Scat Mask Replica III


1) The Rasputin Paradox. Are you involved in an enterprise in which one person’s alleged ineptitude is holding you back from realizing the vast potential of that enterprise? Is your enterprise one-step away from removing that alleged ineptitude? Those who know the history of the Russian Empire know to be careful what they wish for. Some speculate that Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin had far less influence in the Russian Empire (circa WWI) than history details, and they double down on that by saying that the Romanovs would not refute what others said about the levels of Rasputin’s influence, because they enjoyed having Rasputin play the role of the scapegoat. If they did not know the level of blame others placed on Rasputin while he was alive, they definitely found out after his death, because after Rasputin was murdered the focal point for the Empire’s ineptitude was gone. Those in politics, business, and in personal crisis should note that casting blame on one particular person for the failure of your enterprise might prove cathartic in the short-term, but once that person’s gone, it might reveal more about the general ineptitude of that enterprise than any of the other players ever imagined.   

2) “If you have facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have the law on your side, pound the law. If you don’t have either, pound the table.” One of the more uncomfortable situations I’ve experienced involved someone pleading with me to accept them as a genuine person. It’s a gross over simplification to suggest that anytime someone pounds the proverbial table to convince me of something that they’re lying, but experience informs me that the more someone pounds the table the more insecure they are about the information they’re trying to pound into my head. We’re all insecure about our presentations, and some of us pound the table even when we have the facts on our side. I know it’s easy to say, but those with facts on their side should relax and allow them to roll out as they may. The truth teller who finds it difficult to avoid pleading their case should also know that after we reveal enough supportive evidence most will believe us, but some just enjoy watching us squirm.

3) Speaking of the genuine article, it has recently come to my attention that some pathetic soul stole at least two of the articles from this site. Some call this plagiarism, but I call it pathetic. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose I should consider it a compliment, but this is outright theft. It seems redundant to me to clarify the rules on this matter, but if a writer is going to “repost” they are required to provide attribution. (For those unclear on the definition of this term, it means that a writer is supposed to inform their audience that they didn’t write the article.) Not only did this pathetic soul avoid attributing the article to me, but they also didn’t provide proper attribution to the quotes I did in the article they stole. So, this person (who provides no discernible path back their identity) anonymously steals posts to presumably receive checks from companies that pay writers to sport ads on their site. I don’t care how much those sponsored ads pay, how does this person sleep at night knowing that the profession or hobby they chose is one in which they cannot produce their own quality material. If I were ever to reach a level of such a desperate act, I would seek another profession or hobby. 

4) The difference between selfishness and self-awareness. A complaint about young men and women is that they’re too selfish. It’s the root of the problem, they suggest. I don’t know if it’s true, but if it is I would suggest that those speaking out against it are delivering an incomplete message. My platform would suggest that these selfish types are focusing on self-awareness, and that they should seek it to achieve a level of fulfillment. We could view striving to achieve greater self-awareness as a selfish pursuit, but self-awareness can take several forms. Performing selfless acts, for example, can teach a person a lot about themselves, and it should be encouraged, as people performing many selfless acts can become more aware of themselves and more selfless. The process could lead to an antonym of the vicious cycle these complainers decry. If I had a pulpit, I would also declare that an individual could learn more about themselves through spirituality. I’ve been on both sides of the value of scripture, and I think this gives me greater perspective on the matter. I look at scripture and other Biblical teachings as a roadmap to personal happiness through reflection. Self-interest drives me to follow those teachings because I believe it’s in my best interests to follow them. In short, I would play my sermon to the selfish predilections of the young. I hear sermons that suggest otherwise, and I can’t help but think that the priest is missing a beat.

5) As a former service industry employee, I’ve encountered my share of disgruntled customers. I could provide a list of examples, but the material of their complaints is irrelevant. Most experienced service industry employees know that the most disgruntled customers are the most disgruntled people. They might hate their kids, the spouse, and their life. Whatever the case is, the discrepancy they find causes them to unload, “What kind of Mickey Mouse operation are you running here? Your ad says this item is on sale today for two bucks. If you think I’m going to pay more than that, you must think I’m stupid! Or, are you singling me out based on my characteristics?” These statements are often a mere introduction to a heated exchange that reveals the effort of the disgruntled customer to achieve some satisfaction they can’t find elsewhere in life. A more confident customer would simply say, “Your ad says that this item is on sale today for two dollars.” Those of us who have experience in the service industry know how intimidating a confident presentation of the facts can be, especially from a more secure individual.

6) A new documentary captures an ant crawling down from a piece of cheesecake with a piece of it lodged in its mandibles. The makers of this documentary capture the ant’s progress, in stop action photography, as this permits progressed commentary from various filmmakers talking about the brilliance of each segment. Where does the ant go, and what will it do with the small, round ball of cheesecake? This is the plotline of an amazing new documentary called Posterula. (Spoiler alert) The ant makes it off the plate, but the viewers don’t know if the ant ever takes the piece to the colony to feed the queen. This leads this viewer to believe that an as of yet undisclosed plan for a sequel to this brilliant documentary is in the works.

(Hi, I’m Rilaly, and if I were to take you on a tour of my young mind, this would be but an example of what you would read. Some suggest that such humor is too niche, and if that’s the case I would’ve niched my way out of the market. If I had one of my stories published, customers at bookstores would’ve walked past my serious pieces, thinking that I’m nuts, too far gone, and unserious. They probably still think that. I’m niche.)

7) I landed upon the term “vague and flexible by design” the other day. The author of the term intended it as a compliment for the subject, but if they directed such a characterization at me, I would view it as an insult. I understand that we’re different people in different surroundings, and that we should all remain flexible with our ideals to prepare for new findings on the subject in question, but the “vague and flexible by design” compliment would register a ‘no core’ insult to me.

8) What hotel, or meeting space, first decided to serve a ball of meat as a solitary entrée? Someone somewhere should’ve stepped in and said, “Woops, you forgot the fixins.” Those who have attended more than twenty corporate galas, weddings, or any catered event are now more than accustomed to the items served in a buffet line. I now eat before I attend one of these functions, because I cannot eat another pinwheel, I’m burnt out on hot wings, and I hit my personal threshold on room temperature potatoes au gratin somewhere around 2004. I am not a finicky eater, but I can no longer stomach this list of dietary choices. I will acknowledge that being American provides me the luxury of making odd and unreasonable dietary choices, but if I’m going to limit myself to one meal a day to maintain a plump figure, as opposed to fat or obese, I’m not going to eat something just because others provide it in a visually pleasing manner.  

9) There is a difference between writing a grammatically correct sentence and quality writing. I took college classes on creative writing, I’ve read the MLAs, and I’ve learned through word-of-mouth what leads to quality reading. I’ve fixed the passive voice sentences, deleted the word “had” as often as possible, and I’ve tried to avoid what fellow writers call “the you-yous”. The goal for the writer is to adhere to the rules of writing while attempting to maintain a stream-of-consciousness style that makes for quality reading. It’s not considered grammatically incorrect to write that you may not enjoy this sentence, but writing that the reader may enjoy it without the word you is considered a more pleasant reading experience. I’ve also attempted to write “who” instead of “that”, and I’ve attempted to limit my need to “that” too often. Example: “You don’t want to write that it was someone else that said something, when who said it is much more familiar to you.” In that sentence, fellow writers suggest using the word “Writers” to replace the first you, and “Readers” is an advisable replacement for the second you. Beta readers suggest that doing otherwise means the writer has a bad case of the you-yous. You is too familiar to you, and that is too unfamiliar, and you do not want to be too familiar or too unfamiliar. The first reason for following this rule is that the writer does not want to write in the manner they speak, because the way one speaks in one locale may not be as familiar to a reader in another locale. These standards set a common base for readers, free from colloquialisms. The you yous also creep up on a writer in free flow, and they may not notice how redundant the use of the word is in their document. The question that haunts me is do I want a perfect document to impress accomplished writers, or do I want to pleasure myself with a document that might have some flaws. The notion one writer lofted was every writer makes mistakes, we readers weave them into the cloth of our expectations, but is there a point when the mistakes distract from the whole.

10) “He’s such an idiot,” Teri said after her boyfriend left the party table to go to the bathroom. “He cheats on me all the time. For all I know, he’s arranged something in the bathroom. I’m serious. I can’t even trust him to go to the bathroom.” Such comments are so unexpected that they’re hilarious.

“Why the hell are you dating him then?” I asked. Room silencing, impulsive comments like these are my gift to the world. I can flatten the smile of any decent person from fifty yards with a single thought implanted in their brain.

The comment sat right with me, but the moment after I delivered it I realized it was so loaded with complications that no one in the right mind would deliver it to a table of people gathered together for the sole purpose of mixing in some laughter with their fun. I thought it might add to the fun, or spur her into extensions on the joke, but I was wrong. I made her uncomfortable.    

As soon as she recovered from the blow, aided by my discomfort, she displayed the idea that she locked herself into a certain, cynical dynamic of life. She knew the world was full of it, and everyone around her was too, in one way or another, because she knew she was. She thought her beau was full of it too, but “He’s a nice guy…most of the time.” I didn’t know if that was her final answer, but I overemphasized my acknowledgement of her answer to suggest that was what I sought.

No matter how often I affirmed her answers, Teri kept coming at me with answers. She said he was “Funny and fun to be around.” She said he was good looking, and she said he did “Sweet things for her.” I couldn’t get out of this uncomfortable spiral of my own making. I pretended to be interested, because I knew I put her in the uncomfortable position of having to explain one of life’s most illustrating choices, but I was trying to end the episode with every word she said to me.

Most of us cannot explain our life altering choices so well that we can weather interrogations. I knew this, but I thought I could explain most of my choices at the time. The question that even the most reflective must ask themselves is, is their base so solid that we make rational, informed choices in the impulsive moments? I don’t think many reflective types would pass their own interrogations, in the moment, for I think we color in the blanks later to make us believe we made informed choices.

Teri told me he was a good man, with a good job, and he had an unusual curiosity about life that she found fascinating. I also learned that while it was obvious he had a restless, nervous energy about him, “He’s incredibly lazy. If he had his choice, he would spend his day on a couch.”

I still didn’t understand the dynamics of their relationship, even though she provided me numerous answers. I wouldn’t understand it for a while. I had no idea at the time that their relationship depended on the idea I had that she enjoyed playing the jealous girl, because, I can only assume, she considered him worthy of her jealousy, and in a world of average men with no discernible qualities, that is something. He was the naughty boy, and he enjoyed that role. “We fight like cats and dogs,” she said with a gleam in her eye, “but then we have makeup sex.” I wondered if she dated guys that wouldn’t cheat on her. I wonder if they wouldn’t fight with her. I wondered if they bored her. He provided her something to focus on other than herself. He was the dunce, but he was an amiable dunce. He provided her drama. He was always on the cusp of cheating on her. She also had a desire to date a guy that she could be better than, and she wasn’t much. Either that, or there is a desire to care for something that could break. “He’s an idiot, he doesn’t know how good he has it,” she said more than twice. The guy was fulfilling the age-old male need of feeling like a bad boy. Most guys need this coursing through their veins, and some girls apparently need a guy like this too.

11) Unhappy couples fascinate me. They don’t smile often, but smiles are a refuge of the simple minded. They don’t hug, kiss, or touch very often, but they’re not that type of people. They’re emotionally distant people, and happy people make them sick. Do they have a greater understanding about who they are than we ever will, or are they jealous? She didn’t date in high school, and he was a broken boy. Death of a loved one breaks some, divorce breaks others, and still others experience a seismic betrayal that creates an irreparable break. Yet, they found something in one another that they always wanted. As an outsider looking in, we can’t understand the allure, but the two of them stay together for years. Some stay in a job they hate, because they fear the unknown. Do people stay in relationships for the same reason? He doesn’t speak often, and relatives find it difficult to strike up a conversation with him. He gives off the vibe that he’s not interested in what others have to say, and this affects the way others react to him.

My initial instinct was that he wasn’t interested in what I had to say, for reasons endemic to our relationship, until others informed me they shared similar experiences with him. He’s more interesting when he drinks, but when the night is over, the participants realize he wasn’t really interesting in the truest sense of the word, but he was more interesting than they expected him to be. A couple of drinks loosen our inhibitions. A couple more might loosen them even more, until the potential exists for us to become interesting. That’s the mindset of the drinker anyway, I’m not sure if this is his mindset, but he does have a drinking problem. He is emotionally distant, because those that formed him devastated him emotionally. Yet, it many ways he appears satisfied with who he is.

12) No one is as boring as we think they are, but we’re not as interesting as we think we are either. How many of us look back to our authentic years with the belief that we weren’t nearly as authentic as we thought we were, especially with the level of authenticity we’ve currently achieved. How many of us will look back ten years from now with the same thought? One could say that the level of effort put into being authentic provides a corresponding level of diminishing returns. 

13) How many of us remember the first person who told us about America’s atrocities? Did they package it with a provocative statement such as, “This is something your moms and dads don’t want you to know about.” For those of us who are now parents, it’s probably been so long since someone introduced us to the dark side that we forget how intoxicating it was at the time. I don’t remember my first messenger because I’ve heard about these atrocities so many times since that they’ve all but drowned out my first messenger. Thanks to a myriad of resources I’ve encountered since, I am now able to frame those atrocities with the virtuous acts America has done throughout her history to arrive at the independent conclusion that America has been a noble nation overall. It did take me a while, however, to arrive at that conclusion. 

Some might think that learning of the atrocities for the first time might leave the recipient feeling cold, disillusioned, and/or depressed that their parents sold them a pack of lies. In the combative environment of my youth, one of the many focal points of ridicule was naïveté. “Don’t tell me you believed all that baseball and apple pie crap?” someone would say in the aftermath of a discussion on American’s atrocities. I did, and those early messengers in my life provided me information to combat the characterization that I was naïve. I considered them more informed, brave and righteous. I thought they were cooler than cool for speaking out against the marketing arm of America, and I thought they were treating me with the type of respect than my dad never did.

Now that I’m a seasoned adult, I know my dad wasn’t necessarily lying to me, and he wasn’t withholding a truth, but he didn’t give me the whole picture either. He didn’t know some of the atrocities these messengers told me, but there were incidents that he did know, and he neglected to tell me about them. Anyone who remembers their teenage mind knows how much we exaggerate the characterizations of our parents, especially when “truth tellers” package such information accordingly. Their presentations excited me in a way that’s tough to describe. I thought I was finally hearing the truth from someone.

A vital mindset for parents to have, while sharing our knowledge of American history, is that they are in a constant battle with their peers to avoid appearing naïve. For those worried about telling their children about the awful things the country has done, consider it ammunition to combat these stories with the stories of the country’s virtues. Our goal should be to instill a love of country in a comprehensive manner. To a certain point, we parents have told them what to think and how to think for so long that we may have a difficult time giving up those reins. On this particular subject, however, we need to present this information in a manner that allows them to decide, and we might even add that we understand it’s a lot to take in one setting, so we should allow them to think about it.

If we don’t do this, the truth will rear its ugly head when we least expect it. Those who provide them this information will likely not frame it in the manner we think they should, and our kids might turn around and accuse us of lying, telling half-truths, and not trusting them enough to deal with such sensitive information. Whatever the case is, we might never be able to win them back. My advice is we teach them the virtues of this country and couple it with a healthy dose of the horror some Americans have done since the country’s birth. Do some research on the atrocities and prepare for the follow up questions, because there will be questions. Once we’re done, we should repeat the cycle so often that by the time that cool, rebellious person tells our children, “The things we don’t want them to hear,” they will turn on that person and say, “I’ve heard all of this a million times, and to tell you the truth I’m sick of hearing about it.” If condemning your country in such a manner is difficult, much less teaching it to your child, ask yourself how you would prefer America’s atrocities framed? Would you rather provide your child with a more comprehensive narrative, or would you rather someone who hates their country do it for you? One way or another, your child will learn this information.

14) I’m about 15 years into using devices to stream music on a daily basis at this point in my life, so it might seem a little odd to show appreciation now. Anytime I take a very short drive, I gain greater appreciation for the freedom technology has offered when I turn on my local FM stations and I hear a DJ offer tidbits from their life. I’m not talking about morning show hosts, as I think I listened to one morning show decades ago, just to hear what everyone was talking about, and I never listened to another one. When a DJ informs me about a day in their life, I switch the channel so hard my fingers hurt later. I don’t care about the private lives of celebrities, but I understand that some do. No one knows who these DJs are, and I think even less care. Yet, when they are on the clock, moving from one song to another, they tell us about their day. They tell us about a party they attended, a soup they enjoyed yesterday, and something their significant other said to them in the movie theater. Nobody cares! The only line we should hear from a radio DJ is, “That was one song, and here’s another.”  

15) Most people have heard the quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” The quote is widely attributed to Albert Einstein. Most people know this quote, but they only apply it to innovative qualities that appeal to them and their relative definitions of the status quo. When another innovator sticks their nose out and tries to revamp other things that might not fit within the established definition of change, they receive nothing but scorn and ridicule. “Do you know the quote?” we ask.

“Yes,” they reply, “but it doesn’t apply here. This proposed new way of doing things, just isn’t the way we do things.” Okay, but the way we do things hasn’t worked for decades now. The counter argument is that we’re on the cusp of it working, and they provide some details of that progress. Those details are often talking points, and they don’t detail, in any meaningful way, actual progress. They then conclude that this new person, with all of their new ways of thinking, might damage all of the progress we’ve made. Again, we’ve been on the cusp of their way working for decades, and it hasn’t worked. Why shouldn’t we try a new way? Because that isn’t how things are done?  

The thing that bothers me is we’ve been lopping off innovative noses off for decades, and it leads me to believe that many innovators have shied away from the spotlight, because they like their noses, and future innovators will be just as shy. We might even recognize some of the merits of this proposed solution, but we will cede to the better minds and continue to do things as they’ve always been done, because that’s the way we’ve always done it.  

How to Succeed in Writing XI: The Stages


“It is (the writer’s) job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. –George Orwell

We’ve all read authors who write from what Orwell calls the “immature stage”. They get locked in a stage of life they will not, or cannot, escape. They hate their parents, they cannot get over the fact that someone of the opposite sex has dumped them in an unceremonious manner, or they cannot get past the fact that their political party cannot win, and those mentalities are reflected in their writing. If, on the other hand, as Orwell states, a writer is afforded the ability to completely forget the transgressions and tragedies that made him miserable in his youth –that which may otherwise diminish their mental health– they may not be the writer they could’ve been if they learned how to embrace those demons. A quality writer, if Orwell’s thesis is to be believed, is one of those rare individuals who is cursed, and blessed, with the inability to forget, while capably moving to the next stage of maturity, coupled with the ability to recall all of those sentiments and mentalities they struggled with in their effort to achieve more mature stages.

Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needsWe’ve all heard of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that lists the various needs a person must satisfy to achieve a sense of completion.  The initial stages of the hierarchy concerns basic needs (food, water, and breathing) that we take for granted, until they are not met. As this hierarchy progresses to completion, the needs become more complex, and the need to satisfy them more profound. There is also an idea that that person may take one level for granted –such as the need for friendship, and the need to be loved– and they may regress back a level. The basic structure of the Hierarchy of Needs suggests, however, that one cannot progress to next level, until the needs of the prior level are satisfied. Every person is different, of course, but the basic tenets are such that most people are not immune to the needs of a level you are currently on, and our stubborn refusal to accept the idea that we need more of whatever you currently have, has us stuck at that level.

Orwell’s addendum to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pertains to writers. His quote basically states that while writers are not immune to the need to progress in all the ways Maslow outlined, and that their progress is elemental to better writing, it’s just as vital to the quality of the writing that they be able to tap into the angst that drove them to want to be a writer while mired in a previous stage.

The best, most stark example, may be the starving artist that wrote something while mired in a premature stage. The piece they wrote may have been beautiful on one level, but it was generally regarded as being on the cusp of brilliance. The beauty of their piece may have been contained its raw exploration of their vulnerabilities, but it was also considered a snapshot of what this artist might be capable of ultimately, as it offered no solutions. Their piece was more of a list of complaints with no end in sight, a characteristic that can be compelling in its own right.

As we’ve witnessed, in all crafts, some starving artists never reach their full potential. Some of them become trapped in the starving artist mindset, or elementary stage of need, and they never gain a complete enough understanding of themselves, and thus mankind, to achieve a greater, or more complete artistic piece. Or, they may have progressed through the channels of their needs so completely that they’ve lost their need to create artistic pieces. It’s also been the case that a starving artist’s original piece was so successful that the person became successful and lost the starving artist mindset that gave them fame, and every piece they write thereafter is retread. This lack of artistic progression may be as simple as the artist never progressing to the self-actualized stage.

The website Simple Psychology states that “Maslow estimated that only two percent of people will reach the state of self-actualization.”

Is Maslow wrong, or are we? Are we a member of the ninety-eight percent, and does this affect our writing in such a manner that we don’t have the objectivity necessary to write a compelling fictional character, much less conduct our lives in a self-actualized manner?

As one that has progressed through a stage fairly recently, I can tell you that that progression served my writing well. I would not say that I’m a member of the two percent, but I have progressed, and I didn’t wake one day with the realization that I had progressed either. It was only upon reflection that I realized that only after one of my fundamental needs was met did my writing progress. I look back on my “immature stage” and I realized how much better my writing has become. I realized that my inability to complete a piece was more of a commentary on my inability to progress through my personal hierarchy of needs than it was my artistic abilities. I’ve also managed to keep in touch with all of the angst that drove some of my earlier works to bring them to completion in a manner I may not have if I hadn’t progressed.

Art is Dog. Dog is Art


Art is a dog. Dog is art.  

Nothing that can make one feel like a stranger in a strange land more than witnessing a homeowner release a rooster in his backyard. The homeowner spotted me walking my dog after opening the backdoor to let his rooster outdoors. I tried to look away quickly. My hope was that he might consider it plausible that I didn’t see him do it. By avoiding eye contact, I hoped to avoid an exchange that might lead me to search for a comment. I also didn’t want to share that uncomfortable smile that occurs shortly after witnessing another act in an embarrassing manner. Just before I could look away, I noticed a wave. I looked back, it was a warm, small town wave strengthened by a pleasant smile. The man’s smile and the wave suggested that letting a rooster out in the backyard was routine for him, and there was no reason for me to stress out about the moment. I returned the smile, waved back, and continued walking my dog. The rooster did not relieve itself after the man retreated inside, but it did rush the fence when it saw how close my dog and I came to its territory. The rooster eyed my dog, and it was a foreboding eye. The rooster did not cockle doodle doo us, but its actions suggested that that was the next logical course of action.

I forgot about this incident soon after the walk ended. I considered a “you had to be there” story where many of my stories have gone to die. Yet, the story made me uncomfortable, and when someone else told their uncomfortable story, I brought this one up to top him. After receiving a reaction to this story, I began telling it so often that it became my story. I told it so often during the next year, that when I returned to the locale I began telling it again without sufficient foresight.

“That’s my brother Harley,” a man said. “He has a pet rooster.”

Harley’s brother interrupted me in full story mode. He locked me up. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I thought of driving down the street at eighty miles an hour and slamming on the brakes.

My favorite stories are the “strange but true” varieties that don’t require creative additions or guidance. Stories like the rooster that thought it was a dog are my favorites, not because they’re hilarious, but because they’re so true that they leave the listener with that “All right, but what do you want me to do with this?” reaction. When I’m in the middle of one of these stories, and someone interrupts me after I’ve worked hard on my timing and my emphasis, it annoys me. When that interruption deflates me story, I can become visibly flustered.

I had a finger in the air, and a smile on my face, as I prepared to launch into my critically acclaimed punchline. This man’s intimate familiarity with the rooster’s owner brought me to a screeching halt. I froze. It locked me up so bad that for the next couple of guilt-ridden moments I wondered if there was a colloquial antonym for verbal diarrhea. I considered the term verbal constipation, but I wasn’t sure if that captured it.

“Harley had two dogs,” this man added. “They died. That rooster is the only thing he has left.”

There was compassion in the man’s words, and I assumed he directed at his brother. The more I thought about it, however, the more I began to believe that he might have been directing his compassion at me, and the mean case of verbal constipation he gave me. He might have noticed how much I enjoyed telling this story before his interruption, and he might have recognized that he had taken one hell of a good story away from me.

Whatever the case was, the man provided me an answer for why a homeowner would release a rooster in his backyard. The rooster grew up around dogs. The rooster thought it was a dog. I did not ask if the rooster scratched at the door when it wanted to go outside, or if it saw my dog and I approaching and began doing canine circles around Harley, until Harley noticed whatever visual cues the rooster learned to give him when it wanted outside. I didn’t ask about Harley, and if Harley participated in this because he missed the dogs so much that continuing the routine was therapeutic for him? I didn’t ask if Harley thought the rooster’s actions were kind of cute, or funny in the beginning, and he ended up doing it so often that whatever drove him to do it in the beginning was gone by the time I saw the routine of the act on his face. I wish I asked some of these questions, just to fill out the details of this story, but Harley’s brother caught me so off guard that I had a mean case of verbal constipation.

The Art of the Nod 

A speaker began speaking about himself. He began informing us of his talents, what he planned to do with them, and all of his subsequent dreams and expectations. His life story was interesting in the beginning, but he spoke for too long. I did manage to maintain a polite intrigue for the speaker, and this led me to become the center of his attention. When that happened, maintaining interest became more of a chore for me.

My friend, a third party in this conversation, was not as successful in her efforts to purport interest. She nodded off. I was, presumably, the only one that saw her nod off, and I was the only one to witness her artistic recovery.

When she nodded off, her head went down and some instinctual part of not wanting to appear so bored that she fell asleep took over, and she jerked her head up. The art of this nod occurred a second later when she nodded down again. This second nod was not a result of falling asleep, but an attempt to rewrite any theories we might have had about her falling asleep in the first place. She performed the second, voluntary to re-characterize the first one as nothing more than the first in a series of nods of agreement.  

She even added a “Yep!” to characterize the hearty series of nods further. 

She had no idea what she was agreeing to, but she got away with it. I looked out at the faces of the others in the room. No one else saw it. I was impressed. I looked back her, and she had not only maintained her agreement, she strengthened it, until she was garnering more attention from the speaker than I was.

In the halls of social protocol, I considered this art.

I all but applauded her for this reaction when I asked her about it later. I mentioned that I didn’t think a person could carry something like that off once, that it was too artistic, and that it required practice. I wanted to know if she did this to me. She said she hadn’t. She said I was never that boring. I was grateful for that comment, but I had to know how often she did that. She said as far as she was concerned it was the first time. She had no other explanation for it, other than the fact that she was trying to avoid appearing rude. She tired of my questions after a while, and she stated that the moment embarrassed her, and she asked that we move onto other subjects.

Old People

Old people? Old people? Let me tell you something about old people. Old people set the parameter. If it weren’t for old people, your nuance would have no contrast. All that rebellion you cherish, that avant garde comedy, would just be blather. Old people. Have you ever watched the movie Caddyshack? Did you find it humorous? Uh huh. Ask anyone that knows anything about comedy, and they’ll tell you that that movie would not have been half as funny as it was, were it not for the old person in that production, Ted Knight, providing contrast. Without contrast in comedy, the movie is just a bunch of buffoons standing around reciting lines to one another. Contrast provides the pivot point for comedy, and that old man in Caddyshack, that fuddy duddy as you call him, set the standard for the role that straight men would play in comedy for the next four decades. The straight men set the parameters for other players to bounce off, and that’s what we old, boring types do. We set the parameters for the rest of you to be funny, cool, hip and sexy. Try writing a cool, hip, funny scene without a Dean Wormer, and we’ll see how far you get.

Like Boxing for Writers

Some writers believe that what they write is witty, humorous, or a display of their as of yet undiscovered talent in the art of comedy? We’ve all watched them write about clouds and trees, and we’ve all let that go, because we know all writers have to preen themselves every once in a while, but when they attempt comedy some of us think these writers need an intervention. One of the dangers inherent in comedy is that it’s relative, and every audience member should acknowledge that before they castigate another’s attempt at being humorous, but some attempts at humor are so bad that I want to say that we can all see the writer’s haymaker coming. When the author writes about a disagreement they had with their daughter about what television show to watch, we know to put our laughing galoshes on. We also know that every author, if they are male, will provide exhaustive detail about how they regard their daughter a superior intellect. They will provide us with eyewitness testimony of their daughter’s brilliance, and for some authors this will last for about a quarter of the story. At this point, many of us envy those that can start a story and ‘X’ out of it when it fails to intrigue them. Those who are able to find their way through the maze of the author’s shame, apologies, and qualifiers are introduced to a flurry of jokes that are intended to impress the judges. There’s no power behind the punches, because the author doesn’t want to offend the reader, their daughter, or any judge that might happen upon their story. We see their effort dangling, and as the joke plays out we all learn what not to do when we’re looking for a laugh. The author is the butterfly that floats merrily through our head without the fear, or the need to fear, the bee sting. They’re the Pernell Whitaker, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Floyd Maywhether of the writing world that gets points from the judges, but bores those of us that don’t understand the art of boxing. We want something exciting to happen, the judge can call it blood lust if they want, but if the reader wanted to witness the majestic art of dance, they would’ve attended the ballet.

Find Your Own Truth


“Find your own truth,” was the advice author Ray Bradbury provided an aspiring, young writer on a radio call-in show.

Most people loathe vague advice. We want answers, we want an answer the helps us over the bridge, and a super-secret part of us wants those answers to be easy, but another part of us knows that the person that seeks easy answers often gets what they pay for in that regard.

When we listen to a radio show guesting a master craftsman, however, we want some nugget of information that will explain to us how that man happened to carve out a niche in the overpopulated world of his craft. We want tidbits, words of wisdom about design, and/or habits that we can imitate and emulate, until we reach a point where we don’t have to feel so alone in our structure. Vague advice, and vague platitudes, feels like a waste of our time. Especially when that advice comes so close to a personal core and stops.

Bradbury went onto define this relative vision of “the truth” as he saw it, but that definition didn’t step much beyond that precipice. I had already tuned him out by the time he began speaking of other matters, and I eventually turned the channel. I may have missed some great advice, but I was frustrated.

If the reader is anything like me, they went back to doing what they were doing soon after hearing advice, but the quality of deep, profound advice starts popping up in the course of what a person does. It begins to apply so often that we begin chewing on it, and digesting it. Others may continue to find this vague advice about a truth to be nothing more than waste matter –to bring this analogy to its biological conclusion– but it begins to infiltrate everything an eager student does. If the advice is pertinent, the recipient begins spotting truths that should’ve been so obvious before, and they begin to see that what their thought was the truth –because it is for everyone else– is not as true for them as they once thought.

Vague advice may have no import to those that don’t bump up against the precipice, and for them a platitude such as, “Find your own truth” may have an of course suffix attached to it. “Of course an artist needs to find their own truth when approaching an artistic project,” they may say. “Isn’t that the very definition of art?” It is, but go ahead and ask an artist if the project they are currently working on is any closer to their truth than the past pieces they attempted. Then, once they’ve completed that project, go ahead and ask them if they’re any closer to their truth. The interrogator is likely to receive a revelation of the artist’s frustration in one form or another, as most art involves the pursuit of a truth coupled with an inability to capture it to the artist’s satisfaction. Yet, it could be said that the pursuit of artistic truth, and the frustration of never achieving it, may provide more fuel to the artist than an actual, final, arrived upon truth ever could.

Finding your truth, as I see it, involves intensive knowledge of the rules of a craft, locating the parameters of the artist’s ability, finding their formula within, and whittling. Any individual that has ever attempted to create art has started with a master’s template in mind. The aspiring, young artist tries to imitate and emulate that master design, and they wonder what that master of the design might do in moments of artistic turmoil. Can I do this, what would they do, should I do that, and is my truth nestled somewhere inside all of that awaiting further exploration? At a furthered point in the process, the artist is hit by other truths, truths that contradict prior truth, and this begins to happen so often that everything the artist believed to be a truth, at one point, becomes an absolute falsehood, and this is where the whittling comes in.

In a manner similar to the whittler whittling away at a stick to create form, the storyteller is always whittling. He’s whittling when he writes. He’s whittling when he reads. He’s whittling in a movie theater, spotting subplots, and subtext that no one else sees. He’s whittling away at others’ stories to what he believes to be the core of the story that the author of the piece may not even see. Is he correct? It doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t believe that the author’s representation of the truth is a truth.

Once the artist has learned all the rules, defined the parameters, and found his own formula within a study of a master’s template, and all the templates that contradict that master template, it is time for him to branch out and find his own truth.

The Narrative Essay

Even while scouring the RIYL (read if you like) links provided at the bottom of the webpages of books I’ve enjoyed, I knew that the narrative essay existed. Just as I’ve always known that the strawberry existed, I knew about the form some call memoir, that others call creative non-fiction. The question I have, is have you ever tasted a strawberry that caused you to flirt with the idea of eating nothing but strawberries for the rest of your life? If you have, I’m going to guess that it had more to do with your diet than it did the actual taste of that strawberry. A person may go long stretches of time carelessly ignoring the nutrients that this gorgeous, little heart-shaped berry has in abundance for. They may suffer from a vitamin C depletion, for example, in ways that were not apparent to them, until they took that first bite of this gorgeous, little heart-shaped berry.

That first bite caused a person inexplicable feelings of euphoria that they didn’t understand, until they learned of the chemicals of the brain, and the manner in which the brain rewards the person for fulfilling a biological need. The only thing they may have known at the time was that that strawberry tasted so glorious that they stood at the strawberry section of a buffet line gorging on strawberries while everyone behind them waited for them to starting moving.

I am sure, at this point, that the reader would love to learn the title of that one gorgeous, little narrative essay that caused my feelings of creative euphoria. The only answer I can give the reader is that if they’re suffering a depletion, one essay will not quench this depletion any more than one strawberry can. One narrative essay did not provide a eureka-style epiphany that led me to an understanding of all of the creative avenues worthy of exploration. One essay did not quench the ache my idea-depleted mind endured in the more traditional parameters, with the time-tested formulas and notions I had of the world of storytelling. I just knew that I needed more, and I read all the narrative essays I could find in a manner equivalent to the effort I put into exploring the maximum benefits the strawberry could provide, until a grocery store checker proclaimed that she had never witnessed one man purchasing as many strawberries as I had at one time. She even called a fellow employee over to witness the spectacle I had laid out on her conveyor belt. The unspoken critique being that no wife would permit a man to purchase this many strawberries at once, so I must be single and self-indulgent.

An unprecedented amount of strawberries didn’t provide me an unprecedented amount of euphoria, of course, as the brain appears to only provide near-euphoric chemical rewards for satisfying a severe depletion, but the chemical rewards my brain offered me for finding my own truth, in the narrative essay format, have proven almost endless. As have the rewards I’ve experienced reading others reach their creative peaks. As I’ve written, I knew narrative essays existed, but I considered most of them to be dry, personal essays that attempted to describe the cute, funny things that happened to them on their way to forty. I never thought of them as a vehicle for the exploration of unique creativity, until I found those authors that had.

My personal definition is that an epiphany is something nestled among commonplace, of-course thoughts, and it is something the recipient has to arrive at of their own accord.

It is difficult to describe an epiphany to a person that’s never had one. Even to those that have had one, I would say that the variables within an epiphany are so unique that they can be difficult to describe to a listener with an “of course” face on. I could’ve informed them that, more often than not, an epiphany does not involve the single, most unique thought ever considered, but a common place “of course” thought that the recipient has to arrive at of their own accord. When that doesn’t make a dent in their “of course” face, we can only concede that epiphanies are personal.

For me, the narrative essay was an avenue to the truth that my mind craved, and I may have never have ventured down this path had Ray Bradbury’s vague four words failed to register. For those that stubbornly maintain their “of course” faces in the shadow of the maxim the late, great Ray Bradbury inscribed in the minds of all those that heard it, I offer another vague piece of advice that the late-great Rodney Dangerfield offered to an aspiring, young comedian:

You’ll figure it out.”

If a vague piece of advice, such as these two nuggets, appear so obvious that they’re hardly worth saying, or the recipient of such advice can’t understand how it might apply, no matter how often one thinks about it, does it, attempts to add to it, or whittles away at it to find a core worthy of exploration, I add, you’ll either figure it out, or you won’t.

Wearing a Mask the Face Grows Into


The subtext within Shooting the Elephant involves the struggle to find an authentic voice in the midst of ceding to authority and group thought. Shooting the Elephant is about a moment in Eric Arthur Blair’s (George Orwell) young life when he was forced, by a number of external forces, to shoot an elephant. The task of a great writer is to take a relatively benign moment in their life and translate it into a meaningful moment, and by doing so unearth the ideas and characters involved. In the course of discovery, an author might become obsessed with why they acted the way they did. What was my motivation at the time, a writer may ask, and what does it say about me, or what does it say about humanity as a whole? 

As a standalone, i.e., listing off the events that took place, I’m guessing that the aspiring Eric Arthur Blair considered the story incomplete and without purpose. I’m guessing that he probably wrote and rewrote it so many times, and introduced creative bridges, that he couldn’t remember which details took place and which details he created to support the bridge between actual events that took place and that which would make the moment transcendent.

We can also guess, based upon what Blair would achieve under the pseudonym George Orwell, that the search for the quality story, supported by a quality theme, was the driving force behind his effort. If the driving force behind writing a story is to achieve fame or acclaim, so goes the theory, you’ll have neither the fame nor a quality story. The mentality most quality writers bring to a piece is that fame and acclaim are great, but it should be nothing more than a welcome byproduct of a well-written piece. Shooting the Elephant is a really good story, but the thought provoking, central message is the reason Eric Arthur Blair would go on to achieve fame as George Orwell.

It’s possible –knowing that Shooting the Elephant was one of Orwell’s first stories– that the theme of the story occurred in the exact manner Orwell portrays, and he built the story around that theme, and he then proceeded to build a writing career around that theme. The actuality of what happened to Orwell, while employed as the British Empire’s police officer in Burma is impossible to know, and subject to debate, but the quality of the psychological examination Orwell puts into the first person, ‘I’ character is not debatable, as it relays to the pressure the onlookers exert on the main character, based on his mystique. It’s also the reason Orwell wrote this story, and the many other stories that examine this theme in numerous ways.

The first person, ‘I’ character of George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant was a sub-divisional police officer of the town of Burma. Orwell writes how this job, as sub-divisional police officer, brought him to a point where he began to see the evil underbelly of imperialism, a result of the Burmese people resenting him for his role as the one placed among them to provide the order the British Empire for the otherwise disorderly “natives” of Burma. Orwell writes, how he in turn, began to loathe some of the Burmese as a result, while secretly cheering them on against the occupiers, his home country Britain. It all came to a head, for him, when a trained elephant went must<1>. Orwell’s responsibility, to those he swore to protect, and to those who commissioned him to protect, as a sub-divisional police officer, was to shoot the elephant.

Orwell describes the encounter in this manner:

“It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.”

The escaped elephant gone must wreaked some carnage in his path from the bazaar to the spot where Orwell came upon him. En route to the eventual spot where Orwell came upon the elephant, Orwell encountered several Burmese people who informed him of the elephant gone must. Orwell then discovered a dead man on the elephant’s destructive path that Orwell describes as a black Dravidian<2>coolie in one spot of the story, and a Coringhee<3> coolie in another. Several witnesses confirmed, for Orwell, the fact that the elephant killed the man.

When the ‘I character’ finally comes upon the elephant, he sees it “peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow,” Orwell then describes the Burmese throng that surrounded him:

“It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib<4>. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

Orwell states that he did not want to shoot the elephant, but he felt compelled by the very presence of the thousands of “natives” surrounding him to proceed. He writes:

“A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives”; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that (coolie) up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh.”

In the aftermath of the shooting of the animal, Orwell describes the controversy that arose, and he concluded it in the following manner:

“I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”

The Hard-Ass Boss

At a warehouse-sized office I worked in, we had a supervisor who enjoyed the mystique of being a hard-ass. He enjoyed having those of us under him believe that he would do whatever it took to help the employees on his team achieve maximum efficiency. If we did well, he took credit for it. He was proud to take credit for it, and we were supposed to feel proud when we made him look good. Some of my team members were proud, for there are always some who enjoy autocratic rule. What they didn’t consider was what might happen if they had a poor quarter. Not only did he deflect 100% of the blame to the accused, but in a stylistic homage to Josef Stalin, he had them unceremoniously stricken from the record. We had a friend sitting next to us, laughing at our jokes and telling us stories from their life one day, and we had an empty desk sitting next to us the next. If he didn’t choreograph the chilling effect this had on the team, he might have taken credit for it if we asked him about it.

In this particular office, a sub-par employee had so many chances to recover from past performance that it was an ongoing joke among the employees that we could set the building ablaze and nothing of consequence would happen. If our perceptions of this climate were anywhere close to the truth, this supervisor stood out. In a corporate climate of managers defining supervisors on their creative abilities to retain employees and receive quality, employee review scores from those employees, our supervisor was an aberration. I do not know if the numbers we produced for him placed him above reproach among his superiors, or if my fellow employees were afraid to score low on their reviews during his tenure as their boss, but he managed to remain a supervisor of a team that hated him. If the reader knows anything about the corporate climate of America today, and the constant reviews employees and their bosses undergo, they know that is a near-herculean chore. 

The walk to an unscheduled, closed-door, one-on-one with this supervisor was equivalent to a criminal suspect being frog marched into a courthouse. The audience of it found themselves caught between trying to see the emotions on accused’s face and trying to look away to preserve the accused’s dignity. These moments informed us that in a world of supervisors claiming to have our back, in closed-door sessions with Human Resources and their managers, we had one that had so little concern for us that he did not even try to fake the support other supervisors did.  

Those of us who worked under this hard ass boss knew he would not defend us, even if we had verifiable reasons that warranted a defense. We figured that if we had that reason that we might have to go to our Human Resources department to mount our own defense, and there was also a sneaking suspicion that we might have to mount a defense against him in that meeting.

This resulted in most of us believing that he cared little about us and only about advancing his mystique, until it advanced him within the company. Was this a fair characterization? It might not have been, but it was pervasive throughout the team, and he never did anything to dispel us of this notion.

Thus, when I was frog marched into my first unscheduled one-on-one session with him, I was astonished to find out that not only did I receive the least severe punishment possible, but I didn’t receive the punishment specifically proscribed for my offense. He informed me of the charges against me, and he provided print outs of my action in the event that I might mount a defense, and then he cut my punishment in half. He did so in a congenial manner that I found unsettling, and his unassuming smile of sympathy was so shocking that I experienced an inexplicable disappointment.

Another inexplicable emotion I experienced was a diminished respect for him that I couldn’t avoid pursuing. My characterization of him, compiled data furnished by him and the group thought that pronounced such characterizations after all of his actions, left me with blanks to fill that included pleasant and unassuming characteristics.

He offered me another pleasant and unassuming smile in the silence that followed.

“See, I’m not such a bad guy,” he said.

Had he had asked me what I thought of this side of him, before I left the boardroom, I would’ve told him that he would have been better off refraining from all that smiling. “Smiles look weird on your face,” is something I might have said. I would have added that there was nothing unusual, or unattractive about that smile, but that it just looked odd on him. I also would have informed him that we both would’ve been better off if just gave me the proscribed punishment for my offense. I would’ve told him that the mystique he had a hand in creating, and that which was so firmly entrenched by the time I entered this boardroom, placed him in a no-win situation … “If,” I would add, “it is  your hope that I like you, or in anyway consider you to be something other than a bad guy.” I would’ve informed him that once you establish a firm, hard-ass leadership mystique, doing otherwise will only lead the recipient of your leniency to believe that you are flexing an authoritative muscle in a condescending reminder to those under your stewardship that they will forever be subjected to your whims and moods, until they leave the room loathing you more than they had when they entered.

I would’ve ended my assessment by informing him that he’s so worked hard to foster this image, and sustain this mystique, that he should probably just sit back and enjoy it. The employees on your team are now working harder than they ever have, because they fear that you won’t do anything to help them if they don’t. They are also putting a great deal of effort into avoiding anything that could even be reasonably perceived as wrongdoing, based on the idea that if they get caught up in something that you won’t defend them. I would tell him that by firmly establishing yourself as a hard-ass boss you’ve given up the freedom of latitude in your actions. We’ve adjusted our working lives to this mask you created, and any attempt you make, going forward, to foster a “nice guy” image will be perceived as weakness, and it will not redound to the benefit for any of the parties involved.

It’s too late for you, and your current mystique, I would inform him, but if you want to escape this cycle in your next management position, clear your desk library of all of these unread “how-to lead” guides that you have arranged for maximum visibility and pick up a copy of Orwell’s Shooting the Elephant. In this story, you will find the true detriment of creating a hard-ass boss mask, until your face grows into it, and while it may impress your superiors to be this way, the downside will arrive when you try to impress upon the natives” the idea that you’re not such a bad guy after all, and you spend the rest of your days trying to escape the spiraling duality of these expectations.

<1> Must, or Musth, is a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones.

<2> A Dravidian is described as any of a group of intermixed peoples chiefly in S India and N Sri Lanka

<3> A Coringhee coolie” refers to such an Indian immigrant working in colonial Burma as an unskilled laborer in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

<4> Sahib –A name of Arabic origin meaning “holder, master or owner”.

‘P’ is for Potential


“You have to create some dung to fertilize the flower,” Martin Sheen said when he was asked how he could only be proud of three movies in a career that listed 69 titles.

The fact that this was my favorite quote, for years, should’ve told me something about the dreams I had of becoming a writer. I believed that I had a capital ‘P’ emblazoned on my chest, until I realized that everyone else did too, and I hadn’t done enough to separate myself from the pack. The thing with the ‘P’ word that those in the card carrying ‘P’ world don’t know is that there is another ‘p’ word in the vocabulary of those that watch you. This is an evil ‘P’ word to those in the card carrying ‘P’ world. That ‘P’ word is performance.

HaloSome may have their ‘P’ word swinging before their face, in the manner a farmer puts a carrot on a stick before their horse. They may also wear it in every smile they give you, and those smiles tell you they are meant for something more, but they just don’t know what yet. When one runs across a true ‘P’ word, they know it when they see it, and it diminishes their capital ‘P’ a little by comparison. Most people are not unusually jealous, they’re happy, and they lead a great life, but when they run across one that carries a true ‘P’ on their various smiles, they decide that they would do just about anything for just one of those smiles.

When they speak of events that have occurred in their life, and they speak about them in a casual manner, the observer knows that the career that we currently share with them is just a way station for them, and we can’t help but be genuinely jealous in that moment.

Others wear this letter ‘P’ as a costume, in conversations, to cover for the fact that they haven’t achieved as much as they once thought possible. We’ll know these people when we see them too. All of these people teach us the various definitions of the ‘P’ word. We see the beauty in their smiles, and we perceive their limitlessness, but we’ll also see the evil ones. We’ll see that these definitions are defined by how the user uses it, and if they use it.

I thought I had a capital ‘P’ branded into my chest at one point. I didn’t. I thought I did though, and that thought prompted me to work my tail off to convince myself, and others, that it was truer than true. The idea that I pursued something, for which I had so little talent, amazes me now in retrospect, when I look back on the actual performances that convinced me that there was, at least, a lower case ‘P’ somewhere on my chest.

Those that manage their ‘P’ word correctly, rarely comment on it.  They don’t have to say it. It is the conclusion their observers reach soon after getting to know them. Those that wear the letter ‘P’ on their chest, as a costume, know this also.  They know that most in their audience are so loaded with insecurities that those insecurities can be translated into a variety of ‘P’ words, and ‘P’ word synonyms, if they do it right.  In order to do it right, however, they know to avoid performing in front of them. Give them silence, and let them fill in the rest.

“I can’t hang out with those two anymore,” a friend of mine told me one day after an outing with co-workers. I initially thought he was being a cool guy. A cool guy tells those around them that a fun and exciting night was boring; a cool guy tells those around them that a great movie, or album, sucked; and a cool guy stops all the plastic people, with all of their plastic proceedings, and drops a quick quip like: “The world sucks!” Cool guys can also reveal those nerds around them by saying that what we thought was such a great time, was time spent with nerds. I attempted to dispel what I thought were my friend’s cool guy condemnations by saying that those two were fun and entertaining, and that fun and entertaining people don’t usually hang out with two drips like us. He said that wasn’t it. He said his concern was work-related.

I attempted to dispel this notion by saying that our company didn’t discourage senior agents hanging out with employees, only managers. My friend believed he was born with a capital ‘P’ on his chest, and I thought this was another moment where his delusions of grandeur had gotten away from him. “It’s not that,” he concluded. “It’s that, they know what I think now.” Here I thought that all the symptoms I was witnessing added up to the fact that my friend had come down with a simple case of delusions, but as it turned out he was suffering from a complex case of grand delusion.

What his last sentence told me was that he knew his thoughts were never as complex, or as complicated as he wanted them to be, but those two didn’t have to know that. He was despondent. They knew. He told them what he thought. All those weeks and months he spent quietly sitting in the background cultivating, harvesting, and weaving the idea of his brilliance into gold by allowing these people to fill in the blanks for him were gone, shattered, in one night.

He feared that the grand delusions he had perpetrated in their world, had just been popped, and he feared that when Monday rolled around, they would know that he was just one of them, in the present, with a future that probably wouldn’t be that much different than theirs. On Monday, they would see him quietly typing away at his keyboard, in an office, and that visual would take on an entirely different meaning than it had on the Friday before our weekend outing.

The other employees around him took their jobs less seriously. They always got their work done, but they played, and talked, and joked. He didn’t. He was serious. He even went so far as to shush employees when management walked by. He had always been a quiet guy with few friends, and in the real world this defined him as an awkward person that had a difficult time mixing with other people. In the office world, these characteristics can lead to an employee gaining a mystique of being a model employee with a serious future. That night, spent with our two co-workers, revealed him as more of a quiet, socially awkward guy that feared authority. It made everything he had done to procure those grand delusions in their head feel pointless.

He feared that they would now believe he was what they saw, nothing more. The idea that he didn’t mix well with others, was once a silence thing, but silence begets the ‘P’ word if one does it often enough and allows others to fill that silence in with their own exciting and intoxicating words. Why does he behave so well? Why doesn’t he mix well with others? I’ll tell you why, that boy’s got the ‘P’ word in spades. They fill that silence with words that you wouldn’t believe, until you accidentally fill those blanks in for them one night, while drinking, and there’s no turning back after that, or so he feared.

There were times when he spoke his mind during that night, and our two co-workers realized he didn’t know everything. He wasn’t as wise as they feared in their silent, insecure comparisons. There were other issues he wouldn’t discuss with them that he found too revealing, because he said he couldn’t discuss it with them. In the latter, he attempted to convey the notion that he had proprietary information that he could not divulge, due to his position in the company. When we reminded him that he was not management, and he could reveal whatever he thought on the matter without fear of recrimination, he went silent. It was revealed that he simply didn’t know what we were talking about. We accidentally took away his shield of silence. He thought these co-workers had given him a capital ‘P’ followed by an exclamation point, and he feared that that ‘P’ had replaced by an ‘R’ word, reality, that would shatter all the myths he had worked so hard to create.

My friend wanted to be like a politician that stood for nothing, but allowed his constituency to fill in the blanks that he left for them, until they had other ‘P’ words dancing in their head, and ‘P’ words that had question marks behind them, as opposed to his preferred exclamation point.

The thing with the ‘P’ word is that it can be beautiful.  It can drive a person to become better tomorrow than they are today, if they’re willing to engage in the naughty ‘p’ word of the ‘P’ world vocabulary, performance. The reason that most card carrying ‘P’ words regard performance as a naughty word is that performing can lead to another ‘R’ word, revelation. It can reveal if the card carrying member truly has a ‘P’ word or not. It can tell reveal whether a person is truly special, gifted, and meant for more, or if they’re just a regular guy, collecting a regular paycheck, with as many limits on your ‘P’ word as everyone else.

I identified with my friend. I thought I had a capital ‘P’ behind my name that was followed by a big, old gleaming exclamation point. I thought God whispered things in my ear, and I wrote down everything I heard. I wrote short stories. I wrote novels. I wrote anything and everything I could fit in one mind. I thought it was my job in life to see this calling to its end. I thought I was a few steps below Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz, and Robert McCammon. I thought I just had to perform my way through that hole.

I’ve read through all those whispers recently, and I realize that if they happened today, I would turn to my wife and say, “I just had a thought.” I would then say those two sentences, and be done with it. Back then, a part of me believed that those whispers were telling me to be a writer, and I listened to these whispers, until I had enough material that it should’ve come true, and then I wrote some more, until I reached a point where I may have fertilized that ground so well that all the cultivating, harvesting and turning of those lies might have accidentally produced a truth.

How to Succeed in Writing IX: The Influential Writers, and Other Influences


Like any other person who has attempted to create something artistic, an artist’s appreciation of another’s work is limited and unique. An artist’s appreciation of another’s work is similar to an athlete studying game film on a future opponent. After repeated viewings, you understand their modus operandi. You are able to pinpoint what they do well, and their failings, and you’re able to learn from all of them. One author’s ability to characterize may impress another artist in one reading, and another may impress them with their particular brand of engaging dialogue. After another artist gets it, they’re usually bored with it, and they move onto another author. To use the sports analogy once again, the artist can usually spot the stitches on another’s fastball long before the casual observer can. This isn’t what artists are trying to do, it’s who they are. They would love to simply read another’s work and appreciate it in the same manner a casual reader would, but they can’t turn that portion of their brain off. An artist reading another’s work can get so hypercritical and appreciative of the little things another author does to move a story along, or characterize, that they can’t enjoy that simple, little story in total until they have thoroughly explored, and drained, whatever value they believe another’s work has for them.

Most writers will claim that their writing is now entirely free of influence once they’ve found their voice. Some might judge this self-promotion, and others would say it’s just impossible to believe. As any writer who has written a great deal knows, it’s almost impossible to escape influence. Whenever a writer turns a phrase, completes a block or dialogue, or characterizes, there was some influence there. If it wasn’t Chaucer, or Hemingway, that influenced the writer in this manner, it may have been their freshman Composition 101 teacher. If it wasn’t Stephen King, or Faulkner, who taught them how characterize, it may have been a movie or a television show that embedded that particular brand of characterizing deep in their brain. Something, somewhere influenced them in some way they may not know now that they’ve reached their twentieth year of writing, where their writing material that is so fresh, and unique, that they can’t even spot the influence anymore. They may have worked so hard, for so long to achieve a unique voice that they feel they’ve achieved it, and they may have to some degree, but there was a starting point that formed a foundation that is now so embedded in the manner in which they write that they can’t see the influence anymore.

Those who belong to the latter group believe they have reached the pinnacle of individualistic style, that contains no influence. They might dismiss this article as nothing but a point of curiosity, but the new writer wants to learn how we arrived at point D in the process, the following is a list of those influences who lubricated the slide:

10) Brevity. If “Brevity is the soul of wit” no one was funnier than Ernest Hemingway. An economist of words, Hemingway avoided complicated syntax, and it has been determined that seventy percent of his sentences were short, simple sentences.{1} Hemingway was the anti-Joyce (James Joyce) in this regard. Whereas Hemingway “KISSed” us (keeping it simple for we stupid people) with his prose, Joyce dangled complicated, multi-syllabic, and invented words before us, and he often teased us with a carrot on the stick of his words’ meaning. Whereas this may have made Joyce’s fiction wonderful, historic, and transcendent, most of us didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Whereas most readers need translation, and transports in time via a well-written guide, and a degree in Joyceisms to understand Finnegan’s Wake, Old Man and the Sea can be enjoyed in an otherwise carefree afternoon. This isn’t to say that Hemingway’s prose is not complicated and carefully structured for meaning, but with Hemingway’s fiction, meaning is derived upon reflection and through personal interpretation. The meaning of Hemingway’s prose is established through dialogue, action, and silences —a fiction in which nothing crucial or at least very little— is stated explicitly. He purposely avoided outright symbolism in what he called “the theory of the iceberg”. This theory stated that facts float above water, but the larger, supporting structure and symbolism that build the foundation do so out of sight.

Hemingway“No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in,” says Hemingway. “That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better.” He opens two bottles of beer and continues: “I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.”

Hemingway was more of a storyteller than he was a writer. The interested reader, who doesn’t have a whole lot of time on their hands, may want to consider reading either the short book Old Man and the Sea or The Short and Happy life of Francis Macomber. The latter is a short story that captures the essence of Ernest Hemingway, and it teaches every writer the greatest principle every writer should employ in their daily activities: Story is sacred and flowery prose is largely self-indulgence.

Carver9) Images. Raymond Carver was also a minimalist. Most of my favorite writers were. Carver employed evocative and provocative images to tell a story. Short stories were his forte. The short story Feathers captures the essence of Raymond Carver, better than any of his other stories in my humble opinion.

Carver’s stories, and poems, focused on misery and dirty realism. His characters were low class, beer drinking, hardworking, slobs that readers can’t help but picture in stained tank-tops. Carver claimed that he was inclined toward brevity and intensity. His writing focused on sadness, loss, and alcohol in the everyday lives of ordinary people — often lower-middle class or isolated and marginalized people.

8) Characterization. John Irving engages in the flowery prose of his mentor Charles Dickens, but he does so (for the most part) effortlessly. Irving is not a minimalist in other words. Irving’s John_Irvingworks teach us, more than any of the authors listed here, to work your tail off to hide your effort. One read through his magnum opus The World According to Garp teaches us that it shouldn’t be a chore to read through one’s work. No other authors listed here, save for maybe Hemingway, hides his brilliance better than Irving. The reader gets to know Irving’s characters in what I call a “Holy Crap!” manner. Irving doesn’t use physical characteristics to describe characters, and he doesn’t use the inner voice techniques that most of us do, yet the reader learns their characteristics in a story after story and a passage after passage manner, until we know them so completely that we say, “Holy crap, this author’s brilliant.” I realize this methodology is borne of the “show don’t tell” basic of storytelling, but in my humble opinion, no one does it better than Irving.

Irving has chapters of setting, primarily in the Northeast, and his settings can appear a bit laborious at times. Unlike all of the authors on this list, there can be large chunks of Irving’s narrative where nothing happens, as he frames you up for what’s about to happen. Irving does “a story within the story” as well as anyone in the business. As I said, though, Irving achieves his stature in the world of literature through effortless characterization.

It appears, unfortunately, that the drive to tell a story no longer drives Mr. Irving. His more recent books have become more and more political. Some could say that Mr. Irving has always been political, and if you read A Prayer for Owen Meany and Garp again, you’ll see that. If that’s true, he used to be a lot more subtle. Story used to be sacred to him, and politics used to be a secondary concern to him.

It’s almost become a cliché that writers of my generation claim Irving as a primary influence. Like most clichés though, there’s a reason claiming Irving as an influence has become so prevalent among those in my generation. It’s because he has achieved the bestseller list through almost effortless, beautiful writing, and by not conforming to current norms. Irving just does what he does, and we have all accepted this to a degree that he can do whatever he wants, and we’ll all greet him with open arms. Claim King or Koontz as an influence, and artistic writers will dismiss you with a yawn; claim John Grisham, and they’ll dismiss you with a laugh; but Irving has managed to keep a foot in both the literary and best-selling world, and he does it with rich, rewarding, and effortless characterization.

7) Asides.  Some may dismiss Chuck Palahniuk as a splatterpunk writer that engages in shocking prose that grosses out and titillates the reader. It is true that Palahniuk goes for the jugular in much of his writing, and some may say too often, but anyone that has read, or seen, Fight Club (they’re strikingly similar) knows that Palahniuk (almost) always has a story to tell amid the chaos in his works.

PalahniukPalahniuk may have some of the best, most interesting vignettes and asides in the business today. He is heavily influenced by Stephen King, as evidenced by his heavy use of refrain style use of repetition, but one should not mistake this influence as outright mimicry. Palahniuk has carved himself quite a niche in the literary world, with works like Fight Club, Choke, and Rant. Rant proved to be especially valuable to those writers on the lookout for a new way of telling a story. While the style is not unprecedented, Palahniuk used it in such a unique manner that those that have read the story considered it revolutionary.

Chuck describes his style of writing as “transgressive” fiction. Transgressive fiction, as defined by Wikipedia, “is a writing style that focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual and/or illicit ways.”

After the novel Lullaby, Palahniuk began writing satirical, horror stories. His work is big on unusually dark and absurd philosophical asides that are so farcical that the reader can help but think of them as true. These asides are non-fiction factoids within his fictional works that, according to the author, “Are included in order to further immerse the reader in my work”.” {2} This author hates metaphors and similes. This author loves to mess around with the traditional styles of storytelling to presumably keep it interesting for him and us. Some of the times this methodology works, as it did in Rant, and some of the times it doesn’t, as it didn’t in Pygmy and Tell All. His forays into illogical, but fun, splatterpunk writing, works in most of his books, but anytime a writer puts their stock in shock they are going to try outdo themselves every time out, until they produce a book like Snuff in which the novelty of the over-the-top shock wears thin quickly.

6) Pace and Formula. No writer, in modern fiction, displays the virtues of pace better than Dean Koontz. I challenge anyone to read the first half of his book Intensity and say that this man is not in the upper echelon of thriller writers today. Koontz knows all he needs to know about architecture, gardening, and all the other minutiae of his Southern Californian locale to make his setting interesting, but Mr. Koontz can cause a reader to flip pages on pace with any of the great suspense/thriller writers of our day. He may also be the safest writer on this list.

Dean-KoontzWhy is Koontz safe? He strives for the mainstream. His books have mass appeal to most age groups and both genders. He is a publisher’s dream in that he knows how to knock out a best-seller on an annual basis without offending anyone. If you’re a writer who seeks the formula to mass appeal, and the bestseller list, I can think of no better author to read … this side of James Patterson. That having been said, there is a formula to Koontz’s writing. How can there not be in a catalog that lists 112 titles, with twenty-eight bestsellers among them, without an inoffensive formula? A formula is good to some degree. To some degree, a formula will provide a reader a solid foundation of comfort that the author can shatter in the pages that follow. There is a formula, and a relative level of comfort that Koontz readers have come to expect, and while we should try hard not to dismiss Koontz on this basis alone, it’s difficult not to do so. All of his characters are much too safe. His female characters are incredibly and consistently intelligent, and his male characters are “safely” reliant on the female’s intelligence and ingenuity … Even his bad guys are safely bad. Then, Koontz exasperates whatever problems his works have in this regard by trying to be funny. His humor is so safe, conformist, and pedantic that it almost seems to be self-effacing, nerdy humor, until one reads enough Koontz to realize that this is this man’s sense of humor.

If you’re looking for edgy, offensive, different material that most people are uncomfortable reading, Koontz probably isn’t your guy. He does write some edgy material, but he doesn’t do so on a consistent enough basis. If one were to gauge mental health by a writer’s fiction, Koontz would likely score higher than any of the authors listed here, but that has resulted in less dangerous, less angst-ridden material. He’s mainstream, and there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re looking to write mainstream fiction. One of the other exceptions to this rule, aside from Intensity, was the novel Life Expectancy. These two books are the must reads in Koontz’s catalog for any writer seeking the edgy and different.

5) Writing fiction. What can be written about Stephen King that hasn’t already been written? If you are a writer that hasn’t read King yet, you’ll probably want to get on the train. He’ll teach you the good, the bad, and the ugly of writing. While it’s almost impossible to read everything he’s done, most writers have an extensive King library. If they don’t, they should probably have at least ten of his books.

KingKing has it all, and most honest, seasoned writers will begrudgingly admit that he has had an influence on them at one point in their process. If The Stand is too long for you, then the writing community will require you to read Misery, Gerald’s Game, It, or any of his classic, early works like The Shining. Some artistic writers may scrunch their nose at King, because he is so ubiquitous, but his influence on modern fiction cannot be denied in just about every novel written after 1990.

Some say that King invented the common man horror, but many say that almost every piece of fictional horror involves the common man. King did work the working joe into his fiction more than most however. As stated earlier, King builds horror through repetition. He usually has a nickname for his monster that gets repeated often enough that the reader feels a horrified endearment to the monster. He also may have not been the first to work music into his horror, most notably nursery rhymes, but he did it more often and with more mastery than most, and it influenced a generation of horror writers.

4) Hodge Podge. As written in the introduction of this piece, writers read other writers in a unique manner. There are so many varied ways that a writer can reach point D in the process that attempting to catalog all of the influential writers, and their influential moments in fiction, would be book length, and very few readers would be interested in all of the ways in which this writer achieved that point. So in the interest of interest, we will try to whittle these moments down to a few of the most prominent. In the area of the influentially absurd humor, there have been few that captured it as well as Robert McCammon did in Gone South, or Gary Shteyngart in his work Absurdistan a book that was heavily influenced by the monumentally influential book A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy O’Toole.

As for horror, there have been few, this side of King, that have been able to capture common man, suspenseful horror as adeptly as Scott Smith did in A Simple Plan and Ruins. Smith’s ability to build to horror in a casually sequential manner is almost unprecedented. The only problem with Smith is that he has only written two books in twenty years, and while there is nothing wrong with the man’s quality, his fans would love a little more quantity. Although Thomas M. Disch’s M.D. was not the greatest horror book ever written, and it ebbed and flowed more than the other books on this list, the work provided moments that have influenced this writer as much as any of the pieces described previously. Some of the imagery Thomas Harris created in the Red Dragon book, and in Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (not a horror but just as laden with images), have led many writers to pound the table in frustration with their attempts to duplicate their provocative imagery. For various reasons, and in various ways, all of these authors had a huge influence on this writer’s attempt to get to point D.

3) Mood. Nothing influences mood better than music. Listening to music gives the writer a certain setting from which “different” fiction can be achieved. If a writer wants to write a period piece, for example, they can select the music from that era, and attempt to achieve that mindset. This is similar to the attempts that the main character in Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time to achieve time travel. In this story, the main character wanted to go back to the year 1912 so badly that he attempted to hypnotize himself into the belief that he was. He surrounded himself with 1912 in his hotel room, and he wore 1912 clothes, listened to 1912 songs, and ended up believing he was in 1912. Music affects me in the same manner. I prefer non-traditional, non-linear music to shake my brain out of the patterns it might fall into in long settings, until I can convince myself that I am non-traditional and non-linear. I, of course, do not make the conscious efforts to do this in the manner Matheson’s character did, but through repetitive listening of certain music, I have been able to achieve something “different” on a number of occasions.

I listen to a wide variety of music when I write, always switching to keep it fresh, but some of my favorites are Mike Patton, John Zorn, and Trey Spruance’s Secret Chiefs. These musicians (not rock stars) create an aura I find conducive to writing edgy, “different” material. These artists, like so many of the authors described above, created something that that seemed impossible before they did it. They are truly skilled in making the listener feel different, and that anything can be accomplished in a certain setting. Miles Davis creates an aura that allows you to focus at times, but his music can be a little too aural at times, and David Bowie’s music can be a little too focused, and this causes me to be distracted when I listen to what his music is doing. The band Pavement can create some chaos in your mind and shake you out of your doldrums, but they, too, can be a little too focused at times for that atmosphere writers need to create.

Everyone’s mom told them that distraction-free silence was conducive to concentration. Yet, every mind works differently, and I have found —much too late for success in school— that I need distraction to achieve focus. It may not make sense to those blessed with normal brains, but I need a Goldilocks amount of distraction —not too hard and not to soft, and not too aural and not too structured— for me to concentrate and focus.

2) Movies.  Most of the best storytelling being done today, we have to face it, is being done in the movies. If a Quentin Tarantino were born in the late nineteenth century, he probably would’ve been a novel writer. He, like all great movie makers of this era, has the storyteller’s bug, but he doesn’t have the patience to sit behind a typewriter/keyboard and compose prose that can take months and years to produce. These storytellers of our era are taking advantage of the technology offered them and telling their stories on screen. One thing movie makers can teach aspiring writers, that reading the Russian authors won’t, is to get to the point. Their audience, our audience, and the audience doesn’t have as much patience for brilliant prose as previous generations. We have a short attention span, and with a few exceptions (David Lynch, Wes Anderson, and Tarantino of late) most movie makers whittle their scripts down to the germane.

1) My writing.  Most readers would consider it egotistical to list “my writing” as the greatest influence on my writing, but that is not the intent. It is only added, because I hold my best writing out as beacons in my career that I want to smash the next time I write something new. It is important that every writer examine what they’ve written on a consistent enough basis that they always try to write better, and different, stories every time they sit behind their keyboard.

{1}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway

{2}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuck_Palahniuk