Trashwalking

Acting in the community is important.
Improving the world does nothing if we cannot enjoy it, and it’s easier to become better in our world than to make the world a better place. Whenever I go out for a walk from my home, I have a simple rule: If I notice a piece of trash, I pick it up. If my walk, my break from my work, my cool down or space for thinking hard on something is disrupted, I take care of the disruption.
In all places in the public sphere it is human reflex to say “that is the responsibility of my sovereign” whether it is the modern government or the ancient kings and chieftains. It is built into mankind to look upwards for a solution to our problems, but the revelation of Western thought was that within our community it is our responsibility to portray ourselves and carry ourselves instead of looking upward for an external solution. We are the manifestation and apotheosis of our God and ways.
This came to a head with Christianity’s rise–a critical piece that makes up the walls of the West that the Hellenistic culture laid the foundations for–and the world has never been the same. Look at how Mohammadans borrowed this principle and applied it to their Eastern religion, and how their viewpoint inevitably boils down to bloodshed and slavery in the manifestation of their prophet’s way. Once present in the world, this principle of individuation became the dividing line between East and West forever, and an incredibly clear one.
The East is an old force, like fire or the Neolithic caveman inside each one of us. The West is still the new kid on the block, and there is no guarantee that it will survive another hundred years or if its light will be rejected along with all the advances it has brought. It is a living philosophy that can be embodied and strengthened in the small action of picking up a piece of trash or talking to a neighbor. When a robber breaks down your door, when a car wreck leaves a bleeding stranger lying at your feet, the authorities are a lifetime away and it is your responsibility to be as prepared as you can so you can do more than stand and panic.
Today, do something small to build up the wonderful West with its sciences, arts, and proud history that lept over all the East’s establishments: Pick up trash when you go for a walk, talk to your neighbor, replace your own light bulb instead of waiting on the landlord, step up and out of your natural state and into the light a little more.
The risk excites, but the honest cloak of authority that drapes over you refreshes and enlivens. Join with your People and do good today, for a simple act of good each day becomes a potent pile in but a little while.

Mythmaking

They say that sometimes the earth will grow dark, for a great wolf tries to eat the sun.
They say there were once giants, who walked the land and would eat those that smelled overmuch like Christians.
They say there was once a boy born who never grew taller than a hand is long, but that he made up for his size with cunning and bravery.
They say there was once a cat who was smart enough to talk and wear clothing like a man, and that is why cats are so much harder to cow, teach, and intimidate than dogs.
They say sometimes a star will fall to earth, and it grants a wish to the one who throws it back up into the heavens.
They say barriers of running water and sunlight will keep all supernatural monsters of ill intent away from you, and keep you safe.
They say that under the ice of Antarctica there is a secret tunnel where you can go and meet the strange and alien people living within the earth, down below the oceans.

Mankind has created all manner of myths, sparks of imagination and passion, fire and smoke. Every myth has its origins in truth, too. Even if you choose not to believe accounts from the days of the Romans, or the detailed memories of the oral histories and runestones of the Northmen, or the writings of Catholic monks, dragons can be believed from dinosaur bones at least. All kinds of stories have grown over the years, whether they are silly like the Easter Bunny or serious like how nations are made of laws instead of people who share heritage and language; fish stories are the least of our troubles and tangles with mythology!

I’m a firm believer in knowing your foes, and mythology the most pleasant and entertaining of foes to a truth-seeking and civilized soul. Join me today in writing a myth about why February has fewer days than the other months—it need not be long or drawn out! Here is my story…

Chronos, the great master Time himself, had given command of the shining days of the future to twelve of his children: The first, Janu, was an anxious boy and eager to please, so he kept his hand tight about the days and lets them go one by one, each much darker than most other months. His older brother Decem also holds onto the days and so they are dark, but that is because he is lazy and does things at the last minute. Jul and Aug were boistrous twins, young and happy, and in their hot energy they fling the days away into the hot rays of the sun rapidly so the days are very long in the summers. The oldest boys June and Octo are the most mature and sensible, so they are very balanced in sending out the days. Mara, April, and May all try to measure up to their oldest sister Sept, who is most beautiful, but they are always trying so hard and excited that they never quite capture her level of grace. Februa, the youngest girl, felt she could never ever do so well as her sisters or her brothers, and so towards the beginning she lost heart and went down to the pond to sulk, putting her days out one by one and watching their reflection in the water. She was absent, thinking sad thoughts in her little heart, and before she knew it a big fat frog had eaten up two of her days by mistake. “Oh no, you bad frog!” She cried, and tried to catch him, but the frog leapt away. She hasn’t stopped feeling sorry for herself and so each year the frog snags a few of her days, but sometimes she does catch him; that’s why in leap years we get an extra day in February!

Did you enjoy the myth? How did yours turn out? Share it with someone, or put it in the comments below!

Practice Writing Through Short Stories – Beta Exercises

Extra post with the promised writing exercises I had promised the class attendees. Each is designed to help focus on a different aspect of writing.

Color writing – Choose a color, and write down the first physical thing and the first abstract thing which comes to mind; such as ‘yellow,’ ‘flower,’ and “sadness.” Begin writing using these elements. Throwing words down onto the page and freeing your mind from planning to tap into your momentary inspiration is the key here, building the discipline to take a moment of inspiration and turning it into an actual bit of writing. This is practice making the words flow when you turn the spigot. It might be messy and that’s ok. The discipline of writing when you sit down to write, putting words on the page, is vital to saying the phrase, “Yes I can write.”

Circular writing – Take a common phrase or a sentence, something familiar to you, something a friend just said, something you overheard; this will be the first and last sentence in your story. Fill in the middle in a meaningful way. This is an exercise in exploring the nuance and meaning in even small details, and the condensation of ideas.

Symbol walk – Go for a walk and deliberately experience everything you can while on the walk, then come back and write your experience, then turn the walk into a story by personifying different elements. This is an exercise to improve your writing’s pacing and arcs, seeing and making patterns out of experiences. If you’re having trouble on with this one, focus on one thing: The clouds, the trees, the grass, the sounds of people or cars, etc. Focus your personification or interaction or internal process on that one symbol. Add more to practice complexity, which is difficult even for the seasoned.

Inside out – Choose one element of the place where you are writing, then build the story outward from that. Take, for instance, a red pencil, and then go from there. This is an exercise to fuel links in your imagination and improve detail-work in your writing.

Remnant – Choose a favorite world or story of yours, and write a short scene or story for that work. This is different from fan fiction, because you are aiming to match the tone and not changing anything about the world or story: You are mimicking and seeking to learn by following. This is practice making your writing more varied and marketable, as well as polishing your consistency of setting.

Devil’s Advocate – Choose a social issue you feel strongly about, then write a short story that justifies the opposite stance, or portrays characters with the opposing view as right or correct. This will help you improve your handling and writing of characters.

Precision – Write a story with only thirty words. Write the arc from setting the scene to the finish, and practice combing through your work to communicate as deeply as possible with each word. The better you can get your point across with fewer words, the easier it will be to capture your readers’ attention.

I will periodically post more, and I will also let you guys know when I have reworked the workshops. Thanks for showing up, I hope you all are excited about continuing to develop your writing talents. Feel free to let me know when you write something that you are proud of, I’m always excited to see someone happy about their work and play.

Workshops!

My wife and I traveled to Tucson recently for the Festival of Books put on by the Arizona Daily Star. Good show, large and busy convention grounds on the University of Arizona campus. Plenty of booths for books and all manner of non-book attractions as well.

While I was debuting my book Spring, I had the pleasure of attending a few of the free workshops and book-signings. Some were very good, some were a writer using a platform strictly to shill for their book, and some were very basic. On the whole, it was only the middling writers that were ignorable: Several of the significant names gave very good talks at a high level, and several of the new authors were possessed of the shine of excitement that makes me pay attention. The midline writers were the ones for whom convention appearances were just another checkmark, and the ones I saw just did not come with much enthusiasm and moxie. I look forward to going again next year.

After the two-day festival, I held two writing workshops that I am in the process of building into courses. The target was for younger students, and I had to cut down the time by almost half—I had intended to do full-day workshops but did both in the same afternoon and evening. They went fairly well, though I am of course improving them and going over the recordings with a fine-toothed comb.

One of the main failures was not having a handout for the various exercises that we did, or to assist with the takeaways—I am now convinced that every workshop should absolutely have a physical takeaway in addition to any notes or activities you participate in. People come to workshops with the takeaway in mind, and want something to carry back. In the modern format, you need to be better than an online video or a blog post for people to be willing to come to meet you on your schedule. I really look forward to doing another Beta-level run of these two courses in the Wichita area alongside a new one, “Sex Ed Through Shakespeare” that is aimed to help people navigate the sociosexual marketplace of modern times that is often confusing and deeply hurtful when not merely intimidating. It will not be the birds and the bees, kids, go talk to your parents for that.

Shakespeare is timeless because his works deal with the inherent issues of our inner man. Jealousy, doubt, schemes of ambitious and selfish individuals, the rise and fall of families and the fleeting mists of power that men constantly grasp at. While I was reading the jaw-droppingly beautiful Venus and Adonis I was blown away by how useful the clear marching out of unrequited love and passion danced through the stanzas, and how much it could help anyone who is confused by the increasingly deadly dance of love. So look forward to that coming up soon!

Writing Exercise – Smashionary

I have been preparing for a couple of upcoming workshop-style betas for my writing courses, and so for today I’m going to share one exercise that isn’t going to make it into those presentations, Smashionary. This is a very simple writing exercise but it does require either a dictionary, vocabulary book, or one of many online random word generators. Here is how it works:

Pick out two random words, and smash them together. That is now the title of the short story you are writing. Like many of the exercises I recommend, I don’t suggest a lot of prewriting—just start writing the first thing to come into your head and keep going for at least ten minutes. If you wind up writing a whole, complete story that’s great, but if you wander off or get lost or wind up only with notes or di Since the words are highly variable, you might be able to really learn what a new or unfamiliar word is through this sort of application which also trains creative thinking.

Here are a few mash-ups if you are eager to get started right now:
Hospital + Spike: Hospike or Spikpital
Boots + Garden: Bogarden or Gardoots
Sign + Sylvan: Sylvign or Sigvan
Hobby + University: Hobbiversity or Univobby

As you can see, they tend to seem quite silly and some naturally glide together while others are more awkward. The title is meant to help stir your mind like a cauldron and get you thinking. Here is where my mind went with the above examples:
– Spikpital: A grim detective story about a small Yankee forest town that hasn’t advanced its medical practices in a century…
– Gardoots: Some sort of small, troublesome creature called a Gardoot. I think I would start writing about the trouble they cause, and then try figuring out what they actually are.
– Sylvign: This title smells like high fantasy and mysterious forests, and makes me think of Tolkein’s Middle-Earth or the hero Sigmund and his dragon.
– Hobbiversity: A social critique or pundit’s scrawl about some sort of universal hobby, some craze that has taken over and is everywhere for the protagonist to struggle against and then at the end another new craze starts up. Maybe something out of the ordinary, like a teacher or a garbage collector is the main character.

It’s an exercise, not a competition or a novel so don’t get too invested and just practice letting the words flow out. Trust me, even if you are at square one with story talent or expression you will develop a good, natural feel as well as a personal style just through practicing, and having a judgment-free time to just practice is awesome for strengthening the skill when you really need to summon it up.

This and many, many other exercises will be in the fully finished course Practice Writing Through Short Stories when it releases, when you can find out why writing short story is the best way to practice all different forms of writing: creative, personal, professional, and persuasive alike!

For today, I rolled up “prevention” (the act of preventing) and “revenant”, and here is

    Prevenant

:

Martin’s ancient frown lines deepened as he looked down into the town square. “It’s been two days and they still are afraid to cut him down. That mob milling about truly is mad with grief.” He turned back and let the velvet curtain fall back, trading the harsh bleak winter light for the softer candelabras that lit his companion’s face as the thin young man shoveled forkfuls of chicken into his mouth.
“Mrf.” He dabbed his face and swallowed twice in quick succession and caught up his silver goblet. “Well father, the celebration of the heir’s birth was only four days ago. He was clearly a monster; probably hired by those meddlesome Ahesna. I’m just surprised his Majesty had him executed so quickly instead of finding out who sent him.”
“That is what concerns me most of all. The King is mad himself; he hasn’t slept since, just sitting and staring out a window or up and pacing as he dictates commands and letters.” The man’s ringed fingers absently found a pastry and he chewed reflectively. “What a misery. To celebrate the long-sought birth of a son—mother and infant both healthy as can be— and then an assassin steals in without subtlety and cuts your dreams to pieces. To think he climbed up the outside wall all that way up to the tower! It is outrageous. Inhuman.”
“They are sure that’s true, then? All the talk among the caravans were that it was an inside job, that some traitor let him inside.” The boy resumed his rapid, quiet repast.
“They are. His boots had a sort of spike on them, and the damage to the mortar is still visible.” Martin walked to his desk and picked up a book. “Here, though. For your birthday, so you can continue some of your studies while you are in the field.” The response was another muffled sound as the boy half-stood, magnetized by the food in the face of his attempts at courtesy. “God save you Thomas, do they not feed you?” Thomas looked ashamed, finally swallowing his mouthful. His father waved him to sit, allowing the book a place on the corner of the table.
“Ker-heh… When we heard the news, we rode straight through and changed horses. We stopped once at an inn yesterday morning where I talked a bit with the patrons, but that was the last I’ve had.”
“Mmm. Your horsemanship must have finally improved then! Your captain made a good choice to get back here. There’s been no more trouble, but still the situation is tenuous. That many peasants and all the emotions…”
“The queen was from just next door, raised in Epereims. How many of the rabble are from there?”
“Many. My fear is that someone will start a riot by attacking one of the foreigners, and more pain and blood will soak this woeful chapter in the King’s life.” The doctor checked the window again, pushing the curtain aside. “Still, hurry and eat. I expect to be summoned back soon.” The minutes passed in sober quietude, the small scrapes of cutlery punctuating the worried thoughts that brooded with the men. As the small feast was becoming fully picked-over, a knock brought the expected summons and the two gathered themselves and hurried to the guarded staircase leading up to the royal apartments.
The King slouched, bloodshot eyes vacantly scanning the still-bloody bed of his former Queen, a disheveled man brought low with sorrow. The doctor entered quietly and stood at a respectful distance. His son eyed the window suspiciously, clearly considering something as the regent sluggishly reacted. “Ah, Martin. And Thomas too! Lad, your father here is a dear friend and he will be pleased to hear that we acknowledge the wisdom of his insistence that I take my rest and some food. But there are yet two things to be done, then I can rest easy.” The lord swayed to his feet, some coals roaring to blaze again in his eyes. “Thomas, run down and tell your captain that he is to take his men to the square to assist Aster in finally cutting that body down. Disperse the mob and bury the body in secret somewhere lest we be tempted do un-Christian things to it. It is time for this day to end for– for us.”
As the lad shot away like a rabbit before a hound, the renewed eyes focused on Martin’s face. “Old friend, go with them. Find something about this man, so we may take our vengeance on whoever sent him. You know the great struggle we have had for an heir, and you yourself said that I may not live to see another; at least let us damn the one who have stolen our peace.”
“Could your gaolers not uncover anything?”
“Not a peep. They told me that fired irons and calipers and knives alike he simply ignored. They cut him and burned and questioned him but he was as unresponsive as when the guards took him from this room. You saw how he was.”
Martin ran his tongue over his teeth. “Like a brined fish, but breathing. I will do all I can think of, your Majesty.”
The march to the square was tense, and Martin uttered many a prayer even after they arrived and the surly, angry crowds slowly trickled out of the square, away from the ordonnance’s imposing weapons and the implied threat. All went peaceably, and the relieved and eager headsman looked to Martin for permission to cut the man down. The approval given, he examined the body right there on the platform, rolling out his tools and jars from his sack with his son’s practiced help. The Captain kept the privilege of gawking to himself, directing his soldiers to their task of keeping prying eyes discouraged and the true casket of the several they had brought concealed.
When night fell several hours later, the frigid autopsy had brought no answers. Martin had found nothing that would point conclusively in any direction—even the slivered shards within an old scar he had pored over and cleaned and set to jingling in a phial could only tell the quality of his assailant’s weapon, and these were so black from degradation that there was little hope left. The coins from the man’s purse, a mixed bag of copper from several nearby nations; his clothing, homespun; his body scarred like any sort of mercenary, though muscled like a true lion lithe and hard; a plain face that could be from anywhere. “The perfect assassin.” He finally stood. “Well, let us load the body to its eternal rest.”
The soldiers dispersed, weighted sacks keeping the knowledge of the true resting place from all but the Captain and the two surgeons though only the soldiers knew where in the countryside the grave would be dug. On their return, the cloud of disappointment returned to the King, though with rest and food he began again handling the affairs of state that lurked to cheapen his misery. The matter seemed concluded, until a week later a knock at Martin’s door as he was taking his evening revived the old corpse:
“Good evening, doctor.” The foreign nobleman was short and plump, immaculately dressed with dominant, dark eyebrows and pearly. “The servants suggested I visit at this hour, quietly, and escorted me here.”
Martin lowered his Etalan glasses and set his book down. “Very good of them, I’m sure, but to what do I owe the pleasure? You have the advantage of me, I’m afraid.”
“I am Doctor Brukowa. I served a lesser lord far to the East for my whole life until three months ago when he died tragically. I have come because there was a similar assassination here recently, on the path I have taken trailing my lord’s killer. May I come in?”
“Yes, yes of course…” The old man waved toward a chair. “Forgive me, I was not prepared to receive a guest.”
“Oh, I am grateful enough to overlook any of the typical niceties. I would prefer to be brief and to the point.” He withdrew a sizable scroll from his sleeve, tied with a purple ribbon. “This is a sketch of the man I seek.”
“It looks much like him.” The sketch was a masterpiece, and the pale fingers of his guest obscured a strange mark on the corner of the paper that made his skin crawl…
“Then my search is over. I have only to visit the grave and see that he is buried and I may return home!” The man rose, exultant as he rolled the scroll up again.
“That will be some difficulty. The King ordered him buried in secret, somewhere out in the countryside near the city.” Martin smiled ruefully, politely resisting an urge to take his goblet and throw back the rest of the wine.
“Ah.” The man sank down again. “That does make it more difficult. But you are sure the man was killed?”
“I investigated his corpse, at the King’s order, to see if I could find anything that would point to his employer.” The visitor’s eyebrows quirked, and Martin shook his head. “Fortune did not smile on me that day.”
“Nor me on this night…” The man chuckled and rose. “Well, I thank you for your help.”
Martin was left in silence after his visitor left. He was unable to return comfortably to his book and wine; was it his guest’s suddenness? No. He knew it, from a chance encounter in the far-off mists of his younger years. The symbol was one of sorcery, dark and forbidden yet somehow fitting for a dogged pursuit of a skilled assassin… He scratched his beard, reaching for his wine.
Outside the castle, a wisp of cloud slipped from a window on an upper floor and slithered along until it paused between the fortress and the town beneath a tree to form a pudgy man with a faint yellow glow and whiff of sulfur. He withdrew the scroll from his robe once again, placed his finger on the dark rune in the corner and spoke an oily word. The ink slid and coiled, reforming to a map of the surrounding area which he studied for a moment. He swore under his breath, and withdrew a short knife of black iron to place the broken-off tip onto the vellum. He looked expectant, then confused.
In Martin’s satchel, the phial with the metal shards made a tinkling noise.

Elbow Grease

I recently finished a challenge from my wife, writing twenty minutes a day for the whole first month of 2018. I sat in my office and she sat just out of sight in the living room in her chair, and we wrote then talked about our writing over breakfast.

I did not expect the little ideas she gave me as prompts to be so effective at improving my writing. My writing habits are so much better—simply writing every day breaks off the rust of disuse—but the quality is markedly improved also. It reminds me of the first manuscript I finished, back in high school: Three-hundred thirty-one pages of disorganized juvenile drivel about kings and a princess, dragons and fools that sought them out, forgiveness and bloodshed and promises kept and broken. It has a terrible plot, disorganized with no sense of pacing or meaning or purpose beyond an exploration of another world, but the writing quality is beautiful by the end.

I had written almost every day of high school for an hour or more. I am comparatively out of practice now, and the electric ink as I type feels forced and stultified in comparison. I knew nothing back then, but I was used to the work and expression. Elbow grease really accounts for a lot in terms of both quantity and quality.

So come, if you’re serious enough to gamble on yourself: Try a course like this one my wife did to build a serious writing habit and get cracking—I love how this particular man cuts through the nonsense to explain why a writing habit is one of the greatest decisions you can ever make. Become who you want to be and use the resources at your disposal to become who you want to be, be they time, money, or vision. If you are the one on the line, why not gamble? Place your outcome in your hands, take up your pen and take that first step forward over this weekend.

You have the power to change yourself, and to decide if you win or lose a reasonable bet when the money’s on you. Do it. Come out ahead. Rinse. Repeat.

In Your Presence

When I was growing up, my family always spent time together after dinner was over and dishes were done playing cards. No matter what was going on, after the meal when everyone was home we gathered together to relax and do something simple at least four times a week, and not always for very long—one of the advantages of traditional playing cards is that they come out and clean up very quickly and easily. Even if the card games were proxies for healthy interaction via heated competition, we were affirmed that we were with the others there at the table.

This month I invite you to make a little extra time to pay attention to the people you are with, at home or at work or at some hobby or at church or wherever you might be. Sometimes we are with someone and yet absent, we appear in their presence and think about being elsewhere.

Choose to be present. Choose to be with them. Choose to interact and to observe, look keenly for how they are feeling and what they are going through and what you can do to help them if anything. Engage deeper. People are the most valuable resource in your life. Even the mail carrier who you may never speak to does a lot of good for you and saves you time, even the fast food server is providing you with an opportunity just by being present.

This may expose issues you do not want to face, hard things, things there are no words. My family had plenty we never discussed, so we focused on the games. Still, at least let them rise to the surface where you can make the decision with the Civilized side of you whether to tuck them away or to bring them up, instead of letting the animal make decisions based on discomfort or pain.

This is more a matter of style than action; this invitation is more about changing your inner landscape than your outer one. Choose to see, choose to listen, choose to dig in, choose to invest. All of these things cost you and it is very easy to walk by the opportunities even in those closest to you, the familiar windows of family life with its routine interactions and relative positions; it’s easy to keep your mental wallet shut instead of even window shopping if you go by the windows every day or if you’re out and about on a mission or errand. The animal side of us glazes over routine interactions as a matter of course, and at its most bestial it completely ignores or even moves to dominate those who aren’t immediately making themselves useful to us instead of treating everyone with respect, which pays off long-term.

Our families and communities can be stronger, and there is no realistic upper limit. In an age when neighbors are often unknown and there is much to fear in powers and persons both foreign and domestic, simply being present and open to those around us is often enough to set you apart and even establish trust—that oft-elusive shield of faith that protects mind and spirit from all manner of harm and greases the wheels of societies and social life alike. Strengthen your influence and awareness of your world, be willing to put in a little more work and grow a little, be willing to change and grow a little further outward of your safe cocoon of normalcy for a few days.

Be present with those who are in your presence in the present. Present yourself as a present to your world. See what happens, what you notice, what changes in you and your relationships in the next week. Come back and let me know how it goes, I’d love to hear about your re-experience of your world.