I, Wanderer

The commencement address at university is supposed to inspire the graduates to go out and conquer the world with great deeds and a vision of peace for mankind. Or at least to get a decent job and pay your own bills. I panicked when I graduated from college. It was the moment when I realized I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t attend my college commencement; the keynote address never reached my ears. If college was a five year delay before starting my adult life, then the day after graduation was an immediate decline into crap-what-do-I-do-now. Nearly everyone I knew was ready to start grad school in a few months or had a terrific entry level position in a company that would lead to a productive and independent future. So I thought. So they thought.

I’d been lazy about my life till then, getting homework and assignments completed but without the proof of solid accomplishments that look great on a resume. I’d worked too, at a bunch of dead end jobs that kept me fed on fried rice and bologna sandwiches, and housed in roach infested apartments in the run down sections of a graceless city. The idea of being a writer had been sustained by only marginal success in college. I’d earned a degree in creative writing validated by a few essays and short stories noteworthy for nudging by professors toward possible journal submission. But there were no jobs in the classified section of the paper advertising for entry level writers. (If you’re 30 or under, you don’t know about the classifieds – no worries.)

Over the next decade I wandered into a roll call of aimless jobs. Employment in lackluster positions paid bills until marriage. Then children sidelined me even further from any serious expeditions toward a writing career. Not wanting to risk my sons’ safety at daycare, I stayed home with them, dodging regular work until they were in elementary school. For a person full of remorse over many squandered opportunities, that’s not one of them. I’m not attempting to persuade you that my decision was the only one you should consider, but for me, it was right. I nurtured my children with celebrations, play, music, trips to beaches and nature parks, sports, museums visits, scouts, theater outings, picnics, friendships, fun, and challenges.

I loved those years and I harbor no regret.

The next derailments happened because I pursued a different creative path, first as occasional work while the kids were small, and then as a full bore career because it became the path I traveled. At-home work as a free lance artist eventually led to paid art teacher positions through a city rec program, then as a volunteer artist at my son’s school. (I don’t know which of those words paints a funnier picture: “Free” because of how little I got paid by people who thought they were doing me a favor by letting me do something constructive with my time by designing logos and signs for their businesses, or handmade invitations for their weddings. “Lance” because I felt pierced by every person who paid me less than promised after demanding more work than we’d agreed upon. Or “artist” because I never got to sign my name to a single piece of artwork. Still, inks and paints were used, and I was never lashed to a mast to do the work. And yes, I do know that “freelance” is a legitimate word without the separations.)

Those experiences segued into a stint as a commercial artist in a studio where I learned to paint under pressure and with peculiar requirements. Like board short designs with no orange as the owner of the company simply didn’t like orange, damn that the buying public at the time, teenage and college boys, loved it. I also found that office politics is the norm, stealing credit is standard, and jealousy of anyone else’s artistic skills the motive for lies (art director, “She didn’t paint that,” pointing to what was clearly my design – everyone had seen me paint it and it was my identifiable style) and theft (“I did,” as she held aloft a barely altered piece of my work and claimed it as her own.) More than one artist has stated that commercial studios raze your soul, but maybe you have to be there to understand such truth. Too many episodes down that miserable path and I gave it up, joyously.

At any rate, I took what I’d learned – to paint fast and accurately – and marched off to the first of several positions as an art teacher in private schools. I’ll leave out the administrative/business dealings and report only that I loved working with kids, kindergarten to twelfth grade, and exposing them to the creative energy that every child owns. You just have to help them unlock what’s percolating there, show them how to hold a brush, how color suggests mood or seasons, how to move a pencil to craft the line they envision in their head, and that less glue is better than more. Children can learn to capture what they dream and record it as painting, drawing, original print, sculpture, or ceramic art. It’s a remarkable experience when a child hangs a work of art on the wall and says, “I made that!” Yes, with my guidance, but a few thousand kids did in fact make thousands of pieces of art. Many went on to become fine artists, designers, sculptors, art teachers, architects, art historians, commercial artists, docents, and all manner of professionals and lay people whose lives are touched and enriched by exposure to art.

I taught children to paint, I loved those years, and I harbor no regret.

Eventually a roadblock stopped me. A horrendously unjust situation developed and I couldn’t control or reverse it. Truth to power is a noble cause but sometimes you just can’t win and I didn’t. Knowing that it was up to me to heal, I sought a creative outlet. Unable to continue to teach art, I returned to my first love, the one I’d identified as a child. I began again to write. Three completed novels, another well on its way, short stories and poetry as proof: I am a writer.

Finally I knew what I needed to know after college graduation – it was up to me to write my own commencement address, so here it is:

Do whatever you do as well as possible. Make deep and wholesome imprints on earth and in the hearts of others. When you go, it will be all that’s left behind. Listen to your adversary and be vulnerable to change, because you may have made the first mistake. Compromise is often the most fair solution but sometimes justice is not. Work at granting forgiveness and be grateful to those who have afforded you theirs. Stake high standards for yourself, slightly less for acquaintances, and none for those who are unable to bear the weight. Be authentic in voice and action, and do something instead of nothing at all. You were not born when your parents were: stop blaming them for the miseries of their lives. Be angry and then make something wonderful from your anger. Forge friendships as if you are forging new stars. Hold your loved ones as if their lives and yours depended upon it. Fix what you broke and then help someone else fix what they broke. Build something new and keep what’s old in good repair. Bless those around you for their presence in your life. Thank God in whatever way you find meaningful. Do this every day.

And harbor no regrets.

 

mortarboard art courtesy Clip Art

 

 

 

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Once a Writer…

microphoneI haven’t written anything particularly good or creative in a long time.  Between work and life, there just hasn’t been a way to focus the time or energy on my writing.  This has led me to even question whether or not I can say, even in passing, that I am a writer.  I mean, to be a writer, you have to write, don’t you?

I was faced with a challenge these past weeks.  I was the best man at a wedding and therefore had to give a speech during the reception to an audience I largely didn’t know (there were about 10 people I had met  prior to the day before the wedding).  With all the emotions of the wedding, combined with some extra complexities given the nature of our family dynamic, I felt a lot of pressure on this one.  How do I put together a speech that is heartfelt and funny and interesting and exactly the right tone, temperament and style for that environment when I had no idea of the audience’s sense of humor, educational or social background or the level of alcohol that would be consumed by that point in time?

Clearly, I’m not the first best man at a wedding or even the first person who has had to write a speech. But this task seemed pretty tough to me at the time. I thought about it for a long time, always coming up blank with how I wanted to proceed.  I found myself in the emergency room one day, and since the ER is run like a prison and I couldn’t do anything while I waited for them to decide which needles to stick into me, I pulled out my phone and did some research on the history of the role of the best man in weddings, the history of weddings, the history of speeches…anything I could think of.  That led to nothing of substance at the time, seeing as I was constantly interrupted for testing and questioning.

A week or so after I was sprung from the ER, about a week before I needed to give my speech, I still had nothing. S0, I headed to a Starbucks early one morning with a pen and paper, leaving the laptop, the phone and all of their distractions at home.  As I sat there staring at the blank page, trying to keep myself from panicking, I thought to myself, “Okay, Rob, what have you done when you’ve had a creative deadline for a story?”

The answer?

I just started writing.  I wrote for an hour and a half, just scribbling every word I thought of onto the page as fast as I could make my hand scrawl it out.   At that point in time,  quality didn’t matter at all,  it was all about quantity. The more words and ideas, the better.  When I finished, I headed home to type it into my computer and edit it. Which of course meant that I had to figure out how to read it (there’s a reason I type for a living).  What I found was that when I fell back to what I’ve always relied on for creative works, I could actually still put together a story.  And that’s what it was. I used the research I did in the emergency room to pick a starting point (believe it or not, it was swords and shields).  I then wove that together with themes of family and friends, love and happiness and some self-deprecating humor. And finally I pulled the family bits together with the swords and shields to present a toast in which the bride and groom had an army of supporters surrounding them.

The point I’m trying to convey here is that I’m sure we all have stretches where we question whether or not we are “a writer”.   I certainly have been questioning that about myself for quite some time. This speech showed me, though, that if you trust your creative instincts, you can fall back on them when you need to do so.  Sure, I needed to do some major editing on what I scribbled down on the pages at Starbucks, both for content and for time, but when I finally just trusted myself to write it, the words were there.  I gave the speech (without notes!) and afterwards I had people coming up to compliment it. The people who worked in the reception hall came up to me as well and said that they hear three or four of these speeches a week and had never heard a better one than mine.  Was my speech really that great?  I suspect not.  But I think it was not what was expected and that is what made it work.  What I did different from the prototypical best man speech is I wove a single story thread throughout and didn’t just go for cheap one-liners and random, embarrassing stories about the groom.  That was really the key for me to get the speech written in the first place – I needed to not force myself to write a 4 minute standup comedy routine.  They say you have to know your audience, and that’s true, but I’ll add to that concept that it is just as important to know when you don’t know the audience, too. Jokes fall flat if told to the wrong crowd. Personal stories fail if not enough people know the tale. But a well-balanced story can be funny and heartfelt and engaging to a wide variety of people. Having written for so much of my life, I just needed to remember that.

This event helped me see that while I may not have written much in the recent past, I’m still a writer.  So I want to know – have you had any experiences that helped you to see that the phrase, “once a writer, always a writer” is a Truth?  I’d love to hear your experiences here in the comments!

The Sympathy Vote

actorsObserve Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old hero of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.  Oskar’s father was killed in the attack on the Twin Towers and Oskar himself is just as shattered. Alone, he wanders New York for months, seeking the lock for a key he believes was left him by his father, keeping his profound terror at bay by wearing all white clothes and banging on a tambourine. Oskar is a diminutive child with immense impact. Safran Foer takes poetic license as his due and employs suspension of reality as a given. Yet I found Oskar, grieving and determined, completely believable. I’ve raised two sensitive sons who didn’t always do what was expected or take the easy route. They and Oskar remind me often how to be thoughtful of others whose condition I may have judged through my own harsh point of view.

My oldest grandson, hesitant, cautious, brilliant, and imaginative, could be Oskar. My oldest granddaughter, reckless, independent, creative, and fearless, could be Oskar. I’ve taught and mentored so many children over thirty-plus years, that I know the quirky kid whose lens is smeared, is the one who sees things accurately. Wearing white is a symbol of projecting peace while making noise routs the monsters under the stairs and makes them scrabble to darker corners. I read the book ten years ago and still recall many details, imprinted on me because they resounded with me. I care about Oskar enough to have remembered his story. He’s a sympathetic character.

We identify with sympathetic characters. Against the odds, we love these people. We ache for them, cry with them, wish they would wise up, and hope they prevail by the end of the book. They remind us that to be flawed is to be human, to cower is to yearn, to try to be heroic we sometimes end up an ordinary schlub.

Nothing ordinary about my next sympathetic character. It’s Death, usually portrayed in a hooded cloak covering his entire body, only his skeleton hand showing around the grip of his curved scythe, perhaps a ghoulish grin on his skull face. We all fear him. He has no mercy nor any compassion for the people he takes with a slash of his scythe, nor for the ones he leaves behind.

But this isn’t the Death in Markus Zuzaks’s The Book Thief. Death is a gentle creature who lifts the soul out of the body and carries it away in his arms. In his words:

I do, however, try to enjoy every color I see – the whole spectrum…It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax…

The smiling teddy bear sat huddled among the crowded wreckage of the man and the blood. A few minutes later, I took my chance. The time was right.

I walked in, loosened his soul, and carried it gently away.

All that was left was the body; the dwindling smell of smoke, and the smiling teddy bear.

…It kills me sometimes how people die.

This Death is an observer who lingers, one who is haunted by the humans whose lives he changes, for those who are left behind. He connects with the people who don’t even know he’s there. My mom lives in a residence for those who suffer with memory loss so severe they can no longer communicate in any familiar cognitive semblance. I hope that when my mom’s ravaged body finally lets her go, this is the Death who comes for her and lifts her soul gently. Oh, I hope it for myself as well one day. And because this Death is so tender and merciful, I feel kinship with him. What a terrible job he does so well, another sympathetic character.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is on its surface a story of the last generation of Chinese girls whose feet were bound, crippling them but making them desirable brides. Lily and Snow Flower are pledged as laotong, improvised sisters by the incidence of the constellations at the time of their birth. They suffer together the excruciating pain of the binding process. They spend hours with each other locked in the women’s room, and when apart send each other secret letters inscribed on the pleats of a fan, written in a poetic cipher called nu shu. Lily eventually realizes that she’s been duped into accepting Snow Flower as her better when it was Lily all along who deserved the most honored position.

Or was Snow Flower’s duplicity meant to protect herself from a terrible life while convincing Lily of their equal status? Each of these same-same friends looks in a mirror and sees a lie, but each also sees deception where perhaps there was only a miserable social condition thrust upon them by centuries of cultural restrictions so bizarre that little girls’ feet were broken to make them attractive to men. Bound feet, bound lives, secrecy, and social position enslave the girls while their fan hides their deepest longings. I kept a diary as a kid, a journal now, and I write stories that reveal aspects of my life. Couched as fiction, you’ll never know when I dissemble or lie or if I tell the truth. I’ve had best friends and left some of them behind, painfully, when the relationship changed too much for us to bear. I’m not always honorable, but nearly always beset by flaws. Noble and damaged, Lily and Snow Flower are both sympathetic characters.

Books about sympathetic characters are readable because we find ourselves on the pages, sometimes with a guide to redeem our own sorry selves.

See you on the pages in between.

The Writers Circle: Writing When Busy

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

NaNoWriMo asks participants to write with a reckless abandon for the month, squeezing in time for 1667 words per day for 30 days. Similarly, when on a deadline, we often are asked to churn out books and stories in a shorter amount of time than we’d like. Usually these stretches of time seem to hit when there are a lot of other things going on in life, too.  How do you squeeze in extra time for writing during NaNoWriMo or during any deadline-driven period without neglecting the family, the day job or your own eating, bathing and sleeping needs?

Let’s discuss this in the comments or on the forums and see what our community thinks.