Spiritual confessions, from the devoutly non-religious

skeleton holding a sign reading "confession"A confession. Actually, multiple confessions. I know–it all sounds so JUICY! But before I start, a qualifying note—some confessions prior to confession, if you will. First, these confessions ain’t all that juicy. So get your mind out of the gutter (those are reserved for a later time). Second, “confession” brings with it a quality of guilt and need for reparation, either with something bigger or with yourself or with another. That’s not what my confessions—what these particular confessions—are about. Yet there is most certainly a spiritual undertone and undertow to all of what follows. Let’s continue.

First confession. I grew up in Kansas. When young, I regularly attended Sunday School (of the Methodist variety). My parents were friends with the pastor and I remember visiting their house even after they had moved to another city (sidenote: their house had a cool stairway from the kitchen to the upstairs—reminded me a bit of playing Clue and escaping via a secret passage). After my parents divorced, I also spent a fair amount of time at Catholic mass. Growing up, I attended small churches where everyone knew who you were, as well as giant mega-churches where you were anonymous yet (supposedly) somehow part of something so much larger. My best friends in high school were a Methodist, a Lutheran, a Baptist, and a Mormon. I know, it sounds like the start of a joke: so this atheist/agnostic walks into a bar (well, probably not a bar) with a Methodist, a Lutheran, a Baptist, and a Mormon… If Kansas is part of the Bible Belt, then growing up I felt situated squarely in the middle of the buckle.

Second confession. I never liked any of it. It didn’t feel comfortable to me. Ever. Even as a child. While young, I loved exploring the darkened church, running behind the alter and choir area in what felt like hidden walkways that few ever saw or even knew existed. I still remember hiding behind the trees and bushes in front of the church and climbing into the newspaper recycling container with my best friend Rob. I liked trying to figure out the fire escape with its counterweight. But beyond the cool, young boy explorations, I didn’t like it. I felt uncomfortable wearing the gown-like garment (aww, let’s face it, it was definitely a gown, nothing “gown-like” about it) as I walked down the aisle to extinguish the candles on the alter. The special candle snuffing device was cool, though, as was the smell of the wick after it went out. “Lock-ins” were cool because I got to play basketball all night long. “Lock-ins” weren’t cool when we had to stop and talk about religion. Hide-and-seek in a church is pretty much more awesome than anywhere else. It’s creepy late at night and there are a million places to hide, hoping that the girl you like will find you before anyone else. It’s not nearly as cool to stop and join together in prayer.

Third confession. All of these feelings made me feel alone and lost and confused at times. One friend was going on a mission. Another friend’s brother went to divinity school. Another friend was so devotedly involved with his church that he always felt the most religious of all of them to me. This same friend gave me a book a few years later, an attempt to save me, I think, but done in a way that never made me feel uncomfortable or pressed upon. My mom gave me a plaque with the religious connotation of my name. I’ve kept it, and the Bible I was given as a child, all of these years, but simply have them boxed away. I tried to read the Bible from cover to cover once, maybe twice. I didn’t make it. And so what was I in the midst of all of this? A fraud? Not really, because I never professed to believe like the rest. They knew I wasn’t religious. It was more like I was the one who missed the day at school where everything was explained. I somehow just didn’t quite get it. Or, I was the one who saw the punchline that everyone else missed. Either way, there was a certain outsider status that I felt, though none of them ever placed it upon me.

Fourth confession. One of the above-mentioned friends told me years later that he thought of me as the most spiritual of all of them. Took me completely by surprise. I’d never thought of myself that way. I moved to the Pacific Northwest but I hadn’t become a new-age hippie or anything. Where did this come from? It did two things, though: 1) it altered my understanding of my friend, who before I would have guessed as being the most dogmatic and proscription-driven (he didn’t drink, smoke, etc). His concept of religion and spirituality turned out to be much broader and inclusive than I had ever guessed (broader, certainly, than mine since I could never conceive of myself as “spiritual”). 2) it made me think about what, in fact, was “spiritual.” Nothing dramatic happened, but I think it planted a seed.

Fifth confession. I’ve come, when I’m most open and at my best, to believe in trusting the “universe” and keeping myself as open as possible to it. That’s when the best things in my life have occurred. It’s hard to do, though, with guilt about the past and worries about the future and anxieties about my self-worth robbing that comfortable melding with the present that has been fuel for when the tumblers of life click into place and things move unimpeded toward the beauty and love that means more than anything else in life to me—whether that’s being filled with thankfulness when staring at the ceiling and asking that I be a good enough father to teach my soon-to-be-born son about love and ask that he feel love surround him like a bubble throughout his life, or putting all fears aside and risking myself in a relationship by fully letting go in the pursuit of unprotected love (big difference, kids, between unprotected love and unprotected sex: yes on the former, no on the latter).

Sixth confession. I want to believe in something bigger. (Have I indeed become a NW hippie after all?). For me, that something bigger is love and understanding that nothing happens in isolation. I think about my novel Ghost Music and I see those undercurrents swirling through the plot and character growth. The past, present, and future chase one another. The main character, Marcus Brace, has to learn to heal his wounds and risk himself with another woman again. At one point (in a pop culture nod toward a Brady Bunch episode where the kids break a vase playing ball in the house and try to glue it back together) Marcus wonders whether what has been fractured grows stronger for that break or remains forever fragile afterward. I say, with all due acknowledgment to the more typical Biblical aphorism, that you reap what you risk. Willing to risk fragility is its own type of strength. Be willing to be fragile, my friends. And in that, know that you are strong and there is love coming back to you.

Thanks for stopping by. Please help out by spreading the word about my blog and my soon-to-be-released novel Ghost Music by emailing the link above or sharing via Facebook, Twitter, Google+. And always feel free to email me with any questions or requests. 

Building your writing platform: writers as marketers.

wooden platform“Platform” is the buzzword in publishing and writing circles at the moment. It’s tossed around so casually that you might find yourself nodding along with the crowd but lost once you’re by yourself. If so, I’m here to help.

So what’s a platform? Think of your platform as the structure you’ve created to reach potential readers. The bigger the platform, the bigger the potential reach. You probably have several “planks” already, even if you don’t know it. Do you have a Facebook account and mention your writing on there? Do you tweet about writing or books? Do you have a blog? A LinkedIn or Google+ account? You should. All of these are free. They make easy, foundational planks to promote your work and connect with those who are interested in your writing.

There’s good news for writers looking to create a platform. The best advice I have is something that should be second nature to you: write, write, write. It’s obviously one of your strengths: play to it. The caveat? You can’t spend all of your time writing the great American novel; you also need to spend some of your writing time and talents to connect with others. Write responses to blogs you follow. Write and contribute to forums. Write tweets and write additions to re-tweets. You are your own best advocate. Get your name out there and connect with other writers, other reading groups, other folks who love the written word. Despite what television and the “internets” want us to believe, there are tons of us book/word lovers out there.

Even better news: I’m convinced that writers can be great marketers. Why take my word for it? Well, I have experience at both. I’m a writer, by both proclivity and profession. I’m a marketer, by both inclination and occupation. Yes, that makes me a “marketing writer” and “communications manager” (my official title). I’ve spent years thinking about and exploring how narrative works, in both novels and in real-life. I have a PhD in English, a certificate in marketing management, and a novel (hopefully to be published this summer) under my belt. Writers, I adamantly tell you, make fantastic marketers.

Don’t be intimidated by marketing. Use your writing skills and think of it as an exercise in narrative. If you’re a writer, then you’re a storyteller. That gives you a huge advantage when thinking about marketing yourself and your book. Here are a few questions to get you started (or if you’re already started, these should be easy for you to answer):

  • What story do you want others to tell about your novel? I know, this is a bit meta: what’s the story about the story?
    • Don’t think of “story” in a negative, un-true way. I’m simply suggesting that you should know up front what story (or “history” if that makes you feel more comfortable) you want people to understand about why you created your book, how it came to be, why it’s important, etc.
    • What story do you want readers to understand about you? How does that story (set of facts) tie into the story from the bullet point above?
    • How do your stories (both the novel you wrote and the life you’ve created) fit with or contest the stories (again, plural) of other authors you come in contact with?

I’m fascinated by this connection between authorship, promotion, platform creation, and narrative. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Lots more to come on this topic, with lots more concrete suggestions on platform building.

While you’re here, take a look at other recent blog topics (list is on the left-hand side, under the menu!)


The past you like, the past you hate

pencil erasing the phrase "the past"

The great thing about America, they say, is that it’s a land of second chances. People come here to make a fresh start. Your ancestors probably did. And it’s a land that loves to forgive, to let people try again and start over after their mistakes.

That’s a lovely theory. But how do you “start over?” There’s no reset button to life. There’s no way to erase the past. There are real-life reasons (financial and familial and familiar) why most of us can’t just fold up our tent, hop a train, and start a new life in a different town. And even if you could, would that really be escaping from the past? You tote your past with you everywhere you go. It’s the invisible baggage that no porter will ever carry for you; only you get to push and pull and tug and lug it from place to place.

Whitman, one of America’s first great poets (and a personal favorite), famously claimed that he was large, that he contained multitudes. Beautiful. Lyrical. It’s a fundamentally democratic poetic statement, abundant and amenable to differences. I loved it as a college student. I love it as a theory.

The darker side that I overlooked in my first enthusiastic embrace? What if you can’t stomach some of the past (personal, cultural, national) that you contain? How do you make sense of not just the good that you have done but also the errors, sins, and mistakes that you have committed?

In my novel Ghost Music, characters try different tactics: some attempt to ignore the past wholly, some are swallowed by the past and lose the present, while others learn to balance what happened (good and bad) with the present. It’s a delicate issue, this effort to contain not only the multitudes that you like, but also those that you want to excoriate and burn and vomit away.

Yes, Mr. Whitman, we do indeed contain multitudes. At times, though, it is easy to wish we did not, that we could be simple, happy, uncomplicated monads, blissfully unaware of the past and able to leave all mistakes behind. Ghost Music shows the impossibility of that wish. It is a novel not just about past sins, but also about learning to forgive (both yourself and others) and attempts to reconstruct.

Life, in a can of paint (changes for 2013)

I spent part of the holiday break painting a couple of “accent” walls in my house. I wavered between two color choices: a grey-blue, or dark red. I went with red, preferring the sense of fire and passion and emotion it brings up for me.

photo (1)I find painting tedious and routinized. The advantage, though, is that you can spend the time thinking about other things. Since it’s the start of a new year, my thoughts wandered into resolutions, the idea of beginning anew, and “character” development.

To be very charitable, 2012 held a “rough patch” for me. I’ve since been working to paint a new (or renewed) self. Among other changes, I want to (re)discover a feeling of fearless love, toward life and toward myself and toward the passion and willingness to be vulnerable and caring that have led to the best things in my life. Somewhere along the line, life snuck in, snatched that away, and sabotaged the good. I want it back.

paint canHere’s where I’m taking direction, as absurd as it sounds, from a paint can. Redecorating requires that you follow a few rules. First, there’s prep work. Painting, both walls and the self, is a messy process. If you don’t take time to set up your work area, you’re likely to do as much harm as good. Set your drop cloth down, tape off the area that you want the new paint to cover, and don’t forget to clean the work surface. No matter how it got there, you’re responsible for the gunk and grime on the walls you live in. Simply covering up what’s currently showing doesn’t work. For the paint to stick, you’ve got to clean up the old and repair cracks and scars.

Second, you need to give the paint time to dry. Often you’ll need several coats. Rushing the process doesn’t work and can actually be counter-productive, muddying the finish you want. Patience and a willingness to sit calmly in the midst of mess are required.

I’ve realized that my writing often turns to a similar interplay between surface and what is covered. As a writer, I’m fascinated with what lurks beneath. I talk in Chapter One of Ghost Music about how we live on top of a palimpsest, with hidden layers under our feet. I mention elsewhere the idea of running atop a cracked surface, trying to stay one step ahead of the crumbling ground. Characters try to escape the past, only to find that they never leave anything truly behind. Words create a veneer that says one thing but vibrates with the weight of unspoken emotions. For me, it always comes back to emotion, which some characters push down in a (doomed) effort to contain it.

Ghost Music is a murder mystery. Of course, murder will out. But the same is true of emotion and history. Emotion will out, while history is in fact always present. I can’t undo 2012. I also can’t just cover it up. Painting—whether it’s a scene for readers to envision, a new self, or even something as ordinary as a wall—involves a great deal more than just slapping on some color. Done properly, it’s not as much covering up as it is repairing, adding to, and building upon what’s underneath.

Tattoos, pain, and writing

I have a few tattoos already. I have plans for a few others: when I qualify for the Boston Marathon, I’ll get a tattoo that captures that moment on my calf; when Ghost Music is published, I’ll get a tattoo celebrating that dream. Those of you with tattoos are probably familiar with this question—people often ask me if getting a tattoo hurts. My answer isn’t exactly what they’re looking for. For me, there’s a powerful connection between my writing, my tattoos, and that question about pain.

I’m not talking about physical pain from getting a tattoo (though I will say that getting a tattoo on the side of your torso isn’t the most fun). Rather, my tattoos have me simultaneously celebrating and second-guessing how I’d like to live my life. Both tattoos are related to my writing. I mentioned before that I am an emotional writer. When I’m at my best, I’m ready to burn with emotion, explode with the passion and pain of feeling, and willing to grab hold of the live wire of emotional existence with bare hands. The tattoo on my torso is meant to capture this: Icarus is flying into the sun, wings melting and feathers falling. Though the original story isn’t intended this way, I take Icarus not as a cautionary tale but as a promise to myself: I’m willing to scorch myself and push to the point of no return in pursuit of emotional intensity.

My other tattoo has a literary bent as well: on my upper left arm, a stone gargoyle sits hunched over, sadness in his eyes, eating his own heart. A response to Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert,” this tattoo reminds me of how I feast on emotion and have a love-hate relationship with feelings of sadness. “Love:” the intensity of the pain often shakes lose new creative directions for me. Hate: feeling the pain is overwhelming at times.

A few caveats to this creative process. First, let’s not romanticize the method. I don’t like feeling lousy. It’s not a mystical muse that I want to court or think is special. Yes, “pain is real,” but when you’re in pain feeling “real” isn’t so cool. Second, you have to take that emotional energy and compress it, hammer it out into a cohesive plan. I’m a planner when I write. I know the general framework of where I want to go and how I want to get there. I use the emotional upheaval as a planning block: how does emotion X fit into plot Y and advance character Z?

For me, this becomes the best of all possible worlds: it makes the writing less mechanical, it balances pure emotion within a broader perspective/plan, and it makes room for an important tweaking of that platitude to “write what you know.” More on the last point in a later post…

Shopping for concrete shoes with Faulkner

I’m thinking of murder again. Fictional, of course. There’s no mystery to the deaths I’m contemplating, though. They have to go.

So whose eminent demise am I talking about? It’s time for select phrases, sentences, and even sections of my novel Ghost Music to sleep with the fishes. I’m fitting them with concrete shoes, courtesy of the delete key.

I’ve of course revised and edited and cut a great deal from my novel already. It’s in a spot where I even think of it as “final.” Writing is rarely final, though. What I have, I think, is good. But it’s still too long. It’s bloated in spots and needs to be made leaner and more efficient.

All of which returns me to murder. I’ve made the easy cuts to my novel. It’s time to “kill my darlings.” The advice comes from Faulkner (though I’ve also seen it ascribed to others, including Stephen King). As a writer, there are probably sections or phrases that you particularly love. Words that you’ve hammered together that feel especially well constructed and resonate with exactly the right type of emotion. I have several spots like that. They need to go.

Why do I need to cut them if I like them so much? In part, it’s smart to kill your darlings because you are simply much too close to them. You love them. You can’t see them as objectively as you need to. And because of that, they can actually be disrupting the flow of your novel.

That’s what’s happening in my book. My darlings are sabotaging a few chapters. So should you immediately and always murder your favorite parts? Of course not. Sometimes your favorite parts are your favorite precisely because they do such a good job. But equally, you shouldn’t refuse to cut them just because they are your favorites. Divorce your ego from the writing. Look at the work as objectively as you can. Have others read those sections and don’t let your feelings be bruised if they don’t think as highly of the work as you do.

It’s not easy. It hurts to kill them. I feel guilty. But I know they need to die. To continue this strange pairing of Faulkner and the mafia, I need to murder some of those that are closest to me but have put the rest of the work in jeopardy. So here I am, shopping with Faulkner in Yoknapatawpha County for a pair of concrete shoes to put on my darlings. Murder, for a better manuscript.