Fantasy Authors Really Need to Start Saving the Real World

I write about imaginary characters who save imaginary worlds.

But that seems so frivolous  when the real world keeps hurtling toward new perils.

That is why I often find myself trying to remedy real world threats in my head as if they were just plot holes in need of plugging.

Or I get mixed up. I wonder: How should my protagonist rescue democracy, defeat dragons, prevent climate apocalypse, procure the sacred elden wand, and stem the tide of irrationality that has seized public discourse?

But trying to solve global problems in my head is exhausting. And it is always with the knowledge that any solution I come up with is bound to be embarrassingly absurd.

Perhaps, my brain helpfully suggests, the world only needs more fantasy authors, perhaps entire brigades of us, magic-obsessed wordsmiths brandishing pens and highborn notions. “Have no fear, just step aside, fantasy novelists coming through, saving worlds is our specialty, no need to thank us, no worries, we got this!”

But saving pretend worlds is so much easier than saving real ones. Authors get to rig the game. J.R.R. Tolkien imagined a ring that emanated darkness but he also threw in a convenient disposal mechanism: a fiery ring-eating mountain.

The equally underhanded writers of Star Wars got to toss a convenient  “flaw” into the Death Star, a vulnerability due to an apparent lapse in the dark lord engineering handbook.

When “saving” a fictional world, authors don’t even have to find solutions: we get to make them up. And if no good solutions are handy we can just tweak the problem until it has one.

Addressing actual threats means paying close attention to the real world, the one outside of books and dreams, a place of laundry and taxes and expensive cereal, a place where heroes are scarce and dragons are found not in castle keeps but on toy shelves.

But confronting realities like expensive cereal is anathema to us. There is nothing drearier to a fantasy author than facing real life, but maybe, at some point, some of us ought to try it.

Besides, who has more of a stake in saving the actual world than a fantasy author? If the world goes away, no one will be around to read our books! What better reason to seek world peace and preserve a habitable planet for future generations?

But I do realize that the planet is not just some rough draft in need of a snappy plot twist.

That may be why every time I try to find solutions to real world problems, my imagination lets me down.  My answers are the sort that most editors would consider too hackneyed to print.

Maybe everyone just needs to love each other more. Then every problem will be solved! World peace will ensue!

Except, I know better. If love were going to bring about world peace, justice, and responsible technology, it should have done so by now. Everyone has been pushing love as a social panacea for eons. But Utopia seems more remote than ever. Besides, some people are incapable of loving. We need a “Plan B.”

Which leads me to hackneyed solution number 2: Maybe humans just need better self-esteems. Maybe we keep rushing toward existential precipices because we secretly have a low opinion of ourselves. Maybe out of sheer self-dislike we unconsciously want to end the human experiment once and for all.

I wonder: With all of our hand-wringing over human hubris, have we finally become victims of our own cynicism? The pageantry of horrors marching through the pages of history books seem to confirm that humans are nefarious creatures. But maybe we need reminding that history is mainly the story of power addicts who think they need more power.

Crazed power addicts do not represent the human population as a whole, if only because most people lack access to armies or word-ending bombs, the obscene levers of power wielded by those who prowl the world stage.

The best people—the people we meet every day—rarely make the history books, yet they are just as much a part of the past as Alexander the Great or Hammurabi.

History books never mention your grandmother who baked your favorite oatmeal cookies when you were five even though her back was achy. Orthe taxi driver who waived your 80 dollar fare just because he learned it was your birthday.

But such characters do appear in fiction, a venue where they are duly honored.

So, maybe if enough fiction writers, who understand that kindness matters, put their heads together they could find a non-hackneyed way to preserve humanity for a few more millennia.

It is strange, though, how, in all of my fervor to “save the world in my head,” I keep forgetting a important fact: the world is still here.

When I look at the news I can hardly see what is in front of me for the fogs of portent in my head.

I forget that the world has been teetering on the brink of annihilation for some time now, and humans have lasted much longer than many people expected.

Maybe the world has already been saved many times but somehow it just never made the news. Or maybe there was a clandestine peace-making special ops unit involving cookie-bearing grandmas and generous taxi drivers—people  who preferred birthdays and brownies to breaking things.

That being said, no one can save the world for all eternity. And there are no guarantees that if we save the world once, nothing will ever menace it again.

But for whatever reason, here we are, still going about our lives, dreaming, doing laundry, chewing gum, and feeding our cats overpriced tuna treats.

The world, despite everything that threatens it, is still here.

But just in case the grandmas and taxi drivers need help, we as fantasy writers are honor-bound to do our part.

So, Other Fantasy Authors, do what you do best—imagine.

Imagine world peace and Utopia. Imagine a future safe for people, frogs, cats, kids, and new video gaming systems.

And if all else fails attempt the impossible. Unleash magic. Call down the dragons. Prepare the elixirs. Send forth the elven armies. Summon the sorcerers gone berserk with pious rage.

A storm is coming, and the time has come to vanquish the forces of darkness before it is too late.

Just think. By saving the real world from climate disaster, pandemics, and autocracy, we will be saving our imaginary worlds as well.

And we have to do that because that is our job.

Fame is Fickle. Money is Impersonal. Art is Where the Awe is.

As a child, whenever I told adults that I wanted to be a writer, they always smiled and asked if I wanted to be famous.

Famous! Like Mickey Mouse and Elvis and Stephen King. Of course, I did!

I was always starting novels that I felt certain would induct me into the literary hall of fame. “Ten-year-old reveals astounding insight in her debut horror novel The Heart Stop! A tour de force of stupefying scariness!” (This was an actual title and I was very proud of having come up with it.)

As I grew older, I started to realize how hard literary fame was to come by. You would do well to get a publisher to even read your novel, the writing magazines said. The stars in my eyes dimmed.

I adjusted my ambitions. If fame was unobtainable, maybe I could at least draw a steady paycheck and make a living doing what I enjoyed. That would be a feat worth celebrating since most adults I knew hated their jobs.

A paycheck would confer a humbler version of fame: respectability.

I had a sobering image of myself as an adult trudging to a mailbox carrying a stack of bills, feeling self-contained, responsible, and independent—a far cry from the glitz of universal adulation but there was a certain respectability in it.

Unfortunately, while respectability oozed pious pragmatism, it killed my inspiration. Respectability seemed to demand relentless conformity. It encouraged grammatical nitpicking and safe creative choices.

I had originally been attracted to writing because it was fun. Attempting to make it responsible killed my subversive joy, and I became blocked.

Finally, after many years of stuttering out grammatically correct unfinished stories,  I gave up on being “respectable.”It was the best decision I ever made.

I started back writing like I did when I was ten: with unapologetic, exuberant abandon. If I wrote anything too silly I could always tell myself, “That was brilliant for a ten-year-old.” My block went away and never came back.

Sometimes I still dreamed of becoming famous. But I noticed a troubling pattern with my heroes, how one after one, the writing celebrities I had once admired were tossed off their pedestals after revealing an unpopular opinion, a bad habit, or a dark past. Fame, like, money, only existed in the collective human imagination and could evaporate like a passing thought.

I came to view fame, paychecks, and respectability as dispensable relics of a dream that others had implanted in me.

The creative process was where the true wealth was, the elixir buried beneath a mound of misguided virtues that society extolled such as discipline, efficiency, and competition.

The art, I thought, is where the awe is.

I still think so. When I write, I enter vast creative chamber where any mistake is allowed. It is an anarchic place without competition, rules, or hierarchies. The chill I sometimes feel when an idea captures my imagination borders on the numinous.

I am an agnostic. But there are brief pockets of time, usually at night, when an idea for a story strikes me and I have the thought, “There is a God after all.”

The thought comes with a feeling of euphoria, and with it a desire that eclipses everything else that is going on in my life.

I think, This story has to exist. It has to exist even if it no one else ever reads it. It has to exist even if it turns out to be awful. It has to exist even if writing it is the last thing I do before I die.

Usually the afterglow of my epiphany has vanished by morning. But the idea remains.

Sometimes it comes with a mild sense of foreboding. I know that no matter how good my idea seemed the night before, the actual writing is going to be hard. My story idea, incandescent as it might have been in my head, is bound to pale beneath my pen.

It is remembering my moment of “epiphany”—however dubious—that emboldens me to tunnel through many wobbly rough drafts, rewrites, and painstaking edits.

I am doing more than just writing. I am nailing together a staircase of words to climb back to my original feeling of enlightenment—that feeling  that I was onto something, that some dull curtain of perception was parting to emit the seductive light of truth.

After many false starts and adjustments I begin to see, once again, why my original idea seemed so luminous.

When my writing is going really well, all thoughts of “winning” fall away, and hierarchies prove to be what they have been all along: imaginary.

But childhood fantasies die hard.

Fame would mean a lot of readers, and I like readers. And money is useful for things like buying chocolate. I like chocolate.

But If I had all the money in the world I would still write. I would write for the same reason I still play The Legend of Zelda, cram my coffee full of cream, and keep a cat around me at all times.

Fame tarnishes over time and money looks alike no matter where it comes from, whether babysitting, school teaching, or insider trading.

I was right to give up on respectability. Respectability is a lie. The art is where the awe is. My ten-year-old self knew that well. And after too many years of block, so do I.

Self-Publishing is not a Last Resort. It is the Holy Grail.

Months ago, a relative told me that his ambitious author friend was earnestly seeking a book deal.

“She wants to be a big writer,” he said. “Not like you. I mean, you’re just kinda sorta of content to self-publish. But she wants to make a living at it.”

I was dumbfounded. Even offended. Who wants to be called just kinda sorta anything?

But I believe he meant well. And after thinking about his remark for a while, I realized that he was right. I am content to self-publish. And I am happy that the technology exists to for me to do it so easily and economically.

I have self-published all of my books since iUniverse emerged around the turn of the millennium, and I have no regrets.

My memory of my brother telling me about the new technology is  one of my favorites. He had heard about it on NPR. “Print on demand technology,” he explained, “means that you can self-publish without the risk of going broke.”

Just out of college and writing my first novel, I was nearly in despair over my publishing prospects. I had been reading how-to-write magazines that were less about writing well than pleasing publishers and agents. The gatekeepers seemed to want minimally modified duplicates of popular releases that had already made scads of money.

Such risk-averse publishers  seemed unlikely to applaud my novel Thief of Hades. Not because my story was bad but because it was strange. It did not fit into a neat genre or age category.

My main character was the mythological boatman of the river Styx, an immortal man, cursed to age forever, who ferried dead souls to their afterlife destinations.

He was not a typical hero. He was not sexy or young. He did not fit the “chosen farm boy savior” fantasy trope. I had never even considered who my audience would be. I just wanted to tell a good story, the kind I would want to read.

The new technology opened doors to all kinds of bold weirdness and seemed too good to be true.

I had always imagined that the most I could hope for was to hire an elusive boss called a publisher who would extol my talent, then override my editorial decisions and take most of my profits. And even that was a long shot. Because apparently all writers wanted that, and there were only so many aloof, profit-grabbing publishers to go around.

But iUniverse shifted the vast power from the editorial gods to me. No need to query and wait months for a reply from a “busy agent.” No more jumping through arbitrary  formatting hoops merely to submit the first few paragraphs of a manuscript. No need to prove that I could adeptly say popular things that had already been said before. I was allowed to write weirdly and originally and recklessly. And so I did.

Because of the new technology, a cosmos of creative voices that had been muted could finally be heard—potentially by wide audiences. For some reason, though, I never foresaw indie publishing becoming the robust movement that it is now, transforming the publishing industry in a seismic way.

For many years, the publishing model I had known my whole life still held its sheen for me, especially since companies like iUniverse were at first dubbed “vanity presses.” The belittling label always set my teeth on edge .

Why was publishing a book on my own “vain”? Did entrepreneurs who started their own restaurants endure accusations of building “vanity restaurants?”

Regardless, I wanted to escape the assumption that I had a character defect because of how I had published my novel. So, about six years ago, I did submit a manuscript to a traditional publisher.

Months later, I received a glowing acceptance letter. I went around in an ebullient daze, feeling like I had been inducted into some lofty pantheon.

The deal was a disaster from the start. For six months I was under the impression that my novel was being edited, and when I finally wrote to inquire about it, I discovered that the editor had not even begun. Plus, the company had lost my manuscript. I had to resend it.

When I finally did receive the edits, the parts that the editor wanted me to cut were the parts I loved the most: the scenes that had real emotion in them.

She thought that my novel had passages that were too depressing. She wanted me to delete them and make my characters more likeable—especially the parents.

Feelings of resentment lodged inside me. If I made all of the changes that my editor demanded, my novel would be  unrecognizable, a thin forgettable adventure, a milquetoast amusement park ride. I ended my book deal.

Before self-publishing became economically viable, my decision to refuse the edits would have been far more gut-wrenching. If I had ended the deal in, say, 1990, I could not have counted on my novel getting published at all. The editor would have had vast power to reshape or dilute my vision.

But self-publishing does more than grant creative control to authors who have existing manuscripts. Sometimes, just knowing the indie option exists encourages aspiring authors to write stories that they never would have otherwise.

Shortly after I published my first novel, I received a phone call from my former next-door neighbor, a talented columnist for the local newspaper. His name was Steve Biondo.

He wanted to know whether I liked my experience with self-publishing. For many years, he had kept an incomplete manuscript of a novel in his desk drawer, a novel he yearned to finish but that had been gathering dust.

It fictionalized a local legend—a civil war hero named Manse Jolly. Because Manse Jolly was such a niche topic, the publishers Steve had queried expressed no interest in it.

Steve was frustrated. He dreamed of finishing his novel anyway, but his job drained him so much that by the time he got home from work, he was loath to write or do much of anything else.

But when he learned from my mom that I had self-published a novel, everything changed for him. He realized that he had a new power, which motivated him to finish his book The True Story of Manse Jolly. In fact, he ended up publishing an entire trilogy.

I was proud of him. And I was moved that self-publishing my novel had encouraged him to achieve a previously thwarted dream.

But a few years after writing his third book, I stumbled across a stunning item in my hometown newspaper: an obituary.

Steve had died. A breathing complication had taken his life after he was admitted into the local hospital.

My throat grew tight. Although I was just a neighbor, I had considered Steve to be the first “real writer” I had ever known. He had even had the perceptive squint that I thought all writers were supposed to have. Real writers with perceptive squints, I thought, were supposed to live forever.

Months later, I learned that—in a way—they could. When I attended his memorial service, I saw something unexpected. Someone had brought out a table to display his three Manse Jolly novels.

I could not stop staring at them. I kept thinking that, inside those covers, Steve was still alive. His wit and intelligence and imagination were preserved there. And every time someone read his words, his mind would flicker to life again.

Those books were repositories of his knowledge, quirks, personality, and passions— novels that would never have been born without a technology that eased the burdens of self-publishing.

My friend was not a “big” writer. He never got rich or earned enough from his fiction to quit his day job. But those novels were ends in themselves. They mattered.

Some aspiring writers view self-publishing as the option of last resort, a trashy gimmick for no-talent writers or a vanity press for impatient hacks who only want to see their name in print.

Not true. Self-publishing is not a cheap imitation of “respectable” publishing; it is its democratic gold standard that legions of writers throughout history would have killed for if they had known it were possible.

Self-publishing permits all writers to share their stories. It honors niche interests. It allows authors to take creative risks that mainstream publishers discourage.It lets authors focus on the writing rather than pleasing agents.

Despite the many benefits of self-publishing, some writers still consider it to be the plebian option of last resort. That is like saying that democracy is something you had to settle for because the right tyranny never came along. 

My relative was right. I am content to self-publish. But not just kinda sorta. I am content without reservation or apology.

Self-publishing means that I never have to beg for permission to share my ideas. It empowers and inspires me. It censors no one. It shifts the focus from how to package my thoughts to the prize that matters most: the art itself.

Why I Prefer Words to Cameras

When my friends go on trips for fun, they spend most of their time taking photographs. Cheaters, I say. Why go anywhere new if my camera is going to do my observing for me?

Cameras are indifferent observers. At most, they capture shadows. They are blind the full tapestry of experience, which includes not just sights and sounds, but temperatures, scents, and textures. A camera can never grasp my thoughts and feelings either. I prefer journals.

I have journals that go back decades. The year after I graduated from college, I took serial vacations to Myrtle Beach with my brother. While walking along the pier, I would write in my head. As soon as I got back to the hotel, I would record my observations in my journal. I wanted to describe everything from the foaming wave tips to the cigarette embers left glowing in the sand.

Maybe someday I would need an ocean scene for a story. If so, I wanted to remember the beach exactly as it was, the jellyfish strewn along the shore, the hotel lights shimmering on the ocean, or the chill in the air as I ate a blueberry ice cream cone. If I ever forgot those details, I would just consult my old journals, my reservoirs of experience that I hoped would inspire me whenever I needed them.

A couple of weeks ago, however, when I went to New York, I tried to write in my head the way I used to. But this time, words failed me.

I felt so bombarded by cars honking, vendors yelling, and pedestrians screaming into their cellphones that parts of my brain went offline. Writing in my head was impossible. It was all I could do to get from one place to another. I felt like I was missing most of what was going on around me.

I needed a separate pair of eyes to look at the city while I navigated the crowds. I wondered whether I should re-examine my aversion to cameras.

A camera is never afflicted with sensory overload. It is fast and easy to use, whereas word-wrangling can take hours. A camera can clone reality whereas my memory is prone to hazy distortion.

A camera reproduces the most intricate tableaus in an instant. Yet it never has to worry that its audience will lose interest. A viewer can easily absorb every visual detail without a thought. Unlike reading a novel, watching a video requires almost no work.

A camera never “marries the fly” either—a common writing error according to Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones. Writers who “marry the fly” emphasize all of the wrong things. They focus on boring, irrelevant details and distract from the content that really matters.

For example, a writer who is describing a wedding might suddenly lurch into a wild digression about a housefly that lands on her drinking glass. The writer tells everything she knows about the fly: its wingspan, its weight, its early history, its anatomy, and its food preferences. Her pen unfurls reams of text about the fly. All the while, the story has come to a standstill, and the bride has been relegated to a footnote.

A camera would never marry a fly. But if it did, it would get away with it. No matter how many superfluous details a photograph presents, the viewer is rarely—if ever—annoyed by them.

Given all of the advantages of using a camera, I wonder how many travel writers still use words alone. Mark Twain did. He wrote voluptuous descriptions of his life as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River. Maybe a present-day Mark Twain would have just made a YouTube video.

What would a YouTube video by Mark Twain be like? Would it convey his humor, his wit, and his biting narrative voice? One way or the other, it would not be the same. His memoirs allow me to read his mind in a way that a camera never could. His prose traces the contours of his unique perceptions, revealing a Mississippi River that was his alone. Through no other eyes—including the lens of a camera—would it have looked exactly the same.

Art is more than showing reality as it is. Otherwise, why go to the trouble of painting or drawing? You could just snap a photograph and get the same results. Art is art because it expresses the artist.

This goes for writing, too. Writing captures more than its subject. It simulates thoughts. It reveals a personality. It expresses a point of view. Thus, reading fiction by other writers lets me escape my narrow vision to explore thousands of perspectives from people who are different from me.

I will admit, though, that cameras have their place. Photos can be—and often are—art. Sometimes they even inspire me to write. They are also an excellent resource for research and a way to verify the accuracy of my memory.

But when I visit interesting places, I am still inclined to keep my camera in my purse. I want to enjoy exploring a shore or a park, which is hard to do if I am fretting over what to record. If a point of interest becomes just another place to aim a camera, I am not really engaged.

Snapping photographs might be efficient but it is a poor substitute for seeing. To experience the world in its unframed glory, I have to lower my lens and just look.

My Love-Hate Relationship with Books on Writing

Last spring, I became obsessed with the writing of William Zinsser, who wrote the book On Writing Well. The music of his lean, lucid sentences dazzled me.

I loved his muscular verbs and his original figures of speech. The quality of his writing seemed to prove that his advice worked.

Not that his rules were new to me. In principle, I already agreed with most of them, particularly his belief that clarity is the cardinal goal of writing. I agreed, too, that the best prose is direct, vivid, and clutter-free, and that the short and direct word communicates more effectively than a ponderous abstract one.

I read many of the chapters of On Writing Well multiple times not so much for his content as his style, trying to absorb his brilliance.

Only deeper into the book did I discover a surprising revelation: William Zinsser did not enjoy writing. His book is peppered with cleverly worded complaints about the agonies of author-dom. He insists that there is nothing a writer hates more than writing. A writer, Zinsser insists, will go to any length to avoid doing his job.

This was true of me at one time, but not anymore. I love to write. But unlike Zinsser, who refused to progress to the second sentence without perfecting the first, I allow myself to write terrible rough drafts and revise later.

How could such a good writer view writing as drudgery? I can guess. In the past, whenever I became obsessed with following rules, my pleasure in the process would decrease exponentially.

This was particularly true if I tried to follow them while also creating new content. For that reason, I stopped reading how-to-write books for over five years. They made me too self-conscious.

Only recently did I end my “how-to” hiatus. But after I read On Writing Well, my old problem came creeping back to me. Whenever I took Zinsser’s rules too seriously, my forehead muscles would tense and my writing would feel forced. The words I was trying to wrangle into submission were bucking me and leaving me emotionally tattered.

Frustration arose as I tried to tighten every sentence until it crackled. I agonized over rhythm. I fretted about finding exactly the right word, rather than the almost-right word. I suffered from decision fatigue as I compared different versions of each sentence.

When I finally did find a word that had exactly the right meaning, I worried that it had too many syllables. Maybe my word was not pithy enough. Or maybe it was too abstract. Or maybe my verbs were too weak.

But my biggest frustration came not so much with choosing the right word but with trimming verbiage. While I was already in the habit of cutting text, I was pursuing a new level of Zinsser-style succinctness. Zinsser urged chiseling away at text until all that remained was a kind of pristine thought sculpture, a fat-free model of efficiency, a laconic conveyer of clarity.

Following the leaner-is-always-better principle, I became rabidly obsessed with cutting text —more so, even, than usual. The faintest sign of verbosity had to be swatted into oblivion. I curtailed my essays with mercenary efficiency—always careful to save my sprawling first draft in case I wanted to restore some of my deleted writing later.

After all of my cutting was done, I would return to my original draft to compare, hoping to see dramatic before-and-after improvements, a suitable reward for all of my efforts.

But usually, I liked my previous version better than I expected. In fact, I often preferred it to my torturously revised drafts.

One day when returning to look over a rough draft, I made a startling discovery: I had changed almost all of my original content, leaving me with two distinct essays about different topics that were only loosely related.

I was not only trimming verbosity; I was pushing out my own original thoughts. Instead of saying what I wanted to say, I was losing my voice. I was becoming buried by my own rules.

The “rules” had stopped serving me; instead, I was serving them. I was allowing them to jettison me from my own prose. Now I clearly remembered why, at one time, I had stopped reading writing advice.

It was not just that I tended to take it too far. It was that no blanket rule of writing—no matter how wise it sounds—will work for every situation. No rule can take into account all of the factors that might affect an essay, story, or novel.

When I came to my senses, I remembered that shorter is not always better; in fiction it takes more words to show a character throwing a tantrum that to merely tell what he did. But showing characters in action is generally more vivid and engaging than dropping a line of exposition. Even within individual sentences, my pursuit of brevity can destroy rhythm, voice, and tone. And while short clear words may be the easiest to read, so-called “big” words have flavors, textures, and nuances that simpler words can never emulate.

Somehow, I had forgotten a the most important tenet of writing: the rules must serve my purpose. If the rules are upstaging my message, I have to let them go.

While advice from other writers may be useful, I always have to take it with a grain of salt. I do still love the way William Zinsser writes. And as rules of thumb go, his make good sense. But they are only guidelines, not oracular pronouncements from a celestial mountaintop. Obedience should never be the guiding principle of any art—not if I want to master writing instead of it mastering me.

On Writing Well now rests snugly on a bookshelf behind a glass door. Maybe five years from now, I will go back and look at it again. For now, I will simply write what comes to me, preferring to revise with a lighter touch. Unlike Zinsser, I love to write. And I want to keep it that way.

Art Makes the Familiar New Again

As an art major, I drew for a grade. But as a child, I drew because I wanted to understand. I wanted to explore why houses, people, and dogs looked the way they did. My tools of discovery were colors, lines, and shapes.

My drawings mirrored my growing understanding of what it meant to live in a world teeming with oddities like bicycles, fish, and stars.

I stopped drawing when I turned 13, partly because the private school I attended in middle school offered no art classes. My skills faded from neglect.

But later on in my junior year of college, at a time when I was deeply depressed, I abruptly changed my major from liberal studies to art. I left some of my professors scratching their heads, but there was something about drawing that I missed profoundly, and I wanted it in my life again.

Majoring in art, however, was nothing like drawing as a child. Each project had strict rules, not to mention the looming threat of a grade—and a potentially humiliating critique for every project.

Although there were parts of my art major adventure I loved, I was always tense. I never really felt like the art was a way to express myself. It was about pleasing teachers for a grade. That is why, when I left college, I stashed my oil paints, brushes, and drawing pencils in a closet. I would only return to them many years later in 2020 during a pandemic.

The pandemic reminded me that life is strange—and that my most basic assumptions could be inverted overnight. Suddenly I was home-bound, and at night there was a sense of loneliness as I got ready for bed. For company, I got into the habit of listening to YouTube. I stumbled onto a speech by Alan Watts, a self-described entertainer and “mystic” who in the sixties popularized eastern religions to the western world. Although I am a religious skeptic, I was intrigued by a video called, “Life is Not a Journey.” I thought that he had an interesting point of view.

I would listen to his lectures as I put dishes in the cabinets. His voice—which sounded like Gandalf—consoled me. And a topic he kept returning to was the unity between opposites such as objects and the space around them. Although they contrast, they depend upon each other to exist.

The speech reminded me of the importance of negative space in drawing. In the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards emphasizes the need to be aware of negative space when you draw. It matters just as much as the “positive” forms because without each other, neither could exist.

This principle goes without saying, yet it is not how most people conventionally think about forms and the space they inhabit. The “unity of opposites” seems strange. But the most basic rules of drawing direct attention to it.

Art makes the familiar seem new again. While drawing I feel like I have gone back in time, like I am a child trying to grasp what makes something look like a house or a dog or a car. Art restores me to a more innocent–and interesting–way of seeing.

I think I know what runner looks like until I try to draw one. Then I realize that I have no idea what a runner looks like. Running has become a musty symbol in my head.

Besides, a running person looks completely different according to the point of view you adopt. Are you drawing them from the side or from behind? Which of the hundreds of fleeting positions that occur in mid-run are you going to capture? Which position should you choose?

Conventional ways of thinking—which usually involve symbols—can lead to boredom; drawing is a way to unlearn them. According to Picasso, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

While I am no Picasso, I get it. When I draw, I become aware that the rules of what makes a thing look real are incredibly odd.

What can be stranger than foreshortening—a distortion of size that occurs with variations in distance? A foot of a recumbent figure, because of its proximity to me as a viewer, can look mountainous while dwarfing his more distant moon of a head.

If I crave new sights, it is not always necessary to travel. Sometimes it is enough to peel the stale skin off the familiar and make it novel again.

Drawing is a way to do that. It rewards you for looking at objects as if you had never seen them before. This mindset yields better drawings and a more interesting life.

But if you persist in drawing what you know rather than what you see, your drawings will look amateurish. To see honestly, you have to unlearn—for the moment—that a head is bigger than a foot or that the lines of a road run parallel as they recede from the viewer.

Another Picasso quote beautifully expresses the relief of “unlearning” old ways of seeing: “It took four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

But studying the rules of perspective can only take me so far. Art also enables me to see beauty in things that people normally think of as unattractive: dilapidated houses, a cracked car window, or the wrinkles of an elderly person. A photography teacher once took my class to a lot full of broken, discarded automobiles. It was a visual feast.

But what about other arts? If drawing can make me relish objects ordinarily overlooked or reviled, can writing? In a different way, yes. Just as drawing from life means honoring whatever you see, in fiction I have to honor my observations of real people.

That usually means I have to let my characters have flaws. Those flaws, even the most egregious ones, are an essential part of who they are.

Instead of rushing to edify my characters by making them more mature or reasonable or pious, I relish those flaws in the same way I could be dazzled by a yard full of battered cars.

As a writer who thrives on drama, I have no interest in reforming my characters or forcing them to conform to some arbitrary definition of perfection. If my characters are jerks, as a writer I am duty-bound to preserve their naughty integrity. That makes them seem more real than if I make them all goodness and light.

Besides, conflict is the engine of fiction. “Flaws” in characters are—for story-telling purposes—pure gold.

We are a culture obsessed with what we can change, improve, reform, rehabilitate, or control. Art is a way to step out of this mindset, to suspend judgement, to observe, and—at least for that moment—to accept what we see. Art is about celebrating whatever is.

Baruch de Spinoza said, “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.”

The best literature is about understanding. If I populate the pages of my story with pious, unselfish people who always get along, my story will stall.,

But it is not just that characters must clash for drama. In fiction, and maybe also in life, we love characters not just in spite of their flaws but because of them.

This should be obvious. But—like negative space in a drawing—it seems so strange.

Short Story: “With a Sigh, the Villains Saved the World”

There would be no more saving. The heroes were done. They stripped off their eye masks, trashed their ray guns and capes.

And if the world disapproved, it should have thought about that before it commenced yet a new round of self-annihilating shenanigans.

After its most recent caper involving a cult that worshiped tree ants, the time had finally come. Humanity needed to start solving its own damn problems.

Heroes after all had meek, shockingly vulnerable alter egos to look after. They were getting behind on their rent and were in danger of losing their poorly paid jobs at newspapers and research labs.

When the heroes retreated the villains rejoiced. They had always known that the heroes were just pious poseurs who cared more about flexing their deltoids than saving humankind.

A new age of evil honesty had arisen. The power vacuum would soon become a portal into paradise for the villains and a glorious nightmare for everyone else.

While the heroes were donating their colorful tights to thrift shops, the villains dusted off their old, previously thwarted plans for world domination: the seismo-plungers, the asteroid magnets, and the arboreal de-oxygenators—devious devices with which they could hold the world hostage for vast sums.

Sanguine about their nefarious prospects, the villains rubbed their pale, oily hands together, their eyes gleaming beneath secretive lids.

But when the villains finally promulgated their threats on their new website called “The Very Villainous Venue,” they met a baffling surprise: no one believed them.

Even after they had diligently demonstrated their seismo-plunger by obliterating a remote island in the South Pacific, they could not convince anyone that the earthquakes actually came from them—even after they televised everything. “Deepfake,” shouted the skeptics.

The humans who did believe the threat blamed each other. A subset of humanity argued that the earthquakes represented the impending wrath of God. Some even averred that there should be more of them. What better way to vanquish the heathens? The earthquakes were a warning—a precursor to divinely decreed eternal torture.

The villains were furious that God was getting all the credit for their diabolical schemes. They had put a lot of careful thought into them.

To compound their chagrin, the villains had to shutter their asteroid magnet. Their plan to escape to the moon right before the crash had gone amok.

All of the lunar real estate had already been claimed by a gaggle of multi-billionaires, who had moved there to escape the Earth, which was overheating—due in large part to their own actions.

The villains realized with growing alarm that they had work to do if they wanted their machinations to have any meaning. Threatening the scientifically illiterate masses was not going to work.

Before enacting their plots, they needed to combat disinformation so that they could seize full credit for their misdeeds.

Before the villains unleashed havoc upon the earth or demanded a hefty ransom, school children—and their parents—needed a solid grasp of science. What was the point in introducing an asteroid magnet if no one knew what an asteroid was?

With a collective sigh, the villains sank deplorable sums of their ill-gotten cash into science education. To circumvent cognitive dissonance, they reminded themselves that a true virtuoso of villainy had to play the long game.

But their plight went beyond asteroids. Even when the villains threatened to de-oxygenate the trees, they faced another grave impediment. The trees had, due to many human-induced fires, began to spew more carbon dioxide than they emitted oxygen.

However, no one with any power to act believed that either. They blamed everyone but the true villains. The political parties blamed each other. Ardent members of various religious denominations accused different faiths. They blustered and dissembled and pontificated until no one knew what was true anymore.

The villains had a grave epiphany. Why had it never occurred to them? It was they—and not just the rest of humanity—who faced an existential threat.

Even if they managed to eject the billionaires from the moon and seek refuge there after obliterating the world via asteroid magnet, there would thereafter be no recipients for their cruel schemes.

One thought in particular kept them up at night pacing the floors. What if the villains had to do good things to make destroying Earth worth their while? What if—to properly destroy the world—they first had to behave? What if they temporarily had to save the world?

After all, if the world was self-destructing anyway, who needed villains? Their diabolical clout was evaporating.

With a woeful collective sigh, the villains resolved to teach science to the masses so that they would understand subjects such as asteroids, oxygen deprivation, and seismology.

That way, when the villains threatened mass earthquakes, the world would gasp in horror.

Although the villains hated the idea of doing anything good, they tried to be philosophical about their plight. A true villain was not some hack but an artist of chaos.

To take anything away from humanity, the villains had to first give them something to lose. Like soup kitchens, a living wage, a science education, and equal health care access.

In short, to pull the rug out from under humanity, there had to be a  rug.  “Long game,” the villains reminded themselves when someone treated then to a syrupy thank you for some dubious do-gooding. Life was suffering after all.

So much effort! If only the heroes had never retired! The villains began to wonder if maybe the heroes had been playing them all along. How had confirmed villains ended up running soup kitchens, teaching geology to kids, and erecting shelters for the homeless?

“Long game, long game,” they reminded themselves. And the villains formed a support group to help them recover from the self-inflicted trauma of altruism.

After a decade of grudging labor, everyone in the world finally understood science. Most everyone was well-fed and could go to the doctor if they needed to. There was no more poverty and the most pernicious diseases were in retreat.

The plants were producing oxygen again, and not noxious vapors that smelled like burning hair. Art flourished. Smiles replaced sadness. And everyone finally knew what an asteroid was.

“At last,” the head villain said, “we have given the ordinary humans much to lose. We have fed the indigent. We have vanquished disease. We have saved the reckless world from self-annihilation. We have even become vegans to show our future victims how peaceful we are.

“Now: Our reward will be to watch them writhe and suffer as we snatch their prosperity away. Heh, heh, heh, at last the time has come to destroy the world.”

Of course, the villains had to warm up first. They prepared to unleash long-awaited explosions of diabolical laughter that would ring around the world.

The trouble was that the villains felt kind of unmotivated. After so many years of working to save the world that they were going to destroy, they were too exhausted to laugh very hard, and a giggle was just not going to cut it.

The more appropriate bellowing laughter would have to wait at least until morning came. So would the asteroid-magnets and the seismo-plungers and the oxygen-devouring arboreal vegetation.

For now, all the villains could do was curl into a ball on the cots they had set up for the homeless and rest for the night. In the morning they would awaken to a new dawn of villainy. Really, they would!

“Long game, long game,” they whispered to themselves. Then, with their bellies filled with warm vegan-approved soy milk, they drifted into a dreamless sleep.

Change Your Process and Enjoy Writing More

I recently had to retire a step in my writing process I loved. I loved it because it spared me from the anxiety of discipline. To me, discipline meant making myself write.

For most of my adult life, the concept of making myself write tortured me. It made no sense. Was I two separate people standing on different rungs of a dominance hierarchy? Which part of me was the boss, and which part the employee?

All I knew was that when Overlord Me tried to force Other Me to write, I encountered titanic resistance in the form of anxiety.

I finally concluded that if I was going to write, all of me had to want to write, not just some imaginary internal boss who knew better than the rest of me.

Luckily, I already did want to write, but a wall of anxiety was standing in my way. What I really needed was to let myself write. I needed to lift the pressure that was turning writing into a chore.

I stumbled onto a process that seemed to do the trick: pre-writing in longhand. As long as I was holding a pen, I gave myself full permission to write anything. I learned to suspend all judgment until later. I allowed myself to revise only later when I was typing my draft.

Scribbling my first drafts in a notebook without stopping to censor felt more like play than work, and it was a great way to relieve the pressure to “be good.” It eased, too, the anxiety of trying to create new content while also figuring out how to express it.

To relax my mind further, I added another trick: I promised myself that I could write one sentence and stop. I kept my promise. But most of the time, I wanted to keep writing.

I wrote quickly, messily, and brazenly. In the open prairie of my cheap spiral notebook, my mind could run wild and free if it wanted to; it could even jump the fence and plunge into forbidden territory.

In my notebook I could whine and cuss. I could attack cherished institutions. I could blather and rant and digress and dissemble. I could revel in absurdity. It was bliss.

Then, once my raw content was ready to type, I could tell myself, “No worries. All you have to do now is flex a few fingers. Just copy your rough draft into the computer. You can copy, right?”

Of course, I could. And I had solved a murky motivational problem. I had reduced writing to a simple physical task, relieving the mental pressure to perform.

But as soon as my brain noticed the jumbled words on a page, it snapped to full attention. Being a brain, it was an avid fan of order. It preferred squares to squiggles and logic to intellectual bedlam. Having strong opinions about how writing ought to be, my brain became intensely engaged, and before I knew it, it was concentrating effortlessly. No coercion required.

Even when I was tired or depressed or had a headache, writing a first draft was doable. (Revision of course was a whole other matter.)

I thought I would use my cherished technique forever. Little did I know it had a shelf life.

A couple of years ago, I became increasingly frustrated. Despite all of the problems my process solved, I became impatient with all of the copying. I was writing everything twice—once in my spiral notebook and then again on my computer.

Transcribing my longhand drafts was becoming dull and soporific. While typing, I would catch my eyelids falling; sometimes I would even fall asleep.

As my interest lagged, I was revising my work less as I typed. And especially with long novels, writing everything twice was maddening. So even though I hesitated to abandon a process that had served me well, I finally had to let it go.

I worried, however, that the quality of my writing would suffer. I thought that revising as I typed led to better writing. But maybe there were better ways to write well.

So, instead of adjusting my text while copying, I increased the time I spent planning. I had always rushed through my mind maps, eager to get to the writing itself. Now I spent more time with them, which led to rough drafts that were more polished.

But I still needed a way to avoid premature revision. When creating new content, I encountered the old problem: I was once again changing words around as if the fate of the world depended upon my finding the perfect combination of characters.

I was tempted to re-adopt my old process, as time-consuming as it was. It had enabled me to write quickly and ignore errors. That was because my messy handwriting had discouraged me from stopping to reread, freeing me to focus fully on creating raw content.

But instead of reverting to old habits, I tried something new. Using my mind map for reference, I began typing quickly without looking at the screen. Instead of fussing over words, I focused on the images in my head, knowing that if I made mistakes, I could easily correct them later.

That did it. Writing fast, I lost myself in the rhythm of my typing. I felt engaged and awake, but also relaxed. By typing “blind,” I was able to skip my hand-written drafts while remaining unselfconscious. The best part is that I no longer need to write everything twice.

Since my discovery, I have been experimenting more with my process. Although some of my experiments might fail, even one good change can save time, make writing more fun, and carry my work to a new level of proficiency.

Of course, now that I have refined my process for first drafts, I need a better way to revise.

My current method is to endlessly wrangle words into submission until they either “feel right” or I faint from lassitude. There has to be a better way. A more exciting, fun, and relaxing way. If there is, I am going to find it. And when I do, I will let you know.

Pain as Emotional Fuel for Fiction

Aspiring writers are often advised to “go out and get new experiences”—join a circus, become a reporter, or go hang-gliding off a lofty mountain ledge.

But none of that is necessary. The experiences writers need most are common emotions, which happen to us no matter what we do.

Moreover, the feelings I most need in my writing, the ones that inspire me the most, are usually the ones I dread and try my hardest to avoid: grief, envy, anger, and despair.

I learned this a few years ago when my cat Tu-bear died. Although some people view the loss of a pet as trivial, her death felt seismic to me. An unbearable silence pervaded my apartment. Tu-bear had been with me for twenty years. She was like my family, and knowing that I would never again feel her warm weight on my lap made my entire future seem cold.

Months after she died, I wrote a story called The Dragon-Proof House and dedicated it to her. My main character retreats into a futuristic virtual world — sort of like an online video game — to escape the trauma of losing a child to illness.

The simulation allows her to forget why she came, but even in her virtual world she is haunted by the ghost of her lost toddler. My story, the emotions in it, were entirely powered by my grief over losing my cat.

Given a choice between getting my cat back and writing a moving story, I would definitely have picked my cat. But lacking the power to resurrect felines, I am glad that I at least have my story.

Hate, grief, envy — along with more desirable emotions like love and joy — are the engines of fiction. Without ever feeling the best and the worst of them in myself, I would be unable to convey them authentically to readers.

Knowing this gives the worst feelings life has to offer meaning.

This is an advantage that writers have over non-artists when dealing with emotions like grief, jealousy, sorrow or rage: we can convert them into creative energy.

The emotional turmoil may be as intense for a writer as it would be for anyone, but art gives us a way of catching feelings for later use, a way of looking at them with curiosity—and even a measure of detachment—instead of running from them.

The idea of writing as a coping device is hardly new. Ray Bradbury said, “You must stay drunk on writing so that reality cannot destroy you.” According to Neil Gaiman, no matter what happens, whether death or sickness or divorce, the response should always be the same: create great art.

There is no feeling too dark to write about. In the throes of grief, fear, anger, sadness, and dread, there is always, somewhere inside me, an observer viewing it as curiously as a child seeing rain for the first time.

If I remember not to push a painful feeling away too quickly, it briefly stops being harrowing and becomes merely interesting as the writer in me says, “Pay attention. What does this feel like? Take notes. You can use this.”

A Smart Phone Unleashes the Scourge of Pandora (short story)

The smart phone was not that smart.

It was a fatuous noise box of gloom. It blinked, booped, and buzzed.  It flashed and it dimmed. It told her the news. And the news was never good.

The stories were always the same: The government was broken, and mayhem was rife. Villains stalked the earth and no one opposed them anymore.

Wars never ended. They mowed down generations and no one knew why. When the girl closed her eyes, she could see them behind her lids, fields of dying multitudes ushering in an eternal night.

The more she looked at her coffin of a phone, the worse she felt. Her head buzzed. Her vision blurred. Walls leaned toward her like twin edifices verging on collapse. The air grew so thick around her, she would surely suffocate if she did not get fresh air—soon.

With rising panic, she dashed to the front door for air but hesitated to open it, lest a hoard of malevolent phantoms pour into the house.

When she finally did open the door, she was stunned. There were no bodies in the street. No armies declaring marshal law. No villains blasting guns. No corrupt lobbyists buying elections. No maelstroms portending the end of human history.

No. It was a clear day—a sleepy summer late afternoon. A tender breeze grazed her bare arms. The sun slid its tongue across her cheeks. The perfume of lilacs tickled her nose. Birds were singing. They chirped and whistled and crooned.

Shadows shivered calmly on the road following the windy movements of the pine branches above. The wind made the sound a pillow would make if a pillow could speak.

Conditioned for horror by her phone, she had expected streets shrouded in an eerie fog, an early night that would never end, hordes of gun-men, or malign armies pouring into her front yard from a tainted dimension.

Yet here she was. Which world was real? Sun-warmed and wind-kissed, she was loath to go back inside where her phone was lurking. But when she finally did re-enter, she was again surprised.

Her house looked different than it had only seconds ago. It was cleaner and better lit than she remembered. There were no bodies there either. No villains. No bombs.

A cursory stroll through the kitchen revealed that, even if the apocalypse had come, there was enough food in the refrigerator to last her for months.

Turning her head, she caught her phone blinking ominously on the living room sofa. Strange how such a tiny device could be the entryway into such a mental hellscape. She looked away and felt instantly calmer.

She marveled at the way she could create or destroy reality merely by shifting her gaze from her phone, by choosing what would fill her vision and what would not.

She strolled through the house, taking in only what she wanted to see. A picture of a sailboat on the wall. A recliner. A sofa. Furniture that looked so stable it would surely be there for eternity.

She wanted to stay in that place of calm forever. But to avoid her phone was to live in denial. The imperiled world needed her. What exactly did it need? Her attention. It needed her attention. Even if the world destroyed itself, she had a moral obligation to lend her eyes to the debacle until the bitter end.

Or did she? What if the information overload of horrors was only hurting her and helping no one?

How soothing it would feel to simply turn away. “Reality is whatever I focus on,” she told herself. “If I read a novel, that—for a time—becomes my world. If I gaze at the night sky, then my reality is the stars. If I focus on a drawing of a sailboat, I fall into its hull. And if I open the window, my world is swaying tree shadows and songbirds.”

Strange how, all her life, the world had been screaming for her attention. Advertisers paid vast amounts of money for it. Celebrities invaded her vision from every screen. Politicians bombed her ears with promises.

The whole of society, it seemed, was trying to direct her gaze: to sell to her, to outrage her, to solve problems she had never known she had.  Her attention had meant so much to others. Why had it always meant so little to her?

She shoved her phone beneath one of the couch cushions and opened her curtains wide so the receding light of day could fall inside.

Her phone buzzed and blipped. A notification had arrived. She shut her eyes.

One day maybe she would look. But today she wanted to see the world she had lost. The one with the lilacs and clear skies and tree shadows that moved, so subtly, when the trees did.

Such calm could not last. Her furniture, by looking so still and immovable, was lying to her. One day none of it would be there anymore.

But when she sat down, her couch supported her weight. She glanced out her window at the fading sun. Right then, nothing in the world seemed more moving to her, nothing more poignant that the late summer leaves shivering in the last lingering light of day.

She shut her eyes. Opened them. Shut her eyes again. On. Off. Night. Day. What contrast. What beauty.

What power.