Monday, December 30, 2013

The Id and the Superego Walk into a Bar, or What the Freud am I Thinking?

“We approach the id with analogies: we call it chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations… It is filled with energy reaching from the instincts, but it has no organization... but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs of the subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.” –Sigmund Freud


If you knew something was wrong and yet could bring satisfaction and happiness, would you do it? Would you take into consideration all of the people your actions would affect—either by benefiting or hurting them, for in any instance, whenever a choice is made, the numerous variables at play have the ability to affect those involved differently—or would you focus on self-satisfaction? What would enter into your mind as you weighed your options: your past failures and the times you were hurt? Would you try to convince yourself that your actions were for the best, even if another was hurt, someone you didn’t even really know? Would you give in to the id—that instinctual drive toward pleasure—or would you allow your superego, that moralizing voice that begins development around the age of five or six and is formed by the norms and mores of society, the lessons and ideas of parents and associates, to talk you out of your actions? I suppose the answer given is dependent on the person being asked. For me, I’ve tended to rely on my superego to dictate the choices I’ve made in my life, silencing that preternatural urge for pleasure and self-satisfaction and self-gratification, that animalistic urge to do what I want.


I was accused recently of being a good guy, for I found myself in a situation in which it would have been very easy for me to not be a “good guy,” instead taking advantage of opportunities that presented themselves, opportunities that are quite enticing. And I have to laugh, because as I think about it, I keep hearing all the pastors of my youth talking about the attractiveness of sin, how glamorous it promises to be and yet isn’t, but I’m not really focusing on sin here. Okay, so maybe I am, but after a while, everything becomes a sin: stealing a pen from your coworker at work, not cleaning your room when your mother tells you to do so, speeding, wearing clothing of mixed fibers (just seeing if you’re paying attention—I know that’s Old Testament.) Not helping those in need when you can, ignoring the hungry and afflicted. Not tithing.
But what I’m talking about here is more about a moralistic sense of what we do in our everyday lives, aside from religious affiliation and doctrine, those choices that define us. For our choices do define us, maybe not wholly, maybe not as though each decision was emblematic of you as a person, as our character is defined by the culmination of numerous choices made throughout the course of a life, yet they do determine our character and how others perceive us, how we perceive ourselves. And oftentimes we do care how others perceive us, whether we admit it or not. We may claim that we don’t care what others think about us and what we do—and maybe to an extent there is some truth to that—but I would contend that sometimes our actions are dictated by how we think others will perceive us based on them, whether we intend to let their voices guide us or not, and we find ourselves thinking, if I do that, then I become a… and you can insert your word or phrase of choice into the preceding thought. If I’m caught having a drink, I’m a drinker. How will my church respond to that? If I tell one little lie to try to save myself, I’m a liar. How will the person to whom I lied ever trust me again? Will they? Is this line of thinking unique? Of course not, but I’ve been reminded of this lately in certain areas in my life. If I do this, I become a… and someone gets hurt in the process…


Knowing that this is the case doesn’t make it any easier to ignore that instinct for desire that tells me to do something I know I shouldn’t. Sure, I can claim a moral victory, stand tall and say that I fought the demons of temptation and won, and some days that’s a good feeling. One would think that it should always be a good feeling—and perhaps it should—but sometimes claiming a moral victory doesn’t give you the immediate satisfaction that giving in to temptation would. But then you have to live with the guilt of having given in to temptation, possibly hurting someone in the process. Is the immediate satisfaction, likely short-lived, worth the internal struggle of guilt? Likely not. But that’s a decision made only by those in the moment, those faced with the decisions before them.

One would like to think that a lifetime of moral victories would amount to something. And sure, it does—it makes you a good person, at least in the eyes of those around you. And when presented with my recent decision, when accused of being a good guy, I jokingly said it was either one of my greatest faults or greatest attributes.

Obviously, I’ve refrained by detailing my situation here, unusual for me, I know. I’m usually brutally honest on here. One reader said of my writing: you’re so honest on your blog, not really sparing anyone’s feelings. Ironic, it seems, given my lack of expression during the conversation at hand. This time, however, I chose generalities, morality without specificity. Though I’m sure some of you can read between the lines.

Am I a purist? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Yet I find myself watching my id and superego fight for dominance, however slight, in certain situations, something to which we can all at times relate. So is there a moral message here? No, not really. Just something to think about.


So the Id and the Superego walk into a bar. And let’s hope they get hammered, cause they already put up one helluva fight. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

So This is the New Year

So this is the New Year/ And I don’t feel any different…
So everybody put your best suit or dress on/ Let’s make believe that we are wealthy now for just this once

Ben Gibbard, you know I love you, but why couldn’t you have written happy instead of wealthy, for that’s how I’ve always sung it…

The Past

As this year ends, I, like so many others, find myself reflecting on the last year, which, like any other, was filled with ups and downs, a stereotypical statement if ever there was one, and yet I find in it some truth. My divorce was finalized and I lost two teaching jobs; I dated someone I had liked for years, even while I was married, and watched the dissolution of that relationship, just as I had watched the dissolution of my marriage the previous year. I find myself now in almost exactly the same situation I was in last year: just out of a relationship and working at a new job that I’m still learning to navigate and understand.

This past year held many changes for me: a change of careers, a change of partners; tackling life as a single parent. And through it all, I’d like to say I learned something about myself, about who I am and who I’m not. And I suppose I did. It just seems that such lessons always come with a price, and dealing with that realization seems to get harder as I get older.


At least now you know. Spend the night in the dumps. Allow yourself the evening to be depressed and upset and then get your ass out of bed tomorrow and go at it as hard as you can. It’s a little thing called life and sometimes it just kicks you in the nuts. Better days are ahead and you will not die alone. You will meet someone worthy of your love and attention.


Older? What a strange sentiment, for I’m only 27, yet most days I feel so much older than the number of my years. I’ve always been an old soul, as many of you who know me know, and I know my circumstances are not unique, yet I sometimes think that they weigh more heavily on me than on others—ridiculous, I know. I’m fortunate, for I have a family who loves me, a son who adores me and whom I adore, and friends who care, regardless of their limited number.


Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes/ five hundred twenty-five thousand journeys to plan/ Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes/ How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?


During the first few months of my marriage, I put on weight and began to fill out for the first time in my life. A friend of mine looked at me one day and said, “You’ve put on weight!” a look of incredulity spread across his face. He was always one to make fun of my small frame over the years, and as I accepted that I had put on weight, he told me he could see it in my face. Contentment pounds, he called them—what a misnomer. Over the last year, that weight has fluctuated as I’ve dealt with the divorce, the ramifications thereof, and my subsequent relationship struggles and job searches, all of which have exacerbated my depression.

It’s funny that when I had no job and was dependent on unemployment checks and family to make ends meet, the rest of my life seemed to be going well; once I got a job, the rest of my life seemed to take a turn for the worse. I know this sounds melodramatic, and that is not my intent. It just seems that the various components of my life can never peacefully coexist in harmony, likely the result, I’ve learned, of some character faults on which I admittedly need to work.

And one of those faults is with my thinking. I used to think that person’s career choice was a quintessential defining element of who he or she was. I was a teacher—regardless of whatever else I was (writer, husband, father, friend, office manager, cashier) I was a teacher. I was an academic who enjoyed intellectual discussions concerning politics, pedagogy, literature, theatre, and film, and tried to use those interests to make those around me think about the world differently than they would otherwise. I wanted to change minds, enhance vocabularies, and broaden horizons. That to me was my defining statement: I’m a teacher.

But I’ve begun to wonder how much a person is truly defined by a career. I have two college degrees and have nearly completed an MA in English (the focus being on education), and yet I’m training to run a gas station. And I don’t see myself going back into education anytime soon. Had anyone told me at seventeen or eighteen—even at twenty-five—that this was where I would be in my life at twenty-seven, I’d have thought the person was crazy. There’s a lot more to me than just the person who wears a black polo instead of blue polo to work, a name tag stuck to my shirt, but as I’ve watched my status as a teacher be erased, I can’t help but wonder how I would define myself to someone. Hi, I’m Dave. I’m a co-manager of a gas station. And I used to be an academic. That’s a turn-on, right?


After all these years, I suppose merely asking how you’ve been would seem a rather silly way to start a conversation, but it’s the best I have at this point. So, how’ve you been?
Well hello there. I have been alright I suppose. Good times and bad but that’s just life. How about yourself?

This year, I continued to work on my novel, finished my first play and wrote a few others, and sent out work for publication, all of which was rejected. Yet I continued to push myself as a writer, looking for outlets, one of which is this blog. I never expected much response from people when I started this, but I’ve received praise from people who’ve read it, people who have thanked me for my honesty and for writing pieces that are relatable, that allow them to draw parallels to their own lives. But let’s be honest: I was hurt, pissed, and depressed, and needed an outlet. So it really started for me, as a place for me to try to make sense of the world around me. The fact that you read it and related to it is an added bonus. I’ve received compliments from people I don’t really know that well who have responded to a post and messaged me to tell me about it, people I’ve not seen since high school. And I must admit that it’s a little disconcerting that people from my church read the blog, what with my discussion of alcohol, religion, politics, and the use of language usually deemed foul in church circles. Yet even from church members, the responses have been overwhelmingly positive, perhaps signifying a difference in the Church I’ve come to know and the Church I thought I knew growing up.


A few of my friends quit smoking this year, though one relapsed. Good for them. I started again after nine years of just the occasional cigar (again, sorry to those of you for whom this is a startling revelation.) This past year I was the first time I ever took medicine for depression and anxiety. I was prescribed Lexipro and it was great until my insurance ran out. I had wondered to what extent it truly helped, and I was interested to see if a change of life situations (marriage and my job) would have eliminated my need for it. I’ll admit that I did feel better even after my refills ran out, though that result was short lived, and I felt myself longing for something to make me feel better. I suppose that is why I spent a cold winter’s night last January around a fire drinking too much moonshine and bourbon on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Why I drank too much Fireball and bourbon a couple months later at a bar where I obviously did not belong.

A short time after Amanda left, I was walking into work at the college when I noticed a rather attractive woman, maybe about my age or a few years older, walking into work as well. I don’t recall now what I was actually doing there, as I was teaching on a different campus. But I recognized her as someone on the staff, though I don’t know who she was or what she does, and I noticed she was smoking. My first thought was “She’s hot” (forgive the baseness of my phrasing and thinking) and my second was “Could I date someone who smokes? I have a kid to think about.” This was obviously before I rediscovered that smoking can take the edge of.  A lot of my time in the early months of the year, it seems, was spent thinking thoughts like that: where do I go from here, and not just for myself.

As I do with many things in my life, I went to Travis for guidance. I don’t recall our conversation, but I find myself thinking the same things now: where do I go from here.


The Future

As the new year starts, I suppose I have many resolutions, as there are many things I want to do in the coming year and many things about myself that I wish to change. I want to write more and finally publish my book, assuming I can get around to editing a final draft; I hope to stage at least a table read of my first play; and I hope to finish many more works.

But in truth, I want to find a way to be happy. It would be easy for me to say I want to find someone I can make happy and with whom I can be happy, but if I’ve learned anything in the past couple years, it’s that you can’t rely on others to make you happy. You have to find your own internal happiness before you can be happy with someone else. That’s a harsh realization to reach, one that is easier said than accepted, but it’s a truth I must own.

If work will allow, I plan on becoming more active in my church, maybe even getting up in time for Sunday school. I joined a church softball league this past year, and though I’m not athletic or skilled in the least, I enjoyed it far more than I imagined I would, for it offered a sense of community and togetherness. I know there is something missing in my life. If we’re being honest, I kind of thought it was sex. But I’m starting to think it’s community.


--If I think that you're good looking, I say you're attractive. Just sounds better. Dont ya think?
--I think attractive does sound classier. Plus it has the association of attraction, which carries with it the idea of drawing together. So much better than the Neanderthalithic hot that has worked its way into our vernacular. (And better than handsome—old grandmothers call their grandsons handsome.)

A friend of mine recently told me I’m hot (a statement I find unfounded) and that I likely won’t be single for long. She said that looks aside, I’m still quite a catch (her words, not mine) for I’m a devoted father, and I’m funny, smart, and talented. Maybe there is some truth in that. But I think what I maybe need to accept in the new year is that I can be single. I went from a six-year relationship into one that lasted almost a year, with no silent time in between. Alison and I started talking (whatever that means) a week after Amanda left, went on our first date nine days after my divorce, and were together for nearly eight months until just last week. My natural inclination is to find someone, for I don’t like being alone—there are too many ghosts in my house that dance around me when I’m alone—but maybe if I take the time to be alone, to truly reflect on my past lessons learned, I’ll be a better person for it, and I’ll not make the same mistakes I made this time around.

So here’s to the new year, a time of introspection, growth, and building; a time of reflection, creation, and devotion; and a time to ensure that next year doesn’t end the same as this one and the one before, for if we continue to make the same mistakes, we surely haven’t learned.

Here’s to hoping I’ve learned.


If you take the time to read this, know that I appreciate it.

Have a happy New Year.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Post-Divorce Guide to Not Being a F@$k-Up

My first serious relationship (sorry to anyone I dated before the herein referenced person) came when I was seventeen. It was just after Christmas, and I had gone with a couple friends to Katie’s Corner for coffee, and it just so happened that a friend of a friend was sitting a few tables away. She didn’t speak, didn’t approach us, but apparently something about me struck her interest. I sat there in my tattered want-to-be BoHo sweater and long hair, and since I still wanted to be Bob Dylan, I was smoking a cigarette (sorry to those of you to whom this is a startling revelation) and talking about whatever it was we were discussing, likely that my grandmother was lying dying in the hospital. Shortly thereafter, Rickey asked me if I had seen a particular girl a few tables away that night; after all these years, I don’t recall the exact conversation, but it happened that Mindy (the woman mentioned in previous posts about love and divorce as the friend with whom I’ve gone to dinner, the friend with whom I’ve had countless conversations about love and loss, the friend with whom I have to share my Pulitzer for all the conversations she and I have had that have worked their way into stories, should I win one) and I were ultimately introduced and would consequently date for nearly a year. Her leaving me resulted in my first true heartbreak.
But it was by chance that we dated. After that, I would date someone for a short while, even claiming after a few weeks that I was in love, however naïve an assertion that was. But it was through Caitlin that I would meet Amanda, only because Caitlin and I had broken up and she was then dating Amanda’s cousin. Again, by chance we met. We dated for two years and were married for four.

She left for the second and final time a year ago Christmas night.


I went to marriage counseling twice, with varying degrees of seriousness on my part and limited success. During these counseling sessions, my views of love changed. I began to see love less as a noun and more as a verb—the actions we perform toward those about whom we care, characterized by the way we treat them. That giddy feeling we often associate with love was defined more as infatuation, that fleeting manifestation present in the honeymoon period, that limited time that is too often ended too soon. That wasn’t true love; what came next, that conscious daily decision to be with someone because you love and care about them, was true love.

I was encouraged to rely on my logic more than emotion, on which I had so long relied when making decisions, regardless of my assertion that I was an academic and liked to think about problems logically. That may have been true regarding academics, pedagogy, controversial topics, but when it came to matters of the heart, I relied on my heart instead of my head. Because of all of this, at the end of my marriage, in a last ditch effort to save what we had built over the course of six years, I promised I could change, that I could do better. That I could focus more on allowing my love to be more than a feeling, to allow it to manifest itself through actions. And I was told that I didn’t need to change, that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was fine as I was as a person.

So when my separation was begun and the long march toward divorce commenced, it seemed that everyone I knew was willing to offer me advice, so much of it contradictory to the advice of others, so much of it confusing and banal. One pastor told me, “You chose to get married, you chose to get divorced, and now you should choose not to date.” The world, he told me, would think me crazy, as their advice would be to rush out and find someone. But as a Christian, I should wait until God sent someone by. And when He did, I was to ignore her the first time. And if He sent her by again, maybe cast a glance but do nothing. And if He sent her by a third time, then I could and should act, if I was ready. Others told me to rush out and find someone, to date casually, committing to nothing serious. A former boss told me one night, over mason jars of moonshine, cheap bourbon, and beer as we sat around a roaring fire two weeks after Amanda left, that I should be excited about my prospects. “Man, Pack,” he said, “get ready. There’s gonna be so much pussy coming your way.” Even my aunt told me that “the best way to get over one is to get under one.” But I knew that wasn’t me. Casual sex was of no interest to me for I wanted intimacy that extended beyond the bedroom, and I failed to see the point of going on dates unless I expected something to come of them.
So ultimately I did what I had wanted to do for a while: I talked to someone who had caught my interest years ago, even back when I was married. During the course of my marriage, I met many people whom I thought would be a better match for me, someone with whom I would get along better, someone with whom I had more in common. So after seeing Les Miserables by myself on New Year’s Eve, I messaged someone on Facebook after running into her earlier in the evening, somewhat by chance. Doing even that scared the hell out of me: Amanda had only been gone again for a week. What was I thinking talking to someone else, someone I liked and had liked for so long? Yet I relied on my emotions and decided to see what happened.


Shortly after Amanda left, before I dated anyone, Mindy and I reconnected. I was surprised to see that she had gone through a divorce. We went out a couple times, not on dates (though I’ve come to wonder what actually constitutes a date as of late) for pizza, sushi, beer, and Fireball Whisky. That first night, after dinner, we found ourselves walking through downtown Huntington, late at night, catching up and sharing our marriage and divorce stories. It was that night that I got the best divorce advice I’ve received: “Expect your first relationship after a divorce to be a clusterfuck. Mine was. My baby brother’s was.” I didn’t take it to heart. I thought about it, sure, but I was convinced that I had learned enough in my marriage and then-impending divorce to resurrect myself into some new Phoenix of love, who would navigate relationships more logically and cautiously, would be a better boyfriend to anyone I dated than I had been husband.
The problem, it seems, is that I did enter my next relationship more cautiously—so cautiously that I kept my feelings to myself. Whether I had feelings of love or not, I wasn’t going to admit it, for doing so was terrifying to me. What if those feelings weren’t returned, or what if my profession went unanswered? Or worse, what if they were returned in a statement of faux assurance, uttered only because they were expected to be? These were the thoughts that raced through my mind. I had been left by everyone I had said I loved, and the fear of it happening again left me speechless and inarticulate. So as time crept by, I found myself silent.
Amanda was wrong, I learned: I did need to change. There were characteristics I found in myself that were counterproductive to what I wanted, to who I wanted to be. One would think that a failed marriage would highlight these, would be my incentive to change, but it seems that some habits die hard.


During my marriage, I was silent a lot. Someone would make flirtatious glances toward Amanda, or pinch her butt while standing in line at King’s Island, and she would expect me to say something to them. Or do something. As a rule, I try to avoid confrontation. I would think to myself, what an immature meathead. But that would be the end of it. I’d often ask, “What do you expect me to do, kick his ass?” It would be suggested that I should at least say something, to make it known I knew and didn’t approve. But I would counter that if I said something, it would escalate, and I couldn’t fight my way out of a paper bag. Future teachers didn’t need to have been in jail for fighting, especially when they considered themselves academics and thinkers who considered fighting barbaric.

So I remained silent and inactive.

Again, it seems some habits die hard.


And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the most damning way to be after a divorce: silent. Not every relationship after a divorce has to be a clusterfuck, but I’ve found it difficult to navigate a post-divorce world. We carry with us baggage accumulated along the way, Marley-esque chains that drag us down, burying us under the weight of past actions, inactions, and mistakes, and if we don’t shed them, continuing instead to bear them, they continue to affect us, dictating our actions and inactions, resulting in more and heavier chains.

So my best advice: go with your emotions, your feelings; if something feels right, don’t spend too much time weighing your options. Logos is great, but without a dash of pathos, you’ll miss more than you see, and you’ll find that in the end, you’re left with nothing but unbalanced scales. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

When EBT Wears a Tie

I remember one afternoon when I was working at the grocery store when a man came through my line with his daughter. She looked at the little yellow EBT sign on the front of the pin pad asked her father, “Do we have EBT?” His response came with a disgusted look spread across his face as he said, “Hell no, we don’t use that shit. I make…” and then proceeded to rattle off some high yearly figure, how much money he was worth, and pull a thick stack of cash from his pocket to pay for his groceries.

I started working at the store when I was 17 and didn’t quite for the last time until I left to teach high school, and during my time there, I saw people from all walks of life pass by me.  In my youthful arrogance and ignorance, I swore, as I watched people use government assistance to pay for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners that I’d never have to do it. After all, I was going to college and I was certain that having a degree would ensure that I’d always have a career that would not only allow me to make a difference but that would also pay well. Well enough that I’d never have to worry about making ends meet or living paycheck to paycheck. And during these observations, I was sometimes surprised by some of the people who relied on government assistance, for they did not always match the description we sometimes have in mind of those who rely on food stamps to buy their food. Conservative media often paint the picture of those who relying government assistance as being the same people who wear their pajamas out in public, looks as though they’ve not bathed in a couple weeks, and play on their iPhones while cursing their EBT card for not working, and it’s true there are many who affirm this stereotype. We would often take bets amongst ourselves at the store when we saw people meeting this description and pushing a buggy that was overflowing at the first of the month as to what payment would be offered; we often bet EBT. Oftentimes we were right. But sometimes we would be shocked when the person paid with cash or a debit card, and I remember being stunned when I would see people well groomed and wearing business clothes pay for their groceries with EBT. People in suits and ties relying on the government to buy their dinners.

Until I became one of them.

Sometime later—a year, maybe two—I saw that same man and his daughter come through my line and pay with an EBT card. I remembered his words that day so long ago and wondered to myself what had happened. When I started teaching at the college, I saw him on campus. He was never one of my students, though I would see him in Peer Mentoring classes and sessions while I was doing other work. Peer Mentoring: just what its name suggests and associated with Gen 101 and 102, your basic “Welcome to College” classes, seemingly college level but remedial nonetheless.

Slowly, maybe even rapidly—so much of time is lost in the remembrance thereof—I became one of those people I swore I would never be, someone who had to rely on government assistance to make ends meet. Years ago I may have chuckled at the memes on Facebook and the posts touting the views that suggested those who relied on government assistance were lazy, willingly uneducated mooches. But I was married, going to college and then graduate school, and working two, sometimes three jobs, and still couldn’t make it. So I was lumped in with that stereotype, not explicitly of course, as those who knew me knew that I didn’t fit that mold— I was perhaps an outlier— but that’s the problem with lumping people into a stereotype: so often our opinions are more uneducated than are the people we are denigrating.

That’s not to say I think the system is perfect or that everyone who benefits from it does so honestly and deservedly. I know there are people who cheat the system, who lie about where and with whom they live so they can benefit, sell their EBT cards for cash. I’m not naïve enough to believe that some of the stereotypes applied to those who benefit from government assistance are not true, for they are. They are applicable to a percentage of the population, however large or small that percentage may be, but they are not indicative of the characteristics of everyone struggling to make ends meet.


A friend from high school and I recently discussed therapy. She expressed the desire and need to go for depression, and I have had countless friends and colleagues over the years who have been to doctors and counselors and been placed on medication for depression and anxiety. When I got insurance through my job last year, the first thing I did was go to the doctor because of anxiety and depression. There were days when I dreaded getting out of bed, of going home, of going to work—so many scenarios that exacerbated my anxiety. I love live music, but even going to a concert could set me on edge—the large crowd, the waiting, the bustling people going to and fro— especially in small venues like bars. Larger venues like arenas and theaters aren’t any better. Sitting in traffic makes me want to crawl out my window and run, for at least I’ll be moving. So the doctor put me on Lexipro, which is great and works wonders when you have insurance and can afford it. Your focus and drive wane, but so does your anxiety. But then lose your insurance, goodbye meds.

Sarah and I joked that therapy and medication are for the rich; the rest of us have cigarettes and alcohol. And coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. All of which, of course, have the ability to exacerbate anxiety.
This is not, of course, to say that all people who are on government assistance smoke and drink. Some do; some don’t. But I often see posts and memes that say, “If you need EBT, you can’t afford cigarettes and alcohol,” and to an extent, I understand that sentiment. If you rely on EBT, most likely your means are quite meager, at best, and perhaps your money could be better spent elsewhere. But those who choose cigarettes and alcohol over food need help, not condemnation; guidance, not derogatory comments issued from behind a computer screen. Obviously, there are some who choose cigarettes and alcohol, or drugs, over food, but I’m not really talking about them here, not in the grand scheme of things, other than to say that they are the ones who need help, not hate. I’m talking about those who are trying, those outlying individuals who don’t really fit into the neat little condemning box people so often try to put them in. With any luck, the ACA will change that—maybe those who self medicate on tobacco and liquor can get true medication and true help. But that’s a post for a different time. 


It’s easy to look out and judge those who aren’t as well off as you; I know because I’ve done it. But it’s amazing how being the one in need can change your views, can add a bit of empathy to the way you view the world, as you find you can relate to those who are struggling because you too have struggled. Maybe you’re struggling still. Do I think I’ll change any minds with this? Expand any views? Perhaps not. But who knows? All I know is that I often find myself thinking of that guy who was so disgusted by the thought of ever having to use an EBT card and wondering what path his life took to lead him to the one position in which he said he would never find himself. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

It's Not You, It's Me: A Breakup Letter

Dear Education:

You know I love you. I’ve been in love with you since I was seventeen or eighteen, and after I gave up on my dreams of being the next Jack Kerouac (dreams that you fostered, by the way) I imagined that we would grow old together, that as I made it through life, you would be by my side, and we would change the world together, hand in hand. It was with these thoughts that I went to college, and there I fell even more in love with you. I loved your lectures, the notes, the discussions, the belief that I was truly engaged in academic discourse and that such discussions would be the means by which I made my living until I retired. And yes, I suppose it’s true that when I got to college, I began to see our relationship differently. Up to that point, I had imagined I would teach high school English, by far my favorite of all the courses I took during my public education experience. In college, I fell in love with the older, more mature version of you: college education. When I was a sophomore, I decided that I ultimately wanted to teach college, and it would be in that way that our relationship would continue to grow. But you didn’t make it easy on me. In order to teach college-level courses, or even developmental courses fulltime, I had to have a Master’s, and you made it extremely difficult to pursue my first love of teaching high school. Much easier was it to pursue a degree in middle grades education, a set of students I wasn’t totally convinced I needed or wanted to teach, but hey, I thought maybe I could just use it as a stepping stone to pursing an MA and teaching college fulltime.

But as luck would have it, I ended up teaching developmental writing part-time for a couple years, and let’s be honest, I loved it. The pay was horrible, but the work was rewarding, exhilarating, and fun, and I got to be part of an academic community that allowed me to research and discuss ideas, to write and create—especially when I finally began my Master’s work—but in a strange twist of fate, due to the connections I had made over the years, I wound up back at my first love: teaching high school. And I hated it. In the eight years between my graduation and the time I started teaching high school, everything I loved about you was gone: lecture, notes, discussion, reading full versions of classic literature, all of it replaced by standardized tests and test-prep, Latin and Greek roots out of context, and jumping jacks and fieldtrips down the hall (don’t ask.) Taking notes was replaced by snapping photos of notes with iPhones, copying and learning definitions was replaced by drawing pictures on pre-prepared vocab lists (with the definition included), and lecture was replaced by think-pair-share and Round Robin reading.  

Unfortunately, one cannot make it on adjuncting alone, and even adjuncting while working a second job is tough (I did that for a couple years), so I think it’s time that I severe this relationship. Now, I know what you’re thinking: the truly educated never stop learning and education is not limited to the classroom. I get that. And you’re right. I know that I start my new job, I’ll still have the opportunity to teach people with whom I come in contact, though in a different way, and I’ll have more time to read and focus on my writing, and I can still teach the occasional course should the opportunity present itself. But let’s face it: our relationship as it has been for the last several years is over. And I suppose I should take the blame here for my lack of ability to adapt and manage, to put aside my disgust and horror at what you’ve become, and for allowing my experiences to persuade me to give up, that I should say it’s not you, it’s me; but let’s be honest: you’ve changed. And maybe if I loved you more, if I could see us together long term, I would try to change, but given that you are still in a state of flux, as more and more teachers and parents are voicing concern over what you’ve become, what you’ve allowed others in politics and big business to make you, I have to say that I don’t think I can stand by you right now. Does that make me weak? Maybe. But I’m starting to fear that your fight is no longer my fight, and that even if it were, my voice would do nothing but add to the din. 

But hey, who knows, maybe someday we’ll meet up again. You’ll realize that students are more than a standardized test score and that students need to be able to focus on something for more than ten to fifteen minutes at a time (cause, really how does that prepare them for hour-long college lectures and business meetings?) and I’ll finish my MA, maybe even start an MFA or a PhD, and when we meet up again, we’ll both be better suited to meet each other’s needs. But until then, wish me luck as I enter the non-academic work world. 


Love always,


P.S. Keep in touch. And know that it’s not as though I’ll not see you at all. I have a standing invitation for Janie’s theatre class to do writing exercises, play theatre games, and talk about writing, so when you see me, don’t look the other way as though we’ve never met. Be nice, say hello, and this will be so much easier on both of us. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Three Words That Became So Hard to Say

I saw Grandpa Jim, my dad’s dad, only a handful of times throughout his life. We visited when I was a baby, far too young to remember any of my family’s first visit to Texas with me, that trip living only through stories and a few photographs tucked away in a box that documents the earliest years of my life. I vaguely recall him coming up several years later when my mother passed away, though I suspect this hazy memory exists only because I know he was there, have been told by family, and as a result, I’ve concocted a memory that may or may not actually be real. We talked often—at least compared to frequency with which he talked to his other grandchildren. For most of his life, I lived the furthest away, yet whenever he called my dad, he was always quick to ask about me, or to talk to me if I was around. These conversations became more frequent as I grew older, perhaps because I gained more of an appreciation for family, regardless of the infrequency with which I saw them.

He was often late with birthday presents and wishes, when they came at all. It wasn’t uncommon for him to mention a birthday six or seven months later, or at least at Christmas. But I have a few memories of holiday presents: he sent me a VHS copy of Jurassic Park the year it came out, and I remember not knowing what to do with it or to say, as I already had a copy of it, likely bought by another set of grandparents, the ones to whom I was always closest. Of course, I said nothing of this to him. Another time, for either Christmas or my birthday, he sent me a knife, telling me that every boy needed a pocketknife. I hadn’t the heart to tell him that I had dozens, collected from trips and received as presents from others in the family, or that it was hardly a pocketknife, at least compared to others I had. It was large and thick, housed in a leather sheath and stored in a white cardboard case. There was no way it would fit in my pocket, and I wondered what the hell I was supposed to do with it.

All these years later, out of all the knives I’ve had, that’s the only one I can say with certainty that I know where it is. The sheath has long-since disappeared, but the knife itself rests in my living room, and I’ve found a variety of uses for it over the years. On a few occasions, I’ve misplaced it, and each time, a sense of urgency has swelled within me.  Sure, with it gone, I obviously can’t use it, but purely for functional purposes, it could be easily replaced. Yet I’ve searched for each time until I’ve found it because of who gave it to me, and finding it has been like finding a lost puppy that’s wandered off.
One of my clearest memories of my grandfather comes from the last time my family and I visited him in Texas. For whatever reason, we were later in arriving than Grandpa Jim had expected—perhaps my dad had taken a wrong turn, or traffic had been worse than expected. It could really have been any number of things, but all I really remember is walking up to the door to meet Grandpa Jim and Grandma Jackie. Grandpa Jim opened the door, looked at us, and the first thing out of his mouth was, “Where the hell ya been, ya sonuvabitch?”

I would see him one more time during his life, several years later when he and Grandma Jackie would fly up for my wedding in 2008. By this time, he had battled cancer for years, struggling, relapsing. When I watched him and Grandma Jackie walk out of the Plaza Hotel in Ashland on a cool night in October, the first thing I thought was that he looked tired and rough. His hair was gone, which for some reason I hadn’t expected. He was clad in black jeans, a white dress shirt, and a leather jacket. Covering his bald head was a leather cabby hat, and as I watched him, I couldn’t help but think that the man who had once looked like Elvis—had even signed an autograph as the King himself when a stranger had stopped him at a gas station in the late 70's, convinced Grandpa Jim was the recently departed King of Rock ‘n Roll—now looked like an aged mob boss, rather like Dennis Hopper. And not the Rebel Without a Cause Dennis Hopper, but Dennis Hopper at the end. He took us all to dinner that first night in town, most of the family gathered all around a table for the first time in what must have seemed like a lifetime, and also the last, and I remember that what he did most was listen. He sat quietly, smiling, as we did what families do: catch up, bitch about work and school, and reminisce. Those who had the most stressful relationship with him cried, a lifetime of disappointments and struggles juxtaposed with the dying man who just listened. Somewhere there’s a photo of all the family, of those who came, taken by a waitress who was roped into manning the camera. God only knows where that photo is, but I oftentimes wish I had it.

I would see him for the last time a few days later, the day of my wedding. While we were still dancing and eating and catching up with friends who’d come to help us celebrate, Grandpa Jim and Grandma Jackie came up and said goodbye. They were heading back to the hotel early, as they had to leave early in the morning to visit family in northern Ohio before heading back south. They handed me a card and money, which I tried to refuse because I knew they couldn’t really afford it, and then they both hugged Amanda and me. I help Grandpa Jim longer than I would for a normal hug, for perhaps some part of me knew I’d likely never see him again.


When I started to write my first novel, the one on which I’m working now, Grandpa Jim was the first character to come to mind. Perhaps because he, in every sense of the word, was a character—larger than life, irascible, funny. By that time he had been dead less than year, finally succumbing to the cancer that had ravaged his body for years. And as I write, I’m reminded of him: the man he was and wasn’t, but perhaps more than that, I’m reminded of how much about him I don’t know. Every once in a while, my dad will tell me a story about him in his younger days, and I’m shocked at his antics. Many of the stories will work their way into the novel, for they’re not only a way to keep him and his memory alive, but they’re also wickedly funny, in turns perverse and poignant.

But perhaps what strikes me most is that as writers often pour our hearts and souls into our works, our characters whom we love as though they were real, as though they were family, and yet there are times in our real lives, times not concocted by our imaginations, when we have difficulty pouring those emotions into those around us. We’re more guarded, more cautious with our words and emotions.
I had a conversation recently with a friend who is also in the process of dating again after a divorce. She’s been referenced (though never named) several times in my posts, and she’s been a good sport about my using her in my writing. And we were talking about love, just as we’ve talked about what you call someone you’re dating when you’re divorced and past the age of eighteen, and the difficulty we as people can have with saying “I love you” to someone with whom we’re romantically involved. She told me that she was close to saying it to the guy with whom she had her first serious relationship after her divorce, and that she feels herself getting there with the guy she’s seeing now.

It’s one thing to say it to family and friends, especially when considering the different types of love—agape, eros, philia, and storge. It’s easy to discuss love amongst friends (philia love) or love of children (storge love), yet it can be hard to say it to another as love shifts from eros to agape, if and when it does. Regardless of how we feel and what we want to say, forming the words can be difficult, likely because once the words are said, they can’t be taken back. And there are times when you feel the urge to say those three words, the phrase dancing on the tip of your tongue, and so often we bite them off, shuffling them out of the way for something else, something less terrifying.

But why? Sure there’s the fear of the unknown, the uncertainty facing new relationships with new people, and we fear repeating the past. Is that it? Do we as writers pour our hearts into our characters out of a cowardice that allows us to find it easier to let our characters speak the words that scare us so?


This post has nothing to do with Grandpa Jim or love, at least exclusively, not really. Sure, he’s a central character in my novel, but I allow my characters to speak so many of the things I may be afraid to say in real life. My first story collection, currently titled “Small Town Tales and Sunday Stories,” which may someday see the light of day but has as of yet been read by only one person (the wonderful Travis Koll, who did a great job reviewing and editing my rough draft) is filled with characters who struggle with religion, doubt, dissatisfying relationships, the feelings of being stuck in a small town and wanting to get out, and of getting out and longing to come back. They become mouthpieces for views I can’t—or don’t—espouse in everyday life.  And these themes and those like it are evident in my first two plays (which someone, someday, may read) and my novel. Themes of longing, of hurt, of love, and of struggling; themes of regret and the reconciliation between a life longed for and never realized—those everyday human themes that bind us, regardless of how seemingly disparate our lots in life are.


My grandfather and I talked several times in the intervening years, but the last time I would see him would be when I would scatter his ashes in 2010. He passed away just a few weeks shy of the two-year mark of his having come for my wedding. We loved each other, but we didn’t know each other well, yet he’ll live on in my writing, and with each story—perverse, crass, and poignant as it may be—maybe we’ll get to know each other even better. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Accidental God

Maybe space is a window, leading down from Heaven to earth. Pitch black, streaked with swirls of purple and blue, the cosmos dancing around bright stars flickering their timeless message, dazzling. Brilliant white. Like the eyes of God watching over the earth through a blanket of night.
I was in my garden when I heard the scream—the horrible, blood-curdling, soul-piercing scream of fate recognized without the opportunity to avert it, only to meet it head-on in a split second of final clarity. I turned just in time, rising from my earth-stained knees sunk into the damp garden, wiping my hands on the front of my shirt, my eyes scanning, searching the horizon for the source of the cry, still ringing so clearly in my ears, reverberating. Looked just in time to see the collision, the meeting of the truck as it crested the hill, with the small motorcycle. The collision sending the young riders into the air, a cartoonish image in the slowing of time, each movement exaggerated, like falling through puddles of gelatinous air.
                They landed and bounced, skidding across the road, the girl tumbling and rolling farther than the man. Still screaming. Or maybe by then it existed only in my mind, ringing in my ears in perpetuity.
But if those are the eyes of God, where are the hands? Where do they reach, scooping, cradling? The feet, carrying Him to and fro? What else exists in that great expanse of nothingness? Nothing more than planets? Stars? Dust? Whole galaxies just reaching endlessly as they go nowhere?
I was standing under the bright filling station lights, mindlessly pumping gas, just casually watching the numbers roll higher and higher. A generic pop song, all bleeps and computer-generated rhythms— and for the life of me I can no longer recall what song it was, though it keeps playing over and over in my mind in short clips, each measure just looping— broke the monotonous whir of distant cars on the highway just a mile away.
                I jumped, startled, when I heard the squealing of tires and the nauseating heavy crunch of metal on metal. It was near, sounded like it was on top of me, and I looked around frantically, scanning the surrounding area, my mindless reverie snapped into focused attention. All of this under the soul-shattering scream that filled the night, swirling, enveloping me, threading between the trees of the surrounding woods. My eyes scanned the surrounding area—no sign of a crash. No black tire marks. No dented hulking masses of metal. Nothing to indicate the source of the scream. Nothing out of the ordinary on the late summer night as I stood pumping my gas. Nothing except some child’s doll someone had thrown up the road. I stood watching as it tumbled and rolled, wondering why a child would be out playing this late, and in the middle of the road.
And if God isn’t up there, out in space or above it, looking down through infinite darkness, then where is He? And how long has He been gone? Coming back anytime soon? Maybe. Maybe he just ran out on an errand, ran to the store for a loaf of bread and a quart of milk. Perhaps to the deli for a bite to eat. Maybe the sign on His door reads Be Back Soon. Maybe. Maybe not.
But it wasn’t a cartoon, I realized. My instincts took over, adrenaline coursing through my veins, as I dropped my gardening tools, wiping my hands on my shirt, streaking it with smears of dirt. I sprinted without thinking. Step after step across the lawn, through my gate, out toward the road, digging up small bits of newly grassed earth with each step as I crossed the threshold between burgeoning lawn and broken blacktop, never looking for oncoming cars as I crossed. The scenery blurred as I ran, my mind numb, out-of-shape lungs burning, telling my middle-aged body to stop. I turned up the road, the night silent and calm, sprinting until I saw the scene: a pickup, old and square-bodied, rested atop a small motorcycle, barely big enough for the two people who had been on it; the driver was out of the truck, holding his head and frantically walking back and forth, muttering something to himself, though I heard nothing, could only see his lips moving up and down; from under his hands rivulets of blood trickled, dark and thick; the man on the motorcycle lay a few feet from his bike, rolling slightly on the ground, groaning. I searched for the girl, whose cartoonish flight I was still replaying in my mind. Finally I saw her, probably ten feet from the scene, patches of red leading the way to her. I made my way up the road, following the spotted trail with bits of gravel-emblazoned skin stuck to the road. Her hollowing eyes were wide. A puddle of black was pooling around her, stemming from the gash in the back of her auburn hair. I knew there was nothing I could do, it was too late for her, and could only watch the eyes grow vaguer and vaguer. She tried lifting her hand, to in those last few second look for the man, rolling her eyes slowly around. But nothing, I knew, would help. So I turned my attention back to the man I’d passed, kneeling by his side, my responders training from when I was younger coming back in waves.
                I barely noticed the man jogging down the road, curiously at first, as if unsure what he was looking for or at, quickening his pace as the reality of the scene bore down on him.
It’s not that I wasn’t paying attention— I was, there was just nothing I could do. I had been watching the road, hadn’t been drinking, texting, talking on my cell phone; hadn’t even been changing the radio station, for Crissakes. I was careful. I was aware. I was a good driver. The night was peaceful, a late summer night, with crickets. I can clearly remember the crickets, invisibly chirping all around me as I turned off the highway. Crickets and the soft whir of the tires over the road. Some song on the radio, some pop song, the catchy kind that latches on and won’t let go, persisting in the memory for days of all who hear it. On and on and on. And then there they were, out of nowhere. Not nowhere, exactly, not as if they materialized out of thin air, were created in that instant to dart their bike out in front of my truck; but they may as well have been. Because I was on them before it could even register that they were there. Pulled out from a side road. Maybe they didn’t see me. Maybe they thought I was slower than I was, that they could make it. Whatever they thought, they were wrong. Or maybe they didn’t think anything at all. Perhaps to them I didn’t even exist. Not that it matters, I guess, in the long run, because by the time I saw them, the only thing I could do was hammer my feet on the break, gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles, and start to slide until something quickened my stop.
I left behind the gas station lights, so bright against the fading purple night, and strolled down the road, looking for the doll. Except that I wasn’t. I knew, of course, that it was no doll, but I didn’t want to; I didn’t want to know it, so I kept looking for bits of string hair, plastic chunked and sticking to the coarse pavement. It looked like one of those water-babies my daughter had played with as a child, the kind that is squishy when held, had burst. That’s what I told myself—tried to convince myself of—as I got closer, but I knew I was wrong. I knew when I saw here that no child had been playing with a doll, that the girl who’d been thrown was not much more than a child herself, and all I could think in those first few moments was of my daughter, and how I hoped it wasn’t her lying before me, even though I know this was a useless worry as she lived so far away, would not be here, could not be on this road on this night in late summer, but as a father this was all I could think. I even started to call her name—to call Katie—until I saw another man moving away from her. I got closer.  He was focusing his attention now on a second body, a man, mangled, crumpled under the dented, distorted mass of what had just moments before been a motorcycle.
Maybe God never asked for the job, taking on the responsibility only when no one else would. No way; not me. I don’t want it. Perhaps He stood around, eyeing the competition as they made excuses for why they weren’t fit. You want me to take on that kinda pressure? No way. I can’t think fast enough. I have other plans. Excuse after excuse until he was the last one left, the potential masses dwindling with each passing moment. Come on, someone’s gotta do it.
We were thinking of nothing, really; nothing except milk and diapers for Lucinda. Feeling nothing but the soft vibrations of the bike under us. My husband’s hands on the handlebars, mine clutching fistfuls of his leather jacket. We rode feeling nothing but the soft wind through our hair in the late summer night. We were unencumbered, free, on a quick run to the filling station. No purse, no wallets, just the cash in our pockets. Not even a cell phone. Free and alive. We never saw it coming until it was upon us, and the last thing I remember is the scream that escaped my lips. It was a scream of fate accepted without even the chance for refusal. Free and alive and together—until we weren’t.
There was nothing we could do. In today’s world where everyone has a cell phone glued to their ear, we had nothing between the two of us. His was back in his car under the filling station lights; mine was back on the railing of my porch, sitting idle by the sweating beer I had left. I check the motorcyclist’s pockets—nothing. No cars, no headlights, just the five of us on the quiet road. The filling-station man ran back to get his phone as I started CPR on the crumpled man. The driver is kneeling on the ground, holding his head, but there’s nothing I can do for him except tell him to lie down. He keeps looking around, asking what happened. I try to get him to calm down, but I’m only one man, the only one there for these three, and the odds are so dour. I need to wrap the man’s head; his hands are soaked and the blood is still coming in spurts and rivulets that stream down into his graying beard. But I continue CPR, cursing my forgetting my cell phone.
By the time the paramedics arrive, it’s too late for the woman, her eyes blank and gray. Her husband is questionable, and the truck driver is lying on the ground, finally not moving, my shirt now wrapped around his gaping head. But the ambulance had come from the hospital just a few minutes away, and all the while, we two worked, the filling-station man and I, and neighbors came out to their yards, many just stopping and staring, but the feeling of helplessness was persistent.
                The ambulance was followed shortly by a string of cars, no doubt coming from the local football game; since the accident, we’d seen none, when usually the road was so busy we feared allowing our kids to play in front yards for fear of them running toward this very road, as heavily congested it was. Someone had called the paramedics from a cell phone, one of many people who stood in their yards so as to not get too close.  We don’t know how long it took the ambulance to arrive, or how long it took to load up the people and cart them off for better help than we could provide, a white sheet covering the young woman. In my mind, it was years, each second ticking by like the changing of weeks, and no one will ever tell me differently.
                And after it was over, we just stood there, those who helped looking around at those who watched, who in turned looked around at everyone else.
We were there that night, all of us around, in some capacity. Observer. Victim. Layman saint. Helper. But I can’t help wondering where God was as the truck struck the two on the motorcycle. Was He in the cab with the driver? On the bike with the husband and wife of only two years? Or maybe He was home with their one-year-old little girl, cradling her, as she sat on her grandmother’s lap, drifting in and out of sleep, waiting for her parents to come home. Was he in the ambulance with the paramedics? Maybe He stood in one of the yards, watching, whispering, trying to understand what had happened, trying to get a glimpse. Maybe He was in everything that happened that night, in and around the whole scene. Maybe He was everywhere yet nowhere, all at once. Maybe He was in one of the passing cars. Perhaps it was the one who slowed almost to a crawl, the woman in the front passenger seat leaning out her window, her entire torso extended, phone in hand, snapping pictures, hatefully urging me to move as I attempted to block her shots with my body, my hands, any means necessary. Or maybe He looked down with a hint of sadness, His hands tied in the name of fate, just a casual observer to all that happened.  Maybe it wasn’t who God failed to show up that night, maybe it was all part of a bigger plan, something so grand I can’t understand it. Maybe the truck hit that motorcycle to keep from hitting someone else further down the road, someone whose death would be more impactful to more people. Someone younger. But what kind of tradeoff is that? One life over another—one more precious than the one lost. And how awful to have to make that call. Maybe that’s what God was doing, weighing His options. Maybe. Maybe not.  But if that’s God’s job, He can keep it.
                I’ve spend many restless hours since that night, those images dancing in my mind, wondering about what happened, why it happened. Maybe it was a test and most of us failed. Maybe it was nothing, just happenstance. Where was God that night? Wherever He was, I wish I had been there too.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

So You Think You Want to be a Writer

When I started this blog, I wasn’t entirely certain what I hoped to accomplish with it. I thought I would discuss education, writing, religion—those topics in life that interest me the most, some of which, I believe, my experiences thus far in life have given me some sort of insight into, and I hoped that maybe something I said would be of benefit to anyone who happened to read my writing. It seems that a significant number of my posts have been devoted to how I see the world around me, the worlds of religion and education mostly, two realms in which I have been camped to some degree for the majority of my life; and these posts have garnered me some praise and some criticism, the latter coming especially as I’ve put forth my critical views of modern education. I’ve posted one fiction piece, and I’ve debated writing a post about writing—why we write, how we write, what we write. I don’t know that I’m the best person to write anything about the nature of writing, for there are far better writers out there who have written about writing—Stephen King with his excellent On Writing comes to mind first, likely because it was the most recent work I’ve read about the nature of writing. But I’ve been asked to speak to a group of high school students about writing, particularly about playwriting, as I recently finished my first play, so I’ve tried to come up with points that I think are essential for anyone whose desire it is to write; some are points friends and colleagues, fellow writers, have passed along to me over the years, and others are points I’ve had to discover on my own. I’m not an expert on writing, but I’m passionate about it. That has to count for something, right?

The following is a rough outline of what I will be sharing.

Notes about Craft and Something about Style:

I. Find inspiration wherever and whenever you can and run with it.
Pay attention to the world around you; listen to people, friends and strangers alike; and pay attention to them and what they do. If the motivations behind their actions are not readily discernible, try to figure out why they’ve done what they’ve done. This is especially true if their actions are somewhere outside the norms of modern society. Some writers carry with them notebooks so they can make observations about what they encounter out in the world; they’ll stop and furiously scribble notes before going on about their business. Some carry recorders and quickly record notes and bits of conversation. And all of these are great ideas, but I’ve found they are—at least for me—a bit archaic in today’s world of Smartphones and our ever-increasing connection to and reliance on technology. I use my iPhone for notes. I’ll tap out notes and ideas for scenes, bits of dialogue, etc, in the notepad, and I’ll occasionally record memos to myself in which I run dialogue with myself, getting a feel for how my words might sound on the stage. I’ll record the same idea two or three times with slight variations among the recordings—a difference in inflection, a change or words here or there—and I’m amazed at how often these notes and rough drafts work their way into final version—at least working versions—of stories, poems, and plays. It takes effort and getting used to thinking and writing quickly, and there will be some who don’t understand what you’re doing and why. I’ve actually found myself jotting down the gist of what friends and family are saying while mid-conversation with them. Sometimes I’ll be sitting with my family as they recount old stories, and I’ll type as quickly as I can, jotting down the main ideas of what they say, the most humorous bits, into my phone. And yes, I’m typing, I’m working, but more than that, I’m listening, because I never know what is going to resonant deep down and linger, festering away in my mind until I put it to use.

There are some people, again, who understand what I’m doing as I jot down notes; they’ll understand why, and they’ve become accustomed to seeing me do it. There are others who remind me that I need to be conversational in conversations, that I’m not taking notes over coffee. A friend of mine and I saw The Conjuring and afterward went to Starbuck’s. I told him about the play I was working on and how a lot of it had come from my experiences working in a grocery store and teaching—mainly the former—and that I had done “research” while listening to people and taking notes, and he laughed said, “Hell, no. You’re taking notes tonight,” and we laughed, for he understood what I was thinking and what my intent was. But I still didn’t take notes that night.

There are others who are oblivious to my actions, or that don’t think I’m serious when I say anything they say or do may wind up influencing my writing somewhere down the road. For instance, I went to dinner with a friend five or six months ago, and after dinner we wound up at a college bar. I’ve mentioned that I learned that night that I don’t belong at college bars, but I also learned that night that some people, whether they are drunk or not, will tell just about anything to anyone if it is sure to garner a laugh. The only person in the small group of people at the bar was the friend with whom I had gone; they were here friends, and I just tagged along because we thought that maybe I needed more friends after my divorce. So when one of the guys, also a recent divorcee, asked me what I did and I told him I was a teacher and writer working on my first play, so anything he said may be used against him in fiction, he proceeded, after a few shots of Fireball, to tell me the crudest, and also funniest, story I’ve ever heard. It served as the influence for a story that’s told in my play, as after I left the bar and walked back to my car, I jotted down everything I could remember from the story into my phone. I took the main ideas of his story, the awkward yet hilarious parts, and began crafting them into something that I could use, and thought about where it would be more appropriate—or just more likely to happen— to tell such a story. The idea came to me, and I was able to craft a scene around it.

And finding inspiration in the world around you doesn’t have to extend only to listening to and observing people and their actions. A friend of mine always told his students to do the following when deciding on topics for academic research papers: look at the world around you and find what pisses you off. Why does it piss you off and how would you fix it if you could? Want to write a short story or play about a social issue? Great. Why? And what would you do to change it if you could?

II. Don’t let the naysayers get you down.
There will be some people in your life who don’t understand why you choose to sit and write, delving inward and into a world of fiction, when you could interact with them more, out in the real world. Not everyone will be like this, and some, even if they don’t fully understand why you do what you do, will give you the time and spice to write. My ex-wife, for instance, though, was often of the mind that my writing and reading was a sign that I didn’t want to spend time with her or Holden, and I was never able to convince her that wasn’t the case, that I merely felt compelled to write, that for some reason, I had within me stories that I had to write. It was a personal reason, something that I needed to do for myself.

There will be others who will simply tell you that your writing is a waste of time. I’ve found that these statements are often issued for one or more of several reasons: 1) those issuing them don’t understand the creative urge and/or have no appreciation of the art, and therefore, they view it as a waste of time; 2) they fail to see the value in your work, deeming it inferior and not worth the effort; and 3) they think your talents would be better suited doing something else (or nothing). Naysayers serve a purpose, particularly in writing, for in academia, we use them as the catalyst for putting forth our own ideas as we argue why their views are wrong and ours are write: Although X suggests… in actuality… And the naysayers in your life can serve a similar purpose: when they tell you your efforts are in vain or your writing isn’t good enough, keep writing and prove them wrong.

III. Writing is a solitary act.
My ex-wife never fully understood my writing or why I did it, so I often found myself sitting alone writing instead of watching television or joining in with whatever she was doing. She would urge me to join her, and I would argue, “Just one more paragraph.” One paragraph would stretch to two, two to three, and finally, 1000 words later, I would take a break. And the idea of writing as a solitary act extends beyond this mere example, encompassing other aspects of solitude. I find it best and easiest to write when I’m alone, when everything is quiet, though that isn’t necessarily the case for everyone who writes. Others will write in public, at the local coffee shop amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I ran into one of my former colleagues at The Lamp Post this past weekend while my family and I were eating Sunday dinner. She was sitting in a corner booth by herself, writing and drinking coffee. She seemed to be working diligently, never mind the crowd and the noise, which included my three-year-old yelling about Star Wars and quizzing those around him about the characters. But even though she was in a  crowded place, she was sitting alone, and only engaged with those around her when taking a break.

It’s okay to discuss your ideas with others, to have them serve as sounding boards for the ideas you’re mulling over, as they can offer guidance and feedback to you concerning your work, but most of your time will as a writer will be spent alone, sitting and staring at the computer screen, lost to anything that could happen around you.  

One of my good friends and former colleagues was at SIU the same time as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo. Kevin was working on his MA at the time, and although he didn’t know Russo well, he knew him to speak when he saw him. And Kevin told me that he remembered one early morning when he and his friends staggered into the local Denny’s after a night at the bar, and there in the corner booth sat Richard Russo, already writing in the early morning as he enjoyed his coffee. He was devoted to the art, and Kevin told me that as he watched Russo, he thought to himself, “That guy’s gonna make it.” This was around the time Mohawk came out, and less than twenty years later, Russo won the Pulitzer for Empire Falls; it seems Kevin was right.

IV. Be true to your characters, whether they sound like you or not.
I posted something about writing my play on Facebook, something about page count or word count, or something along those lines, and someone suggested I take up space and stretch it out by adding “all those big words” I know for my character’s dialogue. Sometimes this may be tempting, to craft characters who are like us, who speak and act like us. It can, at times, be tempting to fall back on the default of using the vocabulary that is natural to us, especially when struggling with what to write. It would be easy for me to write characters who have my vocabulary and sentence structure—that of an English teacher, avid reader, and writer. I never truly thought of my vocabulary as being more expansive than that of those around me (and I am in no way attempting to sound like a braggart or to portray myself as smarter than anyone or than I actually am) until a member of my now ex-wife’s family said of me “Why does Dave have to talk like that? Like he’s smarter than everyone.” I thought perhaps this would be an isolated event; it hasn’t been. My cousin’s now ex-husband admitted to others in the family that he was apprehensive about coming to a particular family gathering at which my then-wife and I would be, and I laughed when a particular family member told me of the other man’s thoughts of my language. It seems that my speech left him uncomfortable and uncertain of how to communicate with me. The family member who relayed his message quickly affirmed that other man’s thoughts and concerns were not singular, for others shared his sentiment.

Again, none of this is offered to make me sound boastful, but to indicate a predicament in which writers may at time find themselves, or at least in which I’ve found myself: how to handle characters that don’t sound like you. I’ve two college degrees (if you count my AA, which has never been of much use to me) and have nearly completed an MA in English, am an avid reader and writer, and consider myself an academic interested in writing and education. Most of my characters, however, are not. My characters are working-class non-academics, at least for the most part. Therefore, it would seem unnatural for my characters to speak like professors, for they are not. Their speech is simple, at times crass, reflective of their middle-class, blue-collar lives, and is often colloquial. That is something I have to keep in mind as I write: my characters should sound and act like themselves, not like me.

And this extends beyond mere vocabulary, for my characters discuss issues in public that I (most likely) would not, respond in certain situations differently than would I, and hold beliefs and assumptions that differ from my own. But at times that’s the point. My characters discuss issues in public they shouldn’t, are trusting when they shouldn’t be, and struggle through uncomfortable situations in which they find themselves, and once their character is set, it is important to be consistent with that character, to understand that character and what makes him/her function, veering from that only when true transformation and evolution have occurred. 

V. Be mindful of the limitations of the stage.
Most of the points I offer are applicable to any form of writing, but this one is particular to the stage. Not only must you be truthful to your characters, but you must also me cognizant of the limitations of the stage. In fiction, or even in films, we as writers can do very nearly anything we want with our characters. We can make them fly. We can make them drag race. We can make them decompose into zombies over the course of a scene. In fiction, it is up to us to provide enough detail and style in our writing to allow our audience to see what we are describing. On film, whether through trick shots or the use of technology, we can reproduce anything that happens in fiction. On stage, however, we find that various factors limit the ability of what is written on the page to be replicated on the stage. Have a character decompose into a zombie over the course of the scene? Sure, it can be done. Make sure you have a great make up and costume designer and somebody who runs props like an ace. Drag racing on stage, however? Not as easily, at least if you want to make it as realistic as possible and avoid the risk of it being corny and tacky. Again, the extent to which it works depends on budget, direction, space, etc.

But here’s an example of something with which I struggled when writing my play. I had in my mind this scene between two people, a man and a woman, and I envisioned it as a film as I was writing it. The idea I had was that the male character would receive a disappointing text message on his phone, and the camera would zoom in at such an angle that we could see the man’s dour reaction and read the message. The audience would know what the message said, how the man reacted, and he would never have to say a word to the woman, who would obviously see the reaction but not the message—precisely what I wanted. Which was great—until I remembered I was writing a play and not a screenplay, that is. So then I had to figure out how I wanted to handle the scene for the stage. I knew I didn’t want him to read the message to the woman, but short of using Thoroughly Modern Millie-like telescreens in the scene, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do. I considered using an aside to have the man read the message to the audience, but I had already decided to cut every instance of a character’s addressing the audience because I couldn’t find a way to make it work well and consistently throughout the play. Ultimately, I scrapped the idea for this play and will figure it out, I suppose, for something else. Likewise, in the name of coherence, I scrapped and totally rewrote the “breaking the fourth” scene I had written, effectively making it significantly different from what I had originally planned. 

Want someone to fly in your play? Great. It worked really well in Peter Pan and Wicked (gotta love the flying monkeys!) and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theatre director-writer character and his Laura Linney-played sister pulled it off well in The Savages. But be mindful that certain things will work well on stage. I somehow don’t think the chicken scene from Rebel Without a Cause will translate well to the stage, and Harrison Ford’s drag race  against Milner at the end of American Graffiti is best saved for the screen.

VI. Deal with writer’s block: write through it or do something else. 
There will likely come a time in your life as a writer that you face writer’s block. You may lose inspiration and have nothing to write; you may be able to write and yet are dissatisfied with the work, unable to convince yourself that the slight progress you’ve made is good enough to continue; you may have brilliant ideas in mind yet find yourself unable to fully articulate them on the page; you may have ideas and characters on the page, yet you find they aren’t fully coming to life—they aren’t doing anything of note and you don’t know how to fix it— or you may run into any number of other creative problems that limit or in some way hinder your creative output. When (not if) this happens, for surely if you take writing seriously enough for long enough, this will happen to you, don’t be discouraged. The best of writers have suffered to some degree from writer’s block. Mark Twain began The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1876, though he wouldn’t finish it until eight years later, as there was an extended period during which he was able to work on the novel only intermittently, unsure of the direction to take the work. He worked on other stories during this time, but it wasn’t until 1885 (in the US) that Huck Finn was published.

But what do you do when you face writer’s block? Do you, like Twain, work on other works? Do you return to the drawing board and start over? Brainstorm? Discuss ideas with others to elicit feedback? Do something totally unrelated to writing? I suppose the answer really could be any of the above.

I’ve been working on a novella for about two years, and I’m only about eighty pages in. I haven’t touched it in months, as I’m not entirely certain in what direction I want to take it, yet in the time since I started it, I’ve completed a short story collection, written dozens of poems, drafted a play, written several short stories for a second collection, blogged and written essays, and begun working on a short play, this one very very short compared to my first; yet I’ve not touched Communion, as the work is tentatively titled. I’ve thought about it, I’ve considered what I may want to do, but I’ve been unable to bring myself to do it.

There have been times when I haven’t felt like writing, when I may have had the inspiration but lacked the energy. Sometimes I give in and do something else: I’ll watch a film, read a book, play video games with Holden. Other times I make myself write for fear that if I take off too long, I’ll not get back to it. The quality of the material that is created when I’m making myself write (the same as the material when I truly want to write, I suppose) is hit or miss; some of it’s decent, some it’s rubbish, and some of it I like only after I’ve not read it for a couple years. And then sometimes after sitting a couple years it’s still rubbish. There have been times when I’ve wanted to write and had ideas, grand ideas, intricately detailed ideas, but I haven’t been able to fully translate those ideas into writing, for I’ve lacked the vocabulary or style to say what I want. I usually try to write it anyway, siding with the idea that having something to revise later is better than having nothing to revise.

So what do you do when you are faced with writer’s block? Go have a smoke. Have a drink. Watch a film. Read a book. Go out with friends. Or write through it. Each writer deals with writer’s block in his or her own way; find what works for you.

VII. Writer for yourself, even if for no one else, and stand by your work.
Not only will there be naysayers who tell you you’re wasting your time while you’re writing or that you aren’t good enough, there will also likely be people who take issue with your work. They may dislike the language, the subject matter, and the choices your characters make. Unfortunately, I’ve found that oftentimes, these people lack the ability to separate the author from the work. That is, they assume that every view represented by a character is one held and espoused by the author him/herself, which is not always true. People sometimes assume that just because a character swears, curses, and cusses most of the time that the author is the same way, and we who write know this is not always the case (though it may be.) Don’t worry about what these people say, and remember that you aren’t writing for your mother, father, aunt, or uncle. If they get it and get what you are trying to do, they’ll be supportive whether they agree with your work or not. But don’t worry about they will say while you are writing, because if you do, you’ll begin to practice self-censorship, perhaps the worst form of censorship there is. My now ex-wife’s sister found a series of poems I had written, one of which had a cuss word in it—I don’t even recall now what it was—but all I heard when I got home was about the foul language—nothing about artistic merit or style, nothing about rhyme scheme or meter. Just a cuss word and questions of why I would talk like that. I suppose, in the back of my mind, that situation and question lingered, for when I was working on the first draft of my story collection I finished last year, I went through at one point and cleaned up the language, which resulted in my characters speaking ridiculously squeaky-clean phrases that were absolutely uncharacteristic of them. I was worried about what people would say—my family, my church, my friends’ parents—should ever they get the chance to read my work. But then, after reading Stephen King’s On Writing (which I recommend to any aspiring writer) and talking to a good friend of mine who has published three books, I decided that I didn’t care. I say that not to sound cold or callous, but to indicated that I had reached the point as a writer where I knew I had to either be true to my characters and themes and express them as best and honestly as I could or quit writing. I chose the former. And there have been people who haven’t understood what I’ve attempted to do with my writer. For instance, I recently posted “The Master’s Radio”, an essay I wrote about the dichotic nature in my life as it pertains especially to southern gospel music. In the essay, I indicate that my listening to gospel music is far more about familial remembrance and tradition than religious tradition or worship. As I’m considering entering the piece in a competition, I asked, via, Facebook for general feedback, any sort of revisions or edits my readers thought would make it better before I submitted it. A particular discussion was devoted to the title, which, like academic work, is two part—the title and the subtitle. In academic writing, the subtitle focuses more narrowly on the specific approach the essay will take, while the title suggests the general or overall idea. That is the model I followed for my essay: main title, general indication with a play on a reference to “Turn Your Radio On,” an old gospel song; the subtitle, the approach the essay will take, with a focus on an almost humanistic relationship to religious music. That, to me, was the perfect representation of the dichotic nature of the essay.

And then I got a text suggesting that the one who sent it would have liked the essay had it focused on a Godly relationship and discussed how my grandmother’s exposing me to gospel music led to a relationship with God, but I read the message initially as “I would’ve liked it MORE if…” And I explained that that was not my point, that that wasn’t the theme of the essay. The essay wasn’t about a relationship God, it was about a relationship with family. The response was that this person did not believe God could be separated from a discussion of Godly music. I didn’t respond, for we had each made our points and neither was going to change the mind of the other. Yet it was as I was rereading the texts that I realized the mistake I had made when initially reading the message. The text didn’t state, “I would’ve liked it MORE if….,” it stated, “I would’ve liked it if…” not as in liked it more, but as in liked it at all.

So write for yourself and be true to your characters, and stand by the choices you make and the work your produce, for if you can’t take pride in what you’ve done and support it, it isn’t worth doing.

VIII. Embrace your rejections and criticisms.
I entered a writing completion a couple years ago for a now defunct journal; I sent two short stories I had written, both Southern stories, one Southern Gothic in nature, making use of what Chopin referred to as “the grotesque” as best I could as someone just starting to take writing seriously. I sent a short story to McSweeney’s, one that relied heavily on magical realism. It was my first experience writing a story in second person. And I submitted “The Master’s Radio”, then titled “Why I Like Gospel Music,” a play on James Allan McPherson’s “Why I Like Country Music,” to The Burnside Writer’s Collective. I never heard back from any of them. The last one was especially disconcerting, for I’ve read several essays on the website, and I was convinced that my work was just as good, if not better, than some of what gets published. Not hearing back from McSweeney’s wasn’t as big of a surprise, for I knew it was a long-shot sending work to them given the caliber of work they regularly publish.

Of all my rejections, only one has come in the form of an actual rejection letter. I sent “Why I Like Gospel Music” to a second magazine, also a Christian-based magazine, and in their rejection email they thanked me for my submission but politely turned me down, which means I, like a young Stephen King, tack up my rejection letters as they come.

There are some rejection letters that are short, brief, and to-the-point, yet others, especially as you gain more experience in rejection, will come with valuable feedback. And if you keep at it long enough, I hear they actually come personalized, as the editors will offer to you suggestions as to what flaws in your work you need to fix. I read of a Billy Collins rejection that came in this manner, and Collins realized that the editor who turned down his work had read it more closely than even he had. Oh that we should all reach that point!

The first semester I taught at the college, I gave a collection of poems to a couple different coworkers for some feedback. One praised me highly as a great poet, while the other, a man I know far better, asked me, quite plainly, why what I had given him were poems. I had some great lines and some great turns of phrase, but that those ideas would’ve worked just as well in some other format—short story, novel, etc—for I had written everything in free verse, sans meter or rhyme scheme. The only answer I could give was that I had tired of writing short stories—not an ideal answer. But it was that criticism that has led to my attempting to write in actual poetic structures since then, challenging myself to write in meter, with rhyme schemed, and certain numbers of lines. I’m no Shakespeare or Updike, but I’m at least willing, now, to attempt a sonnet, however futilely.

Rejection can be tough to take. It can sting. But it can ultimately make you a better writer, and I try to look at it this way: as the thrice-published writing friend of mine who also faced his share of rejection letters told me, “Those rejection letters just mean you’re brave enough to put your writing out there.” And I’ll take a rejection letter for work I’ve submitted over work I leave forever tucked away in a drawer any day.

IX. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings.
It’s okay to like your work, to be partial to it; in fact, it’s likely not healthy as a writer to think everything you’ve written is pure rubbish. (Or you could be practicing false-modesty, which is rather unbecoming…) Having said that, though, don’t be afraid to change what you’re written. I always got the impression in school that the writing process was presented as a linear one, wherein each step led to the next, which led to the next, which… so on and so forth. But it isn’t: it’s cyclical, and for good reason. The fact that writing is a cyclical process allows ways to combat writer’s block, to completely restructure works based on feedback and new ideas, and to consider a work never truly finished, even if the story has reached its end. And perhaps that’s the best point of rejection and criticism—it allows us as writers to go back and change what doesn’t work to make it better. Sometimes this rejection is self-imposed, as we can tell when something doesn’t work or doesn’t fit. For instance, the second scene I finished for my play was one of my funniest scenes; it relied heavily on characters breaking the fourth to comment to the audience on what the other person was saying. I found it humorous and I really liked it. The problem, though, is that it was the only scene in which these techniques were employed. I didn’t need characters to break the fourth in any other scenes, so after soliciting some feedback from friends and colleagues, I decided that I should scrap the scene, for after all, one scene that featured breaking out of nine total would allow that scene to stick out like a sore thumb (to use quite the cliché simile). So probably five or six months after I wrote the scene originally, I rewrote it and tried to keep as much humor as possible. But what I found was that the scene took a more serious direction, likely because of where I am now in life as opposed to where I was when I wrote the original scene. It works, but I don’t know that I’m fully satisfied with it even still.

When killing your darlings, though, don’t burry them too deep. I usually try to save the bits and pieces I cut, often pasting them into a collection of assorted notes and jumbles of discarded dialogue and narration, for I never know when I’ll be able to resurrect them in some other form. I learned the hard way the value of ensuring I did this, for when I was rewriting the scene from the play, I realized after deleting and rewriting several sections that I had forgotten to copy the text over into a new document, and it was gone. I then saved the rest and I’m sure I’ll use it at some point.

Changing or deleting your work can be hard. You’ve taken the time to write it, put heart and devotion into it, and you likely feel an attachment to it, particularly if you think it’s good. In one of my favorite short stories I’ve written, one about a teenage boy’s creek baptism and the duality of his nature, features a scene in which the boy narrator vividly describes the baptism of a girl on whom he has a crush. I wrote the scene in a very detailed manner, though taking up only two sentences with his adolescent fantasy, trying to depict what it is like to be an adolescent boy, having once been one, in that particular situation and how he would view it. Here’s what the friend who read and edited the book wrote about that scene: A bit graphic. I know I said to be honest, but this comes off as creepy. I obviously never intended it to come off as such, and now I’ll have to figure out a way to show the boy’s infatuation without making anyone’s skin crawl. (The boy, perhaps I should note, is jealous of the preacher, who gets to hold the girl as he’s baptizing her, for he wishes it was he who was holding her—not exactly what he should be thinking just before he’s baptized.)

X. Write. Write. Write.
If you want to be a writer, write. Practice writing and telling stories; begin to learn and hone your craft; develop a style that is yours. If you want to be a writer, don’ sit around and dream up ideas only to talk about them with others. To be a writer you must write, and you must write often, with a serious devotion to the craft. I’ve heard that some writers recommend to other writers that they sit in an uncomfortable chair or position as a means of spurring themselves to continue working. A 1500-word goal is easier to reach when you feel as though your back is breaking. I, however, recommend the opposite: choose the most comfortable place you can find, preferably alone, and relax; you’re going to be there awhile.