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Creative Writing Final Reflection

After a quarter and a half of business school and the work that went into the application and GMAT, I was starting to feel a little bit like I was losing myself. I hadn’t made anything for myself in ages which was making me seriously anxious. But between graduate school and work demands, I knew I would never make time to correct the imbalance.

My solution? Enroll in another class on Tuesday nights between my Monday/Wednesday blocks of MBA classes. Reasonable!

Ultimately it proved to be a great decision. Tuesday night creative writing class at Cabrillo quickly became the highlight of my week. For me, immersing myself—even in such a small dose—in something creative was critical for my mental health. It really helped rekindle my love for fiction writing.

No, that’s not right. My love was kindled, but I had a big block in my head. What the class did was provide enough structure to get through that block. The class gave me the reason to push through the block and actually get words down on paper and then provided me with a method to actively discuss the work with other real-live humans in meatspace, instead of just putting it up here to languish. That was pretty special for me and felt rewarding in a way I didn’t anticipate when I signed up for the class.

The class also provided a venue for me to interact with other creative people in a way now missing from my life. I love the people I work with and the people I go to business school with, but I missed having weirdos (like me) to talk to about artsy nerd stuff.

I could write a whole post about it (and I probably will), but for now I will share with you the final reflection I wrote for the class. It provides some insight into where my head is these days and maybe you’ll get something out of it. I got something out of writing it.


1. In which of the following elements of fiction do you feel you grew the most? In which do you still wish to grow more? -Character, Setting, Dialog, Plot, Imagery, Point of view, Other…

I focused most on the structure of my work, and thinking of each as a coherent structural unit. I was digging through my blog recently (so 00’s) and found tons of fiction I have little memory of writing. Some of it was good, but some of it was not so good. All of it was fully improvised in the moment. Pantsed. That’s where my practice lies. And for that reason, thinking about writing a longer piece always seemed pretty overwhelming, insurmountable.

When I enrolled in this class, I knew I had a block in my head about longer works, that I lacked the tools to engage a longer piece. Getting some practice considering the writing as a standalone unit rather than a scene proceeding from and leading to another scene was important and something I was deliberate about. I knew that thinking about each story this way would translate to thinking about longer pieces the same way. All I needed was to get into the habit.

Truthfully, I didn’t nail it on all my stories. The first one was a single unit. One and done. The second one was unfinished when submitted. I’ve since finished it and sent it out to the journals. The third was really just a sketch of a bigger idea. If I had to grade myself on nailing the idea of keeping each one of these as an independent unit, then I didn’t do so well. But if the idea was to figure out how to make these freestanding units within a larger project, then I think I did all right.

Past that, the aspect I struggle with the most is plot. I’ve always thought of plot as doing, not happening. It needs to feel like the choices characters make are the choices they would make if it was a real situation, if they were real people with real drives. I get stuck in a pattern of thinking, “well, I guess they could just sort of do anything, right?” and that leads nowhere. Creating a plot that feels motivated and purposeful is a little bit like playing the role of your characters as if you were an actor. But, in this case, it’s like you are one actor playing every single role all at once and that is pretty hard to focus on. One or two sets of motivations and desires and obstacles, sure, but dozens? Tough. That will require much practice. It’s a one-man show with an ensemble cast that is forty hours long.

2. What is your long term goal as a writer? (Both as what you want to achieve artistically, and how you hope the world will receive it.)

I’d like to see if I can make a living writing. I’ve always wanted to make a living in a creative field, and, for a long time, I did. The older I get and the more experienced I get, the more I recognize that I am not so good at working with other people. Over the years I’ve learned to do it, but I am impatient and often prickly when I feel like I don’t have the autonomy to execute as I think is best. It’s a bad tendency that I try to temper, but still comes up now and then.

What I am really good at is executing to a deadline when I need to. Want me to go sit an office all day? NOPE. Grumpy Joe all the time. But, give me a list of things to finish and a deadline and the autonomy to do them in the order and method I choose? You’re going to get everything as requested to the best of my ability. Writing professionally is, from what I know, a lot like that. I just need to get myself to a place where someone wants to give me some deadlines. I can, of course, give them to myself, but that is less effective.

I understand that it’s not some magical free-for-all, do-what-thou-wilt arrangement, that there is pressure from publishers and editors and agents and booksellers and the realities of the market. The auteur is always tempered by the situation. I’ve learned that lesson a thousand times already. I am prepared for it and not at all worried about it. I long ago rid myself of the delusion that my art is ineffable, too great to be sullied by the crassness of commerce. Anyone who wants to make a living has to learn that.

Beyond the lifestyle aspect, I really enjoy writing and telling stories. It’s what drew me to the film world in the first place. Humans are storytellers. It is an important part of how we interact with each other and an important part of what we leave for those who follow us. And I really think I have stories to tell that will resonate with people. What else could someone ask for? If I can reach out through my words and make someone’s day or week or month better, then I am happy.

3. What has been your journey with your inner critic? What is the critic saying to you these days? How do you handle it?

He’s a real son of a bitch. My greatest enemy, even with things I know I am good at. It’s been a lifetime struggle that is sometimes ok, sometimes terrible. I am getting better at working through the terrible and giving myself permission not to generate perfection at all times. That was a difficult lesson to learn.

He’s better these days, less quick to reject any thought I have. I’ve found the best way to deal with him is to just talk to someone about my ideas. That’s something I’ve never had before. Voicing them gives them life and allows a different part of my brain to process them, which I think is helpful. I’ve discovered that talking about the ideas with other people is a helpful way to create what my wife calls “commitment devices”; if someone knows I should be working on something it keeps me accountable. And accountability always wins out over the voice. It’s a factor that always worked for me with my film editing (since you never just edit for only yourself), but not something I incorporated into my writing life until this class. Pretty wild to think about, but I’ve always been too shy about the work to talk about it. I’d post it all over the internet with my name on it and to the social medias and whatever, but speaking about it aloud was hard. Weird how these things are sometimes, right? Part of what I looked for with this course was enough confidence to talk about these things aloud and that has been a great success. I am very thankful for it.

4. Do you plan to keep writing after the class? What will this look like? (How often, where, etc.) Do you want to form a workshop with buddies from the class?

Yes. I am planning a novel version of The Boneman (title subject to change) in the weeks until my business school quarter ends. I dropped all my summer MBA classes when I learned that school would only be online. It doesn’t work for me at all. Too old, I guess, but I really require the in-person engagement for classroom learning.

I am giving myself a little break from writing until the end of the quarter, but will be using my free time to do some pre-writing and outlining of the novel. I’d like to be ready to execute as soon as finals are done. From there I have a weekly word count to hit—which may or may not be totally reasonable—and a deadline for the first draft of the project. It’s all subject to change as things evolve, but this will be a good way to start.

I would love to form a workshop with buddies. Ann, JJ, Lily, and I spoke about it during our final workshop session. I’ve already sent them work to read since then. And even if it’s not as formal as the You Are A Mirror set-up, having someone to chat with about the work is super helpful. Obviously. That’s why people have writing groups, right? I’d love to have something more formal, but it’s pretty hard with the plague quarantine. I’m sure that the group will evolve as time goes on too. All groups do.

5. How did the move to online learning impact your experience of the class?

Real talk. It was terrible. I thought you did a great job of the sudden shift from real-life to online, especially considering how quickly you had to make the change. But the online format, as I mentioned earlier, does not work for me. And for a class like this one that relies so much on discussion and open communication, the format just doesn’t work. It also didn’t help that like 60% of the class just disappeared when we went online. And it’s really tough to have a conversation with other students who elect not to use their camera. Talking to a name whose face you cannot see is pretty unhelpful. You did your best and I recognize it and appreciate it.

6. Do you plan to take another creative writing class?

Maybe. I believe my only option at Cabrillo is to retake this class as 12A. Santa Clara isn’t an option. And Hunter didn’t take me for their MFA program either time. If something comes up, I’d like to take another class. I really enjoyed this one. Tuesday night was a bright spot in my week. Just not totally sure what my options are.

I intend to keep learning, though. I have a number of writing books queued up to keep my brain churning along on the best way to tell stories. I’m going to finish the Anne Lamott book. That one is best a chapter at a time. I’m going to give King’s On Writing a run. I purchased and read the beginning of Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction which you mentioned in class. That one is a touch dense and will have to wait until my non-fiction reading doesn’t also include Data Analytics and Ethics for Managers. But I am excited to read the genesis of the unreliable narrator. Dipping in and out of books like these is a great way to give my brain something to process while I do other stuff.

7. What activities did you most enjoy?

-specific group interactive writing games (We didn’t do a lot of these because of the move to online learning. Address them if you remember them, and if not, don’t worry about it.)

-specific individual writing prompts

Hands-down the thing I most enjoyed was the workshop. The prompts were good and helpful for getting into the mood. I even generated a handful of ideas there I’m going to develop. The music playlist game was fun too and I enjoyed the one where we created a backstory for a character as a group while discussing specificity. But, for my money, the workshop was the most valuable exercise we did.

8. A year from now, what will you remember from this class?

The value of having a writing group. Too-hot coffees from the stand outside the building. Wondering each night if I was going to get away with not having a parking pass. Dark walks to the bathroom around the corner. Curiosity about what the sign language class was talking about when I passed. That kid asking you about his Star Fox fan-fiction on the first night of class. Attendance dropping as the weeks went on. Recognizing that I probably needed to learn how to type with more than just my left index finger, right index finger, right middle finger, and right thumb. Getting back into the swing with Scrivener. Coming home totally jazzed about what we’d been doing in class and talking my poor wife’s ear off.

9. How was your experience of workshop? What did you learn from critiquing the work of your peers? What did you learn from getting the feedback of your peers?

Workshop was an incredibly valuable exercise for me. Getting feedback is great, even if the feedback itself isn’t what you want to hear. I mean, we all just want to be told how smart and how funny and how good looking we are, right?

It’s so easy to get stuck in your own head about parts of the work, and from there you have nowhere else to go. Just deeper into your own damn head. The workshop digs us out of that mire and keeps the wheels turning in a way that you just can’t do on your own. I also found that thinking about the other work helped me think about my work more critically. Maybe there’s something about getting into that mindset or maybe when we read other’s work, we are subconsciously looking for things that bug us about our own. Probably a little bit of both.

Regardless, I often had good breakthroughs on my work after dissecting the work of my group members. That is testament to the importance of having a writing group and not grinding things out in isolation. Perspective is key.

10. What are you most proud of? What were your personal writing “wins” this semester?

I am proud of the work I produced. It has been a long time since I’ve written and finished anything. Part of the point of enrollment was to shake off the cobwebs and I did that. No matter what comes of any of it, this has been valuable time spent honing my craft.

The Attic

The ceiling collapse was the first thing that put a damper in Dave’s day. Michael and Greg’s master bedroom was a disaster. Crumbled drywall and fiberglass insulation covered the room in a damp-smelling blanket. Maybe a leak in the roof? What he knew was that this was going to be an expensive repair.

The second thing that put a damper in Dave’s day was the human bones spilling from a trunk that had fallen through the ceiling when it collapsed. The impact had forced the box open, revealing its ghastly contents. If it had been stored just a few feet over, it might have landed on the mattress and not opened, maintaining its diabolical secret. But, it had fallen through, hit a dresser, busted open, and spread bones all over the floor.

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In search of good Horror Fiction

I’ve read Stephen King.

I’ve read Shirley Jackson.

I’ve read Clive Barker.

I’ve read Lovecraft and Poe and Shelley and Stoker and Matheson and Staub and Rice.

I’ve read a mountain of horror fiction and seen hundreds of horror films, but I feel like I am still missing out.

Stephen King is great, but his books aren’t scary. Clive Barker is inventive and gory, but I feel like sometimes he is better in films where he can drive his ideas with visuals. Joe Hill is writing some incredibly smart, fast-paced horror fiction, but I’ve read all his books. Shirley Jackson wore the Victorian-Horror-In-The-1950s crown, but she’s not producing new work. Lovecraft set the tone for thousands of writers to follow, even if he has some real problematic race ideas in his writing.

So. Who is out there writing our era’s great horror fiction? Who is creating terrifying new worlds and driving people insane? Who is haunting the manor halls with the unjustly dead? Who is condemning the souls of the greedy to eternal torment? Who am I missing? Someone must be doing all this, right?

Give me some ideas in the comments.

Photo by W A T A R I on Unsplash

1000 Words – Empty Basement

A day will come when you can give of yourself freely. You will give of yourself generously and selflessly for no other reason than that it is the right thing to do. For no other reason than that you want to. You will have a chance to pay forward all the kindnesses given to you when you were having a rough time, when you were bottoming out, when you really needed a helping hand. But today is not that day. Today is a day to take.

And take we shall.

Today is a day we shall take and we shall take dearly. The world will feel. What will the world feel, you ask? I don’t know. I am just the instrument. These decisions, they’re not mine. I am told to act and I obey. And today, they told me, today the world will feel what it is like to lose. The world will feel what it is like to suffer and anguish and lose.

Do not judge me. I do not make these decisions. I am told what to do and I act. Is that so difficult to reconcile with your notions of free will, of life, of morality? Is it such a difficult thing to believe that I act without considering the ramifications of the orders I am given? To kill a child? To bomb a church? To poison a well? Figuratively speaking on that last one of course. These days, you’d want to go for a large municipal water source. A reservoir, for example. That is the most efficient way to take out an entire population, beyond something like a thermonuclear strike. But those are so crude. So noisy. They lack subtlety.

We like subtlety. I think.

A few days ago an associate of mine—let us call him Bertrand, not his real name but it will suffice—thought that he would have a change of heart. He was given orders in the manner we are given orders, that is, hidden in the newspapers so that no one can trace their source, just like a hundred times before. Just like a hundred jobs before. But this time, Bertrand decided to think about the orders issued to him. He had a change of heart. He took issue with the task at hand.

Poor Bertrand. He was always so conflicted. There had been many times over the years I could see minuscule flickers of doubt dance across his eyes, but he never let them affect his performance. His commitment to our duty had been admirable even by the gold standard set by yours truly. He was a loyal, dedicated soldier who carried out his orders to the fullest extent every time. Except this time.

This is no hiding from the ones making our decisions for us. If an impure thought creeps into your head, they know. Every doubt, every hesitation, every slight misgiving and they know. To survive and thrive, one must become a pawn. Willfulness is your enemy. Let go. Be free. Act without thinking about why.

Bertrand asked why. Why killed Bertrand. Or more accurately, you might say I killed Bertrand, but the truth is that why is the reason he is dead. I was just the instrument. An appropriate word choice too. I made sweet music with Bertrand. I will never forget the great sweeping crescendo we achieved before crashing into silence. I loved Bertrand, but in the end he did not love me. It is the nature of my work, not to be loved, and this time was no different.

They know that we exist to serve and that to serve means not to be loved. It is essential to the human experience to seek love. We are social creatures, by nature, and love is the greatest natural expression of that. We give of ourselves when we love freely and unconditionally. To deny that instinct is to make yourself something more and less than human. A superdemihuman, if you will. That’s kind of funny, right? I just made that up. Feel free to use it later when people ask what happened.

Just a little while now.

Sometimes I remember my family. I remember my family and people I called friends. Do you remember your family? One of the first things they take from you is your memories. They are convinced that remembering will dull your effectiveness. In a lot of ways, they are right. I only assume this. No one has ever told me. I only guess based on what I have lost. My memories. My feelings. My loves. I understand what it is to give and why people do it, but I don’t know what it feels like. I don’t know what anything feels like. Do you remember your mother?

I am excited about what’s coming up. You’re curious, aren’t you? I know you are. I can tell. That is ok. You’ll find out what we have in store for you soon enough, but for now think about when you were a child. Think about the first time you rode a bike. About the first time you fell off that bike. Think about how scared you were. About how badly your knee hurt. About the way your fear intensified when you saw the slick shiny patch of blood seeping down your shin. How was that for you? Did you call out for your mother? Did she come to you?

You would never guess by looking at it, but this earthen floor holds a secret. A very big secret. I received my orders to give this gift to the world in the Sunday Times. Sunday papers always contained the biggest jobs and this was an Easter Sunday paper. Very big indeed.

We’re almost there. Soon you will find out what secret I have kept from you. I think you’ll like it. But first, think about your mother. Think about being a child and wanting your mother near you. Do you feel that right now? If you don’t, you’re about to. I do. I am very excited to give you this gift. Very excited. Because I love you.

A Letter To The Black Laser

Dear The Black Laser,

I would start this off with pleasantries and an inquiry into how you were doing, but we both know that is totally unnecessary. We both know how you (we) (I) are doing, so let’s just skip to the meat of this letter, shall we? Ok.

The Black Laser, my old friend, my alter-ego, my weird internet outlet, I am growing incredibly bored of you. For years you have been a place where I can share whatever random crap I’ve been thinking about or enjoying or learning about. I really liked that. It was nice to come here and think, “You know what? I bet someone out there would want to watch a death metal video today because I want to watch a death metal video today. Let’s find one.” This site has more than 1100 examples of exactly that train of thought. “Maybe someone out there will enjoy this piece of ephemera as much as I do. Share time!”

My regular readers will recognize that over the last few months the regularity and quality of my posts have dropped. Indeed, they are dropping still. Currently on the front page there is a post dating from March 30. That means that I have written fewer than 8 posts for all of April. Posting this letter will push that March entry off the front page, but the point still stands. I am just not writing that much here these days. It has not been some conscious decision, but just a lack of joy in the process. I am uninterested, unfulfilled, uninspired.

I don’t hate you, The Black Laser. I am just having a hard time these days mustering up the energy to contribute to you regularly. I am not thinking of funny things to rant about. I am not able to give a damn about most of the music I am finding these days. Work is slow. Life is slow. My brain is messy. And you have been a casualty of that, my old friend. You are not the only aspect of my life suffering, but you are a visible, public one and the fade has been clear.

What does this mean for your future, The Black Laser? Nothing really. This is not a good bye, but a “don’t get too excited because it’s going to be slow going for a bit.” Even writing this letter is like pulling teeth. I am fighting just to finish it and not give up in the middle and let it slide. Just terrible.

I’m sorry.

Sincerely,

Me.

The Month of Letters challenge

You all know how I love challenges, so when I read a post by Mary Robinette Kowal when she challenged readers to write and send a piece of mail every day in February, my brain perked up and I started thinking about to whom I would write.

Here is her description of the project.

I have a simple challenge for you.

  1. In the month of February, mail at least one item through the post every day it runs. Write a postcard, a letter, send a picture, or a cutting from a newspaper, or a fabric swatch.
  2. Write back to everyone who writes to you. This can count as one of your mailed items.

All you are committing to is to mail 24 items. Why 24? There are four Sundays and one US holiday. In fact, you might send more than 24 items. You might develop a correspondence that extends beyond the month. You might enjoy going to the mail box again.

Letters! I love letters! I love writing letters! I never receive letters though, which is a drag, but I wish I did. I mean, there is even a whole section of this very site dedicated to letters. Wonderful.

Would you like me to send you a letter? I have quite a few to write. Send me your mailing address via e-mail (if you know it) or on the contact form.

Would you like to write me a letter? Sweet! Please do! If you know my address, use that! If not, how about my mailing address?

Joe Dillingham
No6
36 W 25th St FL 15
New York, NY 10010

Great. I look forward to sending and receiving mail in the month of February.

Creative Projects-December: The Return of Torgeir, or, I Was Half Healthy!

December was a decent month for me creatively. I managed to bring back good old Torgeir in a significant way. I really enjoy the hell out of writing that guy because it gives me a venue to be a complete dick. I often don’t believe the advice I am giving as Torgeir, but there are other times I kind of think that he’s totally right on. And then I get to slip into some recollection of his past in Norway and I am allowed to go totally nuts. And get dark. Really dark. And then I get to close the whole thing off by completely contradicting myself and recommending some of my favorite black metal to you guys. I get all sorts of positive feedback about the Torgeir columns that I haven’t gotten from anything else, so that is super great and inspirational to keep doing it.

As far as slowing my roll, that was more of a mixed result.

For the first half of the month I was very good about hitting the gym 3 times a week and eating super well keeping to my 80% paleo guidelines. And no doubt, I felt really good about it. I hit 190 pounds for the first time in I can’t even remember. I stepped on the scale expecting my usual 195~200 and the little red line stopped at 190. I actually yelled, “Holy shit!” in my apartment. Aloud. By myself. I proceeded to tell a bunch of people, of course. What would The Black Laser be without me broadcasting every stupid little thing I think or care about into the wild voids of the internet?

I had noticed that my body was changing, that I was acquiring better definition on my torso, but I just chalked it up to vanity. Then when I saw the 190, I realized that all the fucking push-ups and pull-ups and squats and all the other nightmarish things they were having me do actually made a difference. Holy shit, right? I was psyched.

But then Christmas party season rolled around and, as one does every single year, I spent the next three weeks drunk the entire time. It’s hard to motivate to get to the gym at 8am when you’ve only been asleep for three hours at that point. Oops. And then I went to California and sure as hell wasn’t going to the gym while I was there. Also drunk the whole time. And then I came back the 27th and have had no real excuses not to go except that I am a lazy fuck. And I ate badly. Stupid holidays.

So that’s no good. But what are you going to do? I am all paid up through May so it’s just a matter of getting my ass there. I can do it!

Look out for a wrap up of the entire Year of 12 Creative Projects and Slowing My Roll soon. Should be interesting to go back through the whole year.

On the Advice of Torgeir, The Black Metal Extremist VII

Question:

My boyfriend and I play backgammon every chance we get. We’re both competitive and hate to lose. Although we’re equally skilled, I win substantially more than half our games. It’s become an issue. Other than giving up the game entirely, do you have any suggestions?

-Backgammon Is Truly Causing Hurt

Losing is part of this crushing existence we all must endure. If you cannot stand to lose to your vile lifemate at some pitiful, insignificant game, then you must wear the laurels of the victor and stand proudly over him in his humiliation. Why would you feel worse for him because he cannot beat you in a simple game of backgammon? He is clearly inferior. Reject him and cast him away from you like the piece of rotting flesh he is.

But to humor you (I know not why I do this), what would happen if you threw some games now and then in order to create a false pride in your boyfriend? So that he might “feel” as if he is superior to you? Because, in the end, that is what this is about. He wants to own you. He wants to be in power. He wants to ride his charger over the battlefield, crushing in the skulls of his myriad enemies to eventually be called by the valkyrie to sit at Odin’s side in Valhalla and drink mead in the longhouse with his fellow warriors until Ragnarok. Is that not what all men want?

However, if you nearly vomited as I did at the idea of willingly allowing someone to defeat you to as to spare their “feelings”, then perhaps you are better off avoiding this trivial pursuit of backgammon. It is an imbecile’s game. And you and your boyfriend are imbeciles for allowing yourselves to get so worked in such a foolish endeavor.

Allow me to provide you with an example of a moment when losing actually mattered and how I dealt with it, since you wrote to me for my advice and I am your master. Three winters ago, a brutal winter with 3 meter tall snowdrifts and hungry packs of wolves picking off the infirm and elderly from the streets of Trondheim, my band, Argasthur, the finest black metal band in all of Norway, competed in the most underground, brutal battle of the bands ever to cast its darkened shadow on this sickening Christian country. We had released a tape demo called “Blood On Thor’s Hammer” which we had only made 25 copies of and handed out to no one. We knew well enough that no one could possibly understand the true brutality of the music we had committed to cassette. No one ever will.

And though we were the best band in the competition by a significant margin, we missed our set time and were disqualified because our lead singer had disemboweled and hung himself from a tree. We felt it was so true to the real meaning of black metal that we should have been awarded the top prize. Instead we were kicked out of the competition and subjected to numerous police investigations because they would not believe that he was able to disembowel himself while strangling with his hands tied behind his back. But I know.

Strength of will.

And that is what you, BITCH, lack. You lack the strength of will to do what our lead singer did and claim victory for yourself.

Commit murder suicide.

Soundtrack: Bathory’s S/T

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