Progress report

Have to admit it looks as if not been very prolific lately. The short story section is a tad bare, and it’s been over a week since I darkened the feed here. The funny thing is I’ve actually been quite active in the word department, it’s just that my efforts have been focused on my first novel, tentatively titled “Dust”. It represents just over a year of effort, interspersed as it was with other work, but as I near the conclusion I’m picking up speed. Crossing the 150,000 word mark seemed a good time to come up for some air!

I anticipate being done with that first draft this summer. While my proof readers give it the once (Or twice) over, I’ll be reapplying myself towards shorter form work. As I’ve gotten better as a writer I’m definitely getting faster, and the short stories should come rapid and furious soon enough. I also have quite a few posts still in draft status for this feed.

In other news, I have the Meacham Writer’s Workshop to attend at the end of this month, where I’ll be getting feedback on my short story “The Divine Relation” from professional writers and fellow aspiring professionals alike.

In other, other news, thanks to the success of a certain once self-published, post-apocalyptic speculative fiction series, I should probably come up with a new name for my novel. For reasons that will become clear when I get a reasonably polished version of the first few thousand words up, I’m considering “Raleigh”.

Thanks for reading, and remember: words matter.


Why Harlan Ellison is America’s greatest living artist

Harlan Ellison

What, the picture isn’t reason enough for you? Alright then. Let’s try the anecdotal thousand words.

Artist as iconoclast is a trope that dates back to probably the first time a caveman took a burned stick to a rock and could devise no answer to the “what is it? question — grunted, obviously —  better than a dismissive sniff. An artist is ultimately an observer —  of people, places, actions, everything — and it’s not a far hop from looking straight on at someone/something to looking down upon it. At best this can result in an early and lonely voice of dissent against some of the worst tendencies of humanity,  from simple cultural and intellectual stagnation to those dangerous points where the “common view” of society morphs into hatred and justifications for atrocity. At worst this capability to for distant observation can become contempt, and itself become the justification for those same worst human traits. It’s not a coincidence that artists were the earliest critics of the Third Reich and composed an inordinate amount of its leadership.

The tolerance for iconoclasm amongst the artistic community in human societies has varied widely with time and place, and despite what many a Facebook philosopher might opine cynicism is not interchangeable with intellectual worth. Philosophers and artists of all stripes have produced timelessly optimistic work that only the foolish hold in contempt. Witness the bright colors and perfectly formed human forms of most Renaissance era art, or the ‘government as capable protector of natural rights’ philosophies of early liberals. Even R.E.M., a band whose output is notoriously minor key, displayed not an ounce of irony in naming one of their early album’s “Life’s Rich Pageant”, and a  later song “Shiny Happy People”. But there’s a counterpoint to all of this, a responsibility by society to recognize and respect the tendency of its artists to wallow in the darkness, and the best capture this in their work. The Renaissance had Caravaggio‘s negative space and tortured forms, and the aforementioned R.E.M. album has the mournful “The Flowers of Guatemala” smack dab in the middle of all the major chords and rapid tempos. Also, “Shiny Happy People” features guest vocals by both female singer’s from the B52’s, whose shrill, contorted vocals shall surely feature prominently in the rise of dread lord C’thulu from the waters of R’lyeh.

Frightening times arise — C’thulu like — when society becomes deaf to the outsider’s perspective, valuing only the bright, the cheery, and the comfortable. We’re living in one of those times now. The world comes to the average American in the form of a personalized stream, a pill of concentrated information hand packed by algorithms who vet it only to insure maximum marketable impact upon the viewer. Perceived negativity is profoundly out of fashion. It’s times like these where the iconoclastic role of the artist is elevated to a duty, to be the doctor explaining to an ungrateful patient that their daily dose of information delivered via a smiley face printed vitamin is in fact a poison pill.

And it is there, in the curmudgeon’s chair I have just laid out for him, where we we find Harlan Ellison, America’s greatest living artist.

Not America’s greatest living writer, a point he himself is quick to make and that I’m more likely to dispute than he is. He is a great writer, to be sure. In a hypothetical hellscape of a world where literary talent is measured entirely in heavy-handed Romeo and Juliet metaphors and how worn the entry for “sparkle” is in an author’s thesaurus, today’s crop of popular authors would still, as a group, display less talent in the breadth of their entire catalogs than Ellison did in a single run on sentence about jelly beans in his short story “”Repent Harlequin!”, said the Ticktockman”, a sentence which it is probably now becoming clear to you I am paying direct homage to. Jelly beans!

In all seriouness, go read that story. It’s short, not even 4500 words. It’s not his best, but it gives a great impression of why he’s great, both as a writer and an artist of the definition I’m using.

I love that story. It’s angry, yet funny; bitter, yet sweet in its way. That’s not a bad definition of the man himself. Ellison is about as old school a writer as American literature has right now, with a career spanning over 60 years, and in that time he has hurled invective in every format you can possibly imagine: long, short, teleplays, essays, fiction, non-fiction, even YouTube videos of late. God help us if he ever decides to bother with Twitter.

Ellison is famous as a profoundly cynical writer. His short story collections bear titles like “Approaching Oblivion”, “The Deadly Streets”, and “Stalking the Nightmare”. Of the millions of words I’ve read by tens of thousands of authors, no one has ever arranged the same twenty-six letters in a way so chilling as he did in his short story, “Knox”. His worlds contain an endless string of fascist government/corporate controllers, antagonists who often emerge victorious, and the sort of dark-souled protagonists more often associated with Southern lit than science fiction.

Many would claim the author is the darkest soul of all. Ellison is well known to be difficult to work with, and he’s litigious as all hell. There’s an informal maxim in the publishing world that “you’re not anybody until Harlan Ellison has sued you.” If he’s a genius — a label I consider irrefutable in no less measure than many find it a nice way of saying ‘asshole’ — than he’s the mad kind, the sort of person so utterly convinced of his gifts that he won’t tolerate in the most minuscule way those who don’t. His ego is massive, his temper legendary, and he’s not shy about wielding his prodigious intellect and vocabulary as twin razors, slicing to tatters those he feels have wronged him.

I love Ellison, along with the majority of his work, though certainly not all of it. Many of his short stories seem to have no real interest in readability, and at his worst he can be practically nonsensical, writing from the perspective of narrators who can, charitably, be called disembodied consciousnesses more than true character. You often get a sense reading Ellison that he’s writing for himself, not an audience. He certainly doesn’t write down. He’s one of those authors who, in the course of a single collection of short stories, can have you saying , “I could do that,” through one story, followed by “How the hell could anyone do that?” with the next.  If all American writers are working in either imitation of or opposition to the sparse, elegant prose of Hemingway, than Ellison gleefully dances between the most extreme poles of both, flipping the rest of us double birds all the while. This is a man who might overwrite one passage, underwrite another, and never seems to give a fig how you feel about it either way.

One of the most difficult skills to learn as a writer — and this is worse the more naturally talented you are — is not to let your skill for observing mankind curdle into contempt. Cynicism is a key component in the artistic toolbox, but try to build a house with only one tool and all you’ll end up with is a whole lot of walls. It’s a balancing act, putting to paper what’s inside of you that’s demanding to come out while simultaneously respecting your audience enough not to make it a screed. Art is about expression, and if the only person we’re expressing to is ourselves then sentences become leaner, nothing more than a shorthand to stir the sense memory of the emotional state we were in at the time we wrote them. That’s called journaling. Writing, real writing, is for an audience, and a good writer is a fool to simply assume that an audience will be able to keep up with him if he’s racing along at full speed, red lining his mental engine from introductory sentence to closing. If he’s a good writer than he is, by definition, exceptional; if his audience shares the full breadth of his gifts, should they not be doing his job?

It can be frustrating for the writer. It can feel as if you’re deliberately slowing yourself. Too easily, it can become resentment.

And that’s why Harlan Ellison is America’s greatest artist. You read his work and, love it or hate it, you get the sense that he is firing on all cylinders the entire time, and whether you keep up or not, he doesn’t much care. He’s breaking some of the hardest rules you had to learn, indulging in naked, oppressive cynicism and using big, thesaurus reaching words to do it, and for whatever reason he’s allowed to do it. 

Why does he get to do it and not I? you might ask yourself, and it’s a worthy question. The best answer, the only real answer, is because he’s Harlan Ellison. He started doing this a hell of a long time before you did and, for whatever reason, he found success at it. Ellison is as predictably curmudgeonly as the monsoon season is wet; the people who publish him, hire him, or consult him, know he’ll be hard to work with, know there’s a fair chance of some kind of litigation. They also know he’ll do the work, and he’ll put his everything into it. They know what they’ll get from Ellison, and there’s a kind of value in that.

Perhaps then it’s Ellison’s role to be the observer of other observers, the guy who pisses us off by doing what he wants and getting paid for it. Maybe he’s there to keep us honest, the last, mad-eyed gunslinger standing between us and the desert of hypocrisy. Maybe he’s just a lucky asshole.

Whatever else he is, he’s a genius; even when he sucks at being a writer, he’s always great at being a genius.

Now maybe I’ll get lucky, and he’ll sue me for slander.


Flip A District!

If you were watching Real Time with Bill Maher last night, and didn’t blink at the wrong moment, you saw me! Bill is planning to throw his considerable resources into flipping a congressional district somewhere in the US considered safe by Republicans to Democratic control. Now, I don’t agree with the Democratic Party on a lot of things, but serving notice to Republicans that they’re not safe anywhere when they get as insane as they have of late is, I think, a higher calling.

Tennessee district 3 is a uniquely suitable candidate for this. Our congressman, Chuck Fleischmann, is exactly the sort of empty suit, indistinct, no account shill we all claim to despise, a safe vote for the national Republican party in whatever foolishness they choose to pursue. Moreover, recent events with our Volkswagen plant provided Fleischmann a unique opportunity to prove himself something more, and stand against his party in its clearly hypocritical interference in the interaction between a private corporation and its employees. He dropped the ball completely.

Yet there’s more! At the center of all the Republican hypocrisy was Tennessee senator Bob Corker. Corker lied — outright, no excuse, clearly and without argument, lied — that Volkswagen would pull a planned SUV line from the Chattanooga plant if those workers voted for the union. Volkswagen immediately contradicted his statement, but it didn’t matter, the damage was done. Corker’s lie clearly influenced the vote, and public sentiment district wide against the union.

Corker is the former mayor of Chattanooga. The cherry on top of the whole sundae of striking back at Republicans for their hypocrisy is that we’ll also be giving Corker a black eye, one that you can be assured will be carried into the senate chamber.

The fact that Bill Maher chose to show my video amongst a dozen or so others of the HUNDREDS he has received means he and his producers are considering TN 3 for the Flip a District effort. We can make this happen guys! Like my video, share it on youtube, and tweet with #flipadistrict your dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.

Better yet, make your own video! Make it a whole lot better than mine! Just be sure to include the #flipadistrict hashtag. You don’t even have to be a resident of TN 3 to do so.

Let’s make a difference.

http://t.co/LtWvxiRgGD


The Box

Elaborate wood box Tom Tanaka

In the third season of American television show Breaking Bad, the character of Jesse Pinkman describes a memory of making several boxes in shop class, roughly a decade before. It is a beautiful, understated scene, one of the most well-written in the five year run of a show justly renowned for its writing. It’s so good, in fact, that I feel it properly belongs in literary discussion. Bluntly stated; I have never read, heard, nor otherwise observed, a more perfect metaphor of the self imposed barriers we must overcome to find success as writers. I’d be willing to wager it accurately represents the true toil of any creative field.

Here’s a transcript of the scene. Jesse is in an addiction support group and the group leader asks him what he would do with his life if he could do anything. Jesse initially gives a blase answer about making more money, but the group leader (A recurring, yet never named character; how Poe is that?) pushes him. “Assume money isn’t an issue”, he says, and how many of us have started our own fantasies about passion becoming vocation with those very words?

Jesse: I guess I would make something.
Group Leader: Like what?
Jesse: I don’t know if it even matters, but work with my hands, I guess. Building things, like carpentry, or bricklaying, or something? I took this vo-tech class in high school; woodworking. I took a lot of vo-tech classes, because it was just a big jerk-off. [laughs] But this one time, I had this teacher by the name of Mr. Pike. I guess he was like a Marine or something before he got old. He was hard of hearing. My project for his class was to make this wooden box. You know, like a small… just like a… like a box, you know, to put stuff in. So I wanted to get the thing done as fast as possible. I figured I could cut classes for the rest of the semester and he couldn’t flunk me as long as I, you know, made the thing. So I finished it in a couple days. And it looked pretty lame, but it worked, you know, for putting stuff in or whatnot. So when I showed it to Mr. Pike for my grade he looked at it and said: “Is that the best you can do?” At first I thought to myself, “Hell yeah, bitch. Now give me a D and shut up so I can go blaze one with my boys.” [laughter] I don’t know. Maybe it was the way he said it, but It was like he wasn’t exactly saying it sucked. He was just asking me honestly, “Is that all you got?” And for some reason, I thought to myself: “Yeah, man, I can do better,” so I started from scratch. I made another, then another. And by the end of the semester, by like box number five, I had built this thing. You should have seen it. It was insane. I mean, I built it out of Peruvian walnut with inlaid zebrawood. It was fitted with pegs; no screws. I sanded it for days until it was smooth as glass. Then I rubbed all the wood with tung oil so it was rich and dark. It even smelled good. You know, you put your nose in it and breathed in; it was… it was perfect. Group Leader: What happened to the box?
Jesse: I gave it to my mom.
Group Leader: Nice. You know what I’m gonna say, don’t you? It’s never too late. They have art co-ops that offer classes adult extension programs at the university.
Jesse: You know, I didn’t give the box to my mom. I traded it for an ounce of weed.

[Standard legal stuff: Jesse Pinkman, the group leader, and everything related to Breaking Bad are not in any way mine. This transcript is presented under the fair use doctrine, as material for discussion and analysis.]

What consistently amazes me about this scene, easily my favorite in the show’s entire run, is how succinctly it condenses every single step of not simply the creative process, but also the greater cycle of actually bringing ourselves to engage in any long term creative field. It’s all there: The utter confidence in our own capability to get by with minimal effort. The realization that natural talent doesn’t supersede hard work. The anger at a perceived challenge to our capability, followed later by an existential realization of the challenge actually being what spurred us to excel. It even manages to capture that peculiar feeling of post-partum tragedy, as we come to realize that the work is done and there’s nothing greater to it than what is simply there, nor will there ever be. We sell it for an ounce of weed, as it were. Ideally, that’s when we move on to a new project, but it’s rarely that easy. It’s a predictable, tiered process of emotional highs and lows, and I doubt it’s a coincidence the whole narration is set against the backdrop of a twelve step support group.

It’s also an extremely literary scene. The room these characters occupy is banal, the basement of a never named church. The colors are muted. There’s no real action to speak of, just a group of people sitting in a circle. Even the camerawork is restrained, little more than medium range shots of the performers sitting in their chairs, with the occasional isolated shot of Jesse, emphasizing how distant he has become from the rest of humanity at this point in the show’s run. The actors all do terrific work, but their performances are as low key as the camera’s movement. In the calculus of entertainment this scene literally only has its words to thrive on.

I just deleted nearly half this post, several paragraphs of diversion into the implications of this scene and its accompanying emotional resonance being on television rather than on a page. It was, I realized only in the reading, all written from a defensive posture. Perhaps with a bit of reworking those sorry paragraphs may find new life as a different post, but they’ve no place here. Great work speaks for itself; it doesn’t need any help raising its voice.

Is the scene literature? I don’t know. Compared to the written word, television is an art form in its infancy. We could certainly argue it qualifies as visual literature, but that distinction smacks to me of evasion. It either works, or it does not. It stirs something within you, or it fails to. To me this scene, then, is absolutely literature; even divorced from its accompanying visual element it still bestirs something in me, tapping into a fundamental truth about artistry and craft, and the how the emotional toll of investing all of yourself into something can be worth it only in comparison to the cost to your soul of not doing it.

I consciously chose not to include a video of the scene, because I wanted it judged, as much as possible, solely on its words. ”Sit down at the typewriter and bleed”, exhorted Hemingway, and to me this scene is an arterial spray, saturating the brain and seeping into the bones, even, especially, divorced from its visuals.

So, what do you think?


What Fiction Means to Me

When I was nine, I began to have my first serious, critical thoughts about the afterlife.

If the Episcopal Church is Catholic Lite, then my family was, at most generous, Miller Ultra Christians. I think it was atavism driving my parents to what little religion we did participate in, a sense of connection to a simpler, Southern past that, even then, you could sense was being buried under asphalt and masters degrees. I liked church okay, though not the occasional Sunday school class; the former took place in beautiful, unique buildings — one of the good parts of the Catholic faith that even now I feel, with a certain intrinsic nativist pride, the Episcopal church wisely chose to sift from the discarded silliness — while the latter was set in the same sort of ugly little institutional room I’d learned to despise by the end of first grade. Sermons could be boring, sure, but that’s when you dozed. Better yet, the setting allowed me to project into the past; I might imagine myself an embattled Scottish laird, receiving one last benediction before I marched my warriors off to war, or perhaps a simple medieval stone mason, trying not to get caught snoozing while the jewel bedecked priest droned in Latin. My own sort of abstract atavism.

(Side note: Atavism is such a wonderful word, perfectly suited for defining a very specific concept. I provide the link not out of pretension but because I want everyone to have it in their toolbox.)

Religion was, to me, this mostly fun little historically flavored diversion. Intellectually I realized that most of our church took it far more seriously than my parents and I, that they were there every Sunday, or would sit through all however-many-hours of Christmas mass, but that was easy to account; they just valued, or at least needed, the connection to their past more. There were the priests, of course, who obviously made their living on this strange little facet of life, but Episcopal priests are by and large either: A) semi-hip youth minister sorts who you figure on first sight probably play in a semi-hip band, or B) jocular, red-cheeked old men that can lead a boy to suspect Santa Claus doesn’t strictly consign himself to the north pole during the off-season. It was all too easy to think they were in on the joke, delivering their sermons with a wink and a lived in, “what’re you gonna do?” smile. The fact that there were people who took all this seriously, to the point of affecting their votes and feelings on people of differing sexual orientations, was a stunning revelation that somehow didn’t even occur until well into high school.

This post isn’t really about my history or feelings on religion, though; that’s fodder for a later, probably longer, piece. I’ve told you this much to provide context for the story that follows, the real story of this piece. The tale of how I came to discover what fiction truly meant to me is inextricably tied to my first musings on the afterlife and, for better or worse, human consciousness always pulls a seat to the table for religion when the murmurings of the psychological cocktail party turn to the big D word.

So let’s get more personal.

When I was twelve, my first grandmother died.

She was my father’s mother, a beautiful even at seventy-two little woman with a head of fiery red hair and an essence to match, one of those women that seem to be a genus unique to the American South, a model produced only between the world wars. She could scream your ass out of her kitchen and your fingers from the cookie batter, never buy you a single thing you didn’t need, yet never leave you doubting the fierce, even frightening depth of her love for you.

At the age I was, you tended to take for granted that the adults surrounding you, even the elderly ones, would be around forever. Hell, the way your parents go in awe of them, your grandparents can seem practically mythic, bearing a power of being that belies the relative frailty of their bodies. When my grandparents had an extremely terrible car accident on the way home from visiting us, they both went into the hospital for a long while. Even then it seemed like a setback, a brief dimming of their powers. No more.

But there are no gods walking amongst humanity, no matter what a child’s mind says. My grandfather recovered; my grandmother did not.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was on. I remember the episode perfectly; it was The Screaming Skull, an exceptionally funny yet slightly creepy episode of an exceptional show. It must not have been a school night; SciFi channel showed MST3k too late even for a budding iconoclast to be so daring, but it was late enough that when my mom walked into the room, completely dark but for the desaturated bluish hues of the movie, I thought myself caught. She wasn’t angry though. Calmly, tearfully, she told me my grandmother had died.

I didn’t feel much of anything then. A bit dizzy, like I was somehow disconnected from my body. I finished my MST, and I went to bed.

My behaviour over the following weeks was similarly muted. At the funeral I didn’t cry; I simply felt dizzy. No one said anything, but even at that age, at the height of my “terrible at reading people because I don’t really recognize they exist” phase, I could see how it disconcerted people. I didn’t care, but I saw it. My parents tried a few times to engage me, before, during, and after the funeral, but I gave them little to no response. In retrospect I can see how it was worrisome, my seeming lack of reaction, but at the time I was just befuddled and a little irritated by what seemed to be everyone’s hang up on me. I wasn’t cold, or emotionally dead, but I also wasn’t old or empathic enough to understand that I might seem that way; I was simply processing.

That processing completed on a cold night in my dad’s truck, as he drove me home from whatever late night activity a twelve-year-old can engage in. It’s profoundly strange what the mind holds on to; under torture I could not tell you what we were coming back from, or even with confidence how long after my grandmother’s death this was, yet I can recall with perfect clarity precisely where in downtown Chattanooga we were. I remember how beautiful the globes of early evening rain were on the glass, and how the petrichor scented air was that perfect sort of cool that only comes in the wake of a storm. Most significantly, I remember I was reading. Not what I was reading — given my age it was probably something quite terrible — but I was reading when my father, perhaps the most gifted psychologist the South ever produced, looked over at me and said simply, “How do you feel about your grandfather dying?”

Now, I had been asked nearly this exact question about a thousand times in the preceding weeks, though of course with “grandmother” as the secondary object. Perhaps in switching up the wording my father was utilizing some sort of mental kung-fu as taught by sensei CG Jung , perhaps it was just a lucky coincidence that he changed tactics at the moment I was suddenly ready to talk. Whatever the case, this time my answer wasn’t a verbal screen saver.

“Grandpa is going to die, just like grandma did. Mom’s mom will too. Soon, probably before I’m really an adult.”

He nodded.

“What do you think happens to them?”

Here, he hesitated. I was twelve years old here; this wasn’t exactly a child asking what happened to people when they died. I was old enough to know some people thought there was Heaven, and some of those also thought there was Hell, even if I didn’t realize — Catholic-Lite, remember — just how literal-yet-Loony-Tunes many of those conceptions were. This was an almost teenager asking the smartest man in the entire world what he had for an answer to the ultimate question. These are what screenwriters call Crux Points, and would have us believe irrevocably shape people, potentially turning the course of their lives on a dime. Who can really imagine the true pressure of a moment like that? Only a father, I’d guess.

My father rose to the occasion admirably. His response did in fact shape the man I became. Wisely, like any good teacher, dad knew when to get Socratic.

“People have a lot of different ideas. What would you call Heaven?”

What a question! Not, “What do you believe?” or, “Who knows?”, but “What would you call Heaven?” What would you want it to be, in other words. He wasn’t offering me false guarantees of eternal life and happiness that he himself didn’t believe, nor was he sidestepping the issue. He was choosing that moment to challenge me. He was asking me, in effect, to be an author.

And I thought about it. With a question like that, how could I not? Whatever horrid piece of fiction — fantasy themed, I’m sure — was heavy in my hands. I knew the answer wasn’t an infinite harp jam session in the clouds, but not a whole lot else.  What would I happily do forever and ever and on and on, long past the heat death of the universe? To what situation would I want to bring in everyone I had ever known or cared about, along with presumably descendents and other worthies I’d never meet in life? What would be worth their time?

Infinite time, remember. What could you possibly do, what place could you possibly be in that, absent a complete overhaul of your perspective of time and space, would be worth remaining in forever?

“It couldn’t be any one thing. It would have to change constantly, and more importantly you’d have to have control over it.” I hefted my book. “If I wanted to live in the world of this book, any kind of afterlife worth living would have to give me the capability to do it, along with bringing people to experience it with me. And if I got bored, I’d have to be able to simply go to another one. More importantly, I’d have to be able make my own world, live in it, experience it fully.”

My father always possessed a gift for brevity that I even now lack. “So Heaven is being a god?”

I looked down at my book again. There was almost certainly a dragon or a wizard on the cover. Some being of ultimate power, capable of shaping the world around him to his whims.

“I guess so. The only life worth living for eternity would be that of a god, or at least something very much like it.”

And that’s what fiction means to me.


Da spoken word

My compatriot and fellow traveller Sumit Khanna is a renaissance man of the highest order, and one of the smartest folks I know. He speaks on religion and social justice with the haunted surety of the survivor and the elemental fire of a poet. Here he is blowing the roof off a Wellington, NZ coffee shop like a verb powered stinger missile. Get your snapping fingers ready.


The Commandments

Just returned from a week in Maui with the wife, and perhaps it’s simply the shock of going in the span of 12 hours from 78 degrees and breezy to 20 with ice in everything, but it seems the right time to talk blog guidelines. That’s right; having ventured to perhaps the most laid back, relaxing place in the universe, I’m now thinking, “rules imposition!”

This site’s primary purpose is as a place to collect and showcase my fiction. I’m pretty good at this, and getting better, but my actual range as a writer, in total, has been more or less limited to, A) first person fiction, and, B) third person fiction. On the path behind me lies the detritus of some dabblings into poetry (okay), songwriting (less than okay), and journalism (abysmal), but they are far distant, and not very focused. With the ice cold shock of actually seeing my first submission, done more or less on a lark, published came a previously absent sense of seriousness, and the uncharacteristically humble realization I might actually have something to learn from those authors who came before me.

What the past year of self-directed study has revealed is that very nearly all those writers whom I respect have worked in a breadth of styles and forms that I have not. Vonnegut and Clemens spent time churning out copy, Hemingway’s first works were journalism, and even Harlan Ellison, a man tied to the short form fiction tight as a mummy’s underwear, has dabbled his toes in just about everything. Versatility, clearly, has something going for it.

Blogging seems about as far in the opposite direction from fiction as can be imagined. Most prominently (alarmingly?), there’s no remove between author and work. All writers inject some of themselves of course; that’s 90% of of what makes one writer worth reading and another suitable only for pulp. But in fiction one can hide themselves behind narrative, behind stylistic choices. Fill a character’s mouth with a seemingly endless torrent of flowery non-sequiturs adding up to precisely nothing, and you’ve created something memorable and intriguing. Do the same thing on your blog and you’re a pedant, a bloviating gasbag in love with the sound of their own voice.

Oops.

My point is that this is new ground for me, a challenge. Much as I might want to post a new short story every week and let the work do the talking, it’s not going to happen, not without mighty Odin adding another four hours to the day. A writer in America, it seems to me, has to learn how to blog, to fill in the gaps between the (hopefully) steady pace of fiction. Versatility is involiable.

So like any good American, I’m cheating.

As a writer, I have a set of self made rules that I refer to as Smith’s Commandments to keep myself motivated, on task, and consistent, what I view as the three basic challenges of any creative type with aspirations to professionalism. The Commandments themselves are the subject of a future installment, but they are important here insofar as they provide a convenient structure for forging ahead into this uncharted wilderness.

(Uncharted for me, that is; I’m all too aware there are plenty of veritable Sacajawea’s of the electronic frontier out there, and you folks are a constant source of equal parts intimidation and awe.)

So to rip myself off, and hopefully start directing this whole project on something resembling an upward curve towards being worth your time and attention, I present Smith’s E-Commandments.

1) Length =/= Quality
Otherwise known as “keep it snappy”. I know, kind of laughable right? But overwriting is the most common criticism of my fiction, so it stands to reason it’d carry over to the more immediately personal blog style. Believe it or not, this is an improvement from even a year ago, and hopefully that will continue.

2) Four letter words and exclamation points are not the mortar in the bricks of worthwhile prose.
I’m an expressive guy, which is a nice way of saying I can get heated. Hot or not, there’s nearly always better ways to tie the words together than the oh so easy F-bomb. Not that this is a profanity free zone, but every curse will be chosen with the same care that any other word would get.

3) Perfection will not be the enemy of frequency.
There is something to be said for polish and breadth, but they must play secondary to the simple act of writing itself. This is a concept of such importance that something similar (“The writing itself before everything”) is the very first of Smith’s Commandments. It plays third here only because I’ve gotten marginally better at it.

4) Politics isn’t the world.
I’ve never bought into the idea that politics should not be spoken of. Our politics should be our values in action, and to deny that portion of yourself is, to my mind, tacit admission of no values at all. That said, like any issue that goes to the core of who we are, politics can seem in the hot, emotional moment, to be all there is. It’s far too easy to fall into that rabbit hole and only look back miles later to realize you’ve spoken about nothing else. If it does not illuminate, illustrate, or at least provide something resembling an original take on an issue of the day, it won’t cloud my feed.

5) Criticism is sacred.
And a negative criticism is no less valuable than a positive one. I vow never to make someone feel they are unwelcome to truly lay into whatever piece of crap they feel I just posted, be it fiction, a comment, or a relink.

As I’ve said, a lot, this is a new game to me. I can’t guarantee I’ll always make the best choices in layout or content, but I’ll always be striving to improve. I hope along the way I can entertain you, and we can inform one another.