Why Do You Do What You Love to Do?

Recently, I read a short article on how to write with style. In it, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Keys to the Power of the Written Word were mentioned. It was a great read. Some points hit home, namely: Find a Subject You Care About. Vonnegut said:

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I’ve always had a suspicion that it didn’t matter as much how I wrote but what I wrote about, and that an audience (albeit mine quite small) would see past my well-placed commas and thesaurus-mined words. That people are willing to sift through my 5th grade reading level prose and structure in order to be impacted by the elements of a great story proves that they get something. A beautiful sentence might cause one to reflect for a day, but a beautiful story could change their entire life.

But, it’s easy to shimmy around on a mediocre plot when you can flower up your dialogue with wit and tight grammar. Soon, though (and we’ve all been here), the reader grows tired and the inevitable realization that they’ve been staring at the same page for several minutes and don’t have an idea of what it’s said sets in (this is not always the writer’s fault—though sometimes it is).

Were someone to stop me on the street and ask me, “why do you write?” I am afraid I would hesitate a little longer than I would like to admit. Why? Because it’s one thing to care about something, but it’s another thing to get bogged down by how you want to convey it. In fumbling through my mind to answer the question I would wind up saying something idiotic like, “Oh, well, I like to try to write about bicycles. You know, because they’re good.” My problem would not be the subject of my response, but the thoughts that premeditate my speaking it. The thoughts that, of course, say, you better say this in a convincing way, or at least in a beautiful way, or they’re going to think you writing about bikes is ridiculous.

But that is ridiculous. We all know that. If we have the gall to stand up for what we’ve decided to give our lives to then few will be able to blame us. In this way, confidence, assurance, and die-hard belief leap further than physical strength, beauty, or well-punctuated paragraphs any day.

The reason for this is, again, because a beautiful story can change someone’s life. A painter who slaves at her canvas, day after day, fighting back thoughts about giving up and starting over, has a chance to impact thousands who might see it in a gallery; a business man who deals in medium-grade sod because he knows it will, at least, provide for his family might increase the opportunities his children have later in life; a data entry clerk who enters numbers into spreadsheets, but who chooses to do it meticulously, might be compiling statistical data that could eventually alter the way the world looks at injustice.

Belief precedes product every time.

So why do I write? What subjects do I genuinely care about?

I write because I believe in honesty. It propels people. After fame, strength, knowledge, etc., fade and fall, honesty always remains. People don’t say, “oh, well he was that strong all of his life,” or, “she was always able to out think us when it came to quantum-physics.” But they do say, “she was always an honest girl,” or “he couldn’t tell a lie to save his life.” I have seen people dramatically open their lives to others because they were inspired by another’s honesty, and likewise, I’ve seen people’s lives utterly destroyed because of dishonesty. There is a keen power in honesty then. It doesn’t come with prestige or flashiness, but it does outlive most everything else.

I also write because I’m on a journey. I know that sounds cliche, just bear with me. I can’t say I’ve always known which journey I’m on, or that the journey has always looked the same (because it hasn’t), but I do know that I have had chances to experience sights, smells, people, beliefs, colors and tastes that others haven’t. I see this as an opportunity for others: some of my most profound realizations have come by reading other’s words about their experiences. Mingled with my knack for writing (and really my enjoyment of it), I want to tell the kinds of stories that change people. Not for me, but for them, and for the God who (for whatever reason) gives me the chances to do it (and believe me, I’ve squandered plenty of them).

That’s why I write and, genuinely, keeps me at it. What about you and your passions? What keeps you at it?

A Visitation is a Journey that Comes to You

Please enjoy this brief bit on the visitation shape often found in fiction writing, as well as my 25-minute practice with it afterward. Let me know what you think!

“The Visitation can show the character conquering or being conquered, transforming another or becoming transformed… The arc of the story is shaped by the visitor…The visitor must be intriguing, but as in all stories, readers must care what happens to your character.” — Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction, 38-39.

Making Shapely Fiction

Change your actions and you’ll make milage of your life. Change your heart and you’ll make miles for your soul. Charlie read it over to himself again. He tried to grasp the words but felt them float in through his mouth and right back out through his unsatisfied exhale.

This stuff will never work anyway, he thought. Self Help? I’m gonna need a lot more than that to–
“Hey, saw you reading earlier. Thought I’d come by and poke my nose around.”
Charlie looked up. The man stood twice his height. A lollipop hung from his mouth, hands upon his hips, his brow wrinkled like a sheet.
“It’s a book my wife suggested. She’s real into self help.”
“But you’re not.”
“Well–”
“Let me see,” the man swiped the book up like a grapefruit and held it to his face. He peeled back the pages. “Will yourself toward your goals and success will be your only option.”
Charlie was quiet.
“You believe it?”
“I don’t really know.”
The man dropped the book on the table in front of Charlie and looked at the sky. His hands on his hips again. “Stuff never works.”
“Why? What never works?”
“Oprah psychology crap. Makes for decent community, but not change.”
Charlie thought about that. He pushed his hair away from his face and noticed the man’s clothing. “Do you work here?” Charlie said, parsing the man’s shoes and jeans before looking back at him.
“What’s it look like, partner? Think a place like this would hire a guy like me?”
“Well, I don’t know, maybe–”
“How long you work here for?”
“About a month.”
“Haven’t met many people yet have you.”
“No. Wait, how do you know that?”
The man sat. His legs wide like branches bursting from a tree. He put his hands flat across the table. “Because here you are at lunch reading a book you don’t want to be reading.”
Charlie was annoyed.
“What do you want to do?”
“What, on my lunch break?”
“In life. What’s your dream?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really think like that.”
“Oh, bullshit. Everyone’s got dreams. Where are you in two years? Who are you with? Why are you stillon the earth?”
Charlie could feel his face getting hot. He considered leaving but didn’t. “Guess I’d love to take my wife and live in the country. Raise a family there. Write a novel.”
“Now we’re talking, partner.”
“Hey who are you anyway? You don’t work here I gather, but you just show up at accounting firms at lunch time to scrutinize what people read all the time or something?”
“Easy now,” the man said. He leaned in. Charlie wanted to pull back because the man’s breath smelled like Doritos. “Just think of me as that guy that told you to get the hell out of the place you hate and to make your ideas for the great life a reality. Ain’t going to find it in a book like that, and you ain’t going to write a novel if you’re stuck crunching numbers all day.”
Charlie was quiet again. He scrunched his nose and looked away. But he knew the man was right.
“Mr. Johnson,” came a voice from behind. It was a woman. Charlie looked back and saw a thick, green day-planner in her hands and headset on her ear. She was writing while walking. “Mr. Johnson your one o’clock is waiting.”
“Burn it, man,” the man whispered with his head low. “You’ll thank me one day.” He stood, addressed the woman and walked into Charlie’s building. He turned up the stairwell and jogged to the top. Two fingers to his forehead he saluted Charlie from the railing at the second floor. Then, he turned and went through the only set of Mahogany doors at the firm. The only set, Charlie figured, fit for the boss.

On Meeting Bill Kulchin

August, 2013

Medium height. Thin. Jeans, a white collar, a navy blazer. He had old red hair that was recently cut. He stood in front of my display holding his chin like he was looking at Rembrandt.

“I love it,” he said, walking over.
“Thanks.”
“Are you the designer?”
“No. Just wholesale and office work.”
“Gotta start somewhere, right?”
“I’m Bill,” he said, handing me his card. “I do apparel insurance.”
I’d never heart heard of such a thing. I turned his card over. It read: KULCHIN ROSS INSURANCE SERVICES.
“Are you out of L.A.?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Downtown near the fashion district.”
“Gladys avenue,” he says. “I know the area.” He’d picked up a card of mine from a stack on the stand in front me. They were next to another stack of half-sheet informational cards, and a stack of line sheets that still smelled like ink and wood, hours off the press.
“Oh yeah, are you local to downtown?”
“My office is there.” He studied my card. “A writer.”
“Ha. Yeah.”
He pointed at the card and read aloud: “Writer and operations.” He paused. “What does that mean?”
“Oh you know, I do office management and oversee wholesale. And I write.”
“Is that what you’d want to do?”
“What. Writing?”
He nodded.
“Oh man, I’d write day and night if I could.”
He seemed to watch me, crunching the edges of my card between his finger tips. “Oh,” he said.
I shifted my weight.
“Well that’s what you gotta do then.”

Take Two

Portland, OR

In three and a half weeks I am going on an adventure: I am moving back to Portland.

If you didn’t already know that, now you do. About a month ago, I was accepted to Portland State University as a post-baccalaureate student with the intent of transferring into the M.A. in Writing the following year. I will begin taking my first classes this fall. Honestly, I’m pumped (more on those specifics another time).

On May 1st, I will be picking up a rental car, swamping it with my stuff, and swinging through LA to pick up Les before heading north. As it always has, we expect the road to teach us lessons and tell us stories. With a rental car with unlimited miles, the table seems pretty well set.

If you’ve ever driven toward Northern CA, Oregon, or Washington, then you know there are at least three main routes: US-101/1, I-5, and US-395. Allow me to indulge you for a moment:

IMG_4002 101/1 is Steinbeck land, followed by wine-country and the forest where George Lucas filmed the chase scene of Endor in Return of the Jedi. It is like looking at a picture for 15 hours, and it is no wonder it is known as one of America’s best road trips (or bike rides) in the world. It is Redwoods for days. It is marked by length, winding roads, mist and rain, and absolute beauty.

I-5 passes through cities you’ve probably never heard of (Los Banos, Maxwell, or Yreka ring a bell? I didn’t think so), and if you have then it was because your gas tank was below E or you had a hankering for a three-day old convenience store hot dog. On the bright side, if you’ve ever needed to get somewhere fast in California, then you’ve likely taken I-5. Straight as an arrow with plenty of farmland, the color brown, and cow pie stench to go around.

US-395 is by far the road less traveled, in fact I’ve never heard of anyone taking this route further than Tahoe. I’m guessing it is because it seems longer and less inhabited, which perhaps the latter is true, but in terms of distance it is only 40 miles longer than I-5. From Santa Clarita, two roads diverge: one is I-5, and the other leads NE toward Lancaster and eventually highway 395. Unique to this route is that from the foothills of the Sequoia’s until you reach Klamath Falls, Oregon (approximately 800 miles), you spend most of the time a couple thousand feet above sea level.

We’ll drive one of the above routes. Or at least it’ll start out that way. I’ve ridden my bike and driven in cars up and down Highway 1 before, and I’d do it again without hesitation. An indescribable serenity exists in its wild, wet tree-canopy forests. I’d live there someday even. I-5 sounds akin to being dragged by my ankles out the back of a car all the way to Portland. So that’s out (okay, it’s not so bad after Redding, which is two-thirds of the trip). That leaves US-395, or at least pointing the car in that direction and seeing what happens. There’s ample time to stop and smell the flowers, and when I think about it, that’s what I want this three-day adventure to be about: just kind of seeing what happens.

I’m turning a new page, trying out new opportunities, dipping my legs into fresh water. I’ve been to Portland before, but it makes sense this time to travel along a new route. It’ll parallel the other routes, and in this scenario all roads lead to Portland, but not all that’s worth gleaning comes with arrival. This journey is not about the destination. Nor will the next three years be.

If I learned anything from the last time I lived in Portland, any shred of wisdom, it was that I put far too much pressure upon a city to meet my needs. Sure, it was a great time, and I did plenty of new things. But it should be no surprise that after four months and several thousand dollars I was right back in Orange County spinning my wheels again. That, I think, is what happens when you grant authority of your heart to a destination. Places never come through; none are better, only different. I don’t expect this next move to blow me away, though I do hold my hand open to it. I just kind of want to see what happens.

When I get to Portland I’m going to write about Les and my road trip. I’ll recall some of our topics of conversation, sights of mountain peaks and desert planes, smells, tastes, etc. Then I’m going to post it. It’ll be pretty raw and unedited, because a friend mentioned that my writing is more interesting when it’s raw (or at least how I understood it). I hope you’ll join me in reading.

Readable Music: Guitar

The guitar. Steel strings, vibrato.
They clang, the player moving up the neck, the steel sounding more and more like tin.
Melodies,
making their way into the room.
A captive audience, nothing moves. The player on his stool, the stage with a microphone, an unoccupied set of percussion instruments behind him;
monitors too, but nothing but his plucking, up the neck, and back down, like ocean waves, smoothly moving in and out of them.
Rising,
falling.
In,
and out.
Steel strings singing sweet symphonies, like memories in the breeze.

You May Forget You’re Reading Now

Here’s another Write Practice exercise played out. It comes from Thursday’s prompt about reasons why writers might seek validation. Frankly, I didn’t identify too much with points two and three, but I did enjoy the prompt:

For the next fifteen minutes, describe the scene when a new reader starts the book you wrote and is instantly sucked in, eyes glued, unable to stop reading.

I thought for a minute about the book that I’m writing, about one of the scenes I hope will suck my readers in and make them forget that they’re reading. Because if I’m honest, one of my goals as a writer is and forever will be to make reader’s forget that they’re reading.

So without further adieu, here’s my 15 minute exercise from Thursday. Cheers.

The air is dense, their legs are fresh, minds and hearts free to take the mid-west like a loaded storm. They have just come from a rejuvenating bus ride. Most noticeably, here in southern Illinois, is the climate. There is greenery like Kansas couldn’t dream of. The trees have sprouted legs and tower like titans. Man-made roads wind and lose their way along their ankle-like roots.

Michael and Louis have been speechless for the last hour. The sound of cranking: over, and over, and over. The wind whisping through their helmets and over their ears is loud and wet. Illinois is alive, Michael thinks. And we are here to experience it.

“I don’t know if I said this to you back at the greyhound station, but…” Louis is pensive. He goes on. “Thanks for keeping watch. I needed that.”

“I think we both did,” Michael says.

“No really, man. I was pretty sick. I needed that rest, on that bench, under the blue fluorescent parking lot lights for those four hours.”

“You bet, man. Happy to be able to do it for you and us. I mean, I fell asleep too.”

“Yeah, but you kept watch. I knew you did. That’s why I fell asleep.”

Michael watches the road roll below him for a while. He feels the wind land on his sweaty skin like mist. It coats him and keeps him cool. A year ago, he would have helped a friend at a moment’s notice. It wouldn’t have taken an ounce of energy. Or thought. Helping someone get to where they needed to go was what he felt he did best.

But today he is different. Sour, hesitant, bitter. Reluctant. His mind begins to turn over like the engine to his aching heart was trying to sneak a jumpstart. Something has stepped ahead of him, or so it seemed. He slows his mind and looks back at Louis, who is peering south toward a grove. Michael can see his pupils. His friend is at ease. What more could he ask for? This is life, he thinks to himself. Just this right now.

Skipping Between Tenses: a journal entry about moving

February 5, 2014

When I moved from Fullerton to Los Angeles in April of 2013 I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to move back. It was a resolving feeling to drive away from my old apartment, like kicking the dirt off my shoes and pointing my eyes upon the road ahead. It would be dirty, weathered, older, but it would still be in operation. The road would lead me along alright, because that’s what Los Angeles does. It brings people in.

Les and I didn’t know what to talk about that night as we drove from Fullerton to Los Angeles. Sometimes with your best friends you don’t need to have words to say. We looked at the blurring city lights and freeway signs just like we always had when we’d commute in to work. They weren’t different, but they were a little more ours, because we were moving in among them. We were part of the city now too.

The train goes up and the train goes down, gently. I am in the second car from the locomotive, the bike car, as it always was. My bike strapped to the railings downstairs, and I with my feet across the seat in front of me (not allowed), sitting above in the second-story passenger area. The car has 52 seats and there are 12 of us. We are feeling the rumble of steel wheels upon the track, up and down. Gentle.

I’ll probably ride my old route when I get in to Union Station. Spring Street, over the 101, through downtown, left on sixth, through skid-row, right on Stanford. Home. Or, work. But work has always been my other home. My Los Angeles home.

In July of 2013 I was traveling. I flew to Pennsylvania and road-tripped back to California with my brother. Then, I flew to Boston and drove to Burlington for a week with my old high school friends. It was our ten-year reunion, and we chose to make memories on a farm playing games, looking at animals, and drinking beer. And we did. When I came home, to Los Angeles, I told myself I was home. This is just it, I thought. This is were I live. This is it. I looked from my apartment rooftop across the evening skyline at buildings shooting heavenward. I watched airplanes arrive at LAX. One every minute, I’d surmised. There were no clouds in the sky, only empty blackness. I’d wait and watch the planes and the buildings like something was going to happen. But nothing ever really did.

Living with Carl has been brief but relieving. At least I have a place to call home. It’s a 600-square foot studio back house with an oft-not working bathroom faucet and a backdoor that gets jammed every time it is closed too hard. The neighbors are quiet; I’ve met none of them. The library across the street has never been open when I’ve been home. Carl’s friends come over and I say hello. They drink wine and talk about playing Smash Brothers while I look at the walls and wonder where my story will lead now; I wonder if it will be below the crown-molding of another set of walls somewhere else, in some other city, in another time, with different people.

When I was mailed paperwork stating that my rent would rise I knew it was a sign. The foot-traffic in downtown Los Angeles has been on the rise too. Call it from God or just the way things happen (because maybe some things just happen sometimes), but I knew I couldn’t even afford what I was already paying. I looked down at the concrete floors, poured and glazed in an artistically industrial fashion for me to walk on, representing my rent dollars. My over-sized windows (my favorite part) breezing the evening air. I felt indignant, if even only slightly, because I knew the time to say goodbye was near, and I knew that for this place and many like it in Los Angeles, the price was simply too high. Guys like me that are interested in bleeding the color of LA but can’t because we can’t afford the rent.

I can still see the skyline from the train as I ride. The US Bank tower stands above the western United States as a beacon of something (of what I’m still not sure). The other towers are its sisters, looking up at her like one day they might stand for something just as tall. There are gaps between those towers, however, and I know that given the rising cost of living, the new fleets of parking sharks, and the whelming programs to clean up the streets, that soon bigger things will move in. The US Bank tower will not be the tallest building west of the Mississippi River forever. It might become the third, fourth, or fifth tallest. This is, after all, the era that Los Angeles is trying to rebuild itself. LA might finally be a place for people to stay.

The first months after my arrival I did little to settle in. Les and I were like our rolled out sleeping mats on the apartment floor: unmade and carefree. We worked down the street, and we did little more than move boxes in and fall asleep and rise for work. That’s how the production life is in the handmade apparel industry. If it’s not rushing fabric to a cut and sew house or shirts to a screen-printer, then it is brainstorming fresh ideas, showing samples at trade shows, or moving product at street shows. That’s how the startup life is too: trying on hats and wearing them to bed.

Delani and I drank beer and ate reheated ribs on top of a box in the middle of the living room. Like the first few months of living there, my bed was again upon the floor, the walls empty, the dishes all in boxes, and my clothes on hangars stuffed into the trunk of my car. We played guitar after we ate and opened another beer each. Les was in Chicago applying for grad schools, living his dream, and Delani (the other roommate) and I were sweeping the floors and spackling holes to try to muster up some security deposit money. I’ll need it to buy food in Fullerton for the next month, I thought, and Delani will need it for food money in Portland, where he’s moving next month. I tossed a clean rib to Jack wondering if he’d lick it, chew it, or break it and swallow it. Probably all three in succession. He sat there and I said, good boy. He looked at the rib earnestly, and I wondered how long Jack could live with my parents while I’d be with Carl. Jack is family, and so is Carl. But Carl says the apartment is too small for Jack, so I won’t push it.

I’d love to move in for three months, I said to Carl one night in January. He said, sure man. Stay as long as you need, or want. I had expected him to say this. I planned on it when I called him, actually. I didn’t have a backup plan either. I was sitting at the apartment in Los Angeles, not knowing what an empty version of that place would look like a month later. I was thinking, and praying, here and there throughout my last days, and the thought of three months came up. I don’t know how or when, but it did, and I went with it, taking it maybe as a sign from God again. Three months, I’d heard myself start to say to friends. But why? I’d wonder. Or better, for whom?

My first month of riding the train, in 2012, I would un-velcro my bike lights from my seat post and handlebars and lock my bike to the railing with my cable. Then I would sit nearby and inadvertently watch people board, wondering if they’d look at my bike, and why. It was a commuter line into Los Angeles, so how sure could I be? They were normal people working normal jobs with normal ideas and temptations, but my Dad had a number of wallets lifted on buses in Los Angeles. It was a feeling in my gut that began leaping into my throat if my gaze got too far from my bike. Paranoia: welcome to the big city.

Tyler and I were sitting on a knoll at the LA Historic park just north of downtown. We were at FYF, an indie music festival, and he insisted on buying me a beer. We were corralled between four long walls of six-foot high chain-link fence that they’d called a “beer garden,” forced to stare distantly at bands, or people, while I sipped. He didn’t seem to mind so I decided I wouldn’t either. He told me he needed me to step into a new position in the company. I need you to become the Wholesale Accounts Rep, he said. My stomach leaped, but I wasn’t sure why. Was it because I felt valued in the company enough to take on such a crucial responsibility? Or was it because I was unsure that I’d be up to the challenge, or that I even wanted to in the first place? He looked at me and I knew then that there was a reason he was asking me. There was something deeper going on. I told him that I would give it my best shot and he said, good, because I don’t know if you really had a choice. We laughed and I choked on a gulp of beer.

The first time I ever considered moving to Los Angeles was on that day at FYF. I stared off at the hillsides and saw houses built deep into them. I’d never noticed them before, nor had I noticed the century-old architecture, the winding and almost vertical residential roads of Echo Park, and Silver Lake. Anything could happen in those hills, I thought. I imagined the morning views and planting a garden, and most of all, writing novels from my writer’s shack. Yes, the first time I ever considered moving to Los Angeles was on that day.

Like the US Bank tower, I will stand and watch now from a distance. I will know it all but will no longer be called a native Angeleno. I might keep riding the train, up from Fullerton, and down from Los Angeles home, gently and on-schedule, and I’ll probably see the skyline from a few miles away each time and wonder whom Los Angeles wants to call its people. I thought last July that it was I, but I found in February of the next year that it wasn’t. At least, for now, that sounds about right.