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A Man in the Woods

A man walks in the woods one day
sketching a life unfinished,
filling in details with coal black coal

He works from a photo–it’s always a photo
clipped from a newspaper, a magazine, printed or copied

He walks, searching
the search is the hardest,
trees have grown, branches broken,
weeds overgrown, trunks rotted
violence buried, justice forgotten
landmarks help and so do memories,
etched in bark, etched in minds,
scarred and scabbed, recounted reluctantly

He finds the spot somehow,
the tree and the truth,
and holds the photo up and examines the angle
where the branch would’ve been

He ignores the living and sketches the dead
the details in the photo don’t matter
he removes the noose from around his neck
the absence of life does matter
a flick and he begins to fill that in

Remove the rope and he’s not hanging,
he’s jumping, leaping, soaring
a graduation photo, his family’s first
a wedding photo, a broom beneath his feet
destiny inverted turns his grimace to a smile
his tears are still tears, not pain but joy
for a birth, a boy, a girl, a child, a life
a continuation, a sequel, a love letter to
existence and the right to exist in the face
of a sea of faces hungry for his fate

no that’s the photo

In the sketch the faces are familiar, family, friends
In the sketch, finished, he is a father
In the sketch, finished, he is fulfilled
In the sketch, finished, he is

he is a person, a whole, a lawyer, a doctor,
a nurse, a chemist, a writer

he is a failure, a success, a liar,
a cheat, a lover, a friend,
a collection of opportunities and paths
diverging and merging in time,
false starts and dead ends and square ones and new beginnings

he is and he is and he is and he is and he is but

in the photo he was

A man walks in the woods one day,
sketching a life incomplete

I am undone

He spied her as soon as she stepped into the energetic throng of the coffee shop. Her purposeful movement – an unwavering march towards the barista behind the register – drew his eyes.

He looked away.

His eyes looked back.

He crammed his nose into his book, but his attention waned and soon he returned to watching the brown-skinned woman in the sundress.

Others took notice too.

They parted in front of her, a hush falling over the other patrons, and even the folksy background music seemed muted as everyone waited on the inevitable collision, for her jaw was set and her stride determined.

Guilt settled on him. How could he be a part of this visual feeding frenzy? He turned aside, even though it wasn’t her destination that enraptured him, but her journey. Everything about her movement sang a melodic composition of vitality and harmony, from the sway of her hips to the bounce of her curled locks spilling down her neck.

He listened to that song. He heard it when he shut his eyes and – before he knew it – tapped his fingers to the beat.

She confronted her target and spoke in hushed tones. The crowd leaned forward in their seats, eager for the fireworks to explode. He buried his face in his book again, unwilling to join the audience.

A sigh swept the room. He heard it. Felt it, really, and upon looking up saw the keys dangling from her hand and her gesture back to the doors. A lost-and-found submission, nothing more.

See! he wanted to shout at the disappointed patrons-turned-vultures-returned-to-patrons. No sideshow for you! No distractions from your normalcy you can latch on to! I dispel thee, leeches!

So caught up was he in his thundering  imaginative sermon that he accidentally made eye contact with her, a half-smile on his lips.

She held his gaze, one hand tucking a rebellious lock behind an ear.

In that second, that frozen instant, that moment that stretched a millennium, he was undone, birthing galaxies while stars exploded. Souls, fragmented things, reassembled into an incomplete whole, not-quite-him, to plead with the universe to be granted fulfillment.

And the universe smiled.

But he, an introvert who accumulated excuses like ravens did shiny things, hesitated. The moment ended, reality returned, and with it awareness. He flushed and stuffed his face back into his book, and that was that.

That Other Voice

Voice

No, I’m not talking about that unique style of writing that differentiates your work from other authors.  Not that voice.  Let’s clear that misconception up before it even appears.  I’m talking about speaking up.

When do we choose to bite our tongues to avoid alienating our readers?

When do we choose to voice polarizing thoughts?

I’ve seen varying opinions on this.  Some of my favorite authors maintain the stance that they will only discuss their writing, and avoid controversial topics that might turn off some readers.  Other authors – again, including some of my favorites – have decided to use their platform to express solidarity or dissent with a particular topic.

Who is right?

My answer: Both.

Voice as a Platform

One of my high school teachers used to say, “What’s the point of being able to talk to people if you’re not going to say anything of value?”

(Note: This phrase was often uttered after walking into the classroom to find me regaling other students with tales of the mildly disturbing sort.  Still. The point holds.)

If there is an issue affecting society – whether it directly affects us as writers, our readers, or nameless souls we might never meet – and we have the capability to draw attention and help, shouldn’t we?  It’s no different then observing a fire on the street and calling the fire department.  You wouldn’t walk by and shrug, would you? You wouldn’t say, “Oh, someone else will call.”  Right?

If you can use your voice to do good, use it.

Voice as a Brand

On the other side, our writing is our brand.  It is our own one person business. We wake up, put on three to four different hats and get to work.  Can you truly get upset at someone for choosing not to damage their brand?  I can’t.  Many of us have families and responsibilities.  Some rely on writing as their sole source of income, while others are trying to sneak a foot in the door.  You may wish they’d take a stand, but in the end it’s their choice.

So…

Look.  No one can tell you what flag to carry, which hill to make your stand on, or what issue to champion.  That’s up to you.  And whether you do so publicly or anonymously, again, that’s up to you.

Just make sure you’re honest with yourself about it.

A Slow Corrupting Poison of the Mind

Fear is an insidious thing.  It sneaks into your mind and warps your reality, albeit slowly. It infiltrates your body when your guard is down, posing as a troubling concern or a bothersome worry.  It worms its way through your sub-conscious, never alerting you to its presence until it has become firmly rooted.

Then it attacks.

Fear arrests our initiative and dampens our enthusiasm.  It amplifies our doubts, turning us into our own worst enemies.  That goal isn’t physically possible, we say.  We were fools to harbor those dreams.  Our obstacles become monumental and our tasks impossible.

We all suffer from fear.  Each and everyone one of us.

I know I do.

I suffer from fear as a writer.  Fear of rejection.  Fear of disinterest.  Fear of someone other than myself being the right person to tell this story, and fear of not doing it justice.

I suffer from fear as a father.  Fear of being irresponsible.  Fear of not being a good role model.  Fear of raising girls in a world I fear won’t value what they have to offer.

I suffer from fear as a Black man.  Fear of speaking up too often.  Fear of not speaking up enough.  Fear of disappointing my father, who’s revolutionary ideals were instilled in me at a young age.  Fear of loving a country that I’m not quite sure loves me back, and fear of speaking about that fear in public.

So what’s the antidote to this slow corrupting poison of the mind?

Belief.

 

It starts with yourself of course.  Nothing is possible if you don’t take that first step forward.  Learn to recognize your fear and take steps to cut that poisonous abscess from your life.  Accept encouragement but don’t rely on it.  Encouragement is lovely, but it amounts to meaningless drivel if you don’t commit to action.

Speaking of encouragement, the belief of others in you is invaluable.  Cherish that.  Never take it for granted.  It speaks to some quality or trait you possess that you have – willingly or unwillingly – chosen not to see because of the fear that blinds you.

Fear is a weapon we allow others and ourselves to use against us.  That can only happen if we let it.  So recognize your fear, believe in yourself, and take action.

After all, what are you afraid of?

 

Lazy Efficient Writing

I had nearly finished writing a pretend grocery list for my daughter when I realized I’d been bamboozled.  Hoodwinked.  Flummoxed.  I’d been had.  (Thanks Malcolm)  What had started as an example of proper vegetable descriptions had turned into me writing almost the whole list instead. As she took the 98% complete list and skipped away, I wondered how could I replicate her trickery to fool myself into writing more.

See, I’m lazy.  Not in a bad way, but a decent sort of lazy.

Let me explain.

I have perfected the art form of squeezing the maximum amount of productivity out of minimal effort.  It’s not because I don’t want to accomplish one of these totally feasible goals/resolutions I set at the beginning of the year.  Quite the opposite.  It’s because I want to accomplish all of them.

That’s right.  I’m lazy because I’m ambitious.

(Am I losing you yet?)

So how do I accomplish this?  How can I use my daughter’s innocent bedazzlement as an example to create a tool for my success?

Answer:  Look at this Cat – (credit to Kittens, Puppies, and Cupcakes)

Cat inpsires writing by glorping down the stairs
A Glorping Cat

See how it accomplishes its goal with minimal effort?  Now it has more energy to spend batting at your feet as you walk by, shedding on your sweaters, and meowing incessantly when you’re just nodding off.

Brilliant!

How does this translate to my writing?  Easy!  One trick is to end the previous day’s writing session midway through an obvious sentence.  That way when I pick back up where I left off the next day, I’ve got an easy start.  For example:

Ray stared into the bowl of thin, watery gruel, disgusted despite his hunger. He reached for the –

He reached for the what?  A spoon?  A napkin?  Either work, and as a pantser it still gives me the freedom to create right off the bat.  As a lazy pantser, half the sentence has been done already, thanks to Yesterday’s Me. (I love that guy.)

Try this trick the next time you feel as if you’ve been struggling to reach your writing goals.  Trick your inner writer into doing less work, and you’ll coast to the end of that session like a cat glorping down the stairs.

(Yes I know that’s not a word, but come on – doesn’t that cat look like it glorped?)

 

 

Victory! of sorts…

This post, as with many things I’m responsible for, is late. But here goes…

2016 was an incredible year, and when I say incredible, I’m including every connotation and emotional association that word evokes. There were triumphs and disappointments, too few of the former and far too many of the latter.

But we must remain positive.

At the start of 2016 I set out to do something that has been scrawled on every New Year’s resolution list I’ve created since 2007.

Write a novel.

I dithered about the first quarter of the year, starting and stopping various drafts, not really sure if what I was doing even counted as progress. It wasn’t until I joined a writing group that was both demanding and encouraging that I began to focus, and I owe them a tremendous amount of thanks. The story is incomplete, raw, rough, flawed, and riddled with more holes than Luke Cage’s Carhartt hoodie, but you know what?

It’s mine.

And the bones are there.

2017 is all about editing, revising, sobbing at the hatred that will inevitably build against it, and rinsing and repeating. But that’s what I wrote down for this year’s resolution.

And to be quite honest, right now it feels good, so that’s what I’m clinging to as we enter 2017.

Why should you notice me?

Why should you notice me?

I need help, but who are you to care? I’m just another faceless body frozen in the crowd when you’re driving on the streets or shopping in the stores. My voice is just a moan in the sea of voices, splashing against your island of self as you tune me out. Is it necessary that you recognize me as someone deserving of empathy? Why expend that effort? My life only intersects with yours at random junctures, and even then we only make eye contact to determine who has the right of way.

You. You always have the right of way.

But does it matter? It’s trivial, right? You have your own issues to deal with. Why bother carrying someone else’s struggle when your hands clutch your own burdens?

I’ve been standing over here trying to get your attention. I cleared my throat and offered “Excuse Me” and “Pardon Me” and “Could I have a moment?” while you looked the other way. Turned up your headphones. Flipped to the next page in the finance section. Got on a call. Made your power moves.

Why should you notice me?

Is a problem shared a problem doubled, or a problem halved? They didn’t teach that in any algebra class I took, but I find myself wrestling with that problem more than any transitive property of equality.

And You and I are not equal – but is that any reason to notice me? I would hope that it is.

Because since you ignored my pleas, my cries for help, the subtle signs that aid was welcome, encouraged, and even desired, I can’t help but feel my methods of communication leave something to be desired.

So I gotta show out.

I gotta switch up my vernacular and patterns of speech to disrupt your flow. Your evening drive is now a traffic jam of verbalized frustration. Your serene island is swamped by winds of change. The floor is mine, and you a prisoner of my spectacle. My slang is grating to your ears, my rhythm alien to your notions of conformity.

You ain’t notice me before, but you gonna bear witness now.

If I Could But Sing…

If I could but sing, I would sing you the melody found in the collective sighs of a people ignored. The weary exhalations of souls facing another uphill climb – the summit raised just a bit higher, the grade just a bit steeper. I’d hum the tune whistled by generations on their way home from a day of treading water while slowly drowning, the wheezing gasping gurgling refrain of life slowly extinguished. I’d sing of what could have been, bridge to what might still be, and have the chorus sing me out with a glorious rendition of what never was.

If I could but sing.

If I could but draw, I would draw you the apprehension my daughter wears as she stares at the unexplainable – the crease of her brow, the tightness in her shoulders, the hunch in her back. I would sketch the motion lines of a nation hurtling towards a barricaded door, forcing it open with little thought, caution tape torn asunder, paintings thought lost for decades now found, their harsh brush strokes erased by white-out and turpentine, only to be reborn via creative interpretation viewed through a fractured lens.

If I could but draw.

If I could but sculpt, I would sculpt you the weight on my beloved’s shoulders. I would mold the burden she carries as she lifts a new generation higher, knowing that though her back may give out today, tomorrow she will return to raise them again. I would spin an oversized urn on my wheel, adding the red clay of a blood-soaked earth to shape it higher and higher, before firing it in the kiln of heated discourse that never happened, and setting it below us all to catch the ashes of a fabled phoenix never born.

If I could but sculpt.

But I can only write.

So I will write to my daughter and pour out my heart so she can read my love even after I’m gone. I will write to my friends and family about the path we’re climbing, describing the obstacles we’ve already faced though they may wear a new coat of paint. I will write to the love of my life. I will write every day and night until she knows she’s not alone in her struggle, and that she does not do so in vain. I will write and write and write until my hand bleeds ink and blood and tears, and even then I will continue to write.

It’s all I can do…

Normalcy

There’s a subtle difference between disappointment and betrayal. Disappointment results from the hope against hope that the normal will be altered to the abnormal, when in fact the normal has no intention of being disrupted, and that desperate wish that burned bright and hot gets extinguished with no hope of resurrection. Maybe it was a long shot, or maybe it nearly came to fruition, but in either case at some point it was rejected and you returned to your normal life to continue on.

Betrayal harbors something more insidious. It is the realization that something or someone you expected and trusted to behave in a manner of normalcy that you’d become accustomed to alters that behavior when you most needed their reliability. It is a soul-crushing heart-clenching act that robs your lungs of air and your mouth of words. It pumps blood through your veins at a rate unsustainable for any length of time but the immediate present, pushing and clamoring and demanding you do something, anything, to expend the upswell of energy. So you start smashing and gnashing and stomping and beating and clawing and yelling and screaming until you’re hoarse in the throat and the corners of your eyes burn with unspent tears of condensed futility and you’re mentally, physically, and emotionally drained of any will to continue existing in your present state.

Sometimes that entire escapade takes place solely in your mind.

On the outside you nod and accept the reversal of this world and everything you thought you understood about it. You try and catch the offender’s eye in the hopes that there exists a glimmer of regret, a tinge of understanding that what they did/are doing/will do is a disemboweling of your ability to function coherently at the moment. And when it’s not there, what then?

Do you ask why? Do they respond? Is there confusion on their part, and maybe you misread a snapshot of their aberrant actions as their version of normalcy? Did you assume too much with too little to support your assumptions?

Or do you just move on? Do you accept their actions and allow their prismatic fracturing of your reality to resettle into a new arrangement, beliefs altered and the rules by which you existed massaged to accommodate their addendums? Do you swallow the bitter pill of acknowledgment that perhaps you were too naive in the way the world operated, digesting and absorbing what once was toxic anathema until you become familiar and tolerant of the pain resulting from that betrayal?

What do you do? What should I do? What can I do?

I can live with disappointment….

So Many Stories, So Little Time…

My day job – the one that feeds the kids, pays the bills, and provides us all with blessed insurance – involves a lot of time spent on the road. I can’t begin to tell you the places my mind soars to while I’m stuck behind the wheel. Sometimes it’s there for an hour, sometimes three, but the one consistency no matter the duration is that it returns with that magical Idea.

You know the one.

You might know it as the one that strikes just before you pull up the comforter at night and sends you scuttling around the bedroom at 11pm for a pen and scrap of paper.

Or the one that ambushes you in the shower with such force that you splash shampoo into your eyes as you frantically breathe on the shower glass to scribble notes with your index finger.

That one.

Now, if you’ve been wracking your brain for weeks trying to come up with an idea for a story, congratulations! You’ve got it! Go forth and meld that masterpiece.

But, if you’re like me and you already have a project you’ve been grinding on for [insert the age of your toddler here] years, what now? You can’t stop in the middle of your WIP to try this new thing…that’s Penfidelity (totally just made that up but I’m trademarking it so hands off!)

Should I sigh and let the idea fall away like seeds fleeing from the grasp of the trees looming over them?

Should I write an opening chapter and then shove it into my Drawer of Forgotten Projects? (Don’t look at me like that, we all have one…)

Lately I’ve been trying to capture those seedling ideas as fragments of a story in media res…a character struggling against something, or dialogue revealing a complication – something that captures the gist of what my mind created and brought to my attention. So far it’s been working, and some have even made it into my current WIP.

Who knows…whenever I’m finished with this book, maybe one of those seeds will flourish into my next project.

Thoughts?