Writers: Drink the Champagne While It’s Bubbling

Yeah, that was a good sentence. Pop the cork(s)!

Yeah, that was a good sentence. Pop the cork(s)!


There’s a lot of dreck you have to wade through as a writer, whether you’re working a day job and writing on the side, working on commercial writing for the dough and on creative writing for the love, or writing creatively full-time. Or maybe writing only a haiku every ten years.

You have to wear the high boots for the dreck wade because the obstacles are considerable:

• The vast numbers of entertainment options these days has most people reading less.
• Self-publishing opportunities (and their variants, like hybrid publishing) are excellent ways for underserved voices to get their works out there. But that means their works are out there competing for mind-time with yours.
• Very few people make a living with their creative writing. In fact, very few people can afford their daily lunch with what they make from their creative writing. (Once in a while I splurge on sparkling water.)
• Maintaining a writing habit, particularly with some of the hindrances above, is challenging, particularly when you get little recognition or praise.
• Some days you just can’t remember how apostrophes work.

There are a hundred and one other ways that writing is hard, but I don’t want to type them out, because they make my nails sore. What I do want to focus on is giving yourself a clap on the back when you take a writing step forward, dreck and all.

Shush the Grumbly Inner Editor
If you have a grumbly inner editor like mine, you hardly ever hear “That’s great! Good work! Do it again!” Instead, you might hear: “That’s how you’re going to phrase that? Sheesh, my cat could write a better line.” But that inner editor is a bully and a fraud.

Instead—and this isn’t at all a call to sugarcoat some writing realities—nod agreeably at that editor, and leave the room he infests. If you wrote 500 pretty good words, whether on an assignment, on a short story or on the novel you’ve been groaning through for six years, acknowledge to yourself that those are 500 pretty good words. Even if they took you a week to write.

They are still 500 pretty good words. And that ain’t moose urine.

Deep Feelings for Fiction
Since I’m the one sitting here, I’ll use me as an example. I am lucky enough to get a fair amount of things published, even enough to buy sparkling water. But almost all of my work that’s out there is nonfiction. And that’s great—really!—and I’m grateful for it.

But the fiction writing, the painting-in-the-mind’s landscape writing? Not so much. I’ve written three novels (well, two-and-a-half, since the latest is a collaboration), but I’ve only self-pubbed one of them and the rest wait for God. I had a small press publish a book of my short stories that has sold enough copies to buy some ice for the sparkling water.

So when any of my fiction gets accepted, it feels like a breakthrough.

Example: a couple of years ago, I wrote a creepy story about a woman who obsesses over her vast horde of realistic-looking dolls in her basement, arranging them having tea, sitting up in conversations on beds, having dinner with guests at tables. Her tenants go down for a look, and weirdness ensues.

I sent it out to a bunch of literary magazines over time, with no acceptance. But I sent it a couple of months ago to Catamaran, a lovely magazine I’d had a nonfiction piece in a ways back, and this week, goodness gracious, they liked it and want to publish it.

So, small victory. But a victory, nonetheless! One that crotchety inner editor can’t take away.

Two items here: celebrate the victories, and keep sending stuff out (and send it out again), because without doing that, no one will ever get a chance to accept it. As for the rejections, cut them into ribbons, mash them up into a malleable pulp, and make a Donald Trump voodoo doll.

(I wrote a post some years back on writing rewards that touches on some of the issues here, and it’s good fun: Tequila and Cookies: Writing Perks to Push Your Pages.)

Writers, keep celebrating the victories, no matter how small. Writers: drink the champagne—then keep writing, to prompt more celebrations.

Turkeys, Tilted Windmills and Imaginary Writing Enemies

Turks

Yesterday, they conquered my garage. Tomorrow, the Vatican!

There’s a flock of wild turkeys, maybe 20 in all, that has been periodically visiting my neighborhood for the past couple of years. They are expressive birds, and their neck-bobbing, en masse hillside treks, gobbling bursts of flight, and prancing posturing is a pleasure to watch. And to laugh about. Since they frequently pass by my Airstream office when moving through the neighbor’s fields, I have a fine old time seeing close-ups of their antic behavior.

A trio of the males displayed a new move the other morning, when the recycling truck came by on its rounds. It’s a rumblingly loud vehicle, and it descends the narrow road flanking my house with a roar. I was in my yard and three male birds were on the other side of my neighbor’s fence. When the truck began going down the hill above both our houses, I was looking at the birds. When the truck’s clamor hit them, they reared around in unison, facing the truck’s direction. They lined up side-by-side, almost symmetrical, beaks raised and thrusting out, synchronized swimmers on the land.

They froze in this posture, and when the truck passed, they shot their heads forward simultaneously, and as if on signal, together gobbled a furious cry. Then they all ran out to the road, and down toward the truck, which would have taken several hundred turkey soldiers to have taken it down. But these birds were up to the challenge, running in that splaying, hunching, ducking way that large birds do, ready to remove that truck’s transmission and make the world safe for democracy.

Talking (and Thinking) Turkey
Because I often turn these natural neighborhood expressions into writing fodder in my mind, I had a few quick thoughts. One was marveling at turkey bravado—no 6,000-pound truck was going to rumble through their territory without a challenge. The other was to puzzle over turkey thinking: how did these featherbrains come to the conclusion that it was in any way a sound gambit to take on a giant truck armed with three beaks?

That had me musing on the Don Quixote aspect of it all: tilting at windmills, a heroic, impossible—and quite blind—quest. Our birds, no matter the courage tucked in their puffed-out chests, had manufactured an unconquerable enemy where there was none, fabricated a problem out of thin (if noisy) air, and were chasing illusory victories.

Gobble, gobble.

Fewer Writing Turkeys in 2016
I found that colorful scene to be a fine example of how not to treat my writing in 2016. I conjured up a few false enemies of my writing over the past year: treating time as an enemy, writing from a sense of scarcity and not abundance, letting dull doubt overrule my instincts—too many trivial (but in effect, consequential) things to list.

This year, I’m going to work more creatively, not reactively. Not sternly guided by having to write so many words, make this much money, read this many books. But rather, to write at a good pace, without always looking over my shoulder. To write with more feeling. To take energy from idea windmills, rather than joust at them. (And to act less like a turkey.)

How about you?

New Year’s Cake
Feel like getting your writing voice in fine tune? My ebook, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See, is reduced from $5.99 to $2.99 until January 11, if you use the coupon code BM85N on Smashwords. Check it out. There are a couple of turkey stories in there, but only ones that help your writing take flight.

Hate Yourself (and Your Writing) Later—This Is Time for Congratulations

This thumb's for you (give yourself a hand)

This thumb’s for you (give yourself a hand)


Writers, being creative types, have some very creative means of disliking themselves. “Nah, I really didn’t nail the end of that story.” “Why should I bother to write today—everything I write is crap.” “He/she is so much better of a writer than me. What’s the use?”

I can say with authority that those are the kinds of things that writers think, though they don’t always express them so bluntly. I see varying slices of those self-souring comments on many of the writing blogs I frequent, in biographies I’ve read (of very successful writers, mind you), in conversations I’ve had at conferences and in person. Writers have acrobatic means of torquing their writing temperaments into cowering self-reproach.

What they don’t have is much talent at giving themselves a round of applause.

Of course it’s good to keep yourself honest, review your materials with a critical eye (even two eyes), probe for weaknesses with the intent to strengthen. And there are times when that “hmm, this isn’t what it could be” review of your work is credible, and even motivational. But at some steps on your writing trek, it’s time to drop the stick and go completely carrot: praise yourself.

C’mon, you can do it.

Self-Praise? How Novel

My motivation in writing this is to tell you to eat more tasty carrots (I like mine frosted) and ditch more self-reproach sticks. My trigger in writing this is that last week I finished a novel I’ve been working on (and often not working on) for eight years. I have to swallow when I say this, because my reflex so often when discussing my writing is to declare that it’s poop, but I had an anti-reflex this time: I think it’s pretty good. [I see you suspiciously eyeing that “pretty”—yes, still I must qualify, but hey, it’s progress.]

There’s no predicting the publishing route I’ll take with this book, but right now, I don’t want to look at the road back or the road ahead. I simply want to take satisfaction with finishing something, and given myself a clap on the back. (And in about 15 minutes, a martini.)

Writers, give yourself a break. There’s plenty of time to give your writing the gimlet eye. But pledge to yourself: the next time you finish a book, a story, a paragraph, even a cussedly fine sentence, tell yourself you done good. After a while, you may even start to believe it. That good feeling might even prompt you to write another good sentence, and yet another.

Congratulations!

The Hero’s Journey (for the One True Salad)

Yeah, I added the fig leaf to the salad

Yeah, I added the fig leaf to the salad
[image courtesy of drowninsanity on morgue file.com]

Story-structure geeks (and I’m a mere dabbler) are well aware of Joseph Campbell’s work with the monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey, where a story’s protagonist protagonizes in a most protagonistic way. To boldly summarize (where a zillion summaries have gone before), it’s the process of challenge and life change—and in the myths, these challenges are epic—where a vision, however cloudy, is followed to its consequence.

That consequence is usually the conquering of fear, the gaining of courage, insight, resourcefulness, resiliency, and a deeper understanding of self. And because that’s pretty heavy, you might also get a nice new pair of shoes out of the deal. Lots of heavyweights (even Homeric ones) have employed the monomyth gambit: witness Odysseus (or Ulysses), in Homer’s The Odyssey, Huck Finn in his eponymous tale, ring-bearer Frodo, Luke Skywalker’s skywalking, and in contemporary times, Cheryl Strayed in Wild.

The Narrative Wings in the Monomyth House
There are a whole lotta narrative wings in the monomyth’s house; there’s the Calling, Answering the Calling, Finding Guardians, The Challenge, Answering the Challenge, Returning Home and the presence of many archetypes, like Shadows, Shapeshifters and Tricksters. Obviously, it’s a lot like growing up with siblings.

No story has to venture into all of the wings, and no story has to stuff itself to bursting with every archetype, but the structure itself, the journey, is a critical storytelling component, in all its chills and captivations.

“Road” stories are a variant of this, like Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant (and scary and sad), The Road. I borrowed the frame itself for my first novel, All Roads Are Circles, where the protagonist is a callow just-out-of-high-school lad hitchhiking across Canada, caught in a series of picaresque escapades. His quest: to lose his virginity.

I know, I know, cheap monomyth, but it is a quest, after all.

Serving the Salad
And why is there salad at the head of this blogging meal? Because we traditionally serve salads first here. But really, because yesterday, part of our Big Island Hawaiian house-sit, we drove to Hilo across the Saddle Road from Hawi. What that means is that you drive in the saddle between the substantial humps of two volcanos: Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Because Mauna Kea is a seamount, it’s actually the tallest mountain on earth, bigger than Everest. (Though it’s a mere 13,796 feet above the ground.) Its cousin across the meadow, Mauna Loa, is considered to be the largest volcano on Earth by volume. So, they ain’t punks.

And, your hands around my dithering throat, what’s the quest, you ask? Well, the Green Papaya Salad at Tina’s Gourmet Garden Café in beautiful bayside Hilo. How on God’s heavenly body can that be an example of the hero’s journey? Easy: One of these volcanos, though snoring, is still active—we could have been engulfed in fiery lava! We also got lost on a road exchange—we became slightly tense! We were vaguely running out of gas on the way home—we became vaguely anxious! All surely monomythical in their challenge.

As for the salad, we’d had it recommended to us by a friend back home: “You have to try the Green Papaya Salad at Tina’s.” So, we had the Vision, we had the Challenge, we had the Return. And we had the Salad. It was worth the quest.

All salad silliness aside, the Hero’s Journey remains a solid structure for building—and building in some variants—around, if your story is seeking such. Try it! (Oh, lots of good stuff on story structure over at Shawn Coyne’s Storygrid site.)

Bottom o’ the Page Plea
Oh, and if any of you have read my Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See, I’d love an Amazon review, no matter if you thought reading it was like changing diapers. The more reviews (and diaper changes) the better.

Pencil Me In: Writing Prompt for a Rainy Day

Inject your imagination with pencil possibilities

Inject your imagination with pencil possibilities


Remarkably enough, it’s raining today, which I thought was now illegal in California. So, instead of traipsing outside for any Saturday aerobic exercise, what about hunkering down inside with a writing exercise? Writing prompts are a good way to loosen up the creativity muscles, and they’re more fun than a spin class. (Argue with me all you want—the rain is drowning out your protests.)

I think simple is best for a writing prompt: let’s consider describing an everyday object from several angles, whether metaphorical or metaphysical. Enter the pencil.

Pencils in the Real World
It’s notable how plungingly deep you can go when you start to describe an object, particularly one you’d never bothered to focus attention on. With a prompt, you just let your mind and fingers fly, and don’t get out any red pencil to edit.

Thus, a physical pencil is:

  • A slender wooden wand capped with a metal ferrule topped with a rubber eraser
  • A short cylindrical spear with a soft end and a pointy tip
  • A soft, breakable wooden shaft
  • A balanced, effective, reliable writing instrument
  • A cat toy
  • A vehicle for advertising

 
Pencil as Metaphor

  • An insecure pencil won’t write polysyllabic words for fear of misspelling them
  • A heroic pencil has broad, defined shoulders just below the eraser
  • A husband pencil never takes out the shavings

 
Pencil Sensuality

  • The light but friendly heft of a pencil in your hand
  • The agreeable noise a pencil makes when scribbling words on paper
  • The sweet cedar smells when sharpening a pencil

 
Pencils in Irregular Use

  • Staving off boredom by flinging them up to stick in those soft-tile corporate ceilings when the boss isn’t around
  • Pencil as ear cleaner
  • Pencil as stand-in for conductor’s baton

 
Pencil as Pun
That’ll put lead in your pencil (ahh, my adolescence, it will never truly end)

Pencil as Iconic Object
Often seen behind the ears of old-school reporters, circa The Front Page era

Pencil as Ironic Object
Gigantic pencils occasionally seen in sculpture gardens

Pencil as Shakespearean Character
Think of a pencil separated from its twin, cross-dressing (alternating wearing manly tights with bosom-exposing dresses), caught in heart-pounding court intrigue, strumming a lyre whenever possible, and finally getting married amidst much fanfare, resonant huzzahs and beer.

Well, I won’t burden you with leaden prose any longer. But I think writers have an ability to look at the most common of things, and see a story there. So next time you look at your salt shaker, remember that from a different vantage you might think of it as your pet, your boyfriend, your accountant. Even your muse.

Besides, the rain is letting up—I’m going to take my pencil for a walk.

Emerging from the Storyless Swamp

Swamp

 No matter how soggy, you can emerge from the storyless swamp

Story ideas often seem to fall from the sky. Or in the case of my latest story, to come up from the basement. I’ve been in a fetid fictionless swamp for the past couple of months, incapable of putting anything to the page. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been feeling pointless resentment over not being able to get agents interested in what is now becoming an old novel, or editors interested in what are now becoming some old (but newer) stories.

The sing-song hearing of “not for us, thanks” can be a blow to writing confidence, but at some point you’ve got to come out of the swamp, at least to get some fresh socks. What made me change out of my swampy sad sack’s clothes was a helpful spur for any writer: a deadline.

I saw a link for an “Unearth Your Underworld” short story contest in one of the writing newsletters I get. I’ve won (or gotten seconds or thirds) in a number of writing contests, and in reading that the theme for this one was, “Anything Underworld—dig in to the sewers, bomb shelters, basements and your deepest hells!” I had an instant idea for a creepy story. In a blink, I saw my peculiar landlords and the strange business they had in their basement from so many years ago. A story, with visuals and plot line, in a second.

Stories Lie Waiting
When I say “instant idea,” I mean that the story idea jumped up from that basement of my imagination, where it’s sat in cold storage for all these years. I’ve written before how writing ideas are everywhere, and indeed they are. The theme of the book I’m writing right now is how to see through a writer’s eyes—how to see and record the stories that surround us.

It’s harder to see them when you are in the dim swamp of your sadness; you’ve got to at least open some curtains. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a deadline that pulls in some light. The basement story’s deadline is November 20th, and it’s well on its way. I don’t have to win anything in that contest to know I’ve already won, because I’m writing fiction again.

Sometimes I forget that you can get used to carrying a backpack of sadness around with you, so that it seems almost natural to shoulder that stuff. But it’s good to know that you can leave that backpack on the counter now and then. Everything feels lighter.

So, where do your story ideas come from? Do they stealthily finger up through the grass, crawling up your leg so that it takes some time to feel the itch, or is there a crashing from the sky and a lightning bolt, so that a story is revealed in instant incandescence?

Epitaph: Goodbye to One of the Good Ones
Sometimes our lives are touched by someone we’ve never met, who has a public forum that lets viewers (and listeners) get a sense of that person over time, so that he or she feels like family of sorts. I’ve listened to (and roared at) the madcap philosophizing of Click and Clack, NPR’s Tappet Brothers, for many years, delighting in their boisterous intelligence and warm camaraderie, both between themselves and their guests. Their shtick was never about the cars—it was about life’s tumblings, madnesses and small graces. And laughter. Ringing, infectious laughter.

The oldest brother, Tom Magliozzi, died this past week at 77. His brother Ray is going to continue to let the recorded shows play on NPR in his brother’s honor. Goodbye and good tidings, Tom. Wherever you are, don’t drive like your brother.

How to See Through a Writer’s Eyes: Listen—?

Glasses_on_book_101

I’ve been working on a short book that has the working title “How to See Through a Writer’s Eyes.” Maybe it’s because I wear glasses and only see so far, but I’m going to suggest you get a taste of that book by listening to me read the introduction.

My intent in writing the book is to help people see that the world is built of stories—and that with a little guidance on where to find and use those sentence-building tools, you can be one of the builders. More on the book’s progress later.

[Not sure why, but it seems you have to click on the play button twice. Moses and the rock, I suppose …]

Only Writers Fill the Real Barrel of Fun

Whiskey Barrel

The monkeys were already in the barrel

One of the books I’m reading is titled To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion. The book is a compilation of drink recipes based on cocktails mentioned in Hemingway’s works, or those known to have soothed Ernest’s throat during any dry spells behind the typewriter. From reading the book, you wouldn’t think Papa ever had a dry spell that he didn’t counter with a drink. Or four.

There’s a long history of associating writers with the sauce: Fitzgerald with his gin, Faulkner with his whiskey, Hemingway with his Definitivo (which combined equal parts vodka, gin, tequila, rum and scotch, bolstered with tomato juice and lime, a kind of Long Island Bloody Mary in Hell). So maybe this is associating Hemingway with any full bar—which he seemed to take as a challenge.

Literary Lights Liquored Up
Some literary pundits suggest that the liquor lubed their writing, giving it a flow whose force would be absent without the sweet succor of spirits. Heckfire, I’ve even put together a short video that shows how whiskey can improve your writing.

But that bit of legerdemain logic is tripped up by the old “correlation is not causation” adage: those guys just liked to get pickled, plain and simple. It probably didn’t improve their writing, but it did make them learn fascinating words like “jigger,” “muddling,” and “crapulous.” But that’s not to say that writers shouldn’t seek solace in pleasant refreshment. [Note to my business-writing clients: I never combine copywriting with cocktails. At least not at the same time.]

So, in the spirit of experimentation, thirst, and the quest to be aligned with my literary idols, I decided, along with the fair Alice-who-lives-in-this-place-we-call-home, to make some barreled cocktails. Barreling cocktails is a bit of a craze now: you take the ingredients of a standard charming cocktail, such as an Old-Fashioned, Negroni or Manhattan and put them in an oak barrel for a month or two, to take on some of the mellowing characteristics—vanilla, maple, honey, tobacco—that contact with toasted oak often lends to spirits. A number of hipster bars now offer barreled cocktails, the little darlings.

I’ll Take Manhattan(s)
Being a man believing no Manhattan should be left companionless, Manhattans were the clear choice. Thus, two nights ago, we alchemized the following:

⁃ 1.5 liters Bulleit Rye
⁃ 250 milliliters Bulleit Bourbon
⁃ 500 milliliters Martini and Rossi sweet vermouth
⁃ 3 tablespoons bitters: approximately half of which were Peychaud’s (New Orleans), half Rossard’s (Chile), and a generous splash of Fee Brothers West Indian Orange bitters (New York?)

Rye was the original right arm of a Manhattan, but I tend toward bourbon as the main kicker. But we had the jug of rye and proceeded thusly. We added the bourbon to lure the rye to sleep comfy in the barrel. No fancy vermouth here, just a basic, since we are relying on the barrel to bring the orchestra to tune. As for the bitters, I always like combining two bitters in a Manhattan, and the orange in volume is a bit too floral for me, but it added a nice top note to the combination. I wanted to put the aromatic combined bitterness on my hair.

As for the barrel of fun, that’s a nice 3-liter job (medium char) from Tuthilltown Spirits, makers of fine firewater, including the dandy Hudson Baby Bourbon. I bought the barrel for Alice’s birthday, for her efforts with moonshine (fun!) and the attempt to make our own bourbon (disaster!). We’ll shake up some of this barreled hootch into a couple of chilled glasses in a month or so, and get back to you on the results.

Or if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and we can discuss what Hemingway really meant when he said: I drink to make other people more interesting.

Doors of Perception (or, I Bet They Have Good Margaritas In There)

Flowery gate 2

Confession: I have a bit of the voyeur in me. Not the sort where I’d climb up in a tree to look into a maiden’s window to see her pajamas, but the kind where I like to sit in a public place and observe (snoop on) people going about their peopleness. Endless variations there, and endless speculation from me on those variations.

There’s an adjunct to that, where the goings-on are even more mysterious (and thus the stimulus to know heightened), because they’re less visible: they’re behind closed doors. I’ve just returned from several weeks of house-sitting in San Miguel de Allende, and one of my fascinations, among many others in this vibrant, vivid city, was with the doors. So many of the entryways in San Miguel are beautiful, with rich colors, unusual ornamentations, cascading flowers. Many of the walls of the homes in this hilly city, with its narrow, winding cobblestone streets, are set right up against the street. You can’t see through, can’t peek into what is often a lovely courtyard, unless those doors are open.

Blue Lion door 2

Many of the commercial establishments (hotels, restaurants) in the city have their beautiful doors thrown open of course, so that you can indeed see those beautiful courtyards filled with unusual furniture and artworks or happy diners. But having walked up and down through many of the back streets on a daily basis, it was those closed doors that always had me wondering. What charms or perils lay behind?

Doors of Deception
Thoughts of doorways and what’s beyond kept percolating through my time in San Miguel. And because my thoughts often turn in a writerly way, I started to think of how characters and their development in a story are like doorways. (Hey, I’m not the only one that thinks this way. Or if I am, I still have good table manners.)

It can be a useful tactic in a novel to introduce characters who aren’t what they seem. Or who is only partially what he or she seems. Or who is so radically unlike the first descriptions the reader encounters (or how other characters in the book perceive him or her) that the story—and the reader’s emotional ties to it—turn in unforeseen directions.

To make it more concrete (or wooden, which was the case with many of the San Miguel doors), many SM doors are highly ornate, or fussily decorated, or on the verge of ostentatious. Characters in stories might have big shows of wealth or power, but later we see they are insecure, anxious wretches. Their doors have splinters, and big ones. Conversely, a worn, simple door could conceal lavish fittings within (or, to torque the metaphor, conceal a character’s deep soul).

Wall heraldry 2

I enjoy when a writer later opens up a door wider on a character, where the wrinkles of personality show in a clearer light, as long as the way the revelations come are organic to the story. Even an event or characteristic that is such a radical bit of information—the protagonist murdered his best friend when he was seven, the protagonist was raised by wolves—can be later absorbed and appreciated by the reader if the doors to that information are positioned properly, and opened in a way that works in the tale.

By the way, once in a while a San Miguel closed door that I’d passed many times would be opened and I’d get to exercise my voyeur’s moment. I was amazed one day to pass by a couple of doors, on the very steep, hilly alleyway in the residential neighborhood where we stayed, and see in one, opening just off the street a tiny shop packed with sundries, top to bottom, with a single, strangled aisle, so dark and filled with overhanging goods I could barely see the counter. Another, just a few doors down, stacked with big plastic bags of what looked like curled ropes of chicharones and others with something that may also have been a pork product. No proprietors in either.

You never know what’s behind a closed door. Until the author invites you fully in.

Doorway Sun 2

Breathing New Life Into Your Writing

SunriseWalk2
Sunrise, Kosrae, Federated States of Micronesia

A while back, I lived on a tiny Micronesian island for a year. I taught various English department classes to students at the junior college, and for several reasons, my stay there was flavored with some sour stints of depression and anxiety. But I like to think about the things there that soothed me: the extraordinary beauty of the waters, the dazzling, resplendent corals and marine life under that water, the tropical breezes that lightened the blazing hammer of the days.

But one of the things I remember so clearly is a sound (maybe because they didn’t have any of Proust’s madeleines there with which to tag my aroma memory). That sound was the bright, high, rattling tinkle of waves breaking and receding over the bits and chunks of coral at the water’s edge. There was a broad coral reef surrounding the island, and there was coral rubble of all shapes and sizes at the shoreline. When the waves brushed over that coral, it was as though a master—and eccentric, maybe like Thelonious Monk—pianist or perhaps a vibrant vibes player finger-danced over coral keys.

It’s challenging to describe a sound, particularly one that because of the variable tempo of the waves and the configuration of the coral was forever changing, but there was something so pleasingly calming about it; the repetitive sweep of the waves and its tinkling chime was an aural massage. After some particularly crappy days at the school, just coming back to our house and sitting by the ocean listening to the jangling chime of the coral was enough to bathe my bile in a sonic balm.

No Coral Concert? Just Breathe Instead

I bring up those island days because I’ve lately had some biting bouts with anxiety and depression again. Just the usual mishmash of feeling unaccomplished, that my writing work—both business and personal—was going poorly, that though it was sunny spring, there was a chill inside. And there aren’t any coral-chipped beaches for a few thousand miles from my Central California home.

I can conjure many reasons not to write: worrying that a button was missing off my shirt, wondering if that girl from high school really didn’t like me or just slashed my tires to get my attention, thinking I would work on my novel if there weren’t a section of the tax code online I should study for an hour or two—the list knows no end. No writers need to add “I feel like a deflated tire” to the long list of inanities that prevent them from applying the magic formula: put the time in, and the words will come.

So, for the past couple of weeks, I’ve started the morning with a simple meditation. I’m not going to get militantly woo-woo on you and tell you you have to do 1,000 Sun Salutes, an hour of chanting and then stare at the sun until God speaks, and that then your writing will flow like the mighty river. What I’m doing is simple: a 15-minute meditation that has been working for me like the sweet sound of waves on coral: a lightly stirred serving of now, and now again. This particular meditation is a guided one, though you certainly don’t need an iPad to sit and breathe. This guidance is served up by a modulated woman’s voice offering some thoughts on focusing on the present moment, then offering silence, then focusing on the ebb and flow of the breath, then silence, and on.

And it’s helping.

Breathing Through the Ping-Pongings of Your Infernal Mind

The meditation suggests that you look with kindness on the ping-pongings of your infernal mind, that mad monkey that goes from, “Are we low on milk” to “if the asteroid hits and destroys the earth in a week, I won’t have to make the payment on the flat screen tv.” Beginning my morning with a simple meditation, and reminding myself that any time throughout the day, I can return to a minute or two of acknowledging the rolling ride of my breath (rather than watch another YouTube video) has been liberating in some ways.

I bookend the meditation with some quick thoughts on things I’m grateful for. And these don’t have to be any complex or grandiose or self-aggrandizing things, like being grateful for the Apple stock split. No, it’s more like the “I’m grateful for the sound of waves on coral.” Ahhhhh …

My feeling about my writing has been better—it’s breathing some new life. And I’m doing a little more of it. I wish I’d found out earlier that writing is actually a breathing exercise.

A Little Bit Extra

I wrote a piece on getting a gun at a young age, and how that troubling time has stayed with me all my days: Taking Flight from the Trigger, published on Medium. Recommend it with that bottom button if you’re of a mind to.

And a Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers out there!