Monday, December 05, 2016

Thanking the Dead

I visited the grave of Brandon Lee today.

It was the first thing we did, upon arriving in Seattle for a week-long vacation.

Actually, the first thing we did, was I made my husband stop at the grocery store so I could buy some flowers.  It seemed weird and inappropriate not to bring some.  I found a bouquet of velvety dark red roses and Peruvian lilies.  The Peruvian lily is my favorite flower.  It was meant to be.

I was anxious, excited, nervous.

I've stopped and started this post a dozen times.  How do I explain to you, Gentle Reader, what the film The Crow has meant to me?  How do I help you understand why it was so important for me to visit the grave of the film's star, Brandon Lee?

Is it weird to want to thank someone you've never met?

After a few missed turns, we finally arrived at the cemetery in the late afternoon.  Brandon is buried next to his famous father, Bruce Lee, at the top of Capitol Hill in Lakeview Cemetery.  As the name implies, the cemetery overlooks Lake Washington, and it really is a beautiful view.  One of those views where you feel like you can see out to the horizon and into forever.  The graveyard looked like something out of a movie itself, with many traditional headstones and several pieces of somber statuary.  The late afternoon sun was sending slanted rays through the tree branches, making for some dramatic pictures as I clicked away with my camera.

Because of the influx of visitors, the caretakers have installed hedges around the Lees' graves to keep people from treading on neighboring plots.  I knew all this from researching online before we arrived, but we were still having trouble finding the graves.  Then I saw a young couple get out of a car, dressed head to toe in black leather, and I smiled.  "Follow the goth kids," I said to my husband, "They'll lead us to the graves."  And so they did.

It was bitterly cold out, and I was wishing I'd worn my coat. We came around the hedges and there were two impressive marble standing stones: a reddish brown one to mark Bruce's plot, and an ebony one to mark Brandon's place.  There were tokens everywhere, left behind by fellow pilgrims to the spot: flowers, oranges, incense sticks, coins, jewelry, plastic trinkets, notes scribbled on pieces of paper.

I was annoyed there were other people there.  They kept coming and going the whole time we stood there.  I wanted my own quiet time, with no one around, to just have a moment, but it wasn't going to happen.

I wanted to cry, but didn't.

I told Brandon "thank you" very quietly.  I laid the flowers down next to all the others.  It was satisfying and felt right, but also not satisfying.  Not satisfying at all.  I was left wanting.  There was nothing there but cold stone.  The dead can't talk back, you know, despite what we like to pretend when we're sitting in front of the silver movie screen in the darkened theater, watching Eric Draven return from the dead, an avenging angel, saying his final words to those he left behind.

Brandon died in the middle of filming The Crow, because of a terrible on-set accident.  There'd never be a possibility for me to thank him for that work while he was alive, as it was released after he'd passed.  Laying flowers on his grave was the closest I was ever going to get.

I've stopped and started this post a dozen times, Gentle Readers.  What do I want you to know?  Do I want to talk about the film and why it means so much to me?  Do I want to tell you about how artists can impact our lives for good?  Do I want to go on a tangent about why I'm drawn to cemeteries?  No. I think what I want you to know is this...

Don't wait to tell someone "thank you."

Don't wait to tell someone whom you care about the things that they really need to hear.

Tell them now, while they're still alive to hear them.

Talking to a headstone is a very one-sided conversation.

As we walked back to our car, and I stopped to take a few more pictures, I suddenly heard crows cawing.  I thought it was all in my head until I looked up.  Sure enough, high up in the sky was a murder of crows, circling on the air currents, cawing.  "Do you see that?" I asked my husband, "Do you hear them?" He smiled at me as I frantically tried to zoom in with my camera to get pictures, but the birds were too far away.

But I will always have the memories of that day.

Friday, December 06, 2013

"Love Can Save A Thousand Lives"

Available on iTunes
Last Christmas I was gifted with an album by Neverending White Lights called Act I: Goodbye Friends of the Heavenly Bodies.  (Thanks David and Lisa!)  I fell in love with it. It sounded like the soundtrack to my dreams.  I listened to it over and over again, and my ever-patient husband never once complained about me hitting repeat for the 80 billionth time. 

And of course, since it was titled "Act I", I wondered if there were other albums and, sure enough, there are - Act II: The Blood and the Life Eternal and Act III: Love Will Ruin (Part 1).  I didn't wait for someone to gift me the other two. I bought them and obsessively listened to all three.

I realized today that here we are, a year later, and I'm still listening to them.

Sure, I listen to other stuff. In fact, I like all different kinds of music, and my iTunes list reflects it.  But I kept gravitating back to these three albums and, if I had to guess, I would say I've listened to them at least once a week, every week, for the last year.  I won't go so far as to declare "that album saved my life" as people often do, but I can tell you, this music definitely soothed my heart, the way "music soothes a savage beast".  (And yes, I know I just referred to my heart as a savage beast. What can I say?  It's been a rough year...)

I want to recommend the albums to you, but I find I'm struggling to describe the musical style.  I've heard the band described as everything from alternative-rock, pop, pop rock, indie, and ethereal-alternative. I suppose it all depends on which song you are listening to.  The music can be quiet and moody one minute, then it can rock hard with a good beat the next minute.  It is introspective, and a little bit goth, but still life-affirming; it can be very sweeping and cinematic but also very tender and intimate.  The songs know how to breathe.  I know, the more I try to describe it, the more scattered the style sounds but, trust me, it works.

Photo courtesy of
Recording artist and producer Daniel Victor is the brains behind the band.  He writes the songs and plays most of the instruments, and calls in different guest artists, depending on what the song needs. So there's a nice balance of diversity yet consistency.  It's a collaborative project and each song is a mini-gem, sparkling on its own, within the greater story of the album.  Yes, the albums tell a story. (And you know I love a good story!) They are concept albums with larger themes that tie them all together.

But I have to warn you, there's an unfortunate side-effect to listening to these albums. If you're like me, it spurs you to hunt down, sample, and purchase music from the other bands or artists he collaborates with.  Not a bad way to discover new music (just budget your money accordingly).

It was hard to pick just one song to feature here, but I always seem to come back to this particular video - "The Grace" from Act I.  I think my steampunk lords and ladies will appreciate the Victorian flair. Enjoy!

Footnote:  The title of this article is a lyric taken from the Neverending White Lights song "The World Is Darker".

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Kill Your Television

My husband and I are participating in a little social experiment this week.  We've sworn off the television for seven days, and it seems like a topic that is ripe for blogging about, so here we are.  I should clarify, since we're early-adapters and have all the new fancy ways of streaming and viewing video content and entertainment, that we are avoiding all video programming, so it isn't just the AppleTV and iTunes, but also the Netflix and Hulu+ apps on the iPad, videos on YouTube, etc.

Since we watch most of our content on-demand and usually commercial free, our entertainment obsessions don't actually take up too much of our time.  Still, there are four to five shows we follow at any given time and at 40 minutes a piece that can add up quickly.  Add to it our love of movies and... well... it all probably takes up about 6 to 7 hours a week of our lives.  Considering the average American spends more than 34 hours a week watching live television, plus another three to six hours watching DVR'd programs for a grand total of 40 hours per week, I guess that means we're not doing too shabby.  I can't help but think about those 7 hours though - almost an 8 hour work shift - that are lost to passively sitting in front of a screen.

In the good ol' days (the days before TV and radio), when people came home from a hard day of work, they would spend their evenings making art, or at least participating in the process, instead of just consuming it.  If they wanted to hear some music, they would get on the piano, banjo, or guitar and perform the latest tune from their parlor music book or compose one of their own. They would write letters or poems or tell stories around the fireplace.  They would draw and sketch or knit or embroider.  The kids would put on a play in the barn.  Even if they weren't creating something new but were just consuming the latest novel or song, it was more of a participatory action that engaged the brain and the heart. Themes and plots of books were discussed as they were read aloud.  Songs were belted out together.  It was a shared experience with friends and family. 

Now, we just sit passively by and hit "play" on the DVR or the iTunes button and take in superior quality digital videos and studio-recorded music that leaves little to no inspiration for the consumer to express themselves, other than maybe to pick up the phone to dial in and vote for his favorite contestant.  Even though e-reader devices are on the rise, people in general are reading less and less.  We're consumers of the most simple brain candy, eating it up for 40 hours a week, which leaves little to no time to create, to express ourselves, to give back or to even stretch our gray matter with something a little more challenging.

So what's the verdict of our our little experiment so far, without the video entertainment sucking away 7 hours of my time?  I've enjoyed the extra time to engage my brain with some challenging reading and good discussions about it with my husband.  Tomorrow we plan to go to the art museum after work. It's one of my favorite places to visit, but I shamefully never make time to visit it. I plan to make some art too.  I've had more time to write.  So far I have felt more peaceful in the evenings, with the house quiet, and I've felt more connected to the ways of expression that I so often push to the side when life gets busy.  I thoroughly enjoy the scripted shows and movies we choose to watch, and I do think several of them have good, inspiring things to say, but I've enjoyed taking a break from them too.  I'm looking forward to the rest of our tv-free week.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Kill Your Darlings

"Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings." ~ Stephen King, On Writing

"Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it - whole-heartedly - and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press.  Murder your darlings." ~ Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, British Author

"In writing, you must kill your darlings." ~ William Faulkner

Kill your darlings. Supposedly William Faulkner said it first and other authors have repeated the mantra over the years. It's one of the most crucial but most difficult pieces of writing advice to put into practice.  (And here you thought this post was about murdering loved ones. Silly you! Don't worry, friends, family and Gentle Readers, you're safe.)

If you are particularly in love with or enamored with a word or turn of phrase, a sentence, a passage, an idea within your writing, sometimes you get too attached to it and, even though you know deep down it isn't working within the greater piece, you just can't bring yourself to get rid of it.  Maybe it's an image you are really hung up on, but you've jammed it into a section where it's distracting or doesn't serve any purpose.  Maybe you've used the wrong word and the vocabulary distracts the reader, breaking that imaginary bubble so that they are pulled out of the story and are now aware of the writing.  This is not good.  (I am reminded of the word - Surreptitiously.  One day, Gentle Readers, I will tell you of the epic battle I had with a co-author about that word.)  Maybe your writing has crossed over into purple prose or perhaps you've wandered down a rabbit trail and have described in detail some wonderful thing that has absolutely nothing to do with the story.

But I love it, you say.  I can see it in my mind. It's a beautiful idea. I spent hours crafting it.  Well, that's why they say, "kill your darlings."  You love it.  It's your darling.  You're attached to it, but if it doesn't serve the story, then it must be cut.   Painful, but necessary.

This is one of many reasons why having excellent first readers and editor(s) is so helpful.  When you are so in love with a piece of your writing, it is hard to recognize or admit that it might not be working.  A good first reader and/or editor will let you know where to drop the hammer, and a good writer will listen to them.

But do not fear!  All is not lost!  Your beloved passage or turn of phrase doesn't have to be buried six feet under to push up daisies for all eternity.  Oftentimes, an idea or concept can be used elsewhere; either relocated to a more appropriate place within the story, or it can be saved for later.  I've read several accounts from writers who saved a scrap of an idea for years that later germinated into a successful short story or another novel altogether.

One of my friends introduced me to a local writer this past week. We hit it off well and we both write within similar genres. I'm looking forward to trading pages with her; she will be a first reader for me, and I will do the same for her.  It's a scary, painful part of the process, but it is absolutely 100% necessary for crafting a successful finished piece of writing.  If you don't have skilled, honest, critical first readers or an editor, then you should probably find some A.S.A.P.  And if you aren't willing to submit to the critiquing and editing process, then you probably shouldn't be writing.  

This blog post is a reminder to me, more than anything else, to always kill my darlings and to step out in trust and let others pre-read and critique my work. If you write, how do you go about editing your work? How do you find or select first readers?  Or, even if you're not a writer, what do you think of this idea of editing and critiquing in light of my previous post on being maliciously critical.  Do you see the difference?  Please leave me a comment and let me know.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

What a Really Bad Book Taught Me

I'm currently struggling to get through what is, quite possibly, one of the worst books I have ever read.  It's definitely in the top five worst, and I've been reading since I was four years old.  That's a lot of books to contend against.

Why struggle through a bad book?

Well, the short answer is this:  the best way to improve as a writer is to read a lot and write a lot.  Read good stuff to see how things are done well, and read bad stuff to learn what not to do.  Also, I'm slogging through it because I was dared to do so by a fellow writer and friend.  He begged me to read it so we could share in the misery together, as he was already neck-deep into the awfulness.

It's so bad.  I mean really bad.  I kind of want to punch the main character in the face.

My friend and I had a long phone conversation where we went back and forth listing off all the ridiculous plot contrivances, annoying characters, missed opportunities, and completely unbelievable dialog and we got to laughing so hard I was crying and couldn't breathe.  It's so bad, it's unintentionally enjoyable; like laughing at a bad B-movie.  It's almost too easy to make fun of it.

Once I dabbed my tears away and caught my breath, I said I felt guilty for making fun of it because at least the author 1. put something out there, 2. got it published, and 3. is successful (at least by bank account standards - it's a national bestseller) and here I can claim none of those things.  I've only mustered up enough courage to submit one short story (and it got rejected).  I am not even sure I'm that talented of a writer. Who am I to criticize a successful, national, best-selling author? (Not to imply that an intellectual or thoughtful reader can't assess a piece of written work and identify what was executed well and what didn't work.  I was just feeling a little too puffed-up and superior over this author and realized it.)   

 Sympathizing with my guilt feelings, my friend then asked the question, "Well, let's talk about what she got right."  So we listed off the things the author actually did well in the novel.

Even though the book is bad, it is still a gift in that I'm learning a lot from it.

The whole thing got me to thinking about our culture and how we are so quick to jump in and poke fun and criticize, or point out what is wrong - not just with a written work but with everything.  I know people who only like to watch the beginning of American Idol because they like to laugh at the contestants who fail miserably.  Those contestants are more courageous than most - at least they tried and put themselves out there.  We're like a pack of hungry wolves, sniffing around for the next sign of weakness, or the next thing to ridicule or tear down, and when we find it we pounce.  Why do we enjoy reading movie reviews wherein the reviewer hated the movie and tears it to shreds?  Why do we take glee in that?  A crew of hundreds spent months on crafting a film and we reduce it to a "one-star" failure in just a few scathing paragraphs.

Why is it so easy to tear people down, and so much harder for us to build people up?

I'm not implying that we shouldn't be honest about what is good or bad.  Constructive, honest criticism is good and necessary in any field in order to learn and improve your craft.  It's also necessary, as a consumer, to read informed reviews and know what is worth our time and what isn't.  Specifically, what I'm puzzling over in this little essay, is the eagerness and the joy we take in tearing things and people down. It's not an attractive trait. If we could only focus some of that energy on building people up, focusing on what they did right, focusing on where they succeeded, and only then following it up with gentle correction or constructive criticism, wouldn't that give them more courage to try more, to try harder, to try again - to be better next time?

So what do you say?  Let's make a deal. 

Let's try to show a little more mercy, and encourage more people to try their hand at writing, painting, singing or whatever they're pursing.  They may not be the next Rembrandt, but it may make our world a little brighter, and allow room for other timid folks to be a little bit more courageous.

And no... I'm not telling you the name of the book.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why I Really Need To Stay Off Kickstarter (or Not)

I have a problem.  I really need to stay off Kickstarter (and other similar sites like GoFundMe, IndieGoGo and RocketHub).

Either that or I need to win the lottery, or discover a long-lost cousin three times removed that has willed their vast fortune to me, so I can give as much as my heart wants to give.

It's frustrating.

As someone who is trying to make a living with my writing, and would love to someday get a job creating illustrations, who is also married to someone who once supported himself by writing his own music and being in a rock band, let's just say I have a soft spot for other starving artists who are trying to make a go at bringing something new and beautiful into the world.

In case you're unfamiliar with the websites I mentioned, they enlist crowdsourcing which is a new fundraising approach to collect the needed money in advance for a project.  For example, a band wants to make a record, but can't afford the studio time upfront.  You can fund them by donating now, and in exchange they will give you a download of the new album when it is completed or, depending on the amount you donate, they offer other perks such as t-shirts, posters, tickets to a concert, etc. These are incentives to encourage larger donations. Some times all you get is the satisfaction of knowing you helped out, along with a sticker or button. There are all kinds of categories - dance, theater, film, visual arts, music, photography, publishing, etc. You provide the means for them to make the art (and make a living), and in turn you receive an album, or painting, or novel to enjoy later when it's done.

There are a couple of things I really like about this.  First, there is the immediate connection with artist and consumer.  Most of these artists put out regular updates to backers and let you in on the creative process and you can journey along with them on their successes or failures, allowing for more connection and emotional investment.  The other thing I appreciate is that this gives smaller bands, artists, and writers a chance to make their art, even if they never make it big or sign with a large publisher or record label.  It circumvents that hurdle and goes straight to getting the art out there.

I was challenged with an idea recently. If all we do as a culture is consume, and none of us create, then what?  We have to encourage others to create and, dare I say, find the courage ourselves to create, because out of that creative environment will eventually come the next Beatles, the next Monet, the next Poe - and our world will be blessed and the better off for it.  A culture that only consumes (like the one we're in now) and doesn't participate in and encourage new creative ideas and innovations ends up with things like TMZ and Jersey Shore.  We have to get involved in, value, elevate, and promote the arts.

This whole idea of consume vs. create really hit home, because I quickly realized I am a consumer more than I am a creator.  I have to turn off Netflix and turn on my brain.  I have to keep writing.  I have to keep sketching.  Even if none of my work ever gets published.  I need to foster my own creativity and hopefully, in turn, encourage others to foster theirs.  And I feel like supporting other artists in a monetary way on these crowdsourcing sites is just one way to help do that. 

It's only $1 here or $5 there, but it sure can add up when you have a soft heart like mine.  So, until I have that winning lottery ticket in hand, I'm going to try and exercise a little restraint, but still do what I can.

What do you do to support or encourage the arts?  It can be anything from helping to sew costumes for your local theater, to encouraging your children to attend a summer arts program.  Leave a comment and let me know.  In the meantime, I'll see you over on Kickstarter...

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

One is the Loneliest Number

Writing can be a lonely endeavor.  It's just you and the blank piece of paper (or blank Word document on your computer screen).  There's no one there to help you through it.  No one to tell you what to do.  There's just you and your imagination in an empty, quiet room.  It can be equal parts thrilling and... lonely.

I've been feeling very lonely lately, and it has little to do with the number of people I'm surrounded with or that I encounter in any given day.  In fact, I am blessed with an amazing husband, dear life-long-friends, and a terrific writing colleague.  They are all loving, supportive, offer good criticisms, hold me accountable to my goals, and are always there for me, through thick and thin. There's even the immediate gratification of interacting with all of you, Gentle Readers, who are also a connection point for me through the miracle of the interwebs.  But at the end of the day, it's still all up to me.

As I said, I have found myself struggling with loneliness lately, in almost every area of my life.  I work a part-time job in a very small office, staffed with very few people, and the rest of the time I freelance out of my home where it's just me, myself, and I.  When it comes to my freelance work, if I want to run an idea by someone, there's no co-worker to ask.  If I have a question about something, there's no manager to email.  When clients are unreasonable or difficult, there's no client representative to mediate for me. When I wonder how to promote my skills, there's no marketing department to point me in the right direction. I feel like I'm just floating out there, alone. 

Then of course, there are the personal struggles - having family members pass away or fall away from being in my life, when my family is so little to begin with, having friends move away or drift away as they often do, especially in such a transient state like Arizona, and then there's the exclusion that comes from not having "normal" interests or not having children or whatever the excluding factor is that eliminates me from a given social group.  I don't begrudge anyone that, I suppose.  Even on days when I really needed someone to talk to recently, friends were unavailable because of prior commitments, and my husband was called into work for an emergency and had to stay beyond his normal working hours.  Or there have been times where I have shared what I've been struggling with, only to have the other person shut me down because they either couldn't understand why I couldn't cope with life or they themselves couldn't deal with what I was telling them.

All of this has just made it painfully clear to me that we all long for connection, but no one can fully understand what it feels like to be me, to have the thoughts and feelings I have, as I walk through the practical and emotional challenges I've been facing.  That sounds really arrogant, like I'm a special and unique little snowflake, but I don't mean for it to be.  In fact, the same lesson goes for me in regards to others.  As empathetic as I think I am, as compassionate and understanding as I try to be, as loyal as a friend I hope I am, I still can't fully be there for someone.  We are all alone in the darkness.

 Now, before this bummer of a blog turns into this:

"I am utterly alone..."

(Did you just laugh at that? I hope you did.)

Before this bummer of a blog post makes everyone feel like jumping off the Winter River Bridge, let me offer the hope portion of this post, if you have been struggling with loneliness like me.

There is One who understands completely what it's like to be rejected, to be misunderstood, to be betrayed, to be alone. When He needed His friends the most, they fell asleep on Him, then ran away and denied they even knew Him.  He had people tell lies and talk smack and conspire against Him, and even His own family didn't support Him.  There is no one on earth that can understand everything you are going through, but there is One in heaven who does.  And I think my recent feelings of alienation have actually been a blessing in disguise, as it has caused me to draw closer to Him - the One who not only has "been there, done that" and can sympathize, but can also see into my heart in a way no human can, and offer solutions to my pain.  He's there for you too.  All you have to do is seek Him.   He is the light in the darkness.  We are not alone.