The Thankful Writer

As I write this, I’m sitting in the living room of my aunts and mother’s home. It’s mid-afternoon and we’re all waiting for Thanksgiving Dinner. My sister’s family and I piled into their van early in the morning to travel to Illinois where our aunt and mother live. It’s a rather short trip, just under three hours, and we were fortunate not to experience any kind of traffic. We stopped for gasoline once and I was able to refuel my caffeine tank while my brother-in-law filled the van’s. The dinner we had consisted of turkey, ham, potato casserole, cheesy broccoli, and some type of cranberry concoction. It was delicious. When we finished and washed the dishes, we had dessert. As tradition dictates, that dessert was pumpkin pie with whipped cream. While we devoured the pie, the Disney Plus movie “Noelle” played. That too was pretty good. Sure, it had a lot of product placement and a predictable ending, but the casting was great and the humor was flawless.

Overall it was a rather perfect day free of any kind of drama.

To say that I have a lot to be thankful for is an understatement. The first thing that I’m thankful for is my family. My family has supported me and has had my back even at my darkest, lowest moments. I count myself blessed to be apart of this family. Another thing I’m thankful for is my job. As an author, it’s difficult to find a job that grants the flexibility needed to actually get some book writing done. It’s also very fulfilling and entertaining. Covering the news, you will always get something different coming across your desk. Being able to help get the word out on various topics, organizations, and causes is something that I take pride in. I’ve also made many friends and acquaintances in my four and a half years as a news writer.

My faith is something that I don’t touch on very often during these times together. That’s something I could talk about later on, but for now let me just say that without God, I might’ve succumbed to the devastating depression that followed my separation and divorce. I’m so thankful for all the things that God has done for me, even if some of those things weren’t all that great.

One of the final things that I’m thankful for is… you. The reader. You’re the one that reads my weekly rants, my articles, and (hopefully) my books. Without you guys, I might not be here every week ranting about one thing or another. I’d most likely be working at a gas station on third shift. As a side note, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I had worked third shift at a gas station in South Bend and I despised it. Working nights at a gas station in the south edge of a minor city in Northern Indiana was boring and soul-crushing. However, I did meet a lot of interesting individuals during those nights. An example was this one guy that was walking to Kokomo from Michigan because he was kicked out of the state.

There’s always one person on my Facebook feed that likes to remind their friends that this holiday was based on White people taking advantage of the natives. Whether that was the case or not, it really doesn’t matter much because the past is the past.

What does matter is that on Thanksgiving, we acknowledge the blessings that we have been given. We need to remember that not everyone has been blessed as we have. For me, I know that things could have gone a very different route if it hadn’t been for my family, my God, my job, and readers like you.

So, what I guess what I’m trying to say is… thanks.

Leaving a Legacy

I’ll probably never have children. I’m cutting straight to the honest truth this week. I mean, I think I sort of blew my chances when my marriage ended a few years ago. And I had gotten married at the prime of my life too. Ten years ago I had a lot more hair on my head. Not like Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, though. I’m talking like a little less than Thor in Thor: Ragnarok. You might think it weird that I’m talking in Marvel movies, but that’s only because Avengers: Endgame is coming out soon.

The reason why I’m talking about my lack of progeny is that I got to thinking about my upcoming death. That’s right, I’m dying. Spoiler alert: we’re all dying. Every day we creep closer to the inevitable end of our lives. It’s unavoidable, so it’s worth thinking about. Plus, being all alone in this house (or what I like to call the carcass of my broken marriage) I can’t help sometimes being depressed and thinking about The End.

It’s what we, horror writers, do. We think about The End. It’s only natural. At the end of writing a manuscript, those two little yet very important words mark the closing of a tale. In real life, it’s the same. Our headstones represent those two words. The End.

I asked myself once, while sitting alone in the empty house, what will be my legacy? What will I leave this world once I actually die? According to dictionary.com, there are five definitions for  Legacy. Three of them were boring and didn’t apply to my needs, and one of them was hilarious, but the one that stood out was this: “anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor.”

If you were wondering, the hilarious one was this: “of or relating to old or outdated computer hardware, software, or data that, while still functional, does not work well with up-to-date systems.” Why is it hilarious, you may ask. I think the same definition could be attributed to people sometimes. Anyway, back to the real focus of my column.

What does that mean? Sure, it could mean inheritance. My father once took me to a storage shed and told me about the stuff he intends to give me when he dies. I told him, “I don’t want to hear about that. That’s just morbid.” Which it was, but that’s what he cared about. That “stuff” is important to him and he wants to make sure it’s taken care of when he passes (he’s still alive if you were wondering… hi dad!). 

For politicians, “legacy” could mean the laws they’ve passed or the service they gave to their country. He served not only in the Vietnam War, but he served as a senator from Arizona from January 1987 until his death in August 2018. No one can deny that he served his country. After his death, there were countless stories about his character. One such account written by Raoul Lowery-Contreras for the website www.thehill.com, had this to say about the senator:

“When one compares the character of John McCain with anyone else, one finds few men who measure up to the senator and the 1,800 days of torture, beatings and broken bones that he, and most other American POWs, suffered at the hands of their North Vietnamese captors. Real men must stand up now to be measured by the standards that Sen. McCain left us as his legacy.”

For writers, it’s pretty obvious what we leave behind: the articles, books, short stories, and other published content. You know, interestingly enough in the paper I edit (The Starke County Leader) I have this feature piece called “Throwback Thursday” where I take a front page from the past and give a summary of what happened. That front page is a small piece some writer’s legacy. That’s what they left behind for us. Now, being in a depressed mood, I realize that my books, articles, even the newspapers I edit won’t really make a difference in the world. A hundred years into the future, I doubt professors are going to be assigning my books as part of his syllabus. I don’t think I’m a terrible writer, but I’m no Stephen King. 

So what exactly should my legacy be and how should I go about leaving it when I pass (I’m thirty-three so I’ve got some time…hopefully)?

Well, there’s another aspect that I haven’t covered yet. I may be a writer, but I’m also a Christian. So, looking on the internet I find this really great article about leaving a legacy in terms of Christianity. It starts by quoting the Bible. 

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” writes Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7. 

Fighting the good fight. Finishing the race. Keeping the faith. Isn’t that something that you’d want to be remembered for? I don’t want my nieces and nephews, my friends and other family, and others to think anything less of me. “Oh, Jim was nice, but he wasn’t that good at finishing what he started. He surely wasn’t one for standing up for what’s right. He wasn’t even a faithful dude.” That’s not exactly what I want people to say at my funeral.

I guess the point is that when you die, it doesn’t end at the grave. It’s my opinion that I’d rather strive to leave a faithful legacy than one of half-heartedness.

Getting Back on the Bike…

There are moments in our lives that we just cannot forget. Typically, my unforgettable moments are the “firsts” of something. The first adult book (Jurassic Park), my first dance (8th grade, horrible experience), and my first feeling of intense dislike for the State of Michigan (when my parents divorced and I had to spend every other weekend in Niles). Another one of my firsts was my first new bike. It was a green speckled Huffy. That was such a significant memory because prior to that, if I wanted to ride a bike I was forced to borrow one my sister’s bicycles. As you can imagine, as a boy, riding around on a Strawberry Shortcake bicycle was not an appealing thing.

This photo was found on a Yahoo image search, but it’s an exact replica to what my sisters had (if memory serves me accurately).

Another memorable time of mine is when I crashed and burned on that bike. Every time. I honestly remember every single accident, every moment of panic just before crashing, every injury and the pain associated with that injury. I also remember that I didn’t just lie on the ground and cry. I got up and got right back on the bike. 

That’s what humans do. We get back up, we persevere, we try again. You might be wondering why I’m talking about memories and bicycles when this should be a writing column. Well, faithful reader, keep calm and read on.

I haven’t written one word in my fourth book since the beginning of March. I was too busy working, then going home and editing a book for my publisher. As some of you know, all of that work amounted to nothing because my laptop was stolen. I had a backup of my fourth book, but not a recent one. Turns out that I lost about 6,000 words give or take a few hundred. In the grand scheme of things, things didn’t turn out that bad. 

I thought to myself that as soon as April hit, I’d get back into the writing grind. I had my backup laptop configured, I finally got Word all situated on it, I had it all figured out. As I’m writing this, it’s the fifth day into the month and I haven’t written a single word. There have been nights where I’ll open the document and just stare at it for a few moments before closing it again. As I do, I make a mental promise to work on it later, the next night, or at a more opportune time.

Every time I look at the document, all I can see is that flickering vertical line at the end of the document. It waits impatiently for me to move it with my words. If there are any writers reading this, then I’m sure you’ll understand what I’m going through.

It isn’t that I don’t know where I’m going in the story. Because I do. However, I can’t get over that loss of progress. It was done. It was written. It was perfect the way it was and it was how I wanted the story written. How can I write anything better?

Ultimately, that flashing vertical line represents my faith in my craft. It represents my wavering belief that I can write something equal to what was there before the theft. 

We all have something we struggle with in our lives. Relationships, addictions, ethics, morality, faith, the list could go on and on. I’ve struggled, and still struggle, with many of those issues. What can I say, I multitask. Currently, I’m struggling with self-doubt. See, self-doubt and I are old enemies. It’s one of those relationships where the foes sit down and drink coffee and play a game of chess. Like the end of the first X-Men film. Only one of us will win the battle, but it won’t be the last time we face off against each other. 

You would think by now I’d know my foe’s tricks and battle strategies. I’d be able to counter his attacks and strike back effectively. You’d think I’d be able to overcome him in the end. But no, I’m still struck by surprise when my enemy makes his opening move. I’m still initially paralyzed by the crippling effects of his attack. I’m too weak to counterattack. 

I’m just not enough. 

I wish I could end this rant on a good note. I wish I could tell you that everything was okay again and that I’ve triumphed over my Self-Doubt. I wish I could tell you that Michigan isn’t as “Pure” as Tim Allen says it is in his commercials.

But I don’t have a magic lamp and those three wishes will still remain that: wishes.

I will make a promise, to you all. I’ll keep trying to get back on that bike. Maybe when I start writing again, that’ll be another lifetime moment I’ll never forget. The first time I truly defeated my self-doubt.

Never Lose Hope

About a month ago, I was told that I shouldn’t get my hopes up about something personal. I won’t elaborate about that subject because, as I just said, it’s personal and I don’t share everything with you, my faithful readers. I felt mildly defeated after hearing that. It’s only natural to feel that way.

Here’s the interesting thing about the human spirit: it’s fairly durable. “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down,” Chumbawamba said in their immortal song Tubthumping. For those young enough not to know that song, I’d advise skipping that one. It’s useful for this instance, but really that’s about it.

The way I see it, you have three choices when faced with defeat.  Here they are:

  • The simple one is to quit. Sometimes the task you’re up against is just too massive for your abilities. There’s no shame in it, I’m sure we’ve all been there.
  • This one is easy to guess because it’s the opposite of the last one. Don’t quit. “Never give up, never surrender,” is the slogan of the fictional crew in the movie Galaxy Quest (1999). We’ve all been there too. You think to yourself, “okay I failed. But I’m sure that if I just put in another two percent effort, I’ll achieve it this time.”
  • This next one is a bit different from the first one. It’s this: Put it on hold. It’s technically not quitting if you focus on other ventures. Right? Sometimes that’s the best choice. Sometimes you aren’t ready, but you know that after some growing-up, time, money, or some other factor you’ll be able to come back to it. Maybe the next time you’ll be successful.

Now, depending on what you’ve put your hopes in, one choice may be more feasible then the others. Since this is Mastering the Craft, let’s put these choices into a book related situation.

So there you are, you’ve finished writing your first book. You’ve pumped so much blood, sweet, and tears into it over the years that it’s now become more like your child than a bunch of words on a page. Sending out took a lot of mental effort and you can’t wait to hear back from the publishers. “I’ve sent it to four different publishers. Surely one of them will accept it. Right,” you ask yourself.

It’s okay to talk to yourself, you are an author after all. It’s what we do.

Months go by and you’ve stopped checking your inbox every ten minutes. You’re eating Ramen Noodles, you’re a poor artist after all, when you hear your email notification ding. Throwing the chicken flavored noodles down onto the counter, you open up that email from one of the publishers. Even after reading it three times, it’s the same result. Rejection.

“That’s okay, there’s three other publishers that could say yes,” you say as you dive back into your Ramen.

Four weeks go by and you’ve been rejected from every publisher. Now what? Let’s go through the choices I mentioned above. You could quit. There’s really nothing lost other than your blood, sweat, and tears. Oh, and the crazy amount of time you spent working on that turd you call a novel.

Maybe you decide to invest time into another round of edits. You catch several things that the publishers caught. Now you’re ready to send it off to another round of publishers. Maybe they’ll say yes?

You weren’t exactly sitting on your thumbs while you were waiting for your response. You were busy working on another novel. In fact, it’s turning out to be a better one than the first. Maybe rejection was for the best. You don’t want your debut novel to be a dud, right? Maybe after you’ve gotten this whole “being an author” thing under your belt, you can come back and revisit that dud of a first novel. Maybe you can polish it after a few years and send it off again.

You might be thinking, “Why are you talking about this subject?” Well, like I said at the beginning of the column I was faced with these three choices. I could quit my attempts and not have lost too much. I could try again and see if there’s another outcome. I could put the challenge on hold and try my hand at something else. I was contemplating this conundrum when three things happened at the same time:

  • The song “Never Give Up” by For King and Country started to play.
  • I talked to a friend about the subject.
  • I opened my Bible, at random (I’m not making this up), and Romans 8:25 caught my eye. It states, “Now if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience.”

I realized then, that I couldn’t live with myself if I simply quit. I could move on with my life and try something different, but I’d always live with that “What if?” hanging over my head. So I’ve decided to keep at it and see if my perseverance will eventually win. If you think I’m crazy, then you might be right.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” said an unknown person.

Sure, I know the odds. I know that what I’m trying to do has about as much chance as a snowball in Hell. But that’s what I thought when I sent my publisher the manuscript of my first novel. Because I took that initial chance and had hope about my writing career, I’m now the published author of three books and four short stories.

Sometimes you have to put your hopes into what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s what poker players call “going all-in.”

Sometimes it pays off and you’re rewarded for your efforts.
Sometimes your hope is shattered when you fail.

In recent years, I’ve experienced both results. When you win, you feel invincible. When you lose, you feel like you’ll never be able to put yourself in that position again.

I’ll end this week’s column with a quote from the film Rocky Balboa (2006):
“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done,” spoke the Italian Stallion, portrayed by Sylvester Stallone.

A Successfully Failed Mission

As I write this, it’s the last day of November. It’s also the last day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’ve touched on this subject more than once this month. Basically authors are tasked to write 50,000 words during November. 

Well, I failed at that task. I was able to write about 60 percent with the novel I began November. Now, considering all the other words I wrote for work, rants, and all the other projects I worked on then I would have reached my goal. However, whenever I attempt this annual task I typically try to restrain myself in counting only words written for that targeted novel. Some of you might be saying, “But Jim, you failed. Don’t you feel just so miserable?” 

Nope, not a bit. 

The reason I don’t feel that bad is that I did what I set out to do. I started writing a novel. I knew it wasn’t going to be finished at 50,000 words. I typically have a goal of around 85,000 words for my books. That’s a completely different topic for a different rant. For me, the goal of NaNoWriMo isn’t about writing that 50,000 words. Sure, it would be nice to be sitting at that word count by the end of the month. What I’m aiming for is a significant amount of words that will eventually lead to my end goal of 85,000.

“Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe,” states Stephen King in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

As a side note, if you have a writer in your life that wants to read a very good book about writing then buy them King’s book. 

Anyway, what King writes is that in the end, it doesn’t even matter what your word count is or if you succeed or fail in your NaNoWriMo quest. The point King is trying to get across to people is this: shut up and write.

“The greatest teacher, failure is,” a little fictional green friend once said. Sure, Jedi Master Yoda was a fictional hermit on the planet of Dagobah. And sure, he spoke funny. But he was right. Over the last two years, I’ve suffered some devastating failures but I’ve always learned something from each and every one of them. And that’s why I don’t consider this failure as a complete loss because I learned something from it. 

That lesson is, you guessed it, another topic for another weekly rant.

Now that I’ve fulfilled my quota of Star Wars and Stephen King references for an article, I’m going to do what I suggested above. I’m going to shut up and write.

What will you do?