Steven Barnes is a New York Times bestselling, award-winning novelist and screenwriter who is the creator of the Lifewriting™ writing course, which he has taught nationwide. He recently won an NAACP Image Award as co-author of the Tennyson Hardwick mystery series with actor Blair Underwood and his wife, Tananarive Due. Nominated for Hugo, Nebula, and Cable Ace awards, writer of the Emmy-winning “A Stitch In Time” episode of The Outer Limits, winner of the Endeavor and the NAACP Image Awards, NY Times Bestselling author, Steven has written comic books, animation, newspaper copy, magazine articles, television scripts and three million words of published fiction published in seven languages, making him one of the world’s most honored, diverse and popular writers.

Straying from the path

One there was a great  hatha yogi named  Bikram Choudhury. He created an amazing exercise system, and people flocked to him.   He began to imagine that he was a great spiritual leader, above ordinary morality, and used his followers for sex, and power, and money.  His followers, equally blinded by ego, excused his actions to remain close to him.   Eventually, he spiraled into self-destruction as accusations of rape and abuse flooded in, and he  fled the country.




I do not know what really happened to him. But if we look at the list of endless men and women who have achieved power without grace, been corrupted by their own influence we can extract a central story:


Once upon a time there was a boy  who simply wanted to be avoid pain and gain pleasure, like all of us.    By working very hard he found a path with heart, and others asked him how they could walk it.  And offered him both gems and fool’s gold to teach or display. The gems they scattered on the path, and he could gather them while walking on. The fool’s gold he would have to leave the path to gather.

He chose the fool’s gold of thinking that he was what they admired.  It was never him. It was the path.  He stepped off the path to gather the “gold”. It dissolved in his hands, and when he looked back…the path was gone.




There was another boy who wanted to avoid pain.   He worked very hard, and created a path others coveted.  They offered him gems and fool’s gold, but he knew that anything he had to gather by stepping off the path was not worth it.


Nothing: not abusive power, wealth beyond need, or sex without caring or respect could possibly be worth the cost.  So he stayed on the path, even though it SEEMED that others were further along if they chased the fool’s gold, he knew that that was an illusion, that he had but one goal:


To walk the path opened by the child in his heart. And that, at the end of the path he would meet his elder self, who would ask: “what is true?” with only one meaningful answer:  “love.”


And that nothing anyone could offer him would be worth stepping off the path, or forgetting the final destination.


Hungers are good when your belly is empty, but a disease once it is full.





Being your own hero

I never know what I’ll write about every day.   Just wait to see what is needed. This morning, I received this note (information redacted and altered to protect identity):



I have a question which requires some set-up – “context,” as you say – but I know you are a busy man, with many, many people clamoring for your time and attention, so I’ll try to keep things concise.

I love your Lifewriting program concept. It makes perfect sense to me. But the answers it has provided me (“What is true?” “Who am I?”) are not what I expected.

Some background on me: I am (in his fifties). For my entire life, I have been active in movement  (A description of his movement background). (I picked up some meditation techniques along the way, naturally.) Anything I thought sounded interesting and challenging. But a few years ago, I became a father, first to a daughter  , then to a son. Aside from a day a week, for short spurts here and there, I have been unable to create time to work out on any consistent basis since. (It’s more complex than that, of course, but broad strokes for brevity.)

I work three days a week; the rest of the time I am a stay-at-home dad. I seldom get more than six hours of sleep in a night (a luxurious seven at most), and that even more rarely undisturbed by one or the other or both of my kids. My wife is the primary bread-winner; as such she works long hours and needs my assistance in caring for the kids and in keeping the housework dealt with (in itself a full-time job).

I have dreamed of being a writer since I was a child. I wrote my first real short story in middle school, but I’ve never had any real discipline about writing, and though I would take the occasional stab at a blank page, even keeping at it for a while, I have never really produced anything. Then I found your program – but again, I now have no available time to write. (This message itself has been written in fits and starts.) [STORIES CAN BE WRITTEN THAT WAY TOO]

I have tried your Ancient Child meditation, but taking even a few moments to meditate (even just to focus on my heartbeat or breathing) usually just results in me falling asleep. [THEN DO IT STANDING UP]

I tried writing just a sentence a day, but that pace gave my inner editor and critic far too much freedom and my inner child not nearly enough. [THEN SPECIFICALLY AIM YOUR MEDITATION AT LISTENING TO YOUR “CHILD’S” VOICE, AND LEARNING TO IGNORE YOUR CRITIC. IT WILL TAKE TIME. WEEKS, MONTHS.  GOT SOMETHING BETTER TO DO?]

I read your story of how you came up with the Lifewriting idea, and I thought, I’ll try that! Like your student, I just couldn’t find time enough in my life – for working out, for meditating, for writing, for sleep. I have struggled, I have juggled, I have fretted and tried different schedules. Nothing worked. So, if I had a character in a story who had my problems, what solution would I write for him? Maybe he could just learn to thrive on three-to-four hours of sleep a night? [NO.  THIS IS BASICALLY AN ILLUSION]  Maybe he could quit his job and ask his wife to shoulder the family’s entire financial burden, so that he could carve out some time to write – hoping for a statistically unlikely success, and knowing that barring an out-of-the-gate best seller (and maybe even then) it would be many years before he would make enough money at writing to begin to offset the loss of his income – if ever?


Maybe he could just listen to all the helpful advice telling him that he would eventually have free time again to follow his own goals and dreams – someday? [NO, YOU NEED A DAILY RITUAL THAT TAKES YOU AT LEAST ONE STEP TOWARD YOUR DREAMS EVERY DAY]

That last is an unsatisfactory solution, I think you’ll agree. Every other answer I came up with would work just fine for a fictional character, but was impracticable in my own real life. Which makes sense, really; if the character is me, and has all the same problems and limitations I have, then if I could come up with a workable solution for him, I would already have done so for me.  [THE PROBLEM IS THAT YOU HAVE YOUR BRAKES ON.  YOU STOP YOURSELF. THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT YOU ARE THE ONE WHO CAN DECIDE TO TAKE THEM OFF. YOU JUST NEED SO MANY REASONS TO DO IT THAT YOUR FEARS PALE IN COMPARISON]

So maybe (the realization landed like a thunderbolt) your formula works in reverse: If I simply didn’t have the imagination necessary to solve my own problem, then maybe I really didn’t have what it takes to be a writer?

That led to a different question: If I wasn’t cut out to be a writer, did the Lifewriting formula hold any further value for me? I looked at the Hero’s Journey as it applied to my life – and I had another epiphany: Like most people (as your program acknowledges), I have always cast myself as the hero in my own life story. I had always tried to pursue a life-path and goals which would make me worthy of that self-image. But on re-examining my life through the lens of the Hero’s Journey, I realized that at two crucial points in my life, I had been presented with a Leap of Faith – and I had turned and walked away from the challenge. The last time (in particular) had led inexorably to the life I now live, in which I no longer have time or energy to do any of the things I used to love, nor to find and pursue new goals and dreams.



So I’m not the hero of my own story anymore, either. (The protagonist, sure, but not a hero.)  [NO, YOU ARE–YOU HAVE JUST FALLEN INTO AN ILLUSION OF DESPAIR.  IT HAPPENS TO HEROS.]

So my question, Steven, is this: What can your program teach someone who has discovered that he is neither a writer, nor the Hero of his own Journey? Can it help me to find new goals and dreams? Can it help me to find ways to make them happen?  [YOU ARE A WRITER. YOU JUST WROTE!   WHAT YOU LACK IS CLARITY, AND YOU’VE BECOME AFRAID OF TELLING YOURSELF THE TRUTH. THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE.]



Let’s take it to story time, because controlling your story is the secret to controlling your emotions, and your life.


Once upon a time there was a boy who had dreams of being a warrior, a writer, a lover.  Life happened to him, and he found himself no longer practicing is martial arts, no longer writing or working at anything that really mattered to him, and struggling not to resent the family he loves…and who loves him.


One night he had a dream that his house was on fire. He watched it burn, and as it did, he grew old.  His wife and children died in that fire, and although he cried, he could not help them.

Watched everything he ever wanted to be and have and do burn and burn until he turned and wandered away, an old old man, crying and fearful as the end approached, knowing that he had never owned his life.


And woke up screaming and shaking…realizing that it was just a dream, and that the Universe had given him a wonderful gift: a glimpse of what lay ahead for him if he didn’t DECIDE, COMMIT to own his own life. To believe that his love was stronger than his fear.


He had to rekindle his belief in himself, remember that the little boy inside him was still looking out at the world through the eyes of a fifty-something man, judging him.  “Don’t you love me, Daddy?”  That little boy said.  “Why don’t you listen to me?  I’m so sad.”


And he committed to connecting with that child, daily.   He couldn’t do it through ordinary meditation: he was so tired that he fell asleep. But that sleep also helped him avoid admitting how unhappy he was.  But he had no time!  (his brain screamed at him).


The way through the Dark Night was faith.   “My ego is lying to me,” he said.   “It would rather kill me in slow-motion than have me find my power again, and kill my false self image.”


So he decided to become the hero again. And knew it would take time: you don’t rewire fifty years of habits in a week or a month.


He would give it a year.  He would choose the minimum amount necessary to make change.


  1. He would AIM at meditating twenty minutes a day. If he couldn’t do it seated, he would do a walking meditation, or a tai chi/yoga style. But he would connect.   But it was hard to find that time, and he wasn’t sure if it was an illusion or reality.  So he said: I WILL SIT QUIETLY FOR SIXTY SECONDS FIVE TIMES A DAY, ONCE EVERY THREE HOURS AND LISTEN TO MY HEARTBEAT.  EVERY DAY. FOR A YEAR.
  2. He would reclaim his body, using a system that requires an hour a week–like the FIVE TIBETANS.  Every day.  EVERY DAY.  Starting with five minutes, three repetitions of each.
  3. He would reclaim his writing, by writing at least a sentence every day.
  4. Every day, EVERY DAY, he would learn one new tool, secret, or attitude to save time and make his actions more efficient and effective.  Google is your friend.
  5. And he would journal what came up for him. The fears, the resentments, the guilt, the shame. ALL OF IT.  Every excuse and lie he told himself.   And commit to putting all of it into his stories.  Because what has stopped him from moving forward is also the life he created.  His wonderful wife and children are NOT obstacles. They are allies.  His life has done precisely what he was programmed to do.  If he changed his programming, he would change his life, and his results.


He would do this for HIMSELF, but know also that he was fighting for the life of his family.  For his children.  For his wife.  For that boy inside him.


He had to know WHAT he wanted: to reclaim his life.  To be the hero of his own story, however that is appropriate in the life he has created.


He had to know WHY he wanted it.  And here, he needed to create a list of REASONS to be happy, and in alignment with his values and dreams.


All you need to have a wonderful life is to live in alignment with BOTH your childhood dreams and the ultimate values you will hold on your deathbed.  To align both with those things we must do as adults to protect our families and make our way in the world.



Every day: five minutes of meditation. Five minutes of Tibetans.   One sentence of a story.   And one new trick to save time.  That time gets invested in his life.   That’s his “Machine.”


  1. Five minutes of meditation, one minute at a time, one every three hours.  Connect with and visualize the inner child, and listen for his voice.
  2. Five minutes of Tibetans.  And while doing them, he visualized his intentions, and what he has to be GRATEFUL for in his life.
  3. One sentence of a story about a man who reclaims his power and transforms his life.
  4. Find one new secret to save one minute a day, every day, by becoming more efficient and effective.
  5. Commit to this for one year.



He tried it, and it worked…for a while. And then he hit the wall. He broke his promise to himself.   Perversely, his life got busy. A child got sick.  He became depressed and distracted.


But this time, because he knew the HERO’S JOURNEY, he KNEW this would happen, and had planned for it.  He had journaled about a dozen previous times he’d broken promises to himself, and found at least three ways to get back on track:

  1. He wrote a letter to himself, to be read only in the future, using his left-hand (he was right handed). This letter was from his “child” self, expressing love and pride and hope.
  2. He imagined that he was coaching his own son and daughter through their OWN dark night.
  3. He remembers the wonderful woman who shares his life, who is out hunting and gathering, and needs desperately to feel precious when she comes home. To be able to be vulnerable, somewhere. That both men and women need to feel both powerful and vulnerable, in different and complementary measures. If he reclaims his power, and can love and nurture her and celebrate their lives together, the benefits are incalculable. YOU ARE A MATED PAIR.   You should be dancing in each other’s hearts.


Every day. Every day.  Every day he moved, focused, meditated. The minimum investment being five minutes (stopping to breathe and focus every three hours).  And one sentence of a story.  THAT WAS HIS MINIMUM. He would work up from there to add more.


He would NOT sacrifice sleep.   Instead, he would consider sleep a precious luxury, and as he became more efficient and effective he also sought ways to make his six to seven hours deeper and more restorative, so that his dreams would help him solve problems, so that he would find more time and energy, so that he would have less poisonous stress that killed his sleep…in a positive spiral.


One year.   A commitment to reclaim his life, his dreams, to fight for his family.  He knew that, despite that awful dream,  he would run into a burning building to save his son and daughter and wife.


He remembered the dream: the house was burning.  HIS house.  And he was the one who would put it out. No matter how many times he fell down. He would get back up. And get back up.


And when he finished that first story, he’d send it in, and the little boy inside him would laugh with joy. And then he’d go on to the next story. And the next.  And when he managed to add another Tibetan, he would feel deep satisfaction for the re-connection with his sacred body.  And when he comforted and loved his wife, he would know that this was the life HE had chosen.


And that he would, one day, be able to say to his children: “you will have dreams. And you will build a life day by day. And you will lose your way at times, and lose faith and hope and passion and even joy.  But it is NEVER too late.  Healing starts with a decision: I WILL OWN MY LIFE.  And you will begin by taking five minutes a day…


And they will listen. Because they knew that their father was telling them true.  He was, and would always be, a hero to them.








Could have used a talking stick…

A few months back, I was asked to lecture at a public event, and agreed.  I noticed that it would be a hardship, as the schedule would conflict with family events (I’m deliberately being oblique here) and decided I could finesse it, despite the increased stress: the contribution was more important.


The organizer reached out to me via PM a week before the event, asking me if I was still attending, and I said sure.   They then began criticizing me, saying that it didn’t seem that way, as I hadn’t been promoting it.   I said that I really don’t do a lot of promotion for my public appearances, and that they really didn’t have a right to complain about something I’d not agreed to do–I’d only agreed to appear, not promote.  That they were not my employer, hadn’t paid me, and had no right to complain at me like that–I was donating my time.


This triggered a long series of increasingly unpleasant  exchanges, in which they accused me of not promoting because I wasn’t paid, that my ego was through the roof, and so forth.  Multiple times I sought to clarify that no, I was saying that because I was donating my time, they had no reasonable expectation that I had a responsibility to let them speak to me that way.


I’m happy that I preserved the entire exchange, because I suspect they will spread the story that I was mercenary about promotion, rather than reminding them that courtesy was important, ESPECIALLY when the issue is a charitable  donation.


Which led me to wondering if anyone else had noticed that when people ask you to give your time for free, for some odd reason they feel you have more obligations to them than if they pay you.


I think I know why: because when money is on the table, people get real clarity about what is expected on both sides. Whereas, when time and energy are volunteered, there are massive ASSUMPTIONS about responsibilities.


A person working for a charity often has the goals of that charity very close to their hearts. They do EVERYTHING–lose sleep, damage relationships, go broke, all in the name of the cause: the convention, the charity, the event.


They believe that if you volunteer, you understand it.  Then, if you don’t act the way they think THEY would act, they think “this person is like me.  If I did X, it would mean Y.  They did X.  It must mean Y.”


And if “Y” is a negative?  Big problem.  Hurt.  Anger.  Fear.



Imagine this in a personal relationship.   If you don’t have a clear contract, you can NEVER fulfill all their unspoken expectations.  They will ALWAYS have a reason to be angry with you (“you should have known…I did X…my other friends do Y why don’t you…”) and so forth.   And if you take responsibility for their disappointment, you will never, ever catch your balance.  Because in their mind it isn’t their responsibility to communicate their desires, it is yours to behave according to an unclarified standard.


“If you love me, you’ll know what you did.  I know what YOU want and need.  Why don’t you know what I want and need.  That’s what love is. So you either cannot read my mind (which means you don’t love me) or you CAN read it, but don’t care that you hurt me.”



YOU CANNOT WIN in a situation like this if you play by their rules. It is a “heads I win tails you lose” argument, and if they get you to buy into it , you’re screwed.


If there is anger, start by assuming it is fear.   What are they afraid of? Start with the most basic motivation: survival. Is death or injury on the line? No? Sex and relationships? No? How about power and authority? No? Ego identity and self-image? No? Do they feel unheard and therefore unloved? No? Is their map of the world threatened (often this is politics)? No? Is there some existential thing (often religion).

I can’t think of a single case that didn’t touch on one of these levels.   Have you seen this to be true?


I’ve watched marriages fall apart because of the unspoken expectations.  Haven’t you?   And that’s assuming that both people had total integrity and positive intentions.


But…what if one person ISN’T ethical?   Imagine the potential for manipulation.  Huge.


But let’s assume that both people are sincere.  In that case, the tool called a “Talking Stick” can be a lifesaver.  It certainly would have prevented this problem.


Simply, you designate an object as the “talking stick.” This might be a literal stick, or anything else that can be held in the hand.


  1. Person #1 holds the stick.  ONLY the person holding the stick may speak. The other must listen.
  2. Person #1 makes a statement.  Person #2 repeats the statement.  If person #1 agrees that #2 has spoken accurately, without editorial, the stick passes hands and Person #2 may now speak.
  3. If Person #1 does NOT agree that the statement has been repeated accurately, they repeat the statement.  Person #2 makes another attempt to repeat accurately.   This process is repeated until #1 agrees the statement has been repeated accurately.
  4. In a dominating relationship, a neutral observer may be necessary to prevent abuse: one or the other partner manipulating by lying or editing or adding to the statement, or insisting that partner #2 has NOT repeated it, when in fact they have. If there is repeated disagreement, or interruption, such a neutral observer should be called in.
  5. This process is repeated, the stick passed from hand to hand, until the entire communication has been completed.  If the stick holder makes long, complicated statements, they may have to be helped to simply



This process is amazing in gaining clarity of values, bringing unconscious expectations to consciousness.  If we assume good intentions on both parts,  it will get you through to actual communication.   And if one party is manipulative, it will be very rapidly apparent.  If you are too weak to stand up to them, get a neutral witness (a therapist, for instance) into the equation.  If they refuse, you had better walk away, or accept emotional slavery.




(Like this tool? We have countless more.   The person who controls the story controls your life.  Learn to write and communicate with greater clarity:  www.lifewrite.com)

I Tried, dammit

Twenty-five years ago, I was living in Vancouver Washington  during a snowstorm.   Due to an emergency, and against the advice of my wife and friends, I made a desperate attempt to drive to California.   I got about ten miles down an icy, snow-blinded freeway when a gust of wind hit me, and my car broke traction with the road, and I slewed in a 270 before coming to a stop.   Behind me, coming right at me, was an eighteen wheeler with its brakes locked up.   I was looking directly at my death, and there was nothing I could do.  By a miracle of physics, the truck came to a stop about three feet from my window.    I took the blessing, and realized that there was no way in hell I could make it south across the  mountains and into California.   Broken-hearted, I managed to get my car off the southbound freeway, onto the northbound, and crept back home with my tail between my legs.

Yesterday, I was glad that happened.


What is the value of LIFEWRITING?   Perhaps the greatest is understanding that you have to control your narrative, the story of your life, consciously. If you don’t, your own negative tendencies and the voices of everyone who ever thought poorly of you, as well as any salesman or political hack will try to tell you YOUR story to THEIR advantage.  And because we respond more to emotion than to logic, if you accept their narrative, you are screwed. And that acceptance takes place on an unconscious or emotional level, so your logical weapons and tactics are often useless.


For instance, I cannot make a political statement on FB without politicized people parachuting in to attack.   Invariably, they do NOT understand the story I’m following, so they attack what they THINK I’m saying.  I call this “swarming” and the intent is to tag-team you into exhaustion.  They can’t do it to me, because they never understood my position to begin with: its almost funny to watch.

The same thing that I was speaking of a couple of days ago: people who try to insult me by attacking my shadow. They don’t realize I’m not there, because they think they know me, and don’t.  Frankly, if they did, they wouldn’t attack, because I mean them no harm, and the only reason to attack is if you think it is a defense…unless you are simply a predator looking for lunch.

I’m ready for that, too.  Those, I simply invite to expose their teeth so everyone can see.   I have tribe, you see.   I’m not out here alone.


When I taught that class at UCLA and realized that the instant a student consciously used the Hero’s Journey to frame his life, he created his own answers, I saw that the story of humanity is the story of the universe (at least for a billionth of a second after the Big Bang): increasing connection, complexity, and evolution.  Growth.    Combining this with the oldest psychological model in the world, the Chakra system, it becomes even clearer that we are set with a series of challenges in life, and when we resolve them, we rise to the next level and a new set of challenges that open the doors to the next level of our evolution.  And this process continues all our lives.


These two things: the Hero’s Journey and the Chakras, are the most essential pieces of LIFEWRITING, and when you understand them, you can glimpse the entire structure of reality and consciousness.  When you use them in your life, you are controlling your story. When you use them in communication, with love, you are sending a ripple of Truth out into the universe, and have aligned yourself with the power that has driven reality for seven billion years.  I like that.  I’ll take that wind, that current.  If you are also aligned with love, and believe in human equality, you give haters literally nothing to attack you with. Even if they can prove some tiny chunk of it all incorrect THEY’RE DOING YOU A FAVOR.  They cannot win, unless you BOTH win.

But they can lose, alone.


Attacks are defenses.   Anger is fear.

ANY time someone attacks me, I ask “what are they afraid of?”  It is rarely about me.  I’m not important enough.  It might be the implication of something I’m saying, however.  The trick to never being hurt by the attacks is having FAITH that love, truth, and equality are the realities that pierce the Matrix of illusion.


There are those who fear that if they are happy and loving, they will accomplish nothing. That humans would become lotus-eaters, dreaming away their lives.   Inequality powers human life, just as unequal distribution of matter and energy drove the creation of stars and planets.  If it had all been a completely consistent “soup”  gravity would have had nothing to grab onto, and nothing would ever have happened.


But don’t worry–there isn’t enough love to completely vanquish all the fear in the universe.   There will always be frightened, angry people.

The idea that you might have to fear love is pretty damned toxic.  Brrrr.  Only  the monsters could consciously promote such an evil notion.  They WANT you to fear the only thing that can save you.

So… time for a specific example of the critical need to control your internal story, and how doing that sets you free. Would that be all right?  Is the context set?  Are we ready?

I thought so.  Ready or not, here it comes.


Some months ago, the child of an old friend asked to become my FB friend.   Although this person’s  own family warned me they were a liar and a thief, I knew they’d had a  hard life.  This person’s father died when they were a child.  Their mother not long after.  I  accepted them.    They pretty quickly became a political and religious troll, brimming with conspiracy theories and mistaking ignorance for wisdom, ignoring the knowledge of people with actual educations in a given subject and preferring Youtube videos as sources of information.   It was sad to watch, and I tried many times to help them, in memory of my old friend, who I loved.


I even helped this person to raise money for their family. Offered to PAY them to read a wonderful success book and write a simple report on it, so that I’d know they actually read it.   On multiple occasions, they became insulting, and I knew they were simply pushing against me trying to test, seeking something to push back against.  In their own way they were asking “what is true?  Who am I?” in ways they could not ask directly.


This person made an absurd claim, one that was easy to disprove.  When they refused to acknowledge the documented facts, I finally, reluctantly concluded that truth was not something we could agree upon, and that I had to take the position that this person could not be trusted.  It was sad.  I let them stay on my page until they roared back with more conspiracy theories, and I told them, frankly, that because they were not willing to admit when they were wrong, I could not trust them to present information or interpretations: if you can’t be wrong, I’m not willing to believe you’re right, especially if your data and information conflicts with people I KNOW are smarter and better educated than either of us. Sorry.


They responded with insult.  I responded by requesting courtesy, or saying, as I do, that without such courtesy, they would not be allowed to post on my page.


And they blew up.  Accused me of being a hypocrite and a fraud. And then pulled out the Big Guns: that I had been a bad friend to their father. That on his deathbed, this person’s  father had cursed me that I’d not been there for him in his last days.

And blocked me.


Wow.  Let’s take that apart.

  1. Every attack is a defense.   Anger is fear. What were they  afraid of?  Everything.   They have  failed at most things in their life, but certain that they know  how everything works.  Why, how, if they’re so smart, could they have so little success to show for their efforts?  The world is against them  and all decent people, defined as those who agree with them, of course.  But on another level, I think that people always know what is really true.    This is core conflict, generating fear and anger.
  2. “What is true?  Who am I?” is the question we all ask. By reaching out to me, they were searching for a father figure, someone who would help them understand their world and self.  All they, all ANYONE  really wants is to be happy, to love. But there is a world of pain and abandonment between that chewy center and the external tough, smart badass, hyper-confident ego shell.  Threaten it…or even worse, say “either play by the House rules or you’ll be rejected” and you trigger massive fear.  Mom and Dad rejected them by withdrawal and early death.  The new quasi-daddy figure was about to do the same.  The recourse is to Attack!, reject before you can be rejected.  And their chosen attack was a brilliant attempt.
  3. Wow.  Their father, my very oldest friend, cursed me on his deathbed?  That’s the kind of thing that scrambles your head and heart. Bravo.  Except for two things…
  4. One, was my mother.  I watched her die, and watched her personality dissolve as she did.   She vomited up all her fear and pain, and struck out against the world…and her son and daughter…with every arrow in her quiver, including terrible things, horrible things that would have stung, had I not done all I could to be there for her. I’d not been a perfect son, by any means, but I loved her, and she loved me, and I knew that, no matter what she said now with the cancer turning her wonderful mind into gruel. I took it no more personally than if she’d vomited on my shoes.     Oh.  Vomit.  That’s interesting. Better clean that up.    Nothing personal.


So…when this person said that their father cursed me, I knew that even if it was true, it was the kind of thing that a diseased mind and a fearful heart might say.  “Where is his friend?  Where is Steve to hold my hand in these last moments of life?”      Existential angst.  Sigh.  But I knew I loved him, and that he loved me, and that he knew I loved him, and that even if he said it, it was from the depths of a monster’s belly, the ultimate fear consuming him in the last moments of his life.  If he said such a thing, he was not having a good death, and I grieve.  I wish I’d been there.

The child of my friend tried to attack me with a narrative: I had been a faithless friend.  But what was true? What was true is that I was a thousand miles away, trapped in a snowstorm, and almost died trying to drive down to see him a final time.   And when I stared at that eighteen-wheeler plummeting toward me, what I thought was my final thought in this world was: “I tried, old friend.”   I tried.  I didn’t think of my own death, or even my family, but instead pled to my friend’s spirit to understand that I’d done the best I could, and failed, and I was sorry.


That was the story.  My story.  MY STORY.  The child of my friend could not assail it.  And from my fortress of truth I could see their pain, and fear, and abandonment, and I heard that same voice in my head:   “I tried, old friend.  I tried to help your child.”

I failed.  It happens. But all we can do is the best we can do.


Life is hard for everyone.  But the frightened and the predators will try to control your story to their benefit.  THIS  is the value of learning to apply storytelling to your life, and your life to your stories.


Those who do not align with the universal order cannot find you, cannot attack you. They thrash at shadows while imagining that they are landing mortal blows.  It is sad. Tragic, even.


I tried, dammit.





Learn to control your stories, whether you tell them to others, or to yourself.  It may save your heart, or the heart of someone you love.   www.lifewrite.com



Parable of the Shmoos: Violence in America




This is a very strong article on gun violence in the United States read it.


Because of the thousands of hours of research and thought I’ve put into racism, always careful to relate EVERYTHING to universal human traits, it feels as if some of those conclusions can help to peek beyond the “Matrix” of illusions driving human behavior, the “emergent strategies”, simple commands that lead to complex results.


I could be twice as smart as I am, working with a team of a thousand people even smarter than me for a decade with a billion-dollar budget, and still not get to the end of this. I don’t pretend that I have.  I cannot imagine a simple statement of such a complex subject that won’t be argued with. It is knowing that I could write a library of footnoted textbooks and still not cover my ass that allows me to say what I’m about to say. I APOLOGIZE IN ADVANCE.  MEA CULPA.


But I do think that it is worthwhile for me to risk making a fool of myself and say what I think I see here.  Why?  Well, I’ll probably put that below.


(A “Matrix  notion ‘ is a lie or fabrication so deeply engrained into our consciousness that it seems to be self-evident truth.)


And here are the core “Matrix” ideas that seem relevant.

  1. Men and women are basically of equal worth and value
  2. They are  complementary, based on different biological/genetic functions and priorities
  3. Anger is fear
  4. Neither men nor women have ever been in control in the world–our genes have been. The real emergent instruction is: “get the maximum number of grandchildren into the next generation.”
  5. These instructions prevented extermination over the 250k+ years of our history, and have been deeply encoded in social principles, religions, and more, and explain much of the rigidity of social roles and principles about sexism, racism (tribal warfare), homophobia.
  6. There are two different basic human motivations: avoid pain, and gain pleasure.  Most of our behavior, for most of our history, has been “avoid pain.”
  7. We have new options.  But we have to forgive the past to embrace the future.



So…the best way to try to say this is to imagine a fantasy story.  Imagine a world in which “humans”   used to be a somewhat  different being, call it a “Shmoo”, undifferentiated into gender or race.   Each of these Shmoos was capable of reproducing, fighting enemies and animals, or living anywhere on the planet…more or less.


But just as a single Shmoo who made all his own clothes will own a single suit and a single pair of shoes, assembly-line specialization allows us to own a DOZEN complete outfits.   Similarly, the Shmoos discovered that specializing into baby-makers and hunter/fighters was more efficient.   The sexual dimorphism was relatively slight on a biological level, but social rules and fantasies reinforced and exaggerated the differences. Religions and laws evolved over time separated them even further.


The “males” and “females” were really pretty similar, except “females” could carry babies in their bodies, and “males” were more disposable on an individual (not a reproductive) level, which made it possible to kill off 90% of them without crashing the population.    We could send them off to die fighting Lions and Mammoths, or march them into cannon fire.  Over time, this dimorphism produced the maximum number of grandchildren, a situation that worked for everyone.


A problem, however: females and males selected each other for secondary sexual characteristics and willingness to play roles: nurturance, aggression, power…all sorts of things.    As males grew larger (due to breeding) and more capable of aggression and repelling aggression, they would naturally begin to ask: “why the hell should we be the ones to go off and die?

(And here allow me to step out of the storyteller voice. If you Google “have men always had shorter life spans than women?” you will get about ten times more agreement than disagreement.  As this notion, that due to both natural, social, and behavioral factors male primates have shorter lifespans on average than females, makes sense to me on every level.   You are of course welcome to believe the opposite contention: that women living longer is a relatively recent phenomenon. I believe you have to employ more epicycles to explain that one, but if it makes sense to you, so be it. This speculation simply won’t make sense to you.

So what happened?  What became convenient?  For males to consider themselves primary.  More important.  “We’re more important so its our obligation to die” is the really interesting contradictory set of instructions.   Literally “we’re more important so we’re less important” is the functional  result.)


I digress.



The rule that produced the maximum grandchildren is “men’s lives and women’s dreams are disposable.”  Both kept in their boxes, in a rather nasty game that really benefitted neither.  One of the results is that the measures of racism and tribal domination include life span–the dominated group lives a shorter life, and dies more often due to violence.


That’s men.

On the other hand, the dominated group also has less access to power, earns less, and so forth.


That’s women.


What are YOUR priorities?  I cannot tell you what they are.  But if life is more important than money, I suggest that the claim that men are in control doesn’t wash.  But neither does the notion that women are in control.


But it make perfect sense if NEITHER is in control, but we are designed to see direct rather than indirect power. Karate makes more sense than Aikido.    “Positive Space” in art is easier to perceive than negative space. “Jazz is what happens between the notes.”  We can’t see the Yin aspect with our eyes and intellects. We have to feel the pauses in our bodies.  Our HEARTS can “feel” both.


Back to the story of Mankind.  Created by Shmoos to make more Shmoo grandchildren, and damn the results to the “men” and “women” caught in the machine.




For a ten thousand generations, men and women, bifurcated versions of the Shmoos,  built up civilization.  Living, dying, having children, loving, fighting.   Concentrating on the DIFFERENCES between them, even though babies and old people are pretty much Shmoos.    Vive La Difference!


And we spread around the world, developed different phenotypes, and different cultures, each of which developed mythologies that they were the best.  Just as men think they are the best. And women think that THEY are the best.   It’s a big joke, and it keeps us asleep, and at odds.  And serves our genes, but not us.




But there are two basic drives, remember?   “Avoid Pain” and “Gain Pleasure”.   Most of our history has been about avoiding pain…survival.   Alcohol was a great co-evolved technology, because it serves both.   Jewish culture has a great, really GREAT saying about this “Drink to be happier, not to be happy” is the basic rule. In other words, it is healthy to drink when you are already happy. But if you are in pain, WORK your way out of that pain, don’t drink your way out.  Pain is important.  It is a signal to do something different.   If you take a drug to numb that pain, you won’t take the proper actions, and that will catch up with you one day.


The above is germane: we have rules that say that work is sacred.  Necessary.  Vital.  Because it is related to survival.  The tribe will starve if we stop hunting, freeze if we stop chopping wood.  So we evolved rules that said idleness is EVIL.   That’s the avoiding pain stuff, right?


But once we moved beyond hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, we had whole seasons where humanity could pause after the harvest, and as a group ask an important question: what is it all about?  Oh, we probably always asked that question, but about thirty thousand years ago, human beings started putting themselves into their cave paintings, and I kinda think that might represent a sea-change in our thought patterns.


The “I am” woke up. Who am I?  What is true?


As these bifurcated Shmoos, programmed with useful lies, began to build sustained colonies and begin trade, those most directly on those trade routes began to exchange memes and genes most rapidly, develop the greatest complexity.  And of course, because that’s how humans roll, they also claimed that complexity is superiority. No, it is complexity, that is all.  Cultural bigotry was born.


But the questions about “who am I?” and “what is true?” were codified, written down, debated across cultures. As some members of those cultures became more specialized, philosophers and artists became separate classes, and could spend all their time asking these questions…and the notions of freedom, and democracy, the notion of human dignity and so forth became very real things.   Power had originated from the root, humans selecting leaders. But in time the leaders became their own class, and like all other human beings began to believe their own bullshit, and claimed divine privilege.


Why were so many of these leaders men?   Perhaps because those who organized most efficiently for hunting and war survived better, and the traditional way men choose leaders on the most basic level is “Who can kick my ass?  I’ll follow him”  (the more cynical would say that was actually “I can kick your ass.  Follow me or else.”   Because everyone has to sleep, and throats are easily cut, I choose to belief that there HAS to be collusion between leaders and led, or it simply doesn’t work.)     The wrestling circle is one of the most universal human institutions.  And the village’s best wrestler either became the leader or helped choose him/her.   That’s just basic stuff.


But as the notion of human freedom began being debated, lurking just offstage was the fact that much of this world-spanning complex of human societies was based on lies: “men and women are vastly different.   Different tribes are vastly different.  God loves MY group best.”


Useful for the grandchildren, horrible for individuals.




Once upon a time there was a country called the United States.   It represented one of the last major human migrations, to one of the last major chunks of fertile land, with such a difference in technology between the new and old immigrants that the natives were crushed.  Of course, the new immigrants ascribed this to genetic superiority and “God loves us best” rather than the fractal nature of progress and innovation.

Humans are like that.


And these new immigrants felt they needed labor, and stole human beings from one of those “technology differential” areas, and hauled them in chains and misery to the new land, and declared them sub-human.


Setting up a basic conflict.   Because this country was based on the mythology of human liberty, freedom, and equality.  Oops.   And the gap between the illusion and the reality blossomed into an incredibly violent and bloody war.

Waking up is hard to do.

The problem is that change effected through force doesn’t change the heart. The “losers” were able to continue to project their mythologies on the racial level.  Why couldn’t these illusions be maintained for as long as the gender-based illusions?

Because “Gender Lies” benefit both males and females with their most basic programming of genetic and/or  personal survival.  Tribal or Racial lies do not.   Men and women CANNOT exterminate each other.  In fact, I would maintain that the actual drive is to connect, to once again become that undifferentiated creature with both attributes, and that explains both the energy of sex and the power of love.


But tribes?  Can tribes actually exterminate each other?   Ummm…have you seen any Neanderthals lately?


So racially, there was fantastic motivation to destroy those lies. It was survival. And it has been horrifically difficult, fought against at every turn.


But lies are interwoven.   And once you begin to ask “what is true?” about one aspect of this, you either stimulate or join forces with other  questions, questioners and questionings.


  1. Must women stay in their social boxes?  Why or why not?
  2. Is homosexuality an ‘evil’ or merely labeled that way because of reproductive and social/psychological imperatives?
  3. Do we even need every female to make babies?  If not, how does that change what we are and have been?
  4. Do we need every human being to work?  What happens when our technology reaches the point where fewer people are needed to till the fields and work the factories?
  5. Does the notion of nations even make sense in a world with instant communication?  Wasn’t that notion just a geopolitical convenience?


And if you start with a country that speaks of human equality, and we start telling ourselves that limiting human options is evil, but people have associated their identity with particular roles…what happens when that starts falling apart?  Who am I?  What is true?


The ego thinks it is us.  If the ego is a construct, then when it begins to crack it responds as if it is dying.  That triggers fear.   We fear fear, so we mobilize and disguise it as anger.  Anger leads to violence.  Even the NOTION that anger is fear causes fear. The next time you are in a political discussion, and some politicized person says: “Those X’s are full of anger!” Ask:

“What are they afraid of?”   And watch the most politicized refuse to accept the possibility. They cannot. Because the instant they do that they have to humanize their opponents.   And acknowledge their own anger might be…ummm…that four-letter word that dare not speak its name.


See where this is all going?




Male violence. That was the subject. For tens of thousands of years, men have operated under the illusion that they were in control.  It blinded them to the fact that they were programmed for self-destruction…and that women were complicit in that programming.  Oh, yes.


Women aren’t more peaceful.  Look up the domestic violence statistics in lesbian relationships.  Or when women are larger than their male partners.

Nope, Shmoos are Shmoos.

Remember that pesky “equality” thing?   That means you can’t take yourselves off the hook, ladies. You can’t say you weren’t involved in the decisions and actions.  White people couldn’t keep black people in chains for more than 400 years before the lie broke down, even though they had a 10-fold power advantage.

Do you really think males could keep females in chains for THOUSANDS of years with a mere 30% upper-body strength advantage?   Really?  When men are just as afraid of death as you?  Really? Remember that thing about people having to sleep, and throats being easy to cut?

The real rule is that we’ve been playing a game: women have pretended to be weaker than they really were. Males pretended to be stronger and braver than they really were. 


It wasn’t good for either men or women. Great for the grandkids, though.




In almost  ANY boxing match, equally matched contestant will trade winning rounds. If you ignore all the other rounds, you can say “We’re the best!!!” because you’re living in round 8, ignoring that you lost half the previous rounds and are likely to lose half the rounds to come.   For hundreds of years, a blink in human history, Europeans were able to think themselves superior.   Ding Ding!

Here comes round nine.

Yea, Team!   Now…the largest single motivation of the Civil War was the gap between dream and reality, a dream that had existed for only a few centuries.


Guess what, lads and lasses…we are now dealing with a much, much larger illusion.  One all tied together in a rotten bow. One that worked GREAT until now…but is coming to an end.


It’s that dream of male superiority.  Of the primacy of the Working Man as the epitome of power, the exemplar.   Of America as the ultimate nation, the richest, best, most Beloved of God.

Get that dollar, attract that female with impressive secondary characteristics (Melania Trump was asked if she would be with Donald were he not rich.  She responded “would he be with me if I weren’t beautiful?”    That’s more honesty that some people can handle, right there)




If I was a white, heterosexual male tied to what has worked in the past I’d think the sky was falling.  All the rules that kept my ancestors alive are being challenged.  If women are my equal, and can compete with me for jobs, and get those jobs, I just became less attractive. Less able to convince an attractive female to mate with me.  Or, you know, come home, have a few drinks, and bump uglies.


If blacks are my equal, then they are going to want payback.  So I have DESPERATE motivation to

  1. Believe they are not equal.
  2. Keep them in a position where they can never retaliate.


If we no longer need all human beings to reproduce, then those pesky homosexual impulses I’ve fought my entire life can come bobbing closer to the surface, triggering guilt and fear and questions about who and what I really am.


If not every worker is needed (globalization and automation)…but we still guilt-trip people for not having jobs…and that leads to people insisting that things like welfare and UHC and a social safety net are actually BAD for people…then what happens when America is the last country to implement a medical safety net for its citizens?

Could there, in other words, be a clue in that very fact? That “Lack of Safety Net” X “Income inequality” X “social upheaval” X “lots of Guns” might equal a problem?

Just maybe?

Not all people will become violent, but…violence is caused by anger.  Anger is a mask over fear.  What “stuff” connected to basic shifts in our world could cause America to have an epidemic of violence, then…?


  1. The belief on both gun and anti-gun people that their position makes them safer (every shooting, “second amendment” people scream “the victims should have been armed!” and the gun control people scream “there should be fewer guns!”)  Core disconnect, and they end up screaming at each other.  Both afraid.  That fear masking as anger.  Tragic.
  2. The shifting role of women, destroying the balance of power/sex that has existed since…well, forever.
  3. The shifting role of minorities.  Not the lip service about equality, but the implications of the reality.  Whether you think “the monkeys are taking over the zoo” or “payback’s a bitch” if you have fear in your heart, it isn’t a pretty picture.
  4. The shifting role of workers as there are literally fewer jobs, while net wealth remains constant…but more collected at the top.
  5. The shifting role of reproduction in human survival.   Rational arguments against homosexuality are just…well IMO non-existent.


Fear.  Survival fear.  Genetic fear.  Sexual pleasure fear. Power fear.  Ego fear.  On every level, plus the utter terror that all you believe may be a lie.   Surrounded by enemies who take from you everything you thought you were. Combine that with the availability of firearms, and America is in a uniquely bad position.



That’s where we are.  Is there an answer?  Of course there is, unless you are so egotistical you think you are important enough that you happen to have a front-seat at the end of the world.  Oh, please.

From a billionth of a second after the “big bang” the history of the universe has been connection and complexity, with bumps along the way.

So it is easy for me to envision  a world on the other side of ALL these current problems. One with gender and racial parity, one in which both men and women are functioning not “moving away from fear and pain” but “moving toward love and pleasure.”   A world in which mankind, humankind is moving out of its adolescence and toward an intellectual and spiritual maturity.


All we have to do is love ourselves enough to admit to our flaws. Forgive ourselves for being driven by fear, however it masks. Forgive our ancestors, who were doing the best they could with the resources they had.  For man and women, black and white, gay and straight…to love each other…while remaining strong enough to resist the violence of frightened people.

There is an amazing future out there waiting for us.  If this generation of black folks is “the hope and the dream of the slave” then this generation of human beings is the hope and the dream of every ancient Shmoo  terrified by the natural world, fearful of diseases and predators and weather, bifurcating into a separated being to fight back more efficiently, misunderstanding the gender opposite just as we rarely understand the Yin and Yang of our own personalities.  Driven to work from fear rather than drawn by joy: the War of Art between management and artist.


America is in the Dark Night of the Soul. The way through is, as always, the Leap of Faith: Faith in ourselves, faith in our companions, and faith in whatever higher power or patterned universe you choose to hold sacred.


Faith that, if this is correct, freedom for women means freedom for men as well.    There is nothing to fear, once we throw off the chains that bind our thoughts.  It is possible that everyone born before effective birth control will have to die before we are relatively free of sexism. That everyone born prior to 1970 will have to die before racial equality is the real, dominant principle. Everyone born before a wide acceptance that the planet has reached peak population die before homosexuality is no longer stigmatized. Everyone born before Buckminster Fuller proposed that we accept a new paradigm for work and life before a Universal Basic Income becomes a human right.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, and the “Protestant Work Ethic” all make sense if they INCREASE survival.  But the instant they DECREASE it, lead to more pain than pleasure our brains will “flip the switch” and the new possibility will seem less and less crazy.


I submit to you that that switch has flipped.   But if you were born before the “flip” you may not be able to see it, feel it.  But…I trust those grandchildren. The Shmoos always knew it was about the grandchildren, remember?  And I think they’ll be just fine.


After more ugliness.  Oh, yes.   There will be more violence. Because people are angry. Because they are afraid. The world is changing.

Waking up is hard to do.

I see it, so clearly.  And hope that however flawed these thoughts might be, they’ve served their purpose…and you see just a little more clearly as well.






“Better Call Saul” is amazing

Monday on “Better Call Saul” Jimmy took another step toward becoming a professional criminal.  He extorted a guard, enabled a drug dealer and committed an insurance fraud.  Meanwhile. His mentally ill brother is being kicked out of the firm he created because in a previous week, Jimmy “accidentally” revealed the depths of his illness in a fit of pique.  Let’s see…what else did he do?  I don’t even want to go into it.    But I thought that, as he makes his progress toward being “Saul”, the fixer and middleman to genuine monsters like Gus Freng and Walter White, (Jimmy is a puppy in comparison), it might be useful to devise a model of Jimmy’s internal state, so that we can see how he step by step becomes what he ultimately becomes…a hugely “likeable” Igor.


Jimmy starts life as a kid with a brilliant older brother with whom he constantly competes, a strong strain of likability, and little moral compass. He is “clever”, not really smart.  In other words, he can see ways to cut corners, but could never build anything himself.   People who burn buildings down can feel superior to the people who planned and built it.


Like all human beings, he wants to avoid pain and gain pleasure.    Clearly, he associates money with pleasure, but the only things we EVER hear about in terms of his money-making is scamming and stealing.  Always with a smile, of course.


Meanwhile, his brother Chuck, brilliant but emotionally damaged, almost certainly resents the fact that Jimmy is such a little thief, but PEOPLE LIKE HIM BETTER.  Get this?  They respect Chuck. But they LOVE Jimmy.  Jimmy has that plausibility.   So Chuck doubtless does things to undercut Jimmy, including the worst thing that we know of: he doesn’t tell Jimmy their mother asked for him on her death bed. That is terrible, no question about it.


But don’t take your eyes off the ball–and Jimmy is the ball.   Jimmy continues to desire the respect Chuck gets, but cannot change his habit patterns–continues to cut corners, lie, and steal, and then acts surprised when people see through his “who, me?” act and actually TREAT him as if he is a liar and thief.


And this is where it gets interesting. Where “Breaking Bad” is a tragedy of a genuinely amazing human being who is destroyed by the discovery of his power, “Better Call Saul” is the story of a little man who wants to be a big man, and is destroyed by the gap between his dreams and his reality.


He attends a cut-rate law school.  There are THOUSANDS of occupations he might have chosen.  Does anyone doubt that he is specifically competing with Chuck, who built a mighty law firm on the strength of his knowledge and intellect?


Does anyone think that, having established that Jimmy cheats at EVERYTHING, he didn’t cheat in law school?  Anyone?


One of the really amazing things that Vince Gilligan achieved with both Walter White and Jimmy is the degree to which people justify their behavior.  I can only figure that they are thinking “under those circumstances, I would do the same thing.”   Brrrrrr.


Because no matter what Jimmy does, the excuse is: “he HAD to do that!” I mean, what choice did he have to extort a guard and enable a drug dealer for seven hundred dollars?  He needed the money, and his back was hurting.


Why did he need the money? Because he lost his ability to practice law for a year and was on “community service.: Why? Because he broke into his brother’s house. Why?  Because his brother had evidence Jimmy had stolen and fabricated legal documents.  Why did Jimmy do that?  Because because because.


Why did his back hurt? Because he faked an injury to blackmail a store owner. Why?  Because he needed the money. Why? Because that store owner refused to buy commercials from him, and Jimmy considered this unfair.  Why?  Because he desperately needed money.   Why? Because he’d lost his license…


Because he wanted to compete with his brother, and fabricated documents to do it…


Because he wasn’t smart enough to compete with Chuck without cheating…


Because he HAD to be a lawyer, to both get Chuck’s respect and to drive him crazy like little brothers do (“this law stuff isn’t so tough…”)


Because his ego is based on getting a specific acknowledgement from Chuck and the world.  With a thousand other professions, a million other places to live, he had to do that, there in New Mexico, even though he simply doesn’t have what it takes.


Watching Jimmy McGill is watching a slow-motion car wreck.  He could probably own a car lot and be a success. Any number of other things. But he has to do THIS, even though he simply doesn’t have the problem-solving ability to do the job without lying and cheating, then doesn’t have the moral strength to take responsibility when he is caught.


But man, is he ever LIKEABLE.    He will enable thieves, drug-dealers, killers. Will be complicit in death and destruction on an impressive scale.  But every step is tiny.  He CANNOT awaken to the reality of the path he is on without questioning his core identity: Slippin’ Jimmy.  NOT a good person.  NOT a smart person.  “Clever” yes.   He can see holes in the structures others create, and wiggle through them…but couldn’t create anything himself to save his life.


Watch him drag down anyone who ever loved him.   Watch him justify any level of nastiness because he HAD to do it.


But he’s so damned LIKEABLE.


Now…look around you.  If YOU justify Jimmy, I have to ask: do you have “Jimmy’s” in you own life?  People who are plausible, and “nice” and “warm” and break everything they touch and corrupt the people who love them?  Are YOU ever a “Jimmy”?


I think we all have a bit of “Jimmy.” We all want to believe we’re as smart as anyone else, and if we have to cut corners, well, if we don’t get caught, what difference does it make?  Who gets hurt…?


Musashi’s first principle is “Do Not Think Dishonestly.”   Jimmy might, just MIGHT have an epiphany and finally understand what he is, perhaps later in life.  He might, just MIGHT understand all the damage he has done, after it is too late to do anything about it.  And chances are that he will NOT have the strength to admit, genuinely regret a wasted life, where all he had to do was set his goals a little lower, and he wouldn’t have had to lie and cheat.  He lied to himself, he lied to the world, and he is responsible for every bad thing that happened.


All he had to do was tell the truth. Jimmy won’t wake up.


But will you? Will the audience? Can we love this show, love Jimmy, and still see what he is?  Because if we can, BETTER CALL SAUL is an AMAZINGLY moral show.  As was BREAKING BAD, viewed from a distance.   It is less blunt than “The Shadow” with his “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit” but it is the same thing.   And all we have to do is look at the fascination with such characters, the tendency to justify them, and even our own love of such scoundrels and ask “why?” and we can understand human life more clearly, from politics to “gaslighting” relationships.


THIS is fine drama.   BETTER CALL SAUL  and BREAKING BAD are  so far above most of what passes for drama on television that it is pretty clear, in mid-series, that we’re watching a modern classic unspooling before us.  But…it’s up to us whether it is just “entertainment”…or “art”: the revelation of deep truths about the human condition, told with such craft it can be mistaken for triviality.


Man oh man, do I love this show.


He is so LIKEABLE!!






Writer’s Block and the Writer’s Journey


The advantage of looking at The Hero’s Journey is that we have absorbed MILLIONS of stories. We already understand the pattern.  As a tool to plan or organize resources, I’ve never seen anything like it.  Yesterday, I was asked about writer’s block–is it a real thing, and how to deal with it?  Let’s walk through this, using The Hero’s Journey.


I teach this stuff because I believe there is something inside each and every one of you that can change the world with your stories.   If I can get you to that point…we can change the world together.


First, let’s assume  we’re writing a story about someone who is engaging with “the Machine” and writer’s block is kicking their butt.  Ugh.  But…we know that at the end of the story, they are publishing stories and books and having a happy career!  Wow!  That means that whatever problem they are suffering now is TEMPORARY.  And given that, the rest is just strategy.


  1. Hero confronted with a challenge.  The challenge is to finish and publish n Can’t do that sentence a day.
  2. Reject the challenge.  The fear is that it means their efforts are doomed.
  3. Accept the challenge.  Commit to having your career, engaging with the fear, doubt, faux fatigue and guilt.
  4. Road of trials.  THE MACHINE, a daily process of writing a minimum of a sentence a day, 1-4 stories a month (or, if you’ve already published 10 stories, that minimum might be 1-4 chapters a month).  Day after day.   It can feel like grinding gears, like driving with your brakes on. That nothing is working, all is lost, that your work is crap.
  5. Allies and Powers.  You seek a teacher who is sympatico with you, preferably someone who is actually a writer himself.    If that writer is Steven Barnes, then you ask what writer’s block is, have I experienced it, and how to defeat it.    I then reply that writer’s block is ANYTHING that stops you from writing, finishing, polishing, submitting, constantly improving your work.  Any breakdown in “the machine.”  I hit that point when I was working on stories and not publishing anything.  I mean, rejection after rejection.  And I thought my stories were crap. But other writers said that their early work was crap, and they just had to keep reading, keep writing, keep submitting and getting feedback.  I was working all day and coming home at night and writing.  The only person who believed in me was my wonderful girlfriend Toni.  And I had that voice in my head saying: “you’ll never make it.   You don’t have what it takes.”  I felt sick in my guts to think that the one thing I wanted most in life was impossible for me.  Just give up, that voice said.   Do something else.


But…Ray Bradbury told me that there were two entirely different parts of your head: the “flow” self where you are just writing like a madman, running barefoot through the grass…and the editing part where you look at the first draft and prune and work it over.  And that the editing “adult” part will always have a louder voice than the child “play” part.  Always.    And that you just had to tell it to shut the @#$$ up.


Flow. And Editing.  Two different “powers.”  Confusing them is the source of all “writer’s block.”


So I trusted Bradbury, and myself, and kept writing.   Actually studied “flow” as a separate thing, with Tai Chi and Yoga and Meditation and sixty beat per minute Vivaldi string music and other things.  NOT DRUGS OR ALCOHOL.  I believe that to be a MAJOR mistake.   NEVER “get yourself in the mood” to write with drugs or alcohol.   That’s like using a winch to lift your weights in the gym.  You are SPECIFICALLY trashing your ability to do the work, and it will catch up with you.


(that said…if you wanna celebrate at the end of the day?   Mazel Tov.  You’re an adult, with the right to make adult choices!)

6.  Confront Evil–Fail.    Probably the worst single moment of my early career was the night I got a call from Harlan Ellison telling me my first solo novel, STREETLETHAL wasn’t ready for publication.

7.   Dark Night of the Soul. It was raining that night.  I was living alone, my relationship with Toni on the rocks. And I remembered curling on the floor and crying my eyes out.


It was too late to pull the book back.   I had to keep going, keep writing, despite the fact that this was a disaster.

8.  Leap of Faith. The “Leap of Faith” is always one of three things: faith in yourself, faith in your companions, or faith in a higher power.  For me it was remembering  what Bradbury had said: there is writing, and there is judging what you have written.  The two must never be confused. I was allowing Harlan to influence the “editor” part of my brain, allying his voice to the monster in my mind that wanted to stop me.


I could not allow that to happen.   I had to FLOW.  Create text. Keep going.   I trusted my “companion” mentor figure, and I trusted my own heart.

9. Confront evil–succeed.    IF you take the other steps, deal with fear, keep learning and growing, finding new mentors, don’t let despair stop you…you grow and change and get the goodies. And one day I gave Harlan a VHS copy of my Outer Limits episode “A Stitch In Time” and a few days later he called me and said: “THAT was good, kid.  You made it.” And again, I cried. But the tears were very different this time.

10.  The student becomes the teacher.  And this is critical. When you hit that next level, you learn most by sharing with others.  Don’t create a pedagogy, just document your process.   I still struggle. Get rejected.  Get bad reviews. Feel despair and discouragement…


The difference is that I’ve walked this path again and again and again, and recognize the steps, and know that it’s a Superchicken world: “Fred, you knew the job was dangerous when you took it.”


Yeah, I did.  THAT’S the value of Lifewriting.






(if this story resonates with you, please join us in the journey.  I promise to take good care of you.  Imagine being part of a supportive community, getting new LIFEWRITING prompts weekly.    You can have your writing dreams…just see it and commit to doing the work!   www.lifewrite.com)


A sentence a day to a book a year

A long time ago, I watched a  writing student struggling with all the usual excuses (“I don’t have the time! I don’t have the energy!  I’m not talented!   I don’t know how!) change completely as soon as he thought of himself as a character he was writing about in a story about the early days of a successful writer.


Bang.  Instantly, he understood EVERYTHING that can stop accomplishment, and began to organize his imagination to see how he could turn problems into advantages.


He could take his lunch to work, and write at his desk. He could trade household chores with his wife, swapping intensity (heavy work) for time-intensive work.  He could get his kids turned on by the idea of having a published writer in the family.


Suddenly, it became an adventure.   I mean…if you remember ANY movie or story about someone who succeeds, you know there will be twists and turns, setbacks, betrayals, fear, fatigue, moments that they almost gave up.  THAT’S STORY.   That’s the big cycle of story–each of these as “major moments”.


In “Wonder Woman” there are major moments of threatened defeat, loss, betrayal.  But most of any story…and most of our lives…is just “the road of trials”, which is this larger cycle in smaller form, repeated again and again.


Wonder woman arrives in London

Her goal: to reach the Front so she can kill Ares

Her obstacle: Steve Trevor has to take the journal to the high command.

Her reaction:  She feels betrayed, reminds him that a promise cannot be broken

Her ally’s reaction: He promises to take her to the front as soon as he fulfills his duty

Her reaction:  She agrees.

Next obstacle:  She cannot walk the streets of London dressed as she is.

Her ally’s reaction: Let’s get her appropriate clothing…


And so it goes.   EACH of these steps could be turned into a major problem just by expanding or deepening the intensity, swinging the story this way or that.  Here, they are just moments, exchanges of dialogue.


They are the dynamics of story, which means the dynamics of life.  Micro-cycles within macro-cycles.


The advantage of writing short stories is that each of them is a micro-cycle of a full macro-cycle novel.  EVERYTHING you need for a novel is there, but in the smaller form you can focus on smaller things without being overwhelmed by hundreds of pages of text.   It is dealing with a single tree rather than an entire forest.


THIS is the strength of the “Machine”, the idea of starting with writing only a single sentence a day, the smallest practical micro-cycle.  If you can write a sentence a day, you can springboard this to a book a year, because you will run into every possible obstacle, internal and external:

  1. I don’t have time
  2. I don’t know how
  3. I don’t have anything to say


And on and on.   Master your internal voices, you produce the external result. Produce a sentence a day for a few days, you automatically begin to produce more.  BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO.  No guilt connected with not doing that.


Your ego will go crazy trying to find a way to stop you, sabotage you. But because there is NO logical reason not to write one sentence a day, you will meet the lies that have stopped you in every arena of your life, and begin to make the internal/external connection.


Try it!





What’s Up Today?

Just wanted to do a core dump this morning.  Got to do that at least once a week, especially when I’m seeking to integrate new skills. Life changes when you do that, and so do perceptions.

  1. I’m curious what the reaction to TWELVE DAYS will be.  You never know. All you can do is the best you can do.  “Art” is Self expression. Craft is the specific language that communicates that expression in a given modality: singing, poetics, writing, martial arts, whatever.  If the audience feels the emotion you intended, you have succeeded in the “external” game of art.  The “What is true?”   But the inner game is more  the “who am I?”
  2. I’m mostly recovered from the Dog Mountain experience.  The trick was that after that 3000 foot climb, I had another four days when I had to maintain high energy…and did so.  That was a cool test.   But after I got back home, I had to keep going for another two days before I could begin to slow down.
  3. When I slowed down, began peeling back the emergency energy walls, I could access deep wells of fatigue.  Imbalance–the body creates all manner of strictures and jerry-rigged bonds of tension to protect it under physical or emotional stress. They are designed for PERFORMANCE, not “health”.  If you don’t re-integrate the stress, it becomes strain, and comes off the end of your life.
  4. Integrating all the psychological, emotional, and physical stress requires meditation and exercise. The conscious thought process is only useful to point you in the right direction. The work has to be non-intellectual.
  5. Meditating is sitting upright in bed, breathing nasally and diaphragmatically, and listening to my heartbeat. After grounding, I can try to create a black or white “triangle” between and above my eyes.   This has been miserable, a real sign of deep fatigue still working its way out.
  6. Connecting with my heart means digging through the wreckage and stress-tar (that’s how it represents).  After I do enough work (a couple of hours spread over days, usually) I can get in touch with “Little Steve” who is down there playing, like a kid singing in the basement of a collapsed building.  It seems odd that he’s happy, until I realize that he’s happy because he knows I’m coming for him.  He has no doubt any more.  God, that’s a wonderful thing.
  7. Yoga is the most important discipline for recovery (joint mobility is best for the first five minutes. If you’ve got more than five minutes, though…yoga.)  The right routine is a “perfect template”–I know that if I can do it, all is well.  I like the 30 minute Astanga “Short Form” created by Richard Freeman.
  8. On alternate days, it’s the “Zero Net Time” program
  9. Six days a week, I do my “Morning Ritual”: Tai Chi combined with visualization, affirmation, and chanting.  Emotion is created by a combination of focus, movement, and internal dialogue. By controlling all three at the same time for a few minutes a day, you can change your life. My primary goal?  To improve my Morning Ritual by 1% per day.
  10. Tananarive and Jason are out of town.  I’m able to be on my on schedule. Stayed up till 12:30 last night bingeing  “Riverdale”.  Its pretty damned cool. Then slept in until 9.  Wow, that felt good. Now I’m going to take care of business, Morning Ritual, do Yoga…then back to the Niven-Pournelle project and have fun.


Anyway, that’s what today looks like!  How’s your day?