Archive for July 2013

Searching for the Perfect Ending: Delivering on the Promise of Change

(Spoiler Alert: This piece talks about the endings to two James Joyce stories from Dubliners, “Araby” and “Eveline.” So if you feel your life will be ruined by learning the endings of these tales, well, you should still read this piece, but you should also consider yourself forewarned.)

This week, I’ve been working on a story called “Dead Uncle Joey” and actually have six rough pages, the opening scene. Wonderful. But as usual, I’m having trouble moving on from that first scene. My first scenes, by the way, are usually quite good, and the close to one hundred unfinished short stories on my laptop sit in silent support of this truth. The trouble I have is fulfilling the promise contained in those openings.

Occasionally, I deliver a lecture on audacious beginnings in literature, in which I talk about stories that not only contain sock-knocking beginnings but also go on to deliver on them in a big way. My beginnings aren’t as audacious as some of the ones I talk about there—Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Camus’ The Stranger, to name a few—but they’re good nonetheless. And I rarely praise my own work.

Yes, I know I need to work on that.

One of the reasons I have problems moving on is that I grew up reading and enjoying stories that were largely plot-driven. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. In their most extreme cases, I call these stories Twilight Zoners, tales with twist endings that often turn the stories on their ears, usually surprising the protagonists and by extension, shocking readers. In its milder form, this kind of twist has more to do with the character, where the protagonist is the focus, he or she finding it necessary to change before the story ends. I still enjoy the first variety when they’re done well, though many fall into the trap of being formulaic and predictable. But, as I’ve said many times, and at the risk of sounding subjective, a good story is a good story. More on that elsewhere.

When I first started writing fiction, these Twilight Zoners were the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. The trouble was I wasn’t very good at them. I could easily come up with premises for fifty stories, every one of them interesting enough to attract a reader, but when it came time to follow through, I fell victim to a wicked case of writer’s block. In order to be a jaw-dropper, I needed the perfect ending, and that turned out to be a problem.

As I grew older, my reading tastes changed somewhat, and my writing style transformed right along with them. I began to develop an appreciation for stories in which a larger part of the action occurred within the character. These stories usually ended with the protagonist experiencing some kind of realization or other life-changing event, often coming as the end point in a gradual character arc. The main similarity between this type of story and the Twilight Zoner variety is that the change is drastic, whether it occurs externally or internally.

For instance, in James Joyce’s “Araby”–not a Twilight Zoner, by the way–the unnamed young protagonist (dubbed Araby by some of my lit students) ultimately feels foolish for even entertaining the thought that he could gain the attention of a beautiful neighbor girl. What causes him to realize this? A young man talking to another girl at a carnival. Okay, maybe this doesn’t sound like a drastic character change. As adults, even though we might feel sorry for the boy, we’d probably say “Get used to it, kid. That’s life.” However, if there’s any of the teenager left of us, we may recall just how earth-shattering something like that could be at that age.

DublinersIn another of Joyce’s Dubliners stories, “Eveline,” there is the marked potential for change. Eveline can remain in Ireland with her alcoholic father and care for her family, or she can leave on a ship with her potential savior, Frank. The interesting thing about this story (and the part that infuriates many of my students) is that we never find out whether she stays or goes. Yes, we’re given clues as to what she might ultimately do, but Joyce gives us no definitive answer. I have my suspicions, but I’ll leave it to you to read and decide.

How does an ending like this make a reader feel? Speaking for myself, I can say I’m far more tolerant of this kind of wrapup than I was twenty years ago, and for a number of reasons. For one, the ending forces me to re-evaluate the story. Whereas I originally suspected Eveline might leave with Frank, the more ambiguous end shows me this is not what the story is about at all. It is about Eveline’s life and the factors contributing to the decision she must make. Initially, I read the story in anticipation of the does-she-stay-or-go ending, but I soon discovered that the actual meat of the story was Eveline, her dreary life, and her inability to decide to whether or not to leave.

We can speculate, of course, as to what she does. Perhaps she decides a mere three seconds after the story ends, or maybe she stands on the dock, unable to move until she eventually dies. Maybe she’s carted away by dock workers. These are interesting ideas to ponder, but as far as the story Joyce wrote, they’re wholly beside the point. In another story, they might not be.

So here’s how this relates to my writer’s block: As a reader, it’s rather simple to analyze these kinds of stories and discuss why they do or don’t work for me. As a writer, though, looking at a story in progress, trying to force myself to commit to a follow-through, I sometimes feel like Eveline as she stands at the dock trying to decide whether to leave and face an uncertain future with Frank or remain and stay with what she has:

[Frank] rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.

Yep. That’s me, writing a story. Every time.

Shrinking Myself: Reshaping My Life, One Late-Night Snack at a Time

I’m about to write here on a topic I’ve rarely discussed with anyone outside a small circle of people. It’s no big secret, and it’s nothing I’m ashamed of. Well, maybe I am, just a little, but I’ll get over it. Plus, I’m a writer. I write about things, and this is one of those things.

Okay, here it is: I’m overweight. (But not as overweight as I was six weeks ago. More on this in a few paragraphs.)

Every six months, I go to the doctor for my regular checkup, and for the most part, everything always looks good. My slight hypertension is under control with the help of medication, and my HDL cholesterol (the good variety) is occasionally just a tad low, but the fact is I’m far healthier than I have any right to be. I have sleep apnea, which is probably made worse by my weight, but that’s been issue since I was a kid, and I’ve been successfully using a CPAP since 2005. My joints are in remarkably good condition, considering my age and weight, and that’s probably due to the fact that I never played high school sports.

Still, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve pushed it health-wise too far for too long.

There’s a reason I’m discussing this publicly, and for the most part, my motives are selfish.

  • I Want to Create Accountability: I want people to know what I’m doing, but even more importantly, I want to know that people know. If that guilts or shames me into doing what’s right, then I’m golden.
  • I’m Open to Suggestions: I know other people may have insights into what I’m going through, and I’d appreciate any advice offered.
  • I’d Like Support: Honestly, I’d like some positive feedback and encouragement. What can I say? I’m a weak man.
  • I’m Hoping to Inspire Someone Else: Who knows? Maybe what I’m doing could help someone else. Hey, I said my motives were mostly selfish.

Here’s the good news: Over the past nine weeks–since Memorial Day, to be exact–I’ve lost close to twenty pounds, which puts me a little over one-third of the way to my primary goal. And I haven’t been starving myself. Here’s an overview of what I’ve been doing so far with encouraging results:

  • Exercising at least every other weekday, I usually do forty-five minutes of aerobics, stationary bike, elliptical trainer, or brisk walking. I do it every day when possible, but I don’t beat myself up too much if I miss one day.
  • On one or both weekend days, my wife and I look for a place to go hiking, the longer the walk and the higher the elevation, the better. Fortunately, Colorado has no shortage of viable candidates.
  • I’ve been keeping my daily calorie intake to around 1,700 calories. To calculate this, I’ve been using a multi-platform calorie-tracking app, MyFitnessPal, which I’ve found to be useful. That’s probably partly me, though: I get into charts, graphs, and spreadsheets. Also, I read (and am now re-reading) an excellent book by psychiatrist Roger Gould titled Shrink Yourself, which deals with a lot of the issues surrounding eating habits.
  • As I said before, I’m refraining from eating after 8:30, which has always been a huge thing for me. Late-night grubbing is something I’ve done since I was a kid. I even did it when I was in the military, but I was so active in those days that it didn’t really affect me.
  • Weekends aren’t as regimented. In fact, I make a point of letting myself get some of the “treats” I don’t have during the week: dessert, one or two comfort foods or ethnic favorites like Thai, Indian, or Mexican.

But here’s the thing. Diets don’t work, binge exercising doesn’t work, deprivation doesn’t work. They may be useful in the short run, but they rarely last. One of the finest nuggets of wisdom I ever read about behavior went along the lines of “No matter what life changes you make, eventually, you’ll always have a tendency to be you.” The advice wasn’t as pessimistic as it might sound, by the way. The point was, essentially, that it’s unreasonable to expect big life alterations to be easy.

I know, then, that unless I come up with a way to make lasting, reasonable changes, any benefits I gain stand a good chance of dissipating with the wind.

For instance, back in the late 90s, soon after my wife and I got married, we spent nearly a year going to aerobics class and adhering to a somewhat low-fat diet, which resulted in my losing about thirty-five pounds. And I actually enjoyed it. It was great–it was wonderful. The only drawback was that the following year I started making plans to return to school and get my master’s in English, which changed my schedule, which in turn led to me skipping out on the gym, which led to…well, you get the picture.

Over the next few years, I dutifully gained back all the weight I’d lost, with about fifteen pounds to spare. Since then, I’ve never been able to replicate my success. I’ve lost five or ten pounds here and there but nothing significant or lasting. As you might have guessed, this is not something I want to happen again.

Keeping this in mind, I’m trying to build habits I can live with, such as not eating after a certain time, being more active on a daily basis, not eating second helpings, and tracking my calories now so later I’ll have a better idea of the impact of what I eat.

One thing I have in my favor is the fact that I stopped smoking about sixteen years ago–after a fifteen year habit–and it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. In fact, the time I finally quit puffing for real was probably about the hundredth attempt I’d made, and that’s not an exaggeration. But the takeaway is that if I can do that, I can do this. I know I can.

But knowing isn’t the problem. Remembering is the problem.

More to come.

(Note: Special thanks also go out to Anastasiya Goers for her article “3 Proven Strategies to Strengthen Your Willpower,” which has helped me along my way. Check out her website, Balance in Me.)


A Feast for the Senses: The Smell of Rain

While watching television a few nights ago, I caught the scent of rain coming through the front window. This is big news here, since it’s not that often that it rains enough to hear it, much less smell it.

But in the split second before my brain labeled the smell, before I even knew what was happening, I re-experienced every rain storm and downpour I’d ever known.

And they were, all of them, glorious.

It reminded me of a piece by Thomas Merton called “A Festival of Rain”:

I had better get this said before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute. By “they” I mean people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even the rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.

…I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the corn fields, said Vespers, and lit the Coleman. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it, all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside….

Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants. As long as it talks I am going to listen.

But I am also going to sleep. Because here in this wilderness I have learned how to sleep again. For here I am not alien. The trees I know, the night I know, the rain I know. I close my eyes and instantly sink into the whole rainy world of which I am a part, and the world goes on with me in it, for I am not alien to it.

Source: Peak & Prairie. The Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter’s Online Newsletter, June/July 1999.

Good Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi: A Canticle for Leibowitz

If you’ve not read Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, you should do so. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a science fiction fan or someone who’s on the fence about genre fiction. In fact, if you are on the fence, this could be the one to make you fall off.

This is one of the best sci-fi novels out there, on top of being an excellent post-apocalyptic book from a time when they weren’t as hip and cool as they are now. Don’t get me wrong, though. They were still hip.

Here’s a nifty A Canticle for Leibowitz page at Worlds Without End with reviews, an excerpt, a history of the book’s publication, and pictures of some of the novel’s truly amazing covers (the cover included here is one of my favorites).

Link here.

For Your Edification: A List of Banned Science Fiction & Fantasy Books

Here’s an interesting list from Worlds Without End featuring many banned science fiction and fantasy books.

Now, since we know that banning a book exponentially increases its sales, the question becomes “How can I write a bannable book?”

Link here.