III’ve been more than a little frustrated with myself over the past couple of months in terms of my productivity.

In my defense, it’s not like I’ve sat on my butt and done nothing. To the contrary, as the year came to an end, I realized it had actually been one of the more productive ones in my life.

I’d created more than a hundred video stories and considerably more written ones for my work. I’d been able to go out and take some photos throughout the year which I’m really rather proud of and even found time to exercise, read the occasional book and finish the odd video game which had been languishing on my shelf.

Add onto that the four months of serious therapy work I managed to get in, as well as keeping to my goal of writing a letter a day, and it’s hard to deny that I was anything but quite busy in a lot of ways.

And then…there’s the book.

When I sat down to start my second draft, it was with the determination of getting a chapter done each weekend, no matter what. I’d make certain I had the time to allow my creative batteries to be fully charged as I sat back down at my computer, opened up the manuscript and prepared to go back into the trenches of full-scale literary warfare.

True to form, that lasted about four hours before my brain disengaged and said, Screw it! We’re going to go play Mass Effect or binge-watch Top Gear for a while, saavy?!

Those times can be so disheartening in a lot of ways because it feels like my brain is acting like a spoiled brat in the throws of a conniption fit. All you want is for it to stop and see reason, but it either can’t or won’t, so you have to do something else to appease it anyway, even though you know you’re just feeding the beast and it will all come back around again.

Going to bed on those nights, knowing I’d only managed to crank out a few hundred words when I needed a few thousand was getting rather old, especially since it wasn’t like I hadn’t put any thought into what I needed to write about.

One of the things I’ve found in being a writer is creativity tends to work on a different clock than motivation. There’s been countless times where I’ve been in the shower or in the car going somewhere or sitting in an incredibly boring-ass government meeting and thought, if only I could be in front of my keyboard right now, I’d get this scene done in a nanosecond.

But then when I do sit down and try to do precisely that, that part of my brain is practically comatose, and trying to force it into action tends to leave me flustered and my work output severely lacking.

There are those rare moments, however, when you sit down in the chair and within five minutes, you’re completely locked in to what you need and it just keeps rolling out like an assembly line of fundamentally sound ideas, narrative, actions and dialogue.

I honestly cannot tell you the last time I found myself in such a creative slipstream, but I found it last night and by the time I finished up and collapsed into bed, even though it was past midnight and I was so not looking forward to going back to work today, I felt better than I had in a long time.

I just hope I can keep this up for the next thirty weekends or so.

 

Spin Cycle

Neil IIt’s weird how easy it can be to marginalize your own ability to do something by seeing someone else do the same thing a little differently, and perhaps even only slightly better, than you do.

Being the first week of the 2016, I decided I needed to get off mein duff and back on the ol’ hoss which is the revisions of my book.

As is sometimes the case in how my lil’ creative brain works, sometimes it likes to cooperate. Most of the time, it doesn’t come out of its trailer until it’s good and ready. By 10:30, I was about to begrudgingly call it an evening when it finally emerged and declared it was time to go to work.

So work we did, and after about two hours, I stumbled into bed slightly perturbed I wasn’t going to get any reading done, but at least I got chapter three finally done…dammit.

Now, I told you that story to tell you this story.

During the course of my day, whilst waiting for the diva which is my creativity to pull its creative head from its creative rectum, I was chatting with a friend who was struggling with their own drive to create things, and I learned that in a slightly roundabout way…I had a hand in that.

To be both transparent and fair, it wasn’t like I had been called out for being detrimental or dismissive to my friend’s creativity. I’d like to think I’m the sort of person who respects people enough to not do that, though I’m sure like anyone else, I’ve done precisely that at least once in my life.

But it had been recommended that she get back into blogging as a way of expressing herself and working things out in a constructive manner. Certainly nothing wrong with that, except for the tiny issue that she reads this little patch of dirt I call my blog…and apparently…I somehow manage to do it better.

Editorial Note: Like a great many people, I’ve been writing down this equivalent of intellectual chicken scratchings down on pages, be they digital or analog, for a long time. At no time have I ever considered myself better than anyone else when it comes to it…which I suppose could further illustrate the problem.

You could argue that being a bear of rather diminutive ego, I’m not accustomed to having someone say I do something better than they do. In fact, in order to convince myself that I even have the gall to do that particular something, I’ve had to go into it with the understanding of surpassing someone else’s attempt out of the equation.

Because if I don’t do that, then more than likely, I will inevitably self-marginalize my attempt and thereby provide a reason to back out and quit.

That is the exact reason why I quit vlogging six months ago, if I’m honest.

All I had to do is go onto YouTube and see how much genuinely amazing content was being churned out by people who are clearly younger, smarter, more intuitive, more comfortable and more natural as either a minor or major internet celebrity than I could ever be.

So why would anyone stop to think I could possibly manage to be on the same level as those people?!

In that regard, I am no different than my friend, because we’ve both bought into our own self-generated negative press before we even really taken the first big step.

It’s the same reason why I’ve never given myself the time to learn to play my guitar. I desperately want to be able to play like David Gilmour or Alex Lifeson…but they already exist and play a hell of a lot better than I do.

So what’s the point in taking all the time to try and learn chords and get frustrated with myself when I mess up when I can just put on a Pink Floyd or Rush album and live vicariously through them?

One of the great life cliches is experience is the best teacher, and while we as a culture love to buck those cliches whenever possible, this is one of those times where we really can’t.

The reason why I feel most comfortable doing this is the same reason why I feel comfortable with a camera in my hands. I’ve been doing it for a long damn time.

It may not mean I do it well. Hell, half the time, I fully expect everyone who comes across this to think exactly what I think it is, which is pseudo-pretentious psychobabble.

But even if it is, writing out what’s on my mind is still the easiest way I have to communicate with the rest of the human race at this point.

When it comes down to it, that’s all art is really. Music, film, books, photography, painting, drawing…and I suppose, on some weird, esoteric Freudian level…even porn.

It’s all about taking how we see an aspect of life and presenting it in a way where it can interact with others who may or may not be able to connect with the message you’re trying to transmit.

Ultimately, the only thing that makes our message seem lesser than the next person is our belief that no one wants to hear what we have to say, and in the cacophony of the Social Media/Crowd-Sourcing/Patreon Age, being caught up in the current of everyone else trying to make sure their voice is heard above the din is even harder.

It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try.

Back to the Grind

dscf3546d1Sooner or later, you just have to get your ass to work on the things that matter.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing this year. I’ve written news stories. I’ve written on this blog. And as of tonight, I’ve managed to maintain my streak of writing a letter a day for ten months and counting.

What I haven’t been doing, though, is writing the second draft of my book.

That’s not to say I haven’t been working on it, though. I’ve spent the past few months updating my research, doing more world building, rethinking characters and plot lines and letting it do a whole lot of percolating in my head, really.

I’d like to think if you polled a thousand writers, the majority would say that there’s a fine line between knowing when to let a story rest and when it’s time to just knuckle down and start writing it again. After all, until you begin putting words down on the pages, the story remains in the aether or it’s not the story you ultimately want to tell.

November being National Novel Writing Month, there’s a lot of ambitious and aspiring authors who are spending the next thirty days trying to do the same thing. I’ve done NaNoWriMo three times and completed it twice. If my schedule were less hectic in terms of having nights and weekends free, I could probably have the freedom to do it again this year.

As I don’t, I’m left with the decision of trying to get it done on a more rigid time frame. Since I have most weekends open and during the winter there’s less to do out here in the desert than usual, I theoretically have the next six months to dedicate my weekends to nothing other than writing out the second draft.

I figure at that clip, I can do a chapter each weekend, which also gives time I didn’t have before to pace myself.

If there’s a drawback to NaNoWriMoit’s the reality that you’re moving at such a clip that you don’t have time to stop and think about the story you’re writing. It’s a sprint not so cleverly camouflaged as a marathon.

I figure since I already took the time and effort to crank out more than 140,000 words in four months last year, I can give myself a little more breathing room and approach these 140,000 words, or potentially more, without as much pressure on myself.

The goal, after all, is not to get the words out as fast as I can, but to get the right words out so the story is as good as I can make it.

To that end, I worked for six hours today and already cranked out more than 2,700 words, which is a decent day’s work for not having done in it in over a year.

We’ll see what I can put together next weekend and if I can keep this going.

Revisions Decisions

Terminal Offender Cover IISo aside from trying to find time outside of work to exercise, relax, cook, take pictures and read books…I’ve actually been finding little pockets of space here and there to work on revising my novel, Terminal Offender, and I’ve reached a rather sobering and somewhat disconcerting conclusion.

The first draft is about 70-80% total shit.

Now before you jump on my back for being overly self-critical, I ask that you first hear me out.

About two weeks ago, I started an exercise, writing up a synopsis of my first draft and charting it out in as basic a form as I could.

The reason for this is two-fold.

1.) As it had been more than a year since I’d finished it, I needed to reacquaint myself with what I’d written. And B.) The synopsis gives me a chance to see how the story flows from chapter to chapter, where the weak and strong spots are and which characters work and which don’t.

With about ten chapters left to transcribe, I’m realizing that what I spent those nine months and 140,000+ words putting together is a rather disjointed story with inconsistent narrative and pretty flat characters.

Now this was pointed out by my Beta reader when I got her feedback on it, so I wasn’t exactly surprised to find she was more or less right. After all…she does that sort of thing for a living.

But as the writer, it’s hard for me to look past the fact that something I put a great deal of time and energy into constructing simply isn’t as good as I hoped it would be when I finished it.

Like all creative people, I try to convey the sense of having a thick skin, but when you put in the time and energy to make something which reflects a very personal side of yourself, it’s hard not to show I’m actually covered in papier-mâché.

In my defense, when I sat down last February and started really churning it out, I didn’t have a real outline or an in-depth understanding of my characters, which I usually take the time to do before I start.

For the most part, it was total seat-of-the-pants, stream-of-consciousness mind-dumping in novelized form. Given where I was at emotionally at the time, I can’t say I’m surprised that’s how it turned out.

The thing is knew that the story needed a lot of work, even immediately after I finished itI didn’t realize it was going to be this much work, though, but I have two choices of what to do with that reality.

I could either sit here and kick my own ass over it, (which is the far easier option), or I could take some of the ideas that have had the better part of 18 months to ferment in this ten-cent head of mine and figure out how to make the story better.

I guess that’s the thing about wandering into unfamiliar territory like this. You’re not entirely sure where to go or even what to do and instinctively, you know what you would do, based on the combination of experience and instinct.

Except that won’t get you to where you ultimately want to go and sooner or later, you have to recognize that too.

So here I am, out in the middle of nowhere, knowing full well I’m out in the middle of nowhere and wanting very much to end up being somewhere again.

Which means I have to figure out how to make this story better between now and whenever I get it done this time around.

..And so it begins, again. Tally Ho.

Not the Average Writer’s Block

Success IA line from one of my favorite movies of the past 20 years, Finding Forrester, sums up my present conundrum quite well, I think.

“…we walk away from our dreams afraid that we may fail or worse yet, afraid that we may succeed.”

One of the things I planned to do this weekend was get back to work on revising and rewriting my novel, Terminal Offender, which I haven’t had a whole lot of time to do so far this year.

With said year approaching the halfway mark in a week’s time, I shudder to think that I’ve barely touched it when at this point last year, I was in the final weeks of completing the first draft after four months of sitting at my computer everyday, whether I was really in the mood or not, because I was both unemployed and highly motivated to get it done.

And I suppose that’s where things started to go a little awry.

With it done, I lobbied my friends for Alpha Readers who could take a look at it and offer me some pointers on what I needed to do in the second draft, knowing full well that the story needed a lot of work.

*Editorial Note: I may be a writer, which makes me inherently both narcissistic and extremely sensitive to even the most constructive criticisms, but I’m also not an idiot when it comes to recognizing that no writer’s ever gotten their first draft immediately published. Ever.

Only two people volunteered to look at my manuscript. Of those two, one couldn’t be bothered to finish it and we are now no longer friends on any level (for reasons far removed from the book).

More than 250 people I asked. Two participants with one bailing not even halfway through. Not exactly a good sign.

Any creative endeavor is also, at its heart, a collaborative one. Writers work with editors, proofreaders, publishers, illustrators and so on in creating the works they ultimately want other people to read and consume.

For reasons I’ve never really understood, when it comes to having those kind of connections, I’ve never been able to make them happen in any way that has helped me get my projects done. Either they decide they can’t be bothered or they bail halfway through, which leaves me having to continually going back to square one with the only person who seems really interested in bringing my ideas to fruition.

That person being me.

The person who is simultaneously horrified of being deemed a failure and of actually succeeding in anything, because in my experience, it’s almost always resulted in that success being marginalized, trivialized or otherwise written off as some bullshit fraud I’ve managed to pull on the unsuspecting masses.

The feeling I take away from being out on the proverbial island like this is that I don’t have any creative support system because to everyone who knows me, I’m not worth the time. My stories aren’t that good. My ideas are for shit, so why bother when there’s more important things to be doing?

Editorial Note #2: I know that observation is going to be cause for readers to get defensive and/or defiant. I can’t help with that other than to repeat that it’s an observation based on my feelings and perspective, not a criticism.

In the past few months, I’ve watched friends start Patreon campaigns, write novels that are going to soon be published, crank out low-budget B-movie scripts which are now being produced and filmed, create games they’ve been passionate about their whole lives, and perform in concerts, plays and otherwise work in all manner of the creative strata.

I’ve also watched them with an extreme amount of envy and vexation because they’re able to do something which I seemed incapable of for most of my adult life.

They ask for help and they get it, and I know that because in many of those cases, I have been helping them because they asked me to and I didn’t hesitate.

There’s a part of me that knows I am capable of getting this book done, while also acknowledging the fact that I cannot do that entirely on my own. Yes, I’m the one who has to write it, but I also acknowledge how immensely helpful it would be to have someone to bounce ideas off of, look over my work, or just even give me a smack upside the head when I’m mired in my omnipresent self-doubt or a kick in the ass when I’m not feeling motivated.

Call me crazy (trust me, you won’t be the first), but I don’t think I’m asking for a lot.