Tuesday, November 11, 2014

NaNoWriMo So Far. . .

My NaNoWriMo word count for today is 11,069. I'm behind after a few days of not writing. The story is flowing though. There's a goblin conspiracy in AC and only a broken down wizard and his buddy the mind reading mage can figure it out.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The School of Mental Gymnastics: NaNoWriMo - Day 1

I'm participating in NaNoWriMo this year.  Here's the story of someone else going through this and trying to blog.

The School of Mental Gymnastics: NaNoWriMo - Day 1: Today was the first day of National Novel Writing Month (or perhaps I should say yesterday was the first day, as it is now well past midn...

Monday, August 11, 2014

Reflecting on Minimalism and Life and Goodbye, Mr. Keating

This post started life as one thing and became another, yet somehow it all comes together.

Life got in the way the last month.  I had every intention of returning to discuss my experiment in minimalism but life got in the way.

I've been dealing with many issues.  In retrospect, I should be grateful, mainly because these issues allow me experiences to draw from as a writer.  At some level, I am grateful.  As I love telling people, I don't lead an exciting, glamorous life.  I just know how to make mundane things sound interesting.

I can't really share the details of the events that have happened to me as they are the details of others.  Suffice it to say, the last month has taught me something that goes hand in hand with the experiment in minimalism I performed.

This may seem like a digression, but it's not.  There's been a lot of discussion lately about "The Selfie."  Whether it's something like The World's Most Famous Selfie or a picture of someone else taking a selfie, these things are everywhere now.  Some even say they are self-indulgent little vanity projects.  People brag about where they take selfies, whether at the top of roller coasters or deep sea diving.

But when we take these pictures, are we really looking at what we are taking pictures of?  Are we looking at ourselves?

Think about why most selfies are taken in the bathroom.  The light is good and you have a reflective surface to use.  But all you're really reflecting on is the surface, your face, your features.

When we "simplify, simplify, simplify," as Thoreau would say, we're left with what's left, the bare minimum.  When we take a selfie, we aren't really being reflective.  You take the pictures, hit a few buttons, and it's shared with everyone, everywhere, forever.  Some people don't stop to wonder what they are posting.  You think this guy cares?

So without time to reflect, we react, as our mammalian ancestors did when they were hunting mastodons.  We now have the technology that allows us to reflect and learn more than ever, but we never take the time to do so.  In fact, as I'm writing this, I just found out that Robin Williams may have committed suicide.  It's spreading on Facebook like wildfire.  We, as in the collective "we" just discovered this, and because there have been so many death hoaxes and errors in reporting, I don't know if it's even accurate to say he committed suicide or not.  Time will bear out that it's probably true, but we now live in an age where we run headlong with information  and rarely take the time to process it.

Reflection is the lesson I learned from minimalism.  We live in an age of unprecedented information exchange.  In some ways, however, we're still isolated.  Worst of all, we're isolated from ourselves because we can't really reflect on who we are.

Take time to slow down.  Read past the headline.  Ask questions.  You don't need to get rid of your smartphone.  Just be smart about how you use it.

Cast photo from Dead Poets Society from here

As for Robin Williams, I am sorry to hear about his death.  "Dead Poets Society" was one of my main influences for becoming an English professor, and I loved his performance in "Insomnia."  He was a rare talent that influenced me in a very fundamental way in terms of my love on English, writing, and my desire to help students think for themselves.  The first phrase I ever learned in Latin was Carpe diem.  I think his performance in Dead Poets Society made me realize that if we are mindful of the beauty of language, we understand what makes us human.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Minimalism on The 4th of July

A few days ago, I was out running errands and I was at the local pizza place again.  And just like with my previous post on fostering childhood curiosity, I read an article in a free parenting magazine, this one on minimalist parenting.  I grew up in a restaurant and I read the newspaper as a kid so reading and eating sort of go hand in hand with me.

The article is better than the picture that went with it,
at least in my opinion.
This article on the minimalist lifestyle didn't trigger anything in me as so much as it sort of acted as a catalyst that brought about a culmination to a process that I was already going through.  I've already discussed that I frequently use public transportation on Long Island even though I own a car.  Those who don't live on Long Island may not see this as a big deal, but basically everyone here owns a car because everything is so spread out.  I ended up using the bus because I could no longer afford to drive or repair a gas guzzling 2002 Ford Explorer my parents gave me after I crashed my beloved 2003 Ford Ranger during a snow storm in 2011.  For about five months, from February to July of 2013, I managed to do what most Long Islanders consider difficult: live without a car.  So when a friend of the family gave me my '97 Honda, I still used public transportation.  It's cheaper, and I have to admit, I love meeting new people and watching stories unfold.

I then started to give up other things.  Cable was too expensive so we got the basic package (we got it back about a year later, and I felt mildly disappointed).  Every two months or so, I give away clothes and books and movies to Savers (occasionally buying a new book to read).  I don't get Netflix; I still get movies from my local library.  I only recently got a Kindle secondhand, and it was for free.  About a month ago (I think I discussed this in a  previous blog post), I talked about giving up watching the morning news.  I did upgrade my phone so I can get emails from my students.  But just like Joshua Millburn, the subject of the article, I was starting to feel like I had too many things, and not enough in the way of quality.  I read books piecemeal.  I was writing piecemeal, if at all.  My thinking about problems was scattered.  Thank goodness my girlfriend got me to take that blogging class back in April so I could have a place to write on a semi-regular basis.

I felt like my life was in a constant state of emergency.  This was justified in some sense as my girlfriend and her family were dealing with a lot, but in others, not so much.  I had what I considered to be too many First World Problems.

So what is minimalism?  Before reading this article, I thought it was a literary movement.  Just to stay honest, Raymond Carver is one of my favorite authors.  In a literary sense, minimalism is cutting away what is superfluous while showing the bare minimum to get your point across.  The trick, if you could say there is a trick to writing in a minimalist style, is showing the surface but achieving a level of tension that the reader intuits rather than rationally is aware of, feeling as opposed to knowing.  In other words, a story about a refrigerator breaking is about more than just the fridge breaking.  It's about a couple breaking up, a man having a depressive breakdown, and a woman who is fed up and ready for divorce.

Photo of Raymond Carver from Wikipedia
Millburn discusses tension as he is interviewed for the article.  Tension was the reason he turned to minimalism as a lifestyle.  Just as Raymond Carver cut away at a story to give you the bare, raw truth, as a lifestyle, minimalism has you face what you truly can and cannot live without, especially in a material sense.

As I was reading this article while eating my pizza, my phone must have buzzed, vibrated, or otherwise alerted me at least four times in 45 minutes.  Now I admit, I love my phone, even if it is the low end of the Samsung Galaxy line.  But what is true love if it is not fraught with some tension, yes?  I love my Twitter account, need my Facebook account, and I love trying out new forms of social media (Pinterest is my current favorite, with StumbleUpon a close second. . . Tumblr, we'll see.)  I'm not in the current Millennial demographic (I'm solidly a Gen-Xer) but I realize shying away from new technology because it's different is just an Old Fart thing to do.  My dad's an Old Fart.  I'm not ready for fishing or living in Florida yet.

But still, when is enough ENOUGH?  When does the phone stop ringing, or buzzing, or vibrating?  Do we need to see notifications from overly sensitive people arguing on Facebook?  Who cares about your Supernatural/Dr. Who crossover fanfic or your erotic vampire vs. werewolf story?  Who's sexier, Spike or Angel . . . who cares?  (Well, the answer is Spike, but let's move on . . . ).

So to make a long story short (too late), I decided to take a break from social media, and media in general.  I live on an Island, so why not be like Gilligan ("No lights, No phone, no lights, no motor car
not a single luxury"), at least in terms of living on an island without media.  I also figure with all the fireworks, who needs more noise?

In the spirit of what Millburn said in the article about minimalism being a personal thing with each person having a personal flavor, I made some rules for myself.  After posting this, I'm turning off my computer.  I'm going to turn off the notifications on my smartphone and use it as a (*gasp*) phone.  No Twitter, and honestly, that's going to be the hardest part because I do love Twitter.  No Facebook.  No blog posting.  No Pinterest.  I don't think Tumblr will miss me though.  Basically, no social media.

And just to see if I can go the distance, I'm not going to turn on a TV, watch a movie, or listen to music.  No news.  No NPR.  I will only read books and talk to people face to face, the phone only being for short conversations.

So books and dealing with people.  I'll let you know next week how things go.  

I hope you all enjoy your holiday.  Take a minute to celebrate not just the birth of our nation, but what our nation stands for.  Democracy, freedom of speech, and that though we as people may fall short of the ideals our Founding Fathers gave us, at least we reach for them.  We may still be a young country, but we've been through a lot.  And like Indiana Jones said, "It's not the years.  It's the mileage."  You don't need to take as much quiet time as I do, but try shutting the phone off for an hour.  Look at the fireworks.  They're a lot less annoying than your ringtone, and more colorful than your phone's wallpaper.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Quickie: Someone Put He-Man Into My Transformers

Look at this picture.  Tell me you don't see the loincloth.

This movie is gonna hurt.  Stop doing this, Michael Bay!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Chase Says, "Yeah, You Know That Novel? Finish It In 18 Years After You Work Like a Corporate Drone"

I've participated in NaNoWriMo since 2011.  The challenge of NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month) is to write the first draft of a 50,000 word novel in 30 days; this usually takes place in November.  Basically, it's the idea that since many people say, "I would love to write a novel someday," "someday" becomes today.

Now, I know what you're thinking.  Fifty-thousand words?  That's impossible.  It's really not.  It's difficult, but not impossible.  In four years, I wrote four novels and half of a fifth.  I wrote two in one year, and last year I admit, I crapped out at 25,000 words.  Finding time to edit is actually the harder part.

So, I used to get up in the morning and watch the morning news.  I used to watch the local Fox affiliate's Good Day New York mainly because this guy gets the weather right more often than not.  But then I realized how awful the rest of the newscast was.  It's not really news to find out what a spornosexual is, is it?  I mean, Russia destabilizing the Ukraine (supposedly)?  Trouble with Iran?  Not important.  A spornosexual is.

Dude is modest, right?
Image found here
So during the morning news, I would see this commercial.  Watch it yourself here.  I'll wait.

I don't think my reaction was rage, just mild irritation.  As a writer, society sends what I believe are mixed messages to me and others in my profession.  Writers such as Tolstoy, Shakespeare, or Joyce, the Giants, are seen as visionaries, people who have unique perspectives who've written books that have changed the world.  I wholeheartedly agree.

But attempt to follow in their footsteps, and people ask questions like, "What is your day job?"  "Do you teach?"  Don't get me wrong.  I know writing is a tough row to hoe.  I do teach to pay my bills as I try to get my portfolio edited and ready for the public.    But why be dismissive about writing?  Why automatically assume it's a secondary job?

Some people tend to think writing comes from no where.  That movie description you read on Moviefone or that copy on the back of a paperback novel had to be written by someone.  That someone may have a dream to write The Great American Novel, but there may be more important things he should be doing, according to the writer of this particular commercial.  While I didn't go into a homicidal rage over this commercial, I felt it was just another pinprick in my life, another dig at society in general telling us to go to this bank and get cheap credit, keeping us slaves to the credit treadmill so we can buy things we don't need, like a bigger house or a better car.

Now, I decided to post this video to the NaNoWriMo group on Facebook to see what kind of reaction it would get.  I was somewhat surprised.  One person thought because I had mentioned being offended, I had made some sort of connection that Chase was directly attacking NaNoWriMo.  I didn't.  I was offended as a writer.  But we agreed that the commercial itself was kind of clueless about what real writing was all about.

What surprised me were the "hobbyists."  These were people who write for fun.  The first comment I saw was: "Why do you find it offensive? It's a lot of how life goes, we all have a dream, but sometimes, a bigger one comes true first."  "Bigger" by whose standard?  I don't assume anything about the people I encounter on the Internet.  In fact, the only assumption I can make is this woman just enjoys writing for writing's sake and finds it fun.  I'm glad.  The question then becomes, how can one write fiction without the ability to empathize with the idea that some see writing the Great American Novel as more than just a dream for "someday"?

Writing is hard work.  NaNoWriMo tries to show people that, while hard, it is not impossible, the province of magicians, or the domain of geniuses.  Language belongs to all of us.  But we treat language like crap, and those who make their living using language as not worthy of any significant respect.  As I said, the commercial was just a way to pull at heartstrings to get you to take out a loan so your princess can get her prom dress and Sweet Sixteen Little Red Corvette, because you can't be a good provider if she doesn't have these things, and you have to put off your own dreams for hers.

Do we need more manipulation like this though?  Just don't be the guy who finishes one novel in 18 years.  Finish it in a month, the way you should.  Then slide it in the drawer if you want to.

But then slide it out every so often and ask yourself if waiting to edit your book for 18 years so you could afford that crap you never really needed was worth it.

Update: Apparently, the thread I put up in the NaNoWriMo group got a life of its own.  People apparently were okay with this commercial moreso than I was, mainly because they could relate.  My pleas to look at the fact that they were white knighting a major corporation using emotional manipulation to send the populace into debt was not heard, and I was accused of being insensitive to the elderly, mothers, fathers, feminists, pro-lifers, pro-choice supporters, pro-family supporters and the human race in general.  I decided to just leave the group before the pitchforks and torches came out.

One good thing came from this.  My hater count went up.

You damn right, they do.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Adventures with Public Transportation: The Rainy Day 25 Cent Bus Ride

Got writer's block?  Try riding the bus!
Picture by Mike Imprixis
Riding the bus on Long Island is not easy.  It's harder because you have people always telling you riding the bus on Long Island isn't easy because the public transportation system sucks.
Personally, I don't mind.  I know that the infrastructure of Long Island wasn't designed with pedestrians or bicyclists in mind.  Most people own cars.  I own a car myself.  However, back in 2011, I crashed my truck, my baby, a dark blue 2003 Ford Ranger with over 200,000 miles, during a snow storm.  I ended up borrowing my parents' SUV (don't ever buy an Explorer and expect to live on a modest budget), but even that truck ended up being more problems than it was worth.  So between February and July of 2013, I started using public transportation.  Even when I ended up getting a 1997 Honda Civic, I still ended up taking the bus when I could.

Why, you may ask.  Because the bus is full of stories!  It's a writer's dream come true for curing the dreaded Writer's Block.  I have a lot of stories about the people I've run into and talked to.  Today was no different.

I had to get to the post office today to send out some paperwork.  It was miserable out.  Rainy, a little humid, probably not the best day to go walking.  I've been walking in weather like this since my teens though.  Don't ask why, but I get these bouts of claustrophobia something awful.  Bad weather makes it worse.  Last winter was like a death sentence to me, and we all know how bad the weather was last winter.
The bus stop is about a 15 minute walk from my house.  There are two bus stops actually.  One is by the King Kullen and is a little farther away, but it has a shelter, unlike the closer stop.  I also had to stop at the ATM and my bank is there.

So I'm sitting in the bus stop shelter with another guy who has a bike.  The rain is coming down steadily, like a shower with bad water pressure, the kind Kramer on Seinfeld would hate.  (I have to agree with Kramer; give me the Silkwood shower anytime.)  All of a sudden, a woman came from no where (or at least I wasn't paying attention) and asked us if we wanted bus tokens.  I'm used to this.  People who have to attend mandatory drug rehab programs get bus tokens.

See?  It even says "Special Program"!
Found here.
Sometimes these people decide they'd be better off selling these tokens, usually for a dollar, which is half the price of a ride on the bus.  I don't want to speculate why they sell their tokens.  I do know however that tokens and cigarettes are also considered fair trades.

So, I asked this young lady, "How much?'  She said no charge, had four tokens, and ended up splitting them between me and the guy with the bike.  Then she vanished.  I mean, I seriously did not see which way she went.

So thanks to this random act of kindness, I only ended up paying 25 cents for the transfer (when I travel locally, I take one bus to my destination and take a different route home, so a $4.00 round trip ride goes down to $2.25).  I have no clue why this woman did this.  Was she a Joan of Arcadia-like vision?  Was she fulfilling some Step 9 obligation?  All I know is that this randomness doesn't happen while driving a car.  Walking in the rain didn't seem so bad after that.  And I got a story besides.

As a post-script to this story, when the bus did arrive, the bike rack in the front of the bus was full.  For some reason, the bike guy left his bike in the shelter unlocked.  That makes me wonder what that story might be.
Adventures with Public Transportation: The Rainy Day 25 Cent Bus Ride

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Article Review: "Flexing The Creativity Muscle"

Why is it important to foster curiosity?
 This article from nymetroparents.com explains
I'm a sucker for the free magazines and newspapers left out at the local pizza joint.  I enjoy reading while I eat so picking up an issue of the Hometown Shopper or the Long Island Parent Magazine helps me to pass my time.  Sometimes, however, I actually learn something reading these.  I read an article by Diane Rosen called "Flexing The Creativity Muscle".  It discusses the fact that learning and creativity are not just areas isolated to the arts or to school.  Learning is inherent in all of us and is an activity we all engage in even before we get to school. Teaching Children About Curiosity

My favorite bit of advice comes right at the beginning, when Rosen says that we should not hope that our children outgrow the "why" phase, but actually work to perpetuate it.  I'm not a parent, but if I'm ever lucky enough to have children, I'd want a son or daughter questioning as much as possible.  We live in an age where questioning is seen as peculiar, if not downright dangerous.  Acceptance without questioning makes for a great conspicuous consumer or corporate drone, but not for a thinking, feeling human being.

A lot of this article gives good advice not just to parents, but to teachers as well.  This makes sense, since a significant part of a parent's job is to teach.  If you want a curious child, for instance, model the behavior of being curious.  Allow a child to be wrong without feeling punished.  One of my favorites, however, is don't just ask about grades or test scores, but ask if your child asked something interesting and if he learned anything from asking.  The end goals are important, but so is the process by which we arrive at them.

What ultimately struck a nerve with me from reading this article was how little we pay attention to fostering curiosity in our children in the education system.  You cannot measure curiosity and the benefits of an active mind may not be seen for years.  So it's sad to think that we're pushing children towards high stakes testing that emphasizes product over process, penalizes failure instead of making it an educational opportunity, and rewards mediocrity instead of excellence.  

I don't know about you, but I'm leaning towards home schooling my children when I eventually have children.  While I believe that all citizens living in a democracy have a right to a public education, until the system starts serving our children better, by fostering creativity and curiosity in our children, all we're really doing is indoctrinating them into conformity.   Our kids deserve better.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Continuing Education Never Stops

This week was a challenging week.

The main issue I've found is balancing my life as a writer with my life as a writing teacher.

I do enjoy teaching most of the time.  There is so much fear about writing that people have this aversion to the process that, with time and understanding, they can get over.  The hardest part of my job is not teaching a student where a comma goes in a sentence or how to recognize a run-on sentence.  No, the most challenging hurdle I face is the student who has had poor instruction or has been told in the past, "You are a bad writer."  It reminds me of my old days working with website developers where I had to hunt down bugs in an application and reprogram the app to do the right thing, the right way. 

A student comes to me with faulty thinking, and I have to find where the faulty thinking originated.  One student, probably in his late 20s or early 30s, told me he used to write when he was a teenager.  He kept a journal and his mother had caught him writing and made him feel bad about it.  By the time I had got him, the mental block he had built was colossal.  So I gave him the best advice I could think of (just replace the word "dance" with "write"):

 So great, I help people write.  But sometimes, I wonder about my own writing.  I didn't get a chance to work on my homework for my Blogging class this week.  I've had Writer's Block for months now.  I finally feel ideas coming to me, but I can't find the time to act on them.  My girlfriend, Jolie (read her blog on writing; she's brilliant!) has suggested many different writing projects, such as my forthcoming blog on riding the bus on Long Island (adventures and hilarity follow me wherever I go so why not blog about them?)  It just seems like I never have time. . . I don't want to be Mr. Holland.  Teaching is a noble profession, but I'm not always noble.  

A parting shot. . . if you ever want to see how good your English teacher is, ask him the following questions:

  1. What are you reading right now for pleasure?
  2. What writing project are you working on right now?
If he or she can't answer those two questions readily, seek out someone else, like oh, I don't know, me! 

My answers:

  1. Three books: Jane Eyre, Mastery by Robert Greene, and Feeling Good by David D. Burns
  2. This blog, a script for a pilot for a TV show I want to write, and just anything to help me break my Writer's Block.  Suggestions are welcome.

Blogging 101- My First Day of Continuing Education

Today was my first day of continuing education.  I am a student at Suffolk Community College, learning about blogging.  I've never taken a course that wasn't related to attaining a degree of some sort.  I'm enjoying this experience because I'm in a classroom and there is no pressure.

No pressure to perform, no pressure to excel, no pressure to even teach.  I can sit back and enjoy while learning a skill that I have incomplete knowledge on, but will serve me well in my writing career.

This was a good idea.  I'm in a period of my life where I feel stuck, frozen, not moving.  This is a different experience.  I'm already feeling the pressure between my eyes go away.  I feel the ideas swirling in my head, actually fighting to get out.  Usually the ideas lounge in my head like drunken Romans in "I, Claudius."

They demand attention but they produce nothing.  Now, the productive ideas are stomping those lazy thoughts out.

Taking this class is the best thing I can do for myself.