You can run out of “clever”, but you can never run out of the truth

Cherry lips, crystal skies

I could show you incredible things

Stolen kisses, pretty lies

You’re the King, baby, I’m your Queen

Find out what you want

Be that girl for a month

Wait, the worst is yet to come, oh no


Screaming, crying, perfect storms

I can make all the tables turn

Rose garden filled with thorns

Keep you second guessing like

“Oh my God, who is she?”

I get drunk on jealousy

But you’ll come back each time you leave

‘Cause, darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream

–Taylor Swift, “Blank Spaces”

When I’m driving, I listen to two things: old time radio on XM, and top 40, often filtered through “Radio Disney” for Jason’s tender ears.  It’s always fun to hear how they change the lyrics to make them G-rated, btw.  Doesn’t always work.  One of the funniest is Meghan Trainor’s “All About The Bass” which pretty clearly uses “Bass” to refer to her ample hindquarters, but it’s slightly re-cut so that on Disney she seems to be using “Bass” to mean her deep intellectual and moral values.   It reaches a delightfully absurd point when in her follow-up song “I Know You’re Lying ‘Cause Your Lips Are Moving” (why does that sound like a country western title?) she says: “I gave you bass, you gave me sweet talk” and Disney plays that, either oblivious or unconcerned as to the obvious meaning.  Jason certain doesn’t pick it up.   It’s fun to be a dad.


Anyway, despite the fact that people are always complaining about the lack of quality in modern music (and have made that complaint all my life. And probably for all time.  It’s fun) I listen to it because it keeps me current as to linguistic patterns, slang, and perspectives by the core youth audience.


I get scared sometime…will go months or even a year or so without having much respect for anything I hear on the radio that made it to Top 40.  And that’s when I wonder if I need to start telling the kids to get off my lawn.


But then I’ll hear something musically or lyrically that catches my attention, and I’m re-engaged.  It goes in cycles.  I suspect that the “problem” is that the kids are trying new things, and if you don’t feel or appreciate or see it, (and so many of their cues are generational that it’s easy to miss) all you hear is the stuff that references YOUR musical tastes, and they aren’t likely to get that as “right” as what you remember. Plus, of course, the older the era you’re thinking of, the more likely you are to only remember “the good stuff.” Listen to XM 50’s or 60’s radio, and it can be embarrassing how bad some of that stuff is.   You just forgot.


Also, of course, like the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” is when you were thirteen, there are imprintation windows for music and film as well.


Anyway, I realized that I was enjoying Taylor Swift’s song “Blank Spaces.”   It seemed to be a song by (or about.  I’m not totally sure she wrote it) a girl who is aware that she is an emotional basket case.    Desperately wants love, and has a scrambled sense of what it is all about (“boys only want love if it’s torture.”) no sense of who she is at the core (“I’ll find out what you want.  Be that girl for a month.”) And on the surface, hyper-confident in her beauty and sexuality (“I can make the bad guys good for a weekend.”)


But underneath that confused, polished shell is a world of fear, doubt and pain (“screaming, crying, perfect storms…rose garden filled with thorns…”)


Who Am I? she asks herself.  She doesn’t know. She knows how to play a role, but is terrified of presenting her real self, with insufficient trust in her own judgement or worth.  Either she thinks ALL guys are messed up, or if she has a little more insight, knows that she will only have access to guys as messed up and superficial as she: “Oh my God, look at that face.  You look like my next mistake.”

But do you grasp the yearning, desperate self-perception in the line: “I’m a nightmare dressed like a day-dream”?

In other words, she is a typical young person on the cusp of adulthood, desiring a mate, doubting herself, realistic about a terrible relationship history, able to create a polished image (or bedroom performance) for a short time, but knowing that ultimately her fear and doubt will surface, driving any healthy guy away.


If you “know” they will leave, you’ll never expose your true heart, creating a vicious cycle of attraction, passion, false intimacy and broken dreams.  Wash and repeat.


I’m sorry, but this is perceptive writing, from the heart, and frankly, it’s more psychologically valid than 99% of anything I’ve ever heard on pop radio.   As Harlan Ellison said, this writing “pulls the plow.”


I think that all you have to do to improve your own writing is be willing to honest about your hopes and dreams and mistakes and frailties, and write a story about someone dealing with the problem.  Because I’m an optimist, I tend to write about the times when people successfully navigate such problems. A pessimist might write about another failure or defeat.  But in either case, you’ve been honest, so long as you can relate it to your experience.


DON’T TRY TO BE CLEVER.  Just be honest.  You can run out of clever, but you can never run out of the truth.


People afraid of running out of ideas simply don’t trust their own experience.  I’ve never met a dull person.  I’ve met people who present dull facades.  That’s it. Go deeper, and you always find someone with the same wealth of hopes and dreams and successes and failures, but they discount what they have learned and who they are.  Digging deeper into the pains and disappointments that motivate this emotional neutering reveals the roots of all human experience.


Song writing is storytelling, whether it is a complete story like Harry Chapin’s “A Better Place To Be”, a scream of rage like Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City”  or Taylor Swift’s emotional snapshot “Blank Space”.  Take your own pain and anger or love and yearning, and capture THAT.  If you can grab it with sufficient craft, you should be able to communicate with others, link to their emotions.   Help them recognize something about life, or their own hearts. A moment of insight, sympathy, empathy, emotional release.


That’s what readers and listeners want–an emotional journey. And if you are honest, you will see that the common human pathway travels from maturation to awareness to need for connection and contribution and self-direction to building a world to protect the things and people you love.  To watching your world change, your parents and loved ones age and die, and facing your own mortality and wondering what it was all about.


Who am I? What is true?  What is it to be human, and what is the world those humans see?


Those two questions will take you all the way home. There is literally nothing else to write about, directly or indirectly.


They are all you need.




(p.s.–we’re about to open the SPRING 2015 Storytelling workshop.  We’ve had a fabulous time so far, and if you’d like to learn more go to www.tananarivedue.wordpress.com)

Life Story VI

During this time, I had a seriously fascinating encounter with a mugger in Oakland, California.

I was walking to my car at about 2 a.m., and a huge man loomed up in front of me.

“Gimme your money, man!” he said.

I looked at him calmly. “What do you really want?” I asked.

His eyes widened. “What?”

“I’m a human being, you’re a human being. If there’s something you need, and I can do it for you, maybe I’d be happy to do it. In which case nothing has happened.”

He looked at me, and time seemed to freeze. Finally he said: “Five dollars?”

“Sure,” I said, opened my wallet, and gave it to him. “Take care of yourself.”

I can’t even say how happy I was with that exchange. I felt no fear. I saw his entire body as one big playground I was going to tap-dance on if he made the wrong move. But for five dollars, not only did I not have to hurt him . . . or risk being hurt myself (always a possibility), but I got a great story I’ve been able to tell for twenty years.

That’s what I call a bargain.


Some time around 1990 I taught a science fiction symposium at UCLA with Robert Bloch, Octavia Butler, Larry Niven, and . . . Ray Bradbury.

I picked Ray up at his house, and we went to dinner together in Westwood. Here was my chance to talk with him more personally. I was plagued by the idea that I may have made too many commercial choices in my career. And I unburdened my soul to this great man. (more…)

Life Story Part VI

During this time, I got my first taste of television, when Walt Disney television got in touch with Larry and asked him if he would be interested in adapting a Stanislaw Lem short story for a proposed anthology show. Larry wasn’t interested but pointed them at me. Tad Stones was the executive there, and I adapted “The Test” for them; although it was never produced, it led to me getting my first television agent. There is simply no better way to get an agent than to walk into an office with a contract in hand and say: “Negotiate this for me?”

Free money, anyone?

Well, that agent, Marvin Moss, was packaging The Twilight Zone with Phil Deguerre, and I got in on the deal. This led to my first hour-long script, “Henry VIII,” which was written for a series called The Wizard over at Fox, starring David Rappaport (of Time Bandits). The guys who produced The Wizard, Micheal Berke and Doug Schwartz, went on to produce Baywatch, for which I eventually wrote four episodes.

About this same time a truly wonderful thing happened. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle came to me with an idea for a short story they proposed to write with me. Short story my eye! These two had had a New York Times bestseller with “Lucifer’s Hammer.” I figured this was my chance to turbo-charge my career and showed them how the idea could be expanded into a novel. It turned into the Legacy of Heorot, one of my favorite of my novels, and featured a butt-kicking quote from Tom Clancy on the cover.


There was another change in my life. I’d had great success in martial arts until I got my butt whipped by a thirteen-year-old prodigy one day when I was about twenty-five, who crowed to everyone about how he “beat a man!” Frankly, something in my heart just . . . collapsed. It didn’t matter that the kid, Alvin Prouder, went on to become a world champion kickboxer. Something just broke inside me, and I developed a phobia about sparring. Morbid, and totally disproportionate to any injury or pain I’d ever received.

I’d spent years trying to heal it, gone to therapists and counselors and countless instructors, read books, meditated, tried hypnosis . . . everything. But whatever wounds I’d carried since childhood simply refused to heal, leaving me unable to perform without emotional grief WAY beyond anything required by the situation.

Now, note something: under real-world performance stress I tend to go cold. No fear at all, just readiness. But put me in an artificial context, and ouch.

Well, one day I went to Santa Maria California to watch my brother in law, Pat Young, train with his martial arts instructor, Terry Letteau. Terry is a wolf in human’s clothing, just an animal, and I mean that in the very best way. After Pat finished practice, I rather miserably, with no expectations of result, asked Terry the same question I’d asked so many other instructors:

“I have a fear of sparring. Do you have any idea how to deal with that?

“Sure,” Terry said to my astonishment. “Your problem isn’t fear. It’s lack of clarity.”


“Well, do you have a way to deal with that?” I asked.

“Sure. Close your eyes and visualize a glass tube filled with glitter. Wait until the glitter settles to the bottom. See what you see.” (more…)


The day I entered Alta Loma elementary school, my mom walked me hand-in-hand to the kindergarten, introduced me to the teacher (can’t remember her name; I know my first grade teacher was Mrs. Benjamin, and my sixth Grade was Mrs. Turner) and said: “Hi, I was wondering if you’d watch Stevie for me today?”

A very sweet, very comforting way to introduce a child to the idea of school.

In kindergarten, I made two friends, Howard Kokubun and Lee Taylor, who were respectively Japanese and White. Didn’t mean squat to me—we were three musketeers, all for one and one for all, right?

My sister Joyce, three years older than me, taught me to read, and the first book was one called The Five Chinese Brothers. She read it to me a dozen times, until I could recite it by heart. Then I read it until I could identify each of the words. And then I had it!

Then in first grade, Mrs. Benjamin’s class, all the kids were divided into reading groups. I remember Lee and Howard were placed in a group composed of white and Asian kids. My group was black and Hispanic kids. “Wow!” I thought. “Wonder why Howard’s over there, not here with me?”

I found out a few minutes later. We were tested for reading by some older kids, fifth grade perhaps. They listened to the other kids struggling with their reading, and when it was my turn, I read better than the fifth graders. Embarrassed, they immediately took me out of the black group and put me in with the white kids. (more…)

Art Never Gets Any Easier

I got good news on a television episode I wrote yesterday, and was absurdly grateful.  You’d think that by this time in my career I’d take it for granted.  No.  My heart is as raw and insecure as ever it was: I’ve only changed in the amount of bravado I need to protect it.

Art never gets any easier.   The better you get, the more minute the errors you can detect.  It’s like polishing a ball bearing, if every time you polished it, the magnification on your glass increased so that you could see increasingly tiny flaws…there’s no end.


What’s worse is that if you use the “Lifewriting” approach, you find something you actually care about in everything you write, so that the work expresses something you honestly believe about the world (“what is true?”) or about human existence, or your own life (“who am I?”).   Sports writer Red Smith, asked if writing was difficult, once quipped:   “Why, no.   You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”


Why doesn’t it get easier..?


  1. The ego protects itself.   Real art transforms the artist by creating a deeper connection between conscious and unconscious minds.  This takes us into greater clarity in the “who am I?” territory, which risks awakening.  The ego has a thousand thousand tricks to keep you convinced that it is you, and it will pull out a new one every day.   Usually it doesn’t have to–it just finds a favorite approach to keeping you asleep (chasing fame, money, awards, being a “hack”, avoiding criticism, listening too much or too little to fans, etc.) and beats the hell out of that.
  2. Even if you avoid the ego trap, there is a MILE of hard, serious, brutal work to be done to take your basic skills to unconscious competence AND develop a commitment to tell the truth.  Soooo much easier to “be clever.”  Especially if you ARE clever.   Any more than the secret to a good marriage is to try a different sexual position every night.  That gets old rapidly.
  3. It is tempting to believe that art springs from dysfunction.  There are actually respectable schools of thought that preach this.  IMHO these are promoted by people trapped by their egos because art is created by the “boys in the basement” (Stephen King’s phrase)–in other words, the part of me that TALKS about art isn’t the same as the part that CREATES it.  This creates a quasi-mystical sense of “it’s magic”. We get protective of that “magic” the way a baseball pitcher obsessively wears the same socks every game, trying to duplicate the ‘magic” of that no-hitter.  So we have to do it THIS way, we can’t examine THAT behavior.  We NEED our pain, fear, anger.   Wrong.  What we need is strong, honest emotion.   It MIGHT be hate, anger, fear.  Or…it could be love.  Or…it could be the core thing itself, “real emotional content” (in Bruce Lee’s phrase from “Enter the Dragon” [and trust me, he re-wrote that dialogue]), the core undifferentiate sensation that gets fractionated into love or fear by the prism of our experience and conscious mind, that Buddha-baby existential  howl:  “Sky above, Earth below, no one in the world like me!”


Life, if engaged directly and honestly, never gets “easier”, but we get stronger.  When nearly overwhelmed by stress, I remember a truth: I didn’t ask for an easy life, I asked for an authentic one.   Or in brother in law Patric Young’s terrific words, when disaster strikes I spread my arms and scream to the sky “Thank you, God, for giving me another opportunity to find out who I am!”


I’m committed to the roads of mastery in writing, martial arts, and being a husband and father.   IT NEVER GETS EASIER.


And I don’t give a damn.  This is the life I chose.  I bought this pony, paid for it with blood and sweat and tears.


I’m ridin’ it home.





The stories we tell ourselves control our lives

Lifewriting Origins #2 We create stories, and stories create us

The response of my UCLA class stunned me.   Merely thinking of their lives as a story they were writing enabled them, somehow, to gain sufficient perspective to begin solving problems that had been intractable for years.  Why?


I did some digging over the next week, and came across a statement by Joseph Campbell that opened a door in my head.  Paraphrasing: “Cultural myths are depersonalized individual stories.   Our individualized life stories are the personalized cultural myths.”


In other words, the myths and fictions that we tell each other over camp-fires, in songs, books, movies, television and comics are representations of actual life experiences, exaggerated or realistic depictions as they might be.  And our life experiences are framed in the contexts of the stories we have heard from childhood.


In my novel GREAT SKY WOMAN I theorized that not only did human beings create story, but that in some crucial ways, stories created humanity.  That fiction and myth creates a web of meaning out of an almost infinite mass of events, facts and feelings in a given situation.  That this meaning is both linear and non-linear: we react more powerfully to certain events from childhood than we do to things that happened yesterday.


That story enabled human beings to travel from one part of the world to another, preserving their identity as they did: “we are the people of the valley, descended from the First Men.  And when the great fire drove us forth, we traveled far, fighting beasts and beastly men, to come to this place of shelter…”  and so forth.


Just as we tell ourselves stories about our cultural identity, we also have stories about ourselves as individuals.  These stories are positive or negative or some combination of both.


One of the first things I do in most coaching situations is have the client write what I call the “Child story” which is a short essay on how they grew up to be the person they are today.  Because it is short, it will contain many of the basic building blocks of identity: events, beliefs, emotions, relationships, successes and failures.


Remember that our pasts don’t control us, but the stories we tell ourselves about our pasts most certainly do.  The same is true of our present.


Each of us has been exposed to countless thousands of stories since childhood.  We understand “story” organically, instinctively, unconsciously.  And when I asked my student to view his current life as if he was a characters in a story…and that the character ended the story getting everything he wanted, in order to parse my statement and make sense of it, he literally had to dive into a trove of countless movies, books, comic books, television episodes and what not where at the end of the second act all seemed lost…but somehow the character “pulled it out” and ended with a smile.


What did this do?

1) Created context.  Changed the meaning of the current situation.  It was not “I can’t” but rather “I have to solve this.”


2) It made it fun.   Adventures are fun…once you are sure you ain’t gonna die.  If some part of you STARTS with the assumption that you can succeed, you don’t slide into a pessimistic “fear tunnel” in which you can see no options. You literally have more access to your own resources.


3) And…you get more resources.   The attitudes, beliefs, and experiences of fictional characters usually overlap with reality.  Flash Gordon may be fighting Ming The Merciless in space, but the lessons of courage, trusting companions, honor, honesty, and ingenuity resonate with audiences.  I would suggest that ANY story that lasts more than a generation contains lessons that the audience found valuable on an actual life level…there was “meat” under the frosting.


4) You take the “long view”—the “can’t see the forest for the trees” aspect of tunnel vision.  We lose perspective.  Forget the value and meaning of our daily efforts because there is so much going on, or we are so far from the finish line.


5) The structure of story, passed down to us through the ages, in and of itself contains a BRILLIANT syntax for success.


And that…we will discuss tomorrow.



If you were a character in a story with a happy ending, what would you do next?


Origins of Lifewriting


So I said that the most important single conceptual decision of my life was to cross-reference  the Hero’s Journey and the yogic Chakras in my writing.   HJ for plotting and structure, and the Chakras for personality.


Joseph Campbell in his “Hero With A Thousand Faces” suggested that there was a single story humanity has been telling itself for all recorded time.  Maybe twenty-five years ago  I was teaching a class at UCLA, a sort of “Writer’s Tool Box”: flow state management, characterization, rewriting, breaking writer’s block, etc.  And in the middle of the class, one of the students raised his hand.


“Mr Barnes?”  He said.  “You’ve taught us all these tools and techniques, but I don’t think I’ll be able to use it.  My wife doesn’t understand my wish to write, my job takes up too much time, my kids demand so much energy…”


There is an expression I heard once that, from time to time life gives you “a cubic inch of opportunity.” Grab it, or its gone forever.  Well, I got one of those cubic inches at that moment.


“Imagine,” I said, “if you were a character in one of your own stories.    In your current life situation.   And at the end of the story, that character got everything he desired and deserved.  What would you have that character do NOW?”


He was stunned.  Silent for a moment. And then…began to solve his own problems.  He could negotiate with his wife to exchange blocks of free time.  He could brown-bag it to lunch, eat at his desk, and get forty minutes of writing—a thousand words of rough draft—done, five days a week.  He could convince his kids that having a writer dad would be exciting and fun…


I tried the same exercise with the others in the class, and every one of them began to solve problems that had been intractable until that time.


I was stunned. What the @#$$ had just happened?   I went home that night in a bit of a daze.  I told my wife Toni what had happened, and asked her if she thought it was worth looking into.  Bless her heart, she enthusiastically agreed.


And I began to research…


More tomorrow!

Ray Bradbury, and the joy of balancing burdens

(TUESDAY, JUNE 04, 2013)

My current writing schedule involves juggling three films, three books, a non-fiction project, and multiple short stories. This would be CRUSHING stress, except that I don’t try to hold them all in my head at the same time. Heaven forbid. Here’s what makes it work. I…

1) Have separate computer files for each project, in SCRIVENER, the perfect organization tool for writers.

2) Write a minimum of 1000 words of rough draft on the most urgent/important project every day, during “Diamond Hour”. This means that, no matter what, I’m always chipping away at the load. This is a minimum of five days a week. Sometimes seven. That guarantees me between 250-365k words a year.

3) know what tomorrow’s writing will be before going to bed. In this way, my unconscious can chew over it as I sleep.

4) Every morning in my “Morning Ritual” of incantations and visualizations (while performing Tai Chi) I pump myself up, remind myself of all I have to be grateful for, and extend that gratitude into the future for my next year’s goals. I visualize successfully completing whatever tasks I have TODAY that dovetail with those yearly goals. Those yearly goals dovetail with my lifetime goals.

5) I input the very best writing I can find, every day. Currently, I’m working through the complete Shakespeare A-Z, as performed and produced by the BBC. Incredible stuff. Also reading a short story every day. Currently working through Ray Bradbury’s favorite 100 stories. What a master. Even better…he LOVED his craft, and life itself. What a sweet, decent, loving human being!

And I wanted to tell a story about Ray Bradbury…just because it is instructive on several levels, and might help people understand why I am so driven to share what I have. I have been blessed to be guided and encouraged by masters.

I always loved Ray Bradbury’s stories, his reading style, his general attitude of life and love. So in my twenties, I wrote a story called “Trick or Treat”, a Halloween piece (Bradbury loved Halloween!) about a guy who gets into an escalating war of nerves with the Trick or Treaters in his neighborhood, each Halloween getting a little nastier, until one practical joke goes too far and a kid is accidentally killed. And he knows that next year, they will kill him. A nasty little piece of work.

I wrote it up, and my soon-to-be-wife Toni designed art to accompany it, and we put together a nice package. Sometime in the late 70’s Bradbury was signing books at a bookstore, and we went down, and offered him the story package, and he graciously accepted it. Low and behold, about a month later I got a letter from him thanking me for the story, congratulating me on its quality, and encouraging me to seek a career. This was the very first encouragement I had ever received from a pro, and it meant the world.

That story was the first I ever published. I was paid in contributor’s copies, but hey, I was published!

Years passed. My mother had discouraged me from seeking a writing career (she was terribly afraid I would fail as a writer, as my father had as a singer) but saw that Robert Kirsch, literary editor for the L.A. Times, was teaching a creative writing class at U.C.L.A. This was about 1980. She suggested that we both go and take night classes—she in something cultural (I forget what) and me with Kirsch. I leapt at the opportunity. I was an odd duck in that class. Most of the others were writing literary stories (filled with tone, scant on incident) or poetry. I wrote a story called “Is Your Glass Half Empty?” about a compulsive gambler who hocks his pacemaker.

Kirsch looked at my story as if he had no idea what to do with it, and politely asked if he could show it to a friend of his. I said sure. A month later I got a letter from…you guessed it…Ray Bradbury, again congratulating me, and encouraging me to seek a career. I’m sure he didn’t remember the earlier story, btw. That story was my second publised work. Got 1/5th of a cent a word. But hey, it was money. Framed that damned check. Ummm…until I was so broke I had to cash it. Ahem.

Years passed. I worked with Larry Niven, published a few books, became known in the L.A. Fan community. In the early 80’s I was asked to be the master of ceremonies at “Planet Fest”, an event by the Planetary Society in Pasadena. One of the guests was Ray Bradbury, and it was my pleasure to introduce him. I had the honor of standing on that stage in front of hundreds of people, and telling them what he had done for me. He strode on stage like a giant, and embraced me, and the audience applauded wildly. Ever be embraced by your hero while a crowd cheers? IT CHANGES YOUR NEUROLOGY. I was never the same afterward.

Years passed. In the early 1990’s I was teaching at UCLA extension, and did a “Science Fiction Symposium” event. Every week a different guest: Octavia Butler, Larry Niven, Robert Bloch, Gregory Benford…and Ray Bradbury. He did not drive, so I picked him up at his house (!) and took him to Westwood where we had dinner. While there, I overcame my shyness and poured out my heart to him. You see, I was afraid that the amount of writing I’d done in collaboration, or for money in Hollywood, had “poisoned the well.” Had numbed me to the sound of my own voice. Trembling, on the edge of tears, I asked him if he thought it was too late for me.

He grew very serious. “Have you published?” He asked.

“Oh, yes,” I replied, and reeled off a list of about ten novels, multiple television episodes and so forth.

He laughed and laughed, the kind of booming, sincere, deep-throated mirth that reminded me of a literary Santa Claus. “Oh, you’ll have no problem at all!” He was brilliant that night at the Symposium, btw.

The last time I saw him was in 2010. There was a 90th Birthday celebration for him at, I think, the Universal Sheraton. I was contacted and asked if I had anything joyful to contribute, and I scrambled to say “yes.” Ray had had strokes, was in his wheelchair and could barely speak. The mind was still there, and still sharp however. I took the podium and told my story, how he had inspired me with his writing, been kind to an unpublished writer in desperate need to believe in himself, and comforted a lost artist seeking to find a way to meld commerce and personal expression. I was crying by the time I was done, and with effort he lifted his arms to me, and we embraced. It was raining as I drove home. Oh, hell, maybe it was just me. I knew I’d never see him again.

But…a few weeks later a letter arrived. It was written on a manual typewriter, and I could imagine it being painfully pecked out, one letter at a time.

“Dear Stephen,” it said (and this is from memory. The letter is filed away somewhere.) “Thank you for your wonderful words, which added so much to my natal celebration. Some of your tears are my own.” And signed, Ray Bradbury.

Like I said initially, I am currently CRUSHED by my work load…except that every action in connection with it is infused with joy, the kind of joy I learned from this man, and others along my path. I have been blessed with wonderful friends, wonderful family, wonderful mentors, a wonderful life.

It is the greatest pleasure of my life to pass those blessings on to those I love.


If you’re any good, what you create will never seem “good enough.”

(THURSDAY, MAY 23, 2013)
Completing the “Writing Machine” parts 8-10

Once upon a time, I created a work-flow model based on conversations with, and study of, hundreds of writers. A “critical path” of what seemed to be the most important characteristics. Most excellent writers have these skills in some form or other, often at the level of “unconscious competence” but it is possible to extract and refine them separately.

In communicating them to students, I gave this process the name “The Machine” or sometimes “The Garden”, depending on the preference of the student. Over the last weeks I’ve parceled them out, but as I’m taking off for Keycon SF convention today, and will be in crash mode for our movie next week, I wanted to encapsulate the first seven steps, and then complete the entire structure.

There are undoubtedly equally good, or better, ways to look at this, and I invite established writers to make their own suggestions, and all writers to modify to their own needs.

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. Read one level “up” from your writing

3) Write stories that reflect the values, beliefs, and concerns of your own life, in indirect form.

4) Keep your stories circulating in the mail until they sell

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

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

7) Once you’ve finished your first draft, ask “what is the meaning of my story” and
re-write from the beginning to sharpen this. There are two things to write about: what are human beings, and what is the world they see? “Who am I” and “what is true?”

8) Follow structure (plotting and consciously planning) 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.

My own structure concentrates on two things: plot and character. I see them as being two halves of the same coin. “Plot” is what a given character does in a given situation. “Character” is best revealed
1) by action and
2) by the character’s internal monologues and self-image, as well as the “stories” they try to sell about who they are. The GAP between observed behavior (concentrate on their career, their physical fitness and their relationship history) and this “story” reveals an entirely new and fascinating level to their personality. To deepen your understanding of this, one painful thing is necessary: applying the exact same standard RUTHLESSLY to yourself. By the way—you won’t be able to do this if you do not love yourself deeply. In a way, it is like performing exploratory surgery on your own child. Yuck. But critical if you wish to move forward in life.

9) Separate the “Flow” state from the “editing” state. Learn to enter “flow” state at will. This means constantly refining “left” and “right” brain modes of operation (not neurophysiologically elegant models, but hopefully the distinctions communicate.) I would suggest meditation and the study of the most logical and intelligent human beings you can groove with. Daily. Logic and Intuition, shaking hands across the Corpus Callosum.

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. There are, of course, examples of writers who work in solitude, but even these have an “internal community” of role models and great artists in their minds, coaxing them toward greater skill, production, and honesty. The most fortunate people have both.

Remember: your “editing/reading” brain has far more experience AND ALWAYS WILL than your “flow/writing” brain. It will ALWAYS be better at criticizing what you’ve created than creating new text. The only exceptions are those unfortunate individuals who really haven’t read very much, but believe they have a calling to write. Every writing class or workshop instructor encounters these unfortunates with stories to tell but no skill with which to relate them…sometimes with few foundational skills such as spelling and grammar! But most of us have read hundreds of books for every book we write.

Don’t you get the joke? You must read to improve, but that means your “editor” will always be vastly more experienced than your “creator”, leading to insecurity, lack of confidence, and even disgust at the huge “gap” between your first drafts and the finished work of the masters, or the Platonic ideal of the artwork you saw in your mind, felt in your heart.

“The Machine” is designed to strengthen, polish and bring to conscious awareness every basic link in the chain that leads from initial idea to published work: generating ideas, selecting ideas, researching, rough draft, polished draft, rewrite and integrating feedback, submission and repetition of the process throughout a career of ups and downs.

ANYTHING that disrupts this process is “writer’s block.” Not reading/researching, not writing, not finishing, not polishing, not submitting, not beginning your next project and continuing the cycle.
Not enjoying the process, even if it is the savage satisfaction of facing the Gorgon of our own doubt day after day. Caring enough about criticism to learn anything useful, to feel the pain without it decisively impacting our capacity for joy in process.

No one can promise you a financially successful career. But you CAN guarantee yourself a lifelong immersion in the fantastic world of creation, a daily sojourn in the blessed kingdom of Flow . You CAN get better and better from year to year, and have more pleasure and satisfaction than most people believe is possible or reasonable.

You CAN fulfill a childhood dream of self-expression and communication. All these things are available to you, if you embrace the Machine…or cultivate your Garden.

Writer’s choice. As always, the choice of metaphor is up to you.

Write with Passion!

The only real questions: “who am I?” and “what is true?”

TUESDAY, MAY 07, 2013
The writing “Machine” part 7: Re-write, reinforcing values and themes

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

There are two things to write about: what are human beings, and what is the world they see? “Who am I” and “what is true?” These ideas link together powerfully. Everything you have a character say and do is your comment on what human beings are. Every plot twist is a statement about the ethical structure of the universe: how the world responds to us, whether it is benign, indifferent, or malevolent.

Here’s a note: classical science fiction tends to be much more “what is true” than “who am I?” It deals more with the physical structure of the universe, what is true, how it fits together. Most literary fiction deals more with the first question: “who am I” and the question of deep psychological and philosophical structure. In reality, all fiction has examples that move between these, but another thing to remember is that they are inseparable, really.

Go deeply enough into either question, and you emerge at the other position. So my suggestion is that you need to have a philosophy of humanity. What are we? Why are we? What motivates us, what is love and what is fear?

Go deep. Ultimately, the question is connected to your sense of self.

And then…what is the world? How do you understand the flow of history? The actions of human beings? Not “predict,” but in retrospect understand, and perhaps learn enough to make more positive choices in the future.

Meaning, values, beliefs…all of these things affect our world view. And working through it in your own life will teach you vast amounts about the world.

Then…develop a sense of the flow of history, human and cosmic. How did we become what we are as a species? It took me years of research to devise and refine the theories of social and human evolution in my novels LION’S BLOOD and GREAT SKY WOMAN. The concepts about race, gender, consciousness and social structure are at the core drive the books and define the characters, their worlds, their choices, thoughts and more. All in the service of an emotional charge.

So…what is your story about? Can you define it clearly?

And if you can, what is the opposite of that value? That position? Is there a character or situation that expresses that opposite? Can you set the two values in story opposition to each other? Sharpen them? Force them to clash?

Now, I DON’T suggest that you do this in your first draft. In the first draft, just write and have fun. But during re-write, it is quite valuable to (as I believe Paddy Cheyefski said) extract the meaning from your piece, write it on a 3 X 5 card, and post that card above your computer. Then be certain that every scene in some way explores your theme or counter theme. Do that, and you can create a core of power and emotion that will carry your readers along without them ever consciously realizing how and why they are responding so intensely. By the way…NEVER directly state your theme. Let your reader discover it.

It’s almost cheating.

Write with passion!