Monthly Archives: May 2011

All Eight Cylinders

“Mend when thou canst; be better at thy leisure.” –William Shakespeare

So, I don’t care for professional sports, television and film leave much to be desired, and I’m not one for parties or gatherings just for the sake of drawing a crowd and fitting in. What then, you might ask, do I do for recreation and fun?

“I write”, I would say matter-of-factly.

“Obviously.” you would say. But what about when I don’t write? What do I do then?

“Well, various things,” I would reply.

The stipulation that I put on my leisure time, however, is an odd one to most people. Even during my down time, I crave stimulation. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect the world to entertain me, but if I choose an activity for the fun of it, I expect it to provide me with the tools to entertain myself, and to walk away from it feeling more enriched than when I began. But that’s unreasonable, you’d cry. People do mindless things to unwind and kill time every day, don’t they?

Yes, but… …but why would anyone want to do that?

Our life is made up of time; a series of moments that beckon us to live our lives to the fullest, yet we turn deaf ears to their pleas every day, and worse… we kill them. We throw them away like trash by doing literally nothing because we value a few predefined moments over others. This is pertinent to our collective leisure time because it is the popular view that down time is for regressing to a vegetative state for the moments between working for a living. We justify this by calling it well-earned stimulation and define it as healthy. But this is erroneous since the very definition of stimulation is to encourage into action or functional activity.

Thus, stimulation is not given, but earned.

My leisure time can be divided into two categories. I either throw myself fully into something that I enjoy that requires an effort on my part and promises an intellectual return, or I completely clear my head and reflect. In other words, I either run on all eight cylinders or not at all.

Expending unnecessary effort on something that’s not essential for survival seems like a waste of perfectly good leisure time for many, but it’s all in how one sees it. Obviously, the man pouring his heart into creating a deep, meaningful work of fiction sees things differently than the man passively watching fiction being interpreted and acted out for him on television.

My “type one” activities typically consist of playing the piano, listening to music, reading, researching, solving puzzles, playing puzzle and strategy based computer games, and drawing. All of these activities are ones that I find relaxing, but they require a mental and physical investment to see any sort of return, and even then the return may only be personal gratification. For instance, reading requires imagining the characters and scenarios to supply one’s own images while keeping up with the details given previously to make sense of the story. Puzzles require thinking outside of the typical mindset to see the world differently than before. Playing the piano not only requires converting a mathematical representation of tones and pitch into keystrokes, but also requires the logical brain to mix with the spiritual brain for interpretation. But no matter what, there is so much work involved. How can anyone relax to this? It’s very simple.

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

If all you focus on is the finished product, then all you will see is the mounds of work standing between you and your goal, but if you see your task at hand as a classroom in which to learn and grow and the destination as your diploma, then the task doesn’t seem so pointless after all. The reason I do the things I do is because I don’t see any of it as pointless busywork. I pour work into them, and they give me something in return.

But when it’s time to reflect, all of this stops.

Whether I’m with anyone or not, reflection time means just that. No television, no cell phone, and yes, not even a computer should stand in the way of contemplating life, self, direction and one’s relationship with God. I guess one could say that I live on two extremes. Either I’m fully stimulated or I’m not. In a way, though, it’s much more efficient. How many of us can attest to wishing for more free time yet can find so many things we can clear out of our “busy” schedules to make time? If an activity doesn’t fully edify me or fully let me reflect, I deem it a waste of time, and it barely gets a second thought.

The book of Ecclesiastes says, “Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave, whither thou goest.” Why should this only apply to the work that gives us monetary gain? Why can’t it also apply to the work that gives us pleasure and education?

To continue, the book of Proverbs says, “How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? … If thou seekest [wisdom] as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. … She is more precious than rubies and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.” I Kings goes on with “… [B]ut the Lord was not in the wind … [and] the Lord was not in the earthquake … [and] the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire, [there was] a still small voice. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?” (KJV)

To me, this places more importance on our leisure time. We are sadly mistaken in thinking that work time is God’s time and leisure time is our time. All time is His time, and every minute of every day should be spent improving ourselves and seeking wisdom, not just with church activities, but in the things for which He has given us a natural fascination.

But do we? Probably not. Even I don’t do this all the time, but I try.

No, people may not understand the way I utilize my leisure time or know why I’d rather discover on my own rather than tread down the easier, well-worn path, but the fact remains that the way I use the time is my responsibility. And quite honestly, I’d rather be looked upon as odd now instead of looking back on life with regret later.

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Progress Report #6

“He only is advancing in life whose heart is getting softer, whose blood warmer, whose brain quicker, whose spirit is entering into living peace.” –John Ruskin

Writing has mostly been put on the backburner this week. I just found out that I might have a job pretty soon, so I’ve been doing everything I can to make sure I qualify for it.

I’ve been putting some research time into my new novel, which is thus far untitled, but most of my time has been taken up by computer work. My short story has a name now. It’s called Fantasy on an American Theme. Its name is derived from the names given to musical pieces in the classical/romantic era, and the chapter titles are named as movements in a symphony, taken from the tempo markings used to describe the mood of each movement.

Fantasy on an American Theme – work-in-progress

Page Count – 8
Word Count – 5048

The thematic naming convention comes from the story being centered around music. I’m not being pretentious or anything, so don’t worry about that.

I’ve also got a couple of articles lined up for this week and next, so keep your eyes peeled for them.

See you next week, readers.

–Stephen

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Fictional Love

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” –I Corinthians 13:4 (NIV)

How is the concept of love represented in today’s literary world?

Sometimes, love in fiction seems so commonplace, that we forget it’s even there, or even take it for granted. Does anyone else find it oddly amusing that, for modern writers, dropping a “love interest” into a story is about as mundane and pedestrian as dropping an engine into a car?

Anyone?

I’ve spent so many years studying literature, fiction and writing that it doesn’t take much anymore to  pull me out of an experience. Some people may call me picky, and others may call me a spoil-sport, but I say, if the author wants my attention that badly, he shouldn’t insult my intelligence. Art imitates life, and no one knows life better than the people who live it. When the characters are no longer real to me and I don’t care what happens to them, I stop watching/reading it. End of story.

So many authors and screenwriters treat love as an emotion. And like all emotions in the field of writing, it comes with its own stereotypical shorthand for getting the maximum effect to the audience for as little work as possible. Ever wonder why television and grocery store romance stories are written like a teenager’s dramatic fantasy? It’s fast, easy, and requires little effort. To me, it’s the fastest, easiest, and most effortless way to make me throw the book across the room.

Love is not an emotion. It is a force to be reckoned with.

And just like any force, its effects change everything and react with other elements in the story. The first two laws of fiction writing are the same as Newton’s laws of physics. “Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.” and “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction”.

When a character falls in love, it is 1) by decision and 2) not without a major change taking over the character. In real life, when a person falls in love, it involves more than the emotional outpouring. This character cannot live without another so badly that he literally rearranges his entire life just to accommodate her. Considering that we as human beings are egocentric and are uncomfortable outside  our “me” zone, this is a far more tremendous breakthrough than one would initially think.

True love turns one’s life completely upside down.

And this affects far more than just the body temperature and neurotransmitters. It affects the character’s entire outlook on life. Having a character fall in love should give us so much insight into the way the character thinks and should allow us to go along on a journey with him. The character should look back on life and reflect. We should see what he thinks of himself now as opposed to what he thought of himself then. If we are seeing the world in first-person through this character’s eyes, it becomes even more engaging as the feeling of discovery heightens. The work could be so much more meaningful, but instead, the author goes with the tried-and-true and writes nothing that a middle-schooler with a diary doesn’t already know.

This, in effect, cheapens the work as a whole as well as waters down the very concept of love itself. The sad thing is the number of people that see this as the unshakable norm and apply this reasoning to their own world-view. I’ll let the divorce rates speak for themselves. But with all this negativity, there must be a good example to counteract it, right?

Certainly.

George Eliot’s Silas Marner tells the story of a man who is so disillusioned and burned by the world, that he becomes a virtual hermit and covets the only thing that he believes can never hurt him, an ever-growing pile of gold coins. When the object of his affections is stolen, his life falls apart and he becomes even more self-centered and self-pitying. But when Eppie wanders into Silas’s cottage after her mother dies, he falls in love. And it’s not just a warm feeling of comfort or a fatherly sense of responsibility. Right then and there, he rethinks his past and completely restructures his life around this little girl. This is evident in his refusal to let anyone else care for her but himself. His very existence hinges on this little girl. His own needs and wants take a backseat to Eppie’s and his own happiness is directly dependent on hers. Everything he works for is for her benefit, and any benefit for himself is taken into the consideration that he needs to be healthy and dependable for her. And this is a far cry from the Silas Marner we met at the beginning of the novel.

Keep in mind that the author George Eliot (aka Mary Anne Evans) was a woman.

Evans penned this novel under the guise of a man because she felt that no one would believe that a woman could write anything more substantial than a “lighthearted romance”. But who better to get an opinion of what love truly is than from a woman? There are so many angles from which to approach this topic, yet today’s literary world is so stuck in a rut that we can only see it from one, and it’s a shallow one indeed.

It’s natural to think, even in the world of art, that we are the product of years of tempering and progress, and this is as good as things get. Our view is correct and the views of others, as well as those of the past, are dated. But art is not a commodity. It is the by-product of thorough exploration and studies, and we as artists are explorers. Love is but one of the many unexplored quadrants of the literary atlas, and if we don’t take the initiative to chart it as explorers, then we have failed not only ourselves, but our readers, as artists.

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Progress Report #5

“I must do something to keep my thoughts fresh and growing. I dread nothing so much as falling into a rut and feeling myself becoming a fossil.” –James A. Garfield

Have I mentioned that I love going to the library to write? (To answer my own question Yes. Yes, I have.) The downside is, now I have much more reading to do. Then again, that may not be much of a downside. It’s quite comforting to know that no matter where I go, I’ll never run out of things to read both in brick-and-mortar and digital outlets. Anyway, here is this week’s progress.

Untitled Short Story – work-in-progress
Page Count – 8
Word Count – 4817

I think I’ve decided to shelve Maiden Flight of the Firebird for a while and focus on a novel that’s a little less depressing. Seriously, readers, it’s starting to get to me. 😦 So needless to say, my next novel project is one that involves not a single human character. It primarily involves bees, so a great deal of research time will be spent before any work is done, and I want everything to be as realistic as possible. Am I taking a note from Richard Adams or Gene Stratton-Porter? It’s hard to say, but I’m sure it’ll turn out okay. I also have a children’s book in preproduction as well.

I apologize to all my regular readers (assuming that I have regular readers) for missing last week on my progress report. Things came up and it just couldn’t happen. But regardless, I’m back, and I intend to keep the updates coming.

See you next week, readers.

–Stephen

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The Television and I

“It is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.” –T. S. Eliot
It is said that the goal of television for the masses is to train our nation’s youth to become passive and inert, to breed a sedentary and useless adulthood, to produce nothing as we wait for our flickering fourth walls to entertain us and bring faux meaning to our otherwise dull and insignificant lives.
Apparently, I missed that memo when I decided to buck the vicious cycle last year and revolt.
All melodrama aside, last year was an interesting experience for me. After previous years of life-altering events, 2009 ended like a hurricane and 2010 hit me like a tidal wave. Little did I know what 2010 would hold for me. Suddenly, I was thinking very clearly about things. I wanted to explore and create. I wanted to question why things were instead of just accepting them as law without evidence. I wanted to see everything life had to offer instead of just settling for the bland status quo.
I also took stock of the dreams I had and the goals I wanted to accomplish. One of those dreams, as I have previously discussed, was writing, and my goal was to get published. But at the time, I was working the night shift, and on top of that, all my other chores and responsibilities cut into the time I could be spending doing something more creative. So, discouraged and hopeless, I turned to television or movies every day and lived vicariously through actors, watching other people live their dreams, knowing that my dreams were never meant to be. I looked around and saw everyone else doing the exact same thing, but they justified it by calling it “adult” and “mature”.
Then, it hit me.
Why was it that following my dreams and doing the things I love were considered by the world to be so childish, yet whittling away my days staring at a flickering box watching inane programming was not? So, I conducted an experiment. I would cut my television and movie time for a couple of weeks, and whenever a weakening urge would appear, I would write, draw, read, play the piano, or work a puzzle. In two weeks’ time, my hypothesis was proven right. I became more motivated to be creative, and found plenty of time that I didn’t think I had to accomplish the things I didn’t think I could accomplish during the week.
And I discovered that having more time was a good thing.
Thus when the experiment was over, rather than scurrying back to our television again like a caffeine addict to his local Starbucks, I made my findings the rule in my life and not the exception. This, however, was not met without its share of resistance, and these times opened my eyes to how much our lives, our culture, and our heritage depend on television; to how much they depend on improbable things that never happened portrayed by people we’ll never meet, or unrealistic, unscripted scenarios billed by the masses as “reality”. At times, this manufactured reality is far more real than our own lives, and I found it to be very disturbing.
I came from a household from which the television was always on, even during family mealtime, and I worked the night shift in a place where the dozens of televisions on display were never shut off and the familiar electronic hum and multicolor flicker could always be heard, seen and never escaped. Everywhere I went, everywhere I turned, there was a television. It was loud, it was bright, but it was far from inviting. I didn’t long for the days of old and give in to my human weakness. Television and cinema held nothing for me anymore. It had become an annoyance, and soon it became repulsive.
“But what do you do to relax and unwind?” Everyone asked.
“I read.” I replied.
Though I read by assignment in school and made very high marks in reading and comprehension, it wasn’t until picking up Richard Adams’ Watership Down in college that I truly discovered its value. When I started the night shift, I would pick up books here and there, but it wasn’t until this point in my life that I went on what can only be described as a “book binge”.
Books spoke to me more vividly than the visual arts ever could. When I watched a movie or a television show, it seemed that I was being told how to interpret the story and what to feel. And nearly nothing was left to the imagination because all the images and faces were shown and all the voices and sounds heard. Entertainment and thought were one and the same in my mind, and I accepted it because this was the way of the world. When I read a book, however, it felt much more intimate. It felt like a single person, the author, was speaking directly to me, and because the visual and auditory elements were left to the imagination, it left the work completely open to interpretation, as well as lending itself to the other senses like touch, smell, and taste.
And yet the world was still stuck on the latest movie or the newest development in reality television, and I had a difficult time communicating with it. Television has set out to make us all homogeneous, and judging by how many people I heard discussing the royal wedding and Osama Bin Laden’s death the last time I went to the grocery store, it has succeeded. Before, I had difficulty engaging in rich, fulfilling dialogue with people, but in freeing myself from the bounds of status quo and entering a personal renaissance, I isolated myself with the other extreme and had difficulty having dialogues, period.
And yet, at the same time, I felt free.
What I feel, though, is not likened to a smoker quitting cold-turkey only to feel the pangs of addiction rearing its ugly head and beckoning him back. Quite the contrary. I have had the opportunity these past months to learn and study in ways I never have before. I’ve been able to rediscover and reinvent myself for the better. I’ve fixed my broken path and gave myself a clear direction. I discovered that with a little practice and determination, I could classically train myself in piano, become a painter, explore the world’s music, and even bend modern technology to my own will, making it work for me, rather than succumbing to its wiles and having me work for it. Enacting this conscious change has made me consider others, such as exercising in the morning, quitting soft drinks, eating healthier, and yes, even attending church on a regular basis.
Why would I ever go back?
As I have said before, television and the cinema holds nothing of value for me anymore. Perhaps there will be something truly special in the future to make me turn my head again, but until that unlikely event occurs, I turn my back on it all and feel that my life is richer without it. My only regret is that I didn’t come to this conclusion sooner.

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Dear Journal,

“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” — Francis Bacon
Learning how to keep a consistent diary or journal is a great start in becoming a prolific and fearless writer.
When I was in grade school, I was one of the countless students who rolled their eyes and groaned at the prospect of keeping a journal. Writing down my inner-most thoughts and feelings was something that only frilly girls did, and no self-respecting boy would ever be caught doing that. Then, one day, our third grade class was assigned a journal to keep over the course of the year. Writing fiction was no problem for me, but a journal was nothing short of embarrassing. I begrudgingly finished the assignment and vowed to never submit myself to this kind of torture ever again.
The fourth grade, however, was a sharp turning point and I found myself using every last scrap of paper in my notebook and every loose lunch menu, school photo reminder and spare work sheet to write down all my thoughts and feelings and draw out all my frustrations and dreams. On top of that, I was completely unapologetic about it. I didn’t care who saw me or what other people would think of my endeavors. It was something I had to do and no one was going to stop me.
But why the sudden change?
First of all, I believe that writing begins with learning how to render the things one sees into words and paragraphs with the lens of perception rather than the filter of biased opinion. When one realizes that the words he is writing in his journal will never be seen by anyone, its owner feels free to be completely honest about the events that have shaped his day. Second, it allows one to empathize more with people and characters by becoming more aware of his own feelings and observations. The day’s ramblings may seem like nothing now, but when weeks, months and years pass, one can look back on these thoughts and see a gradual change in himself. If the subject of the entries are family and friends, he can observe these changes in others as well.
This is the key to good characters and settings.
Much like time-lapse photography, watching a terrarium with the naked eye yields no results regarding growth because the changes are so gradual. “A watched pot never boils” is the old adage. But seeing pictures at key points in growth reveals something far more outstanding. Think of life as a terrarium and a journal as a time-lapse camera.
Keeping a journal provides a way of questioning and exploring one’s self. “Who am I?” I asked myself, and my journal answered.
Most importantly, keeping a journal kick-starts the habit of writing. If Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion applies to writing as well, then writing doesn’t just blossom when the inspiration bug bites. It’s something that must be constantly rolled about, cultivated and practiced, or else it will stop moving and become harder and more strenuous to get off the ground again when the time comes.
Journaling may seem like a frivolous pastime, but it can work wonders in the life of a fledgling writer, both perceptively and mechanically, and no one, not even the strongest of writers should neglect its benefits because of what anyone else thinks.
Give it a try, yourself. I think you’ll be surprised.

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Progress Report #4

“Don’t be too harsh to these poems until they’re typed.  I always think typescript lends some sort of certainty:  at least, if the things are bad then, they appear to be bad with conviction.” –Dylan Thomas
Another Monday, another update.
I’ve discovered that there is a reason why you see so many students working on research papers and science projects in the library during the school year. The library is a place that just screams “it’s time to work”. This past Wednesday, I got more work done on my short story in a single hour than I did in three weeks. I’m nearly finished with the first half, and at that point, it’ll be all downhill from there.
Untitled Short Story – work-in-progress
Page Count – 6
Word Count – 3971
Most other writing, however, was preempted by a lot of computer work, research, and job applications. This week should see its completion. Though not as rubust as I had hoped, I am very pleased with last week’s progress.
See you next week, readers.
–Stephen

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