I start today with nothing in my head to write about. I guess I can say that with regularity most days of the writing week. Sundays in particular are filled with no useful ideas of any kind. But I have a certain talent for spinning. As Rumpelstiltskin had a talent for spinning straw into gold, I take the simple threads of ideas leaking out of my ears and spin them into yarns that become whole stories-full of something to say. And it is not something out of mere nothing. There is magic in spinning wheels. They take something ordinary and incomplete, and turn it into substantial threads useful for further weaving.
Of course the spinning wheel is just a metaphor here for the craft of writing. And it is a craft, requiring definable skills that go well beyond merely knowing some words and how to spell them.
The first skill is, of course, idea generation. You have to come up with the central notion to concoct the potion. In this case today, that is, of course, the metaphor of using the writing process as a spinning wheel for turning straw into gold. But once that is wound onto the spindle, you begin to spin yarn only if you follow the correct procedure. Structuring the essay or story is the next critical skill.
Since this is a didactic essay about the writing process I opened it with a strong lead that defined the purpose of the essay and explained the central metaphor. Then I proceeded to break down the basic skills for writing an essay with orderly explanations of them, laced with distracting images to keep you from dying of boredom while reading this, a very real danger that may actually have killed a large number of the students in my writing classes over the years (although they still appeared to be alive on the outside).
As I proceed through the essay, I am stopping constantly to revise and edit, makeing sure to correct errors and grammar, as well as spending fifteen minutes searching for the picture of my mother’s spinning wheel used directly above. Notice, too, I deliberately left the spelling-error typo of “making” to emphasize the idea that revising and proof-reading are two different things that often occur at the same time, though they are very different skills.
And as I reach the conclusion, it may be obvious that my spinning wheel of thought today spun out some pure gold. Or, more likely, it may have spun out useless and boring drehk. Or boring average stuff. But I used the spinning wheel correctly regardless of your opinion of the sparkle of my gold.
Losing the pool this summer was a humbling experience. I had repaired it before and got it working properly again, so I knew in my heart I was capable of salvaging it. But everyone was against me. The city was convinced that I was a deadbeat letting it slide and simply lying about it taking a long time because illness and financial reversals were slowing me down. My family was against me because they no longer had any confidence that I could still do it, and they feared me killing myself in the attempt. And then Bank of America won their lawsuit and prevented me from paying for the effort, thoroughly punishing me for the mistaken notion that I had any right to get myself out of medical debt even with the help of a lawyer. And the electrical problems, which I could not correct myself, put the pool restoration out of reach. I failed to do what I knew in my heart I was capable of. I failed. I was the only one who believed I could do it, and I only managed to prove everybody else right.
But Michael Jackson’s somewhat creepy nudie video with the weird Maxfield Parrish parody in it is actually a theme song for what I learned about myself. I was alone in the pool-restoration struggle. But I am not alone in life. I will never be alone, even if somehow I ended up the last person alive on the planet. Because we are all connected. We are all a part of one thing. We are not alone, even when we are.
I think I learned that best from my Grandmother, Mary A. Beyer. She was a rock-solid believer in Jesus through the pragmatic Midwestern arm of the Methodist Church. She also gradually became an isolated, lonely individual, living by herself in Mason City, Iowa. Grandpa Beyer died in his fifties, when I was about ten. Great Grandpa Raymond, who lived with them for as long as I can remember, passed away a few years later. But she was never really alone. Jesus Christ was a real person to her. She read her Bible and her weekly copies of the Methodist publication, The Upper Room, constantly. And she was always a central part of our lives. Christmases at Grandma Beyer’s place are deeply woven into the fabric of my memory. The bubble lights on the Christmas tree, the carefully saved and re-used wrapping paper from the 1940’s, the hot cocoa, and Christmas specials on her RCA color TV… I still draw strength and love from those things, and from her faith, even after almost twenty years pretending Christmas was evil as a Jehovah’s Witness. Simple truth and faith shared are some of those essential things that bind us together even though they are invisible to the eye. My Grandma Beyer is still with me even when I am fighting off the pool harpies all by myself because the things she taught me and the love she had for me still live in me, still affect who I am and how I act and what I truly believe in.
I am not alone.
And you aren’t either. I am here for you. I value you as human being. God tells me I should, even though God is probably not real, and I believe Him, even though I am a fool who probably really doesn’t know anything And it is true even if I do not know you and never met you. Heck, you may be reading this after I am long dead. And it is still true. Because we have shared life on this planet together. We are both humans. We both think and feel and read and believe stuff. And I love you. Because my Grandma taught me that I should, just as someone, somewhere in your life taught you.
I often go back and re-read old posts, particularly when I discover that someone else has read them. It is amazing to me how differently I perceive things from when I actually wrote the post. As you write, squeezing huge, boulder-sized portions of hot, magma-like burning ideas and passions out through writing orifices not nearly big enough to accommodate, you usually hate what you wrote and are still writhing in pain from the creation of it as you try to edit it, trim it and brush its unruly hair. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor to make you cringe?) But given time and distance, you can really appreciate what you wrote more than ever before. Things that you thought were the stupidest idea a man ever put in words suddenly have the power to make you laugh, or make you cry. You are able to feel the things the writing was intended to make you feel. You begin to think things like, “Maybe you are not the worst writer that ever lived, and maybe that’s not why nobody ever reads your books.” But then, of course, your sister reads the post and tells you that you write like a really old, really crabby, really ancient old man. And you use the word “really” too much too. I know I deserve that, Sis. Especially the “really” part.
This is the thing about happiness; It is elusive and rare as a real-life blue bird. But capturing it for a moment is not impossible. And as long as you don’t try to salt its tail and keep it prisoner, you can encourage it to sing for you. (Much better metaphor this time, don’t you think?)
When I am accused of being gloomy, old, and boring, I can happily admit it and make it into something funny. I am something of a conspiracy nut, but not so serious that I believe all my own assertions. For those people who took offense at this conspiracy theory of mine; Coca-Cola Mind Control, I would like to point out that “Hey, I was joking. I actually like clowns.” Even though there is a serious side to everything and there can’t be laughter without some tears, I am basically happy with the way things are.
I started listening to “Live Happy Radio” on Sunday mornings on KLUV in Dallas. They point out on their program of endlessly droning happy-talk that happiness is something that you can work at. Like humor writing in blogs, it takes practice and practice and time. They even asked me to share the word about their happy magazine and products, so I am doing exactly that right here. Sometimes you simply have to put your cynicism in a jar on the shelf next to the lock box where you keep depression and self-loathing. So you can find their Live-Happy folderol right here.
So I am bird-watching again with an eye out for the bluebird. You know the one. It is out there somewhere. And I need to hear that song one more time.
I discovered a new artist today. I was reading posts in the Facebook writer’s group, 1000 Voices for Compassion. And there in a post by Corinne Rodrigues was a YouTube video by Andrew Peterson. And it was a miracle. I clicked on the video and he sang my soul. Here is the original blog post. And here is the video.
Yesterday I posted a self-reflected goopy bit of nonsense about how I write and draw. Today, I realized I haven’t explained whyI write and draw.
You can capture it in words. You can capture it in pictures. Like Andrew Peterson did, you can capture it in music. It is deep and profound and eternal… and you can’t really explain it, but it is the singularity… the right word… the way to caress the very face of God.
This music from Andrew Peterson is musical poetry that expresses love in terms of romance and religion. Love of the significant other is equal to and intertwined with the love of God. There is a truth in that, and a fundamental reason why despite how religion has let me down, I will never be an atheist again. Through the right words I have come to know God. I speak to him daily. I spent twenty years as a Jehovah’s Witness, even to the point of knocking on doors and sharing the little pamphlets that are supposed to contain the capital “T” Truth. I can’t do that any more, though. The thing is, they believe the chosen of God, the only people who can reach paradise, are the people who all say and do and believe the very same thing, the very same words. Anyone else is left to destruction. No paradise. No life after death. And they clearly tell you what the words are, and you must repeat them like a magic spell. Peterson’s music is forbidden. JW’s don’t want you to listen to anyone’s words but their own. So, since this is Christian music, but not JW Christianity, it is the work of the devil, trying to lead you to destruction. What kind of selfishness is this? And yes, I have repeatedly been shown the words in the Bible that say that this is so. But I have stopped believing that all words in the Bible are the right words. When the Bible speaks of love… those are the right words. When the Bible speaks about what you must hate and who is condemned… those are not.
You may have noticed that I have obsessively searched out and shared this Andrew Peterson music. I do that when I find the right words… good words… I obsessively want to find more and more. I did that once with butterflies. When I was a boy, I chased them down with nets and collected them. But you have to put butterflies in killing jars and then mount them on pins and Styrofoam boards to collect them. I realized too late that this was not the right way to treat them. You have to let them flutter in the sunshine and float on the breeze. You have to let them live. And so must you do with the right words when you find them. You must use them and share them and let them live.
Yes, the reason I write is because my life has been lived and it is coming to an end. But it is a good life. A life filled with wisdom and love and the very best of those words I have collected in butterfly nets over time. And I must share those very right words… and let them live because they are beautiful and true… and it is simply who I have to be.
This particular Iowa trip has me thinking hard about mortality and the cold harsh wind that blows toward us from the future. My cousin’s only son lost his battle with depression, and his family finally came to terms with the loss. But the sadness is past. The responsibilities of the living is what remains.
I was born while Eisenhower was President. I was alive and aware when Kennedy was assassinated and when men first walked on the moon. I was teaching in a classroom when the first teacher in space was killed on the exploding space shuttle. And I was also in the classroom when the twin towers fell on 9-11. It is an important part of the responsibilities I have for being alive to keep that past alive too.
My mother’s knickknack shelf.
The reason we collect and care about little extraneous things like porcelain eggs, angels, fine blue china plates, and the California Raisins singing I Heard It Through the Grapevine is because those little, otherwise unimportant things connect us to memories of important times and places and people. We keep old photographs around, many of them black and white, for the same reasons.
The fiction I write is not contemporary. It is mostly historical fiction. It is set in a recent past where the Beatles and the Eagles provided the sound track to our lives. It does not cross the border into the 21st Century. The part of my writing that is not about the past is science fiction set in the far future, entirely in the universe of my imagination. It is my duty to connect the past to the future.
And I share that duty with everyone who is alive. My great grandparents and grandparents are now gone from this world. But their horse-and-buggy memories about life on the farm before electric lights and cars… with humorous outhouse stories thrown in for comic relief… are in me too. I am steeped in the past in so many ways… And I must not fail to pass that finely brewed essence on to my children and anyone young who will listen. It is a grave responsibility. And it is possible to reach the grave without having fulfilled that important purpose.
In times of great sadness and loss we must think about how life goes on. There has to be a will to carry on and deliver the past to the future. Every story-teller carries that burden, whether in large or small packages. And there is no guarantee that tomorrow will even arrive. So here is my duty for the day. One more window has been opened.
I have always had an inquiring mind. That is a curse instead of a plus if your main goal in life is to be happy and unbothered by anything. But it has proved to be of benefit to me as I have become an old coot who actually cares about what is true. Yes, I am willing to personally suffer to bring to light that which is actually true and that which must be disbelieved before it truly hurts us.
Don’t judge me yet based on this next question;
“Did you know that the Democratic party is funded by billionaires who want to use the “Deep State” to promote their Satanic rituals involving the murder and cannibalistic consumption of human children?”
I hope you know that I would never promote such a thing as being true. I am even careful of posting this pernicious lie in a question rather than a statement, because that’s one of the tactics the malign promoters of this religious belief use, not actually stating something that will be contradicted immediately, but taken merely as something to be considered and discussed simply because it is offered in question form.
So, how do you tackle such dangerous nonsense?
I prefer the scientific method which provides the structure for your thinking that will keep you on the most likely paths that lead you to what is true and what is not.
Facts should be confirmed by multiple verifiable sources.
We don’t talk much about cold fusion nowadays because when it was discovered in 1989 by a pair of electrochemists whose single experiment produced more heat than what should result from the energy put into the tabletop experiment. But, as is required by the entire scientific community, it couldn’t be reproduced in more repeats of the experiment than those that turned out negative. So, even though Pons and Fleischman did an experiment that answered the dreams of science-fiction nerds like me, they are mostly ignored by now. Cold fusion? Only one flawed source, studied in 1989 and proved still basically untrue in 2004 by a multitude of scientists who wanted it to be true.
Consider the source for Q-Anon conspiracies. One (or possibly more) anonymous government whistle-blowers whose credentials have never been presented or identities revealed, and mind-blowing statements appearing on places like 4-Chan, 8-Chan, and Parlor to be picked up and amplified on such reliable sources of scientifically proven knowledge as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Q-Anon is not the only conspiracy religion out there. My friend Giorgi above has a more benign, but no less ridiculous religion that chooses to replace God Jehovah, Zeus, Odin, Buddha, and other religious figures and deities with Ancient Aliens.
Here’s a second and third test offered by Carl Sagan to use against their ideas;
2. Encourage debate from knowledgeable people from all identifiable perspectives.
3. Do not accept arguments only from positions of authority.
Q-Anon arguments only have the authority of repetition because social media endlessly asks the same “questions” over and over. There is no debate from any recognizable “authority,” just a plethora of unsubstantiated statements and commandments.
In a way, the Ancient-Aliens crowd is guilty of the same thing. They never have skeptics and debunkers on their History-Channel show. You never see Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, offering his opinions of their conclusions on that show. Neither do they allow Christian theologians or Buddhist scholars to offer their take on what probably really happened. They do employ physicists, engineers, and historians on their show, but never the ones that don’t agree with their radical theories and conclusions. Since there is no real debate on that show and no identifiable peer review, that show does not qualify as History, let alone Science.
4. Don’t get overly attached to your own ideas.
If you are going to investigate any conspiracy that holds thrall a number of “true believers,” approach everything with a truly open mind. I actually believe alien beings from “out there” have visited Earth. That is based on things, science, and testimony I haven’t even begun to go into here. But I reserve my right to be skeptical about everything, especially my own prejudices, theories, and beliefs. Otherwise I could too easily get trapped into believing in the truth of something that I otherwise would recognize as false. This is the factor that has pulled so many of my otherwise sensible Republican friends onto the flypaper of spurious Q-Anon claims.
5. Use numbers wherever possible. Math is quantifiable information that can “prove” the facts better than most ideas expressed in mere language. It is more precise, and reveals truth in verifiable ways that no poet ever could.
I am known to some in my family (here you could read wife and sisters) as the family conspiracy nut and generally crazy old coot.
But I am not so crazy that I don’t recognize the dangers inherent in some the ideas I am talking about here. As an English teacher I have learned some effective thinking skills that protect me and mine. I can honestly tell you that these thinking skills explained here will help you too. I learned them from a friend who pointed me to Carl Sagan as the source of these thinking skills.
And to any of my friends who might read this post and be offended, I apologize. But you were wrong about Pizzagate, and you are on the wrong side of this too. Aliens probably did NOT build the pyramids.
I gave you a list of places where my ideas for fiction come from, and in the end, I failed to explain the thing about the bottle imp. Yes, I do get ideas from the bottle imp. He’s an angry blue boggart with limited spell powers. But he’s also more than 700 years old and has only been trapped in the bottle since 1805. So, he has about 500 years of magical life experience to draw from and answer my idea questions. Admittedly it would be more helpful if he were a smarter imp. His name is Bruce, and his IQ in human terms would only be about 75. But, then, I don’t have to worry about misfired magic. If I asked him to, “Make me a hamburger,” he wouldn’t immediately change me into a fried, ground-beef patty because he is not smart enough to do that high of a level of magic spell.
But he is just barely intelligent enough to tell me a truthful answer if I asked him a question like, “What would happen if I put an alligator’s egg in a robin’s nest as a joke, and the robin family decided it was their own weird-looking egg and then tried to hatch it?” The answer would be truthful according to his vast knowledge of swamp pranks. And it would also be funny because he’s too dumb to know better. In fact, he told me about a mother robin who worked so diligently at hatching an alligator egg that a baby alligator was hatched. She convinced it that it was actually a bird. And when it came time for the baby birds to learn to fly, the baby alligator couldn’t do it… until she talked it into flapping madly with all four legs. Then, a mother’s love and faith in her child got an alligator airborne.
Yeah, that hasn’t proved to be a very useful story idea. I put it into a story I was writing during my seven years in high school, and then lost the manuscript. (I was a teacher, not a hard-to-graduate student.) But it was proof that you can get your writing ideas from a bottle imp.
So, if you decide to use bottle imps as an idea source for fiction, the next step is to find and acquire the right sort of bottle imp. I got mine from Smellbone, the rat-faced necromancer. I bought it for an American quarter and three Canadian loonies more than a dozen years ago. I found it at his Arcana and Horse-Radish Burger Emporium in Montreal. But I am not sure how that information helps you. Smellbone died in a firey magical-transformation accident involving an angry Wall-Street financier and a dill pickle. The whole Emporium went to cinders in an hour.
If you are going to try to capture the bottle imp yourself, which I strongly do not recommend, you are going to need a magical spell-resistant butterfly net, a solid glass jar, bottle, or brass urn. A garlic-soaked cork to fit the bottle. A spell scroll ready to cast containing at least one fairy-shrink spell. And an extremely limited amount of time to actually think about what you are doing.
Now I have told you how I get writing ideas from a bottle imp. Aren’t you glad I did not include this idea in the post about where ideas come from? After all, I am a fiction writer. I get my jollies from telling lies in story form. And bottle imps, especially angry blue bottle imps named Bruce, or Charlie, or Bill, are more trouble than they are worth. They can curse you with magical spells of infinite silliness and undercut your serious nature for a lifetime.
I have been a Methodist, a Jehovah’s Witness, an Atheist, an Agnostic, and a fool who read the I-Ching, Book of Changes, thinking he is smart enough to understand more than a word or two.
At least one of those religions rejected me before I rejected it.
So, it’s not as if I am shopping for a new religion.
What is a religion anyway?
If I understand anything at all about religion, it would have to be this; A religion is merely a prescription for how you should live your life prescribed by a doctor who can’t prove any more of it than you can, but thinks he can because he’s recognized a magical spark inside himself, a tiny piece of the imperceptible Devine, and thinks he is then qualified to tell you what it should mean to you when you recogmize it in yourself.
And if I know anything at all about Comedy, other than the instinctive knowledge of how to laugh, it is also only because I have recognized a Devine spark in it and now have to be humble enough to admit that I don’t have anywhere near enough malpractice insurance to get away with prescribing it to you as a cure for the ailments of your own little life-force in the vast, star-filled universe provided by a laughing Deity.
But it does provide the answers and the cures we seek for the unhappy twistings in our souls.
Comedy, as practiced by the greats, doesn’t provide a cure for death, as other religions do, or claim to. But it does deal with the malady of mortality by helping us be less serious, and laughing in the face of ultimate disaster.
And have you ever noticed that those who might be Jesus in this religion of the chuckle, those who sacrifice their life totally to try and take away our troubles by making us laugh, those like Charlie Chaplin, Emmitt Kelly, Groucho Marx, Robin Williams… are really fundamentally sad people who suffered greatly in life to bring us the forgiveness of our sins in the form of mirth?
So, Comedy is my new religion. I will practice it as piously and as reverently as anyone can practice such an inherently impious and irreverent thing. I have not led a perfectly happy life. But I have found healing for my happiness in the laughter of others, and so I seek to create more of it. And laugh some myself as well.
Yes, it is just not possible to write an exemplary daily essay every single day. Some days you just have to be ordinary. Today is probably gonna be one of those days.
You see, in my head I have always been Michael. My parents, grandparents, and siblings always called me that.
When I was drawing and telling stories, well, that part of me I always knew was Mickey. I was the only one who ever called me that.
But my Uncles and cousins and classmates and teachers, usually called me Mike. And that was confusing because when I first started school, there were three Mikes in my class of nine kids. Mike S. and Mike M. and I was Mike B. And when I was nine, there was another Mike B. in the grade right ahead of me (he was ten when I was nine.) But Mike S. and Mike M. had moved to other schools in the county then. So I was Mike in the classroom, and he was “the Other Mike.” Miss M had both third and fourth grade in the same small-town school so she had to manage two Mikes in one room. But both of us were Ordinary Mikes.
An Ordinary Mike in the 1960s went skinny-dipping at least three times in their early childhood. (Well, that was me. I only actually saw the Other Mike naked at the Iowa River once, though his little brother Barry said they went to the river a few times.)
And an Ordinary Mike was shy around girls. Even tomboy girls who would say yes if you asked them to go skinny dipping because they felt they were just one of the guys. An Ordinary Mike never dared to ask that, though Joel and Randy said that Lulu Baerinfeld went skinny-dipping with them one time. But Ordinary Mikes were always just wise enough to realize they were lying.
Ordinary Mikes sometimes got a “C” on their report card in Math, not because they were dumb and didn’t get it, but because they didn’t do some of the homework because they didn’t want their dumb friends to think they were too Brainiac- smart (Brainiac was a villain in Superman comics.)
But both Ordinary Mikes, me and the Other Mike, were good at Science, getting “A’s” on their report cards. We both vowed to each other that one day we would both become astronauts and walk on the Moon, or maybe Mars. But, as far as I know, neither of us managed to make that dream come true.
So, a writer like me can’t always be extraordinary. In fact, I am often quite ordinary. As I have basically proven, I was and am… Ordinary Mike.