Morning Rocket Fuel

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In the morning, I like to immediately jump into my latest work-in-progress. It’s like running to greet old friends, reuniting with loved ones.

But sometimes, other writings burn inside me, rushing to the surface. Sometimes it’s an idea for a class I’m teaching, or it might be simply a snippet of dialogue or character description. I write all this down in my big book, by hand, so I won’t forget it. Often, this becomes inspiration for the rest of the morning’s writing, creative rocket fuel pushing me forward into the day.

It’s better to let it rush out rather than keeping it bottled up inside me. Then I am launched toward my goal. I need to get the morning inspiration written as quickly as possible, so I can finally do that jump into the grand project of the day.

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Discovering a Best Writing Practice

I find that if I’m too relaxed in my chair, slouching or sinking down, I automatically enter a relaxed state of mind, a kind of fuzziness that might aid the flexibility of my thoughts but hinder my focus. I want my words sharp and precise, well-chosen and passionate. Despite the stories of famous writers who did most of their writing in bed, I find that a strong posture stimulates stronger writing.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, attorneys don’t deliver their impassioned arguments sitting down. Dancers focus their attention into creating specific body imagery. Even painters – perhaps the closest artistic analog to writers – work with very conscious movements that foster a brain-body connection.

I’m not saying I want to write standing up, but having my feet firmly on the ground, my head in a relaxed yet alert position, and my attention focused as sharply as possible on my words, without distraction, is essential to my best writing. Sometimes I write by hand, scribbling out my first drafts in a journal, and this creates a better brain-body connection for me than typing. I must focus more on the movement of my fingers, on the visceral feeling of the pen gliding on the paper. Even with the distraction of writing in a cafe or other public place – perhaps even more with this distraction forcing my focus closer to my work while providing visual stimulation when I need a kick – writing in a journal connects my self to my words in an immediate way.  I’ve made these words appear on real paper, not as scattered electrons that disappear when the monitor goes off.

I like to set a timer when I write, challenging myself to write for ten minutes without stopping, putting all this focus to a true test. When I feel blocked, I look up to grab a color or movement from around me, putting that into my rough draft. It might even find its way into the final version later.

Try this: Set a timer for ten minutes and just go, let it all your feelings, thoughts, fear, and anxiety go, and write as quickly as possible, not letting your hand off the page. Sometimes you’ll verge into dangerous territory, because when you let it all go your unconscious may explore ideas and memories that make you uncomfortable. It’s okay, write it all down without stopping. You’re training the censor to stay away from your creative process. The more often you practice this, the better you’ll become at generating wonderful surreal juxtapositions of imagery, and at exploring the shadowy underside of subjects, at looking at life completely. As you train yourself to take risks, your mind will begin to just go there by itself.

As long as you have that focus and effort, your writing will flourish. You will know you’re improving as a writer when your mind starts automatically generating more unique and complicated imagery, when you more easily make connections that unify your theme. But this takes practice, good form, and concentration. Consider yourself an athlete. And don’t forget the brain-body connection in terms of health and exercise as well. A good physical exercise routine helps the body grow stronger and stimulates the mind with serotonin and dopamine, so exercising just before a writing session, or as a break in the middle, can really help you focus on creating those sharp words.

For the next three days, try creating variety in your writing routine, and end your writing sessions by journaling about how it felt.

Day One: Exercise just before writing, find a comfortable sitting position with your feet firmly on the floor, and begin and end your writing with a ten-minute freewriting exercise during which you’ll write as much as possible, not worrying about quality, only quantity, using a word of your choice as a prompt. Don’t forget to end by journaling about your experience.

Day Two: Exercise in the middle of your writing routine, preferably taking a break while the writing is really flowing, not when you feel blocked. Your mind will already be full of the imaginary landscapes and characters of your fiction, and the exercise will allow you to see more angles. For posture today, try something new – stand for a while, or sit in a lotus position, write in a journal if you’re used to typing; try something that might help your focus and attention. Again, remember to journal about your writing experience itself.

Day Three: Change your regular writing time (or set a specific time if you don’t have a regular one yet). Now try to do something you enjoyed or found challenging from Day One or Two, but do it longer. Stand for ten minutes while writing, or freewrite for twenty minutes. When you journal about your writing practice at the end of Day Three, settle on a routine that will work for you in the long run, one you can do every day as you focus and develop your craft through mindful practice.

“Turtle and the Sky Bowl,” published by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

 

 

My first published story, “Turtle and the Sky Bowl”

A version of this story was originally published at The-Office.com.  Strangely, it has been illegally posted to many other websites, but I am the original author.  It even appears on a site that purports it to be original Native American lore.  It is loosely based on Native American tales, but that’s it!

DECEMBER’S FEATURED SHORT STORY: People are Starving in Ethiopia Starts a Trend

This story was originally published in Outsider Ink, way back in 2006. It’s a little creepy and funny, in a dark sort of way.

In fifth grade my friend Jimmy changed his name to People are Starving in Ethiopia.

I told him it wasn’t a good idea, but he never listened to me, just like he didn’t listen when I told him not to send microwave dinners over there. Every week, he’d steal at least one box of Six Cheese Lasagna out of his mom’s freezer and send it to the American Embassy in Ethiopia labeled “For the Starving People.”

“It’s just that people forget,” he squeaked in his voice that reminded me of a squirrel on helium. “We talk about it in class and then people forget, so now they can’t forget anymore. When anyone says my name they’ll have to remember.”

“They’re just going to shorten it anyway,” I told him.

Before I knew it, People are Starving in Ethiopia had started a trend. But, sure enough, he would only be People are Starving in Ethiopia for a day. For a while, everybody started changing their names. There was Rain Forest is Dying, We’re Polluting the Oceans, and Global Warming. One day Tommy Smith changed his name to Dad Hits Me a Lot. All the other kids thought that was a little strange.

The Friday after it all began, Global Warming got into a fight with Rainforest is Dying. Global Warming was a bully anyway, one of those kids that would laugh at you when you didn’t buy all your clothes at Macy’s or you rolled the wrong pant leg or didn’t roll it far enough. He wanted to call her just Rainforest, and she said that was simply not okay. So Rainforest is Dying’s hair was pulled, and Global Warming was kicked in the groin.

They both ended up having a talk with the principal.

Meanwhile, I found a name for myself. My mom said that on the way to work one day there was a whale circling under the Golden Gate Bridge. All the cars slowed down to nearly a stop as people watched. The next day, I told People are Starving my new name was The Whale Under the Bridge that Stopped Traffic.

“That’s a stupid name,” he chirped.

“Better than Spelling Homework,” I said, pointing to a kid with glasses and giant patches of red freckles. Lately there were names like that all over school as kids renamed themselves to remember homework and even phone numbers.

After a day, my best friend’s name was People are Starving, then simply People, and finally just Peeps. Nobody likes a long name. Chelsea, who had boobs already in fifth grade and everybody called Chesty but not to her face, asked him, “Why’d you name yourself after an Easter candy?”

“What?” squeaked Peeps.

“Those little yellow sugar chicks,” Chesty said.

“No, it’s People are Starving in Ethiopia,” he said.

Other kids thought his name came from the fact that his voice sounded like a peeping chicken.

Despite her demands, Rainforest is Dying soon became simply Rain. Global Warming wasn’t happy with his new nickname either – Globby – which he thought was an insult about his weight. People started calling me Whale, and that annoyed me because the whale itself was really beside the point. I did my part to remember all the names. When he was down to Peeps with everybody else, I still called my best friend People are Starving.

People are Starving was crying at recess.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“This isn’t right anymore,” he said.

The next day, Dad Hits me a Lot came to school with his arm in a splint. I asked him about it, and he said, “Fell down the stairs.”

After that, People are Starving in Ethiopia told me he wanted to just be Jimmy again.

“Whatever, Peeps,” I said. He couldn’t just change his name whenever he wanted to.

Just then, Water Pollution came up to us with her hand stuck down her pants. She was always digging around down there. “Can you tell Dad Hits my a Lot he’s doing it wrong?” she asked.

“Doing what wrong?” said Peeps.

“His name. What does Dad Hits me a Lot have to do with the world?”

“I’ll talk to him,” Peeps said sadly.

But he didn’t talk to him. Dad Hits me a Lot mostly stayed in the classroom at recess, making him hard to find. I noticed no one was talking much anymore except to fight. One morning, People Suck stole People are Cool’s lunch because her name offended him, and they were set to fight in the field after school. All the kids started changing their names that day. It began at lunch when Globby changed his name to People are Cool. Though several kids argued he couldn’t have a name that had already been taken, he explained that it was to show support for his friend.

There we were at 3:05, lined up on either side of the field, all the People Sucks on one side, all the People are Cools on the other. Between us, squared off like serious fighters (their Pokemon and Garfield lunch pails dropped to the ground and pushed to the sidelines), stood the original People Sucks and People are Cool. People sucks stomped the grass like a horse. People are Cool stuck out her tongue and blew her enemy a raspberry.

They charged.

Suck got a handful of Cool’s hair and swung her around by it, pro wrestling style. She screamed and flipped over, losing a fistful of blonde curls before grabbing Suck’s shirt and ripping his collar down almost to his belly. Suck tried to kick her, but the giant roundhouse made him slip in the mud, landing him on his back with a splash. Cool saw her chance and crashed down onto his belly with her bottom and legs.

She scratched his cheek with a sharp fingernail, leaving a mark that looked like a long, red worm.

“Let me up,” Suck sputtered. “You’re just lucky I don’t hit girls.”

“Say you’re sorry,” said Cool.

Suck stared at her and struggled to get up, but with her weight and the slippery mud, he couldn’t move. Cool held her sharp fingernail over his face again.

“Okay! Sorry!” Suck yelled.

So it was done. The next day everything was pretty normal. Most everyone went back to their old names. Dad Hits Me a Lot – Tommy Smith – was absent that day, which wasn’t much of a surprise either. He’s sick pretty often.

Ghost Trees

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On my drive to work before dawn, my eyes are drawn to the black treetops on the hillsides in silhouette against the gray-indigo sky. Threatening the bright, defined boxes of car and house windows, signs, and the automobiles themselves (crowded together on the highway like packages trapped on a stalled conveyor belt), these trees branch upward, sprawling, uncontrolled, and as open as an unanswered question. They are black holes on earth, hauling up and smashing light, smashing my thoughts, smahing time, until, at the edge of the singularity for a moment, I find myself in a wide open black field at night, before cars, before electric lights, before the dawn.