Double your child’s grades…in five minutes a day? Really?


Look…you all know of our struggles with Jason. That the school system wouldn’t tell us his test results, or give him grades we could comprehend, until he was in 4th or 5th grade, by which time he had fallen behind drastically, throwing everything into an emergency death-spiral: he knew he was behind, which made him doubt himself, which created fear, which triggered anger…


And he started locking down, becoming defiant, refusing to do his reading and insisting that he needed vast swaths of “relaxation” time before homework, by which time he was tired and unable to focus…


Bad.  Every day a struggle.  But…we were coping.


Then about four weeks ago, I was talking with my friend “The Speedman” Dr. John La Tourrette, and he suggested a marketing book by a psychologist named Eugene M. Schwartz.  The thing was out of print, cost 400.00 used, and got nothing but five-star raving reviews.  Guy sounded SUPER smart, but I decided that I really had my next six months of study nailed down already, and didn’t want to pay four hundred bucks for a book that would sit on my shelf until 2018. But…almost accidentally I noticed that this guy Schwartz had a bunch of other books, one of them entitled “HOW TO DOUBLE YOUR CHILD’S GRADES IN SCHOOL….in just five minutes a day”


Well, THAT sounded like b.s., but looking at the comments, people were, again, raving.  Screaming about how they’d turned their kid’s grades and attitudes around.  How much they wish they’d had this book in high school, or how much it helped them in college…


And I kinda said: WTF?  There seemed two basic aspects to the book: the tactical/strategic aspects teaching better principles of thought, and a powerful component to shift the EMOTIONS around the entire subject.


And I asked myself: could there be some reality to this?   Let’s say Dr. La Tourrette was correct, and Schwartz’ marketing book was fantastic.  Well, what marketing is is identifying people who need and want what you have, and then instilling ENTHUSIASM in them.   Sales, then, is just convincing them that they need to make a buying decision NOW, with YOU.


Well…how much of education is convincing kids that they CAN do it, and that it is IMPORTANT for them to focus on their school work so that they can accomplish their own goals?  Then it is about getting them to absorb themselves in their work the way they disappear into a video game or sport.  Flow.  Which requires that it be challenging enough to absorb them, but simple enough that they are experiencing “mastery” on a daily basis…


Isn’t that marketing?  Isn’t that psychology?   And if this guy was genius…maybe, just maybe, he had something that can help Jason.


So I bought a used copy of the book and scanned it in an evening.   Was it b.s.?  Well, most of the book, the entire back section, was strategy, the way to break down the learning of Readin’ Writin’ and Rithmatic into component pieces that can be absorbed one little chunk at a time, then re-compiled into more complex patterns.


That was reassuring, as the “Three R’s”  are the components of EVERYTHING else.  But what was the “Five Minutes” I was promised?


Well…this was where it got most interesting.   During that “Five Minutes” (say, every morning) you go over everything your kid is turning in that day, as well as correcting mistakes made on previous assignments.  Handwriting, neatness, etc.  Done in a clean, organized space.


And here is the most interesting part: ONLY POSITIVE EMOTIONS ALLOWED.   100% positive for those five minutes. (my friend Mushtaq reminded me that all the praise MUST BE SINCERE.  Act as if your child can read your mind.)


Five minutes.  In all honesty, I wasn’t sure Jason could do it. And even if he could, he certainly wasn’t going to get everything done in five minutes…so should I make it 10 minutes?  15?  No. That would be setting him up for failure.  Five minutes.  Just five minutes.



Two weeks ago, we began.   We sat him down even though he was twisting and turning and insisting we didn’t have time. I kept a big smile on my face, and told him “just five minutes!” and we went over his messy homework.  Got about 2 1/2 minutes in before he revolted, but I praised him and thanked him and laughed with him and let him go.


The next morning we got to 3 1/2 minutes. And later that day, one of his teachers emailed us to say that he had been unusually focused in class.  Hmmm


The next day we made it to five minutes. And most of the way through homework.  I noticed that HE WAS ACTUALLY ENGAGED.  There are seven basic things you focus on every morning during the five minutes, and one is to have your kid explain any aspect of the homework you don’t understand. He was actually chatty about it.  I was kinda stunned.


The next day, he revolted again.  Didn’t want to do it.   But I was ready for him.   I already knew that if this program was a good thing, it would challenge his nascent ego-identity.  Fear would motivate him to define himself as a “cool kid” who doesn’t care about things like grades.   But that’s a shell around the terror that he will not be able to cope with life straight-up. Man oh man, would that be setting him up to find drugs and alcohol attractive, or what?  So if he starts having success, and getting praise for it, he begins to believe in his ability to learn, which means the “upward spiral” of learning starts kicking in, violating his negative self-image…


Fear.  That’s what I was seeing. The terror of hope.


I just loved him, thanked him for what he could do, made a deal with him that if he does the five minutes every day, we will reward him.  Never punishment.     NEVER PUNISHMENT.  Not about these five minutes. Nothing but love, and support, and honest praise, and congratulations for EVERY TINY STEP.


And in two weeks he’s continued the cycle of revolt (including getting in trouble in school) with progress (finishing his homework with minimum fuss, the night before, instead of the horror-show of fighting with him at night or struggling in the morning).


And yesterday, he was reading an essay he’d written WITH PRIDE, actually engaged, actually enjoying explaining how he was thinking and why he wrote what he wrote.  And today, the five minutes was UP, and he wanted to keep explaining how he solved an algebraic equation dealing with exponentials.


Holy crap.  HE WANTED TO.   I wanted to cry.   I could hardly believe what I was seeing: my boy filled with the joy of flexing his mind, learning, achieving.


There will be set-backs and relapses. We’ve not even gotten out of the first two chapters of HOW TO DOUBLE YOUR CHILD’S GRADES IN SCHOOL so I don’t know what the future will bring…


But I realize that there is a serious connection between “Five Minutes” and the “One Sentence A Day” principle of LIFEWRITING.  That what is critical is to shift between a specific accomplishment and a PATTERN OF ACTION which, over time, will shift your attitudes and behaviors and make you LOVE THE PROCESS that will take you to the next level.


This is so amazing.  Just wanted to share, and will keep you posted.  But…five minutes a day?  Really?  And of course I will change as well, not just Jason.  I’ll deepen my connection to the place inside of me that feels love and hope and faith rather than fear, and he will feel that from me.  I’ll be learning as he learns, be right there in the trenches with him as we learn to de-construct subjects into their smallest components, and then re-compile into the complex form


Break it down.  Solve it.   Build it back up.


“Pay attention even to little things.”  Man, Musashi…you really rock.


Wow. This “being a father” thing is just the best gig in the world.  Just…the best.






The power of desire

(The first self-mastery book I remember being exposed to was the immortal THINK AND GROW RICH by Napoleon Hill.  My Mom used to play an LP of its core principles over and over and over when I was a kid, and man, I got sick of it. But…the ideas sank into my head and became a part of me.   Here’s a post from 2011 on the first basic principle)


“TRULY, “thoughts are things,” and powerful things at that, when they
are mixed with definiteness of purpose, persistence, and a BURNING
DESIRE for their translation into riches, or other material objects.”–Napoleon Hill

The bizarre thing about Think And Grow Rich is how almost every paragraph has been cannibalized by lesser writers, who have based entire lectures, courses, books and careers out on some single aspect of this insanely condensed and idea-rich book. You can open it at random on a given day, put your finger on almost any part of the page, and find life-changing concepts.

Every one of the thirteen principles, used deeply and mastered, would change your life. Any three of them would probably make you a rousing success. But say, seven of them? Any seven? If you re-read one of those seven chapters daily and implemented what it said? In a year or two, people would think you walked on water.

Let’s get our feet wet, shall we?

The first principle is DESIRE. A burning, unquenchable DESIRE for your goals. Again, set goals in four arenas: physical health and fitness, love and relationship, mental performance/career/education, and monetary wealth.

These four interact, cross-reference, provide support and motivation for each other, and guarantee balance. You can have MORE goals, but be very certain that you cover at least these four. No one says it will be easy. It won’t be. But I’d say 99.9% of people want all four of these things, while about 30% of people claim they don’t. Someone is lying. I suggest you ask yourself if it is you.

It is comforting to pretend we don’t really want things, that we have no desire to sing our song to the world as loudly and sweetly as we can in the trivial few days we have to live in this world. It is easy to lie to ourselves that we don’t want the physical aliveness we had as children, we don’t want the passion and love we desire, don’t want the financial success to create safe harbor for ourselves and our families. I’ve lost count of the people who’ve said “I don’t care about money”… and then gone on to describe ruined hopes and dreams that could be easily fulfilled with sufficient financial resources. Or causes they hold dear that will dwindle and die for lack of donations. Dreams of travel, education, or family comfort that could easily be assuaged with money.

When we don’t believe we can have something, or SHOULD have something, it is easier to simply pretend we don’t want it. And those lies kill our dreams.

I would rather aim too high and be disappointed, than aim too low and fail to fulfill my potential.

I want the physical power, grace, and aliveness of a panther. I crave love, passion, and intimacy with a family and soulmate. I want to write stories that change the world and live for centuries beyond me. And I want such a surplus of money that I can be a benefactor to my family and the causes I believe in.

And I want them with a burning, driving, consuming passion… but also a slight sense of humor. I know it is a game. I’m prepared to lose. But I’m not going to sit on the bench in my own life, watching others play and wondering what I might have done if I’d just dared to get on the field.

I won’t do it. THIS IS MY LIFE. The only one I get. The little boy inside me dreamed of being a writer, a martial artist, and having love.

By God, I went out and got him all those things. No matter the cost. No matter how many times I got knocked down. I was fighting for that little boy.

And he loves me for it. He is absolutely tickled at the man I am today… still standing, still singing my song. And the old man I will be on my deathbed is smiling at me as well: he knows that the money, the external success, even the external relationships are nothing more than an expression of what is happening inside me. Success is the result of CONSUMING DESIRE, sufficient to overcome obstacles, to be knocked down a million times and get up a million and one. To move through fear, and disappointment, and guilt, and shame. To be willing to overcome everything, no matter what.

I love that little boy inside me that much, dammit. My mother and father are gone. Have joined, in John D. MacDonald’s great words, “the long, long line of the dead ones.”

I am all he has. And I will fight to the last drop of blood for his dreams. Until the last breath. And I know that when my eyes close for the last time, he will be smiling at me. Loving me. Saying “You did good, Daddy.”

And frankly? If that’s all I get in life, that’s all I need.

-Steve Barnes,

The power of a year

I’ve noticed a bit more napping in the ten days since Jerry’s death.   That’s stress.   I tend to process it in chunks, often by sleeping an extra hour a day.  I’ll know I’m really processing when he starts popping up in my dreams, and we have a few final ding-dong arguments.  Man, those irritated Larry (and I can understand that. They were very often about the same few subjects, topics on which we had differing articles of faith.)


It’ll take about a year to fully process.  Most major things do.  All twelve months, all holidays and special ocassions on which you have any emotional anchors, a full trip around the sun.  It is amazing how much good you can do for yourself if you give yourself a full year to accomplish something.


Most “I can’ts” are about shorter periods of time: days, or weeks.   My heart won’t heal.  I can’t lose this weight.  I can’t get a business started.


Year-long cycles are long enough to make a serious change in almost anything you could want to do, but short enough that it shouldn’t feel like “forever.”  We’ve all been through a LOT of year long cycles at this point in our lives, and we know that time will pass.


And…a year from now you’ll either be a year older…or a year older and closer to your goal.  “I don’t have a year!” students will tell me.   “I have to change NOW!” And you know what?  Inevitably, in almost every case, I’ll eventually run into them, or communicate with them years down the road.


And…they haven’t changed. Still stuck.  A year came and went, and here they are.  They let the voices in their heads lie to them, tell them that they cannot change because they can’t change IMMEDIATELY.


Well…what can change IMMEDIATELY is your sense of emotional commitment.  You can inspire yourself…now.  Clarify your reasons to want to accomplish something…NOW.  Chose a specific motivating goal…NOW.   Today. In this instant.


Changing your internal state will change your behaviors (If your external behaviors don’t change, your internals didn’t either.)   And you get the chance to start rolling through the “Hero’s Journey”–finding allies, taking actions, and dealing with failure and success.


You’ll have plenty of chances to observe your process, see how you react to ups and downs. Start charting your reactions in advance, which is HUGE.  A favorite strategy: the next time you’re “up”, write a letter to your future self, seal it in an envelope and lock it away, only to be read the next time you’re “down.”  Maybe give it to a trusted friend to hand to you the next time you’re in the Dark Night.


Really valuable.


Here’s the point: time passes.  You can either spend your days, or invest them.  The choice is yours.


But you could accomplish so, so much in 365 days.  You really could.  You could be a new you, if you had the heart to trust yourself.





Solving the right problem

There is a story I tell frequently, where a man is searching under a streetlight for his keys, and a kind stranger begins to help.  After ten fruitless minutes, the stranger asks the man if he’s SURE he dropped his keys here.  “Oh, no,” the man replies.  “I dropped them across the street in the vacant lot.  But there’s no light there.”


So…looking back from the END of the goal (writing/publishing a book) is the same as looking back from the end of the story (protagonist ends at higher or lower level.)


I have a student who has been tortured for many months by his girlfriend’s sexual past.  Obsesses about it. When he came to me, he thought his goal was to “figure out” how to change her behavior (talking to him about past boyfriends).  Nope.   The problem was a BUNCH of different things, and none of his other allies had been able to help him.


And what that suggested to me was that he was working on the wrong problem

  1. You can’t change someone else’s behavior
  2. I saw no evidence that her behavior needed to change


Back up a step: WHY did he think/feel her behavior needed to change?  Because he FELT something negative when she talked.


Well, why did he feel negative?  Because he had specific belief patterns about the meaning of her past behavior.


And where did he get those beliefs?  The voices in his head tell him its bad.


And whose voices are they?   His father.


Oops. Can’t get to those beliefs without challenging his Daddy.   Not ready for that?  Why?  Because his “Mommy” circuits are damaged. He is expecting the kind of love from his lover he used to get from Mommy, and that tells me that his “Little Boy” isn’t being properly protected and nurtured: Mommy doesn’t love him if she ever loved anyone else, and Daddy says terrible things about Mommy, but unfortunately the Mommy he wants has lotsa sexual experience, which he craves…


Sorry, but that’s a knot I’m not qualified to unravel.  Apparently, neither were his therapists.


But guess what: HE KNOWS HOW TO HEAL THIS WOUND.   He doesn’t know that he knows, but he does, like an acorn knows how to grow into an Oak.  Not consciously.  In its essence.


So what he needs to do is “grow around the wound.”  By making contact with his younger self, committing to giving the “little boy” all the love he’s lacked, the pressure is off the relationship.   If it hurts to see her, guess what? You have a year (at least) of serious work ahead–focus there.  Allow the natural healing resources to kick in.


How?  Love yourself (all you really NEED in the relationship category), create goods and services to exchange with the community (raise income) and probably focus on strengthening his body.  Happiness is a great healer.


To what end?   TO BE HAPPY. That is why he does what he does. That is what he really wants.   TO BE HAPPY.  Everything else: trying to change her behavior, wanting to be with her, wanting to obey his father…is all about BEING HAPPY.


So what was his real “Challenge”?  Do you get it?


He doesn’t have to change her behavior.

He doesn’t have to understand her behavior

He doesn’t need a relationship

He doesn’t need to follow his father’s dictates

He doesn’t need to understand why his father believed these things.

He doesn’t even need to understand whose voice that is in his head.


What he needs is to be happy.  All those other steps are just means to the end of being happy.    All are negotiable, if they conflict with that goal.   Or drain massive energy that he could be putting into healing.

Looking where the light is, rather than where he dropped the keys.




If writing  a story, you simply craft a tale that teaches your character his real values, so that he will give up the external goal and choose an appropriate one.

If this is your life, go deeper, be an adult.  Satisfy your own basic needs.  STOP BLAMING THE WORLD FOR WHAT YOU FEEL.  The danger is that you will go to the other extreme, and excoriate yourself:  “I’m a terrible person!”


This is why you have to start with love, enough love to BOTH accept responsibility AND give yourself all of the love you’ve been trying to get from the outside world.  Do BOTH and you start walking an upward, healing spiral.


And by the most ironic of coincidences, once you stop trying to manipulate the world, focus on taking care of your own needs, then realizing that the things you get from others (earning a living) will depend on the value they believe you offer…


You automatically begin to heal.  Automatically become more of an Awakened Adult.


Remember the comment that you attract people on your own level? The instant you love yourself, and are contributing to the world, you are communicating your “frequency” clearly, and others on your “frequency” will hear and see you.  It is like flipping on a “Mating Switch” and you will attract the relationship you seek. And if you love yourself, you’ll like some of those attracted to you–they’ll be you, can balance with you, can climb the mountain of life with you.


It isn’t complicated. Really, its brutally simple. Walking the natural path provides the natural responses from the world.  If you are working your ass off and not getting the results you seek, LOOK AT THE HERO’S JOURNEY.


  1. Have you accepted the right goal (to be happy)
  2. Have you dealt with your fear?
  3. Have you decided to act, to do Whatever It Takes to have a good life?
  4. Do you take daily action toward your goal?
  5. Do you model the behaviors and attitudes of those who are more successful?
  6. Have you accepted the inevitability of “hitting walls”?
  7. Do you have faith in something larger or deeper than your “ordinary self”
  8. What is your SPECIFIC strategy to knock yourself out of a depressive state?   GET IN IN PLACE WHILE YOU’RE “UP”.  Stop pretending that “maybe it won’t happen this time.”  Yeah, it will.  Buckle up.
  9. Do you celebrate your victories?
  10. Do you help others along the path?



If you will apply these thoughts to BOTH your life AND your writing you’ll start wiring this stuff in at the level of “unconscious competence”.   Do that, and it is like adding a nugget of wisdom into your life, having a wise old woman sitting on your shoulder telling you what you need to do next, what you can expect next.  It is a way of “looking around the corner” and almost cheating.


Do this IN the story. Do it WITH the story (the process of creating it).  Do this with your life…and everything you do in your life improves your writing, and everything you do in your writing affects your life.



Write with passion, Live with Purpose!



Why is Lifewriting so powerful?

I am often asked how the entire Lifewriting program fits together.  Let me use an amalgam of student concerns for the sake of clarity.


Once upon a time a student joined the Lifewriting Premium program saying she wanted to write a novel, but was stuck.   She had studied writing in college, and by reading lotsa articles and reading lotsa novels, and really wanted to break through her block.    I told her I could unstick her in three months, but she’d have to do as I asked.   She must have agreed, because she paid me up front, which was nice.


So the trick was to modify her way of looking at plot and character.  By using the Hero’s Journey as her guide, it was a totally new opportunity: to use the same pattern to write the novel that was used to structure the novel.  But since she’d never sold a short story, while she wouldn’t stop working on the larger project, she also had to write 1-4 stories per month.


I asked her to see herself as a character in a novel she was writing, that meta-position used to both learn, interpret, and guide the work. She would use “small cycles” in the short stories, but step back and see the “large cycle” of her life, or of a novel.


CHALLENGE: To complete her novel.

REFUSAL: She wouldn’t step away from it to develop the missing emotional/conceptual skills.

ACCEPTANCE OF THE CHALLENGE:   To add at least one story a month to her overall work.

ROAD OF TRIALS:   There wasn’t much extra time in her schedule, so I suggested that she focus on short-short stories. She had to buy an anthology of them, and commit to reading at least ten per month. She decided to read one every day.

ALLIES AND POWERS: So she started making her way through the program, watching the classes, listening the lectures, working through the homework at her own pace.   Working on her novel, yes, but also on one short story per month.

CONFRONT EVIL-DEFEATED:  And even though she was only working on a three-page short story, a tiny fragment of the full story arc (modeled on a Shirley Jackson story about a woman standing outside an apartment door who wants to be admitted to a party), she was stuck on page two, just as she had been stuck on page 200 of her novel.

DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL: “Maybe I’m just not a writer!”

LEAP OF FAITH:  With the novel, she’d been able to say: “I need to do more research!  I don’t know what to do next!  This is so important!” whereas with the short story, if she screwed it up, that was just a single week or month of work. No big thing.  She had PERMISSION to screw up.

CONFRONT EVIL-VICTORIOUS: By stepping through each of the steps in her own life, she suddenly saw how they worked in the story, and from there in the novel. She could ask herself: how do I want my character to grow?  What false beliefs about herself does she need to change? What life experience would challenge and change that belief, force her to wake up and grow up?  What was her own fear? Completion.  Why?  Because if she ever finished the book, she’d have to finally answer the question: “do I have what it takes?  Is this idea actually good?” And she “looped” back to the “Road of Trials”–the individual pieces of work aren’t important. The PROCESS is important, and will create the work  if you keep producing. She saw. And was able to use this notion in her life, her short work, and her long work.

STUDENT BECOMES THE TEACHER:  Ironically, she was a schoolteacher, and the next time a student was frozen with fear in an essay, she was able to tell a true story about her own fear, and the student, tears in her eyes, believed her, finished her own essay, and got a strong “B.”


That’s how it work.  And it works amazingly well, because the Hero’s Journey is the combined wisdom of all the world’s elders saying “this is the way life will be young man, young woman.”


And once you see it, you cannot un-see it.  Can you see it now?


Write with passion, live with purpose!


Is “Truth” useful?

Had an interesting conversation yesterday about the nature of Truth, and whether it is possible to determine What Is True.

Earlier last week, I had a disagreement with someone on a point of philosophy, and said: “good luck with that.  Let me know how that works out for you.”


He thought I was being insulting, or at least snide.  Well…maybe.  But the reality is that I was also being totally honest.


Is there reality?  Let’s assume so, because the opposite assumption ends the conversation.

Can it be determined?   That’s a much better question.   But what is clear is that there are many, many things that can be determined but not COMMUNICATED to others in any efficient/effective fashion.  So whether I can communicate an experience has little to do with its validity.  There are limitations to language.


But if philosophy asks two basic question: What is true?  Who am I?  Then it is definitely a discipline that presupposes that either truth can be ascertained, or that the quest is useful, if not ultimately definitive.


The route I’ve decided on is to measure “truth” partially by what is useful, at least on the level of human life. And that usefulness is measured in whether following that path gives you a healthy, happy life in both short and long term.  Basically, healthy body, healthy career, healthy relationships.  If it doesn’t…I’m ignoring it.  If you have a great theory of life, but don’t have those things, I’m going to consider what you’re doing to be interesting in the abstract, but not important enough for me to change course.


So when I say “good luck” I mean it.   Have a happy life.  And “let me know how that works out for you” is also literally true.  If we meet again in five years, and your approach got you better results than mine did for me, I’m really, really going to want to know what you’ve been doing.  If it is different from what I’ve done, I’m likely to want to experiment with it and see what’s up.


Now…ultimately, your experience of life on a subjective psychological level should correspond with your intellection, emotional, and spiritual senses of the world. In other words, if you meditate, your connection to the outer world should be congruent with the connection with your heart.  Should align with your understanding of the creation of the universe.  When this happens, and guides your life with power and beauty, it is WONDERFUL if you can communicate it with language, but if you can’t, that doesn’t invalidate your experience.


There are plenty of people who can spin a good story.  Present a good argument. Dazzle you with logic and rhetorical flourishes.   Wow, I know some amazing people.


But it always comes back to: what can you do? What results do you get?  I remember when I was a writer for Black Belt magazine, and they sent me to interview a Jiu Jitsu guy and asked him (in a rather bratty way), how his mastery of “Ki” or intrinsic energy was.  He politely invited me to step on to the mat and find out.




In life, you can tell me anything you want.  And wow, you might seem brilliant. But intelligence is problem solving, or nothing at all. And if you set goals you cannot reach, then you may be smart but wisdom seems to me to have evaded you.  And if you cannot find your way to the three things everyone seems to want: health, success, and love…then I’m afraid that you are either walking a different path, or the chances are excellent that you aren’t as smart as you think you are.


Have I probably made mistakes with this approach?  Almost certainly.  I’m sure there are homeless people with excellent stock tips, lonely people with amazing insight into relationships, total couch potatoes with astounding insights into fitness.  Struggling unpublished writers who know things about fiction I couldn’t dream of.


But….we have finite time to figure out this thing called life. It ain’t a dress rehearsal.  If I miss that one genius but also miss 99 deluded souls, I’ll take that.   That’s fine.


If I want to know about writing, I’ll talk to published writers.  Martial arts?  Expert fighters who live with grace.   Relationships?   Grandparents who still live in love with their partners.   Money?  People who have succeeded massively doing something they love, who contribute to the world.


It is so simple really.  I think that’s what’s frightening to many.





Looking back, the proto-“Machine” and Jerry Pournelle

One of the things I like about Facebook is that it dredges up past posts and references to you.  Buzz Dixon posted this back in 2013, an earlier version of “The Machine”.  As you can see, I’ve been refining this for a while.



1) Create an output goal (a story a week, or a story every other week.  Or a thousand words)

2) Read 10 X what you write.

3) Read one level “up” from your writing goal.

4)Keep your stories circulating in the mail

5) Don’t try a novel until you’ve sold ten short stories.

6) Once you’ve finished your first draft, ask “what is the meaning of my story” and re-write from the beginning to sharpen this.

7) Model the healthy attitudes, actions and beliefs of the writers you admire.

8) Follow structure until you have mastered it (selling at least 10 short stories), then try freestyle.  If you have problems, revert to structure until it is internalized.

9)  Separate the “Flow” state from the “editing” state.

10)   Develop a circle of writers and readers to evaluate your work.   Choose the smartest, toughest critics you can find, and learn to take the discomfort.




Nice.   I could easily create a ten-week class focusing in on each of these step.  Heck, a couple of them could be classes all by themselves.


Here’s the reality: once upon a time, there was a kid who wanted to be a writer, a fighter, and a lover.   He had no role models for such a life, but realized that the same basic principles of excellence, activity, and passion applied to all three. That he could therefore focus on the core qualities, and look at his progression in publishing, martial arts and relationships as by-products of that core growth rather than as totally different arenas.


He studied every excellent human being he could get close to, especially those who were excellent in more than one of these arenas.  And as he learned things, he taught them, because he revered the teachers who had shared the path with him, and thought it the only way to pay them back.


And his approach to teaching and life was to encourage people to see their journey as steps along the Hero’s Journey:

  1. They would need to see what needs to change.
  2. Need to deal with fear.
  3. Need to commit
  4. To take daily action
  5. To clearly define the abilities that must be acquired to reach the goal, and identify the role models and allies who can supply or represent the “recipe” for the resources
  6. To prepare in advance for failure.
  7. To grasp that depression is fear with no one to fight, and no where to run.
  8. That FAITH is critical in life, because we all reach moments of despair.  It can be faith in your deep self, in your companions, or in a higher power or cause.  But it is one of the greatest resources.  Otherwise, you will stop pressing forward, fall back to the lower level, and must start your process all over again from scratch. Some are caught in this loop endlessly.
  9. That we must also prepare for victory, so that we don’t waste the opportunities they afford.
  10. That we must teach others to move to our own next level. That we only keep the things we give away.




That pattern underlies everything that kid learned, and lived, and taught.  Today he buries one of his great allies, Jerry Pournelle, who taught him that “Once you master anything, you know how to master anything else.”


And he knows he can only honor this great man by being the best writer, best American, best human being he can be.


And is cool with that.


Thanks for everything, Jerry.   You will always be one of my Most Unforgettable Characters, and a man I dearly loved.  You were so strong a personality that I had to fight for my balance around you, to the point that now, few human beings can shake me at all.  You helped me be me.



To a man who wrote with passion and lived with purpose


Farewell, my friend



“How Do I Sell My Book?” Wrong question.

I get asked that question by students all the time.  And the answer for most of them is: don’t.  Or more specifically: I’m not going to help you with that.  There are plenty of other people who will advise you to this or that approach, but I think it is the wrong question.


So…you want to run a marathon?  Don’t ask me where the best marathons are, if you have never run a lap.  Finishing a book involves juggling so many different skills: discipline, focus, structure, rules of language, plot and character, thematics, poetics…jeeze. On and on.


You want to add to all of that the need to suddenly interact with the gigantic machine called New York Publishing?  While there are success stories (of course) you are falling into an enormous trap.    That trap is basically the notion that if you can’t spar with the Black Belt class on your first day, karate is not for you.


Only an idiot would give you that advice, but it is roughly what you are asking when you try to write a book if you are on the outside of the industry.


Before you go Black Diamond, you’d better try the Bunny slopes, don’t you think?  The outside world, the world of harried editors and publicists and publishers looking for work they can gamble on, risk their reputations and paychecks on (what do YOU think happens to editors whose books keep flopping?) is to meet them half way.


Don’t expect them to take a chance on you, if you haven’t taken a chance on yourself. And you do that by starting with short stories.


THAT is the “external” purpose of The Machine. To force you to learn how and where to submit your stories. To force you to read enough to not only improve the QUALITY of your work, but to familiarize yourself with the magazines, websites, anthologies, collections, editors and agents who are pulling the strings behind the scene.


YOU CAN’T JUST SIT IN THE AUDIENCE WATCHING THE PUPPET SHOW. You have to get behind the scenes where you can see the strings and the puppeteers.  Once you do, you’ll see its just a business. And that business NEEDS people like you, if they can learn to produce professional-quality work.


Not “inspired”.  Not “classic”.  Not “brilliant.”  Just…”professional quality.” THAT is your first step.  The rest depends on too many factors to predict. But “professional quality” is probably within reach of anyone willing to spend a thousand    hours of focus.


And what is necessary to do that?    To make that first sale?   No one yet has made it past just TWENTY SIX STORIES.   Not one person.   After that?  It will take you less time to publish the next. And probably less to publish the one after that.  The first one is the hardest, AS LONG AS YOU KEEP WRITING AND SUBMITTING AND READING.


That’s the “inner game”–the emotions, tactics and strategies.  But the “outer” game, the resistance that the world will throw at you…that can be beaten by starting so small that the world doesn’t really notice you…yet.   Amass knowledge. Gain information.   Connect with allies (editors WANT to find good stories!).  And guess what?  The same editors who buy your stories know the book publishers and agents.   You’ve just opened the door.

How do you eat an elephant?   One forkful at a time.

How do you sell your book?  By writing a sentence a day and at least a story a month.


One step after another, walk the Thousand Mile Road.


And by the way…enjoy the journey. That’s all there really is.



Write with passion, live with purpose!


Story Workshopping, “Lifewriting” style

I frequently get requests to read people’s outlines, scripts, books, short stories.  I understand and empathize, but if I did that I’d have no time for my own writing.  Instead, I created and support the LIFEWRITING community. Join, and post your request.  If you have established yourself by making useful  and supportive comments, you’ll find them responsive.


But one thing that I want to make clear is that there is a specific methodology we use.  It isn’t about “did you like it?” or “did it grab you?” primarily, but rather looking into the structure (plot) and being honest to a view of the human condition (character).  While there are countless other important aspects, if you have these two,  and use The Machine, you are correcting the flaw I see in 99% of failed writers.


The example I use for plot is The Hero’s Journey. For character, The Chakras. There are other models, of course. The simplest plot structure that seems useful is:

  1. Someone wants something
  2. There is an obstacle
  3. They take actions to overcome the obstacle.


Clearly simplistic, it is at least aware of the basic dynamics of story.   In character, there are many ways to diagram a human existence, but the simplest that seems useful is the Greek “Triad”:


  1. Body
  2. Mind
  3. Spirit


Body might be health and fitness. Mind education, career, intelligence.  Spirit might be religious beliefs, but I prefer to look at your relationships to know what kind of  soul you have.


So when you read a story for someone, be sure you have at least six questions you are looking to answer:


  1. What does your lead character want?
  2. What stops them?
  3. What actions do they take to resolve the issue?


Obviously, there are many more steps and questions, but these three need to be CRYSTAL CLEAR or you have no story.


With characterization, you need to have at least three questions like:


  1. What is the physical description of the character?
  2. What is their general mental state of health or development?
  3. What is their relationship status?


Again, this is just a poor beginning…BUT AT LEAST YOU’RE IN THE GAME.   Without answers to these six, you probably have no story.  IF you have answers to all of them…it may be lousy, but AT LEAST YOU’RE IN THE GAME.


And from there, “The Machine” starts kicking in:

  1. Write a sentence a day
  2. Write 1-4 stories a month
  3. Finish and submit what you write.
  4. Don’t re-write except to editorial request
  5. Read 10 X what you write
  6. Repeat 100 times.



That’s the game.  If you keep playing it, you’ll get better, learning more and more about the inner and outer games.   If you learn how to comment on stories “Lifewriting” style, you’ll be training others to give you the basic knowledge you need to progress.  Also you’re imprinting the basics on your unconscious.  Now, if you use the Hero’s Journey and the Chakras, you are also programming yourself to operate at higher and higher levels. Very cool.


Helping others is helping yourself.



Write with Passion, live with Purpose!


Lifewriting and “All That Jazz” (1979)

The last time a movie changed my life, I was twenty-seven years old.  I’d published maybe a story or two, paid in contributor’s copies.   I was cocky, driven, and terrified that I wouldn’t be able to be a successful writer. I’d bet EVERYTHING on that one goal.


I was working at a bookstore, I think, and writing at night.  Pulling my end of the bills, but earning way under what I knew I could earn if I went into some more formal occupation.  But was afraid that if I took some more “serious” job it would devour me, and I’d lose my drive to write.  I’d seen it happen.


So I hid my fears behind a mask of bravado, a denial that anything could stop me, a commitment to work and work and focus and focus until I got what I intended.


It was the “Whatever It Takes” attitude. The Psycho-Cybernetics “create your self image and live up to it” attitude. The Think and Grow Rich/Strangest Secret “Make a contract with yourself and bet your life on it” attitude.



I’d seen television commercials for a movie that looked pretty cool, starring Roy Schieder (hey, JAWS!) and featuring some really amazing dance choreography (glimpsed only in flashes in the TV ads) that looked angular and flashy and somehow…insane. There was something crazed about it. I loved that, and went to see ALL THAT JAZZ.


For those who haven’t seen it, ALL THAT JAZZ is a semi-autobiographical film written and directed by choreographer Bob Fosse.  He tells the story of “Joe Gideon”, a genius of stage and cinema simultaneously editing a movie and choreographing a complex play, pushing himself beyond human limits. He is a cheater, drinker, smoker, drug abusing borderline maniac who pushes people who genuinely love him away while giving his life to people who don’t give a shit and are literally negotiating away his life while he has open-heart surgery.


It is funny, profane, sacred, brilliant, terrifying. One hell of a movie, and I walked out shaken.


Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe Gideon, a dancer who discovered a talent for choreography, who wanted to create art in motion.  He focused everything he had, becoming a knife too sharp to handle safely, until he ultimately became the genius he was afraid he wasn’t, but destroyed himself in the process.


And I realized I loved that movie, because I was afraid it was about me.


Once upon a time there was a guy named Steven Barnes, who had dreams of being a writer.  Everyone (it seemed): family, teachers, schoolmates, society, said that he couldn’t do it, and he swore to show them.  He dropped out of school and took minimum-wage jobs to have the time to focus on his work.  Every time he met defeat, he just swore to focus more tightly.   But he had to admit that deep inside, he was afraid that they were right…


There was a problem.  The problem is that if the secret of success isn’t “pure talent” or luck, then it is monomaniacal focus, over time.  There is only one problem: that focus throws your life out of balance.  So…you can succeed, but you will trash another aspect of your life doing it.  Become like one of those houses at Universal City: look great from one angle, but step around behind…and there is nothing.


There are basic aspects of life: the career, the relationships, the physical body.  And most people really don’t have “more” than others in all three.  Most really successful people simply concentrate everything they have in one arena and neglect others. The luckiest of them find the right teachers at the right moments of their lives, have the right role models in childhood, and create something elegant and beautiful with that same pound of flesh.


The paradox I faced is that excellence demanded monomania.  Monomania creates imbalance. Imbalance destroys your life, such that you will never become as excellent as you could be, or live to enjoy the fruits of your work.


I rode home on the bus, depressed.    I wanted my career with all my heart, but in ALL THAT JAZZ clearly saw how my desire could destroy me.   What the hell could I do?


There is a saying I heard once: From time to time, life gives you a cubic inch of opportunity.   If you take it, its yours. If you don’t, its gone forever.


And just one such “cube” can change your life forever.  I can identify several of those in my life.   Five?  Ten?   Maybe


But this was one of them.  Obsession creates imbalance. Obsession is necessary for excellence.


What if…what if…


What if the only thing that was safe to be obsessed about was balance itself?  True, you could go all OCD about that, become paralyzed…but for a relatively healthy person, it seemed to me that balance was the safest path.  But did it lead to excellence? Weren’t there (and aren’t there) people who swear that dysfunction is NECESSARY?  That it is the creative norm?


Yes…but if there were counter-examples, people who seemed sane and happy and healthy and loving, who were also at the top of their field, didn’t that suggest it was POSSIBLE?


Well…that was what I decided. Ray Bradbury and William Shakespeare seemed to be a couple of human beings operating at as high a level in their fields as I could imagine, and from all evidence, they functioned well. Quirks, sure.  But those basic aspects seemed healthy.


So I made the commitment: I would be obsessed with balance.   The inner and the outer.  I would touch base with the people I loved EVERY DAY.  Work on my body EVERY DAY.   Write EVERY DAY.   Meditate EVERY DAY.


The inner and the outer.  And…did I see some people starting when I did, who went further? Sure.  Of course.   But I noticed that it didn’t matter.  I was having a GREAT time.  I was becoming the human being I intended to be, and noticed that the time and energy I used to spend looking at what other people were doing or achieving I now spent actually improving myself.


And that was good, because there is ALWAYS someone better, and ALWAYS someone worse, and depending upon your emotional filters can spend your entire life in misery, or oblivious.  If you happen to be in an arena in which there is objective measurement, and you CAN get all the way to the Best of the Best, you are very aware of the wounds you’ve taken to get there, how short your tenure will be, and have to keep your eye on the young toughs coming up behind you, eager to knock you from your perch.


Prince wrote a song on his wonderful “Gold” Album about having made it to the mountain top…and there is nothing there.


So focusing on balance could enable me to enjoy the ride. But could it also help me become the best writer I could be?


Sure…if I considered myself, my own life, my own struggles to be the clearest laboratory experiment in the nature of humanity I could possibly find.  Yes, I could bury myself in books, and know far more about specific literary qualities. But could I really learn more about the nature of human beings?  And at the core of art, wasn’t that one of the two great questions?


Who Am I?
What Is True?


If there are many roads up the mountain called “artistic excellence” wasn’t one of them just understanding what human beings were, developing a theoretical model and testing testing testing every day in your own life, and taking what you learn and applying it to your characters.  Wouldn’t this be as valid as learning specific writing tricks and tropes–actually observing humanity and sharing what you learn?


Because if it was, then the primary goal would not be to be “clever” or even “erudite” or “gifted” but…honest.


And what was Musashi Miyamoto’s first principle to become excellent, if excellence is a matter of life and death importance?






Even before I saw the connection between the Hero’s Journey and our lives, I saw that this approach: ” A life lived in balance as your primary work of art” would be a unique approach. It was MY approach.   I could embrace it fully with minimal risk of destroying myself, and, while a long-term solution to the problem, so long as I didn’t get discouraged by the sprinters burning past me, I would either outlast them, or ignore them and just have a wonderful time along the way.


This commitment, to connecting the inner and outer worlds, gave me everything I have to offer my students, a path that will take you as far as your heart and will and mind can carry you…safely.  One step at a time.


Starting with just a single sentence a day.




Write with passion, live with purpose