Please Add Chocolate Cake to My Apocalypse Order

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels


Samuel Beckett, that existentialist coyote, has a couple of quotes from his stories and plays that are regularly used to shore one’s self up, even if the quotes seem to be wearing black frocks and carrying scythes. There is the pithy “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” which reminds me of the Black Knight in Monty Python’s “In Search of the Holy Grail” who is in a sword fight, gets his legs and arms cut off and says, “It’s only a flesh wound,” and battles on.

Then there’s Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” adopted by Silicon Valley bro culture as a kind of entrepreneurial mantra. (No bro ever mentions the following paragraphs, with their “Throw up and go … Throw up and back … Throw up for good” and like phrases, which suggest that failing better could necessitate many hot showers.)

Beckett, who had to be a gas at parties, had a bleak outlook on human nature, but leavened it an inch or so with black humor. He never saw 2020, but he would have had some thoughts about it, even if they would be monosyllabic and soaked in bitter herbs. I haven’t thrown up for good, but I definitely feel like I’ve thrown up and back. I suspect much of our country feels the same way.

So, it’s been a melancholic period for me, with inspiration in short supply: a deadly virus, apocalyptic fires in the West and a megalomaniacal president does that to a fellow. I have mostly been working—including trying to get it in front of agents and publishers—on the memoir from my larcenous high school days; you can see what that’s about in the first link below. (By the way, I found a nice resource on querying information at QueryLetter.)

Otherwise, I can’t seem to get my engine started to write any fiction, since truth is not only stranger than fiction these days, it also makes me want to nap. I am going to do some website revamping, and more targeted querying for some articles I am enthusiastic about writing. Enthusiasm, I invite you back.

I hope you are all doing well with your writing work and in your lives. Cheerio!

Linkability

The list is a bit deceiving because I hadn’t put new publications in my last couple of blog posts—lately all I’ve been hearing is “our budget has been cut” and “sorry” from editors (if I hear anything at all). But here’s some of my most recent work. August, sigh, seems like 10 years ago…

Missing Some Memories? I Might Have Stolen Them

Memoirs can take many turns—mine turns towards crime. Specifically, the years I spent as a high-school shoplifter, taking orders and selling the goods. Scandal! Here I go through the mechanics of writing memoirs, best practices and the galling lack of shame I had as a teenage hooligan. Published by the fine folks at WriterUnboxed in September 2020.

The Magic Of Malting Makes For California Whiskey Wonders

Carefully tended malted grains give whiskey (and beer) some oomph. This piece of mine explains some of the techniques, some quite old, in producing quality malts, and the quaffable results. Published in September 2020 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Why the 4468 Mallard Is Such a Badass Train

The speed record for the world’s fastest steam train is held by the Mallard. Set in 1938, at 126mph. Still the record today—that’s steaming. Published in September 2020 on Popular Mechanics magazine.

Pet Sitting Disasters: Read This Before You Apply for Your Next Pet-Sitting Gig.

My account of lunatic, scary, and bewildering experiences house-sitting crazed pets in many parts of the world. Published in September 2020 on The Professional Hobo. (Originally published on the now-defunct Bluntly Magazine.)

Kayaking Elkhorn Slough is a wildlife and otter lover’s delight

My piece on a lovely day amidst the wildlife (among them my girlfriend) of diverse and diverting Elkhorn Slough in central California. Published in August 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Hands-on Ecuadorian Artisans Are Hands-Down Amazing

My belatedly published piece on a pre-pandemic trip to Ecuador, where my sweetheart and I saw the appealing handiwork of impressively talented artists across many disciplines. Published in August 2020 on Dave’s Travel Corner.

A Treehouse for Adults

The next best thing to flying in your Airstream: glamping in one that’s 25 feet up off the ground. Published in the Summer 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Amazing Grace, the Trailer that Makes Memories (and Holds Them, Too)

The inspiring life and early death of a beloved daughter prompted her parents to start foundations in her honor, and name their Airstream after her too. Published in the Summer 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

And on the mental health front, a front I need in the back as well, here are some pieces from other writers that have been helpful.

Take Ownership of Your Future Self

Curiosity: The Key To A Long Life

Optimism Makes Your Brain Work Better

To Do Your Best Work, Use the 85% Rule

Seeking Happiness Won’t Help You Make Major Personal Decisions. Here’s What Will

Stop Procrastinating Today With Behavioral Science

Confessions of a Between-The-Margins Scribbler


Books have always seemed like magical things to me, from when I could barely hold one, through the long years to now. Because of that, and maybe more so because I never saw anyone in my house doing it, I never wrote in books. Even when I bought my books in college, and saw how many people would highlight material or write margin notes, such behavior seems almost sacrilegious to me.

But when I encountered things people wrote in the margins of books—“Not intuitive,” “Good point!” “Will be on test,” I always read them with fascination, particularly notes that were longer, and often that took issue with the author. (It’s always easier to argue with an author in his pages than in his face.)

That’s why when I saw the extensive marginalia (really, end-of-book blank-page marginalia) in Wade Davis’s One River, which my sweetie Alice is reading, I poured over it. That took some doing, and at some points a magnifying glass, because the writing was in a tiny scrawl. I am a person whose handwriting can give you liver failure, so I speak with authority.

The Davis book is nonfiction, its topic exploring the Amazonian rainforest. Why some reader took it upon him or herself to inscribe topics like “My Drug History” in the back of this book was puzzling, but gratifying. And why the writer would mingle “beer” and “coffee” amidst “DMT” and “Magic Mushrooms” was intriguing, but how much volume of drinking “Irish Cream” would cause one to note it as an entry in one’s drug history? And “Speed H20” was beyond any personal abuse of mine.

The most fascinating and extensive list on the pages is the “People I’d like to meet,” Perhaps this dates the writer, or the desired names were aspirational from the scribbler’s other reading, but among the luminaries:

Neal Cassady
Alan Watts
Albert Hoffmann (first synthesized LSD)
William Burroughs
Gary Snyder
Bukowski

He goes from these literary counterculture figures into bands and singers, i.e., The Moody Blues, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones. But in another column there’s Mort Saul, Debbie Reynolds and Bob Hope, so he’s digging deeper than those tie-dyed 60s years. And there are interesting compositional distances between Margaret Mead and Ann Landers, but they are near each other in this writer’s pantheon.

There’s a “My Reading Record” area near a “Minds I’ve Entered Into…” but the material below that doesn’t seem to list books or minds, but titles of songs and events, like “Hands Across America.”

So, why did this person write these things, and why in this book? Alice is only a short way in, but what she’s said doesn’t indicate that the work is some kind of pantheon of the greats that might prompt such an exercise. Did the marginalist not want to buy a diary? The scribblings remind me a bit of what F. Scott Fitzgerald has the Gatsby character write to himself in his formative years: Rise from bed; dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling; study electricity; work; baseball and sports; practice elocution, poise, and how to attain it; study needed inventions.

Did this writer want to construct lists that told him he was on the right path, had tasted of stimulating minds, was a member in good standing of this coterie? I don’t know, but it made me wonder if I should write such a list.

Oh, there’s also a list titled “Mexico”:
Vitamins
2 Kerchiefs
3 Shirts
Red Jacket
Green Levis
Swim Trunks
Sandals

I didn’t see Frida Kahlo on the want-to-meet list, but if the writer included a good deal of food in that packing, they might be able to search for her ghost for a while. I’m not yet tempted to write my own confessions in the back of a book, but I do know Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups would be in my drug history.

The Mother of All Books

 

From my early boyhood, I always wanted to be a pro baseball player. When my limitations as a ballplayer became more evident, I thought that being a writer would be just as good (and you didn’t have to try and hit a curveball). I don’t have to search around for why I wanted to be a writer—the answer is as easy as the one for why I’m around: my mother.

Since I was a toddling thing, I saw my mother reading. I saw her reading magazines and newspapers; I saw her reading books. And she wasn’t reading dime-store westerns (though that would have been fine too), but big novels, books that thumped when she set them down on the living room tables. I saw her reading books, enjoying books, getting more books.

My deep thoughts at the time: “Mom likes books. Books are good.”

Reading, Writing (and No Rithmetic)

So, I started reading too. She was right: books are good. The more I read, the more I wanted to write, so I started writing too. Writing is good. (Except when it gives me, as Mark Twain would say, the fantods.)

My mom continued to love reading until about 10 years ago, when her macular degeneration made words on the page a blurry mess. For a while, because she still hankered for that mess, she read with a giant magnifying glass, slowly but steadily, until that became too hard as well. I’ve written a number of books, and she had them all, even those published after she’d stopped reading. She loved books, after all.

She died at her assisted-living home in mid-June, after a stroke in late April. She was a remarkably kind and good person, funny and chatty, and fond of social gatherings and people in general. Even though she was 97, and lived a long and good life, it’s still a shock to have her gone. Whatever part of her I have is the best part of me.

Here’s the obit my sister and I wrote, which gives you a bit of her character:

Eileen Agnes Bentley

Thanks mom, for opening up the world of words, and all of their enchantments, to me. I hold you in my heart forever.

When All Your Article Pitches Are Wearing Masks

Photo by Edward Jenner from Pexels

This was the worst of times, this was the worst of times. For article pitches, things seem out of time. With apologies to Dickens, and apologies to you for using a cheap line—wow! I’ll try to use words to discuss the state of the union, or of the globe, or of the universe, but it’s feeling more like the state of disunion. The coronavirus and its cruelties hit with such a wallop, and now the anti-racist protests rocking the streets have shunted that exceedingly dire and still virulent virus—who would think that anything could?—to the side. And then there is our alleged president. My god.

Despite the stock market’s carbonation—up and down—resembling the days when I put Fizzies candies in an RC Cola and stepped back to see the liquid hit the ceiling, lots of people are out of work, lots of businesses will close, lots of folks will be underwater for some time. To my immediate, workaday interests, the publishing industry isn’t face-masked against these viral contractions either. In the last three months, I’ve sent nearly 40 article pitches, many to publications I’ve worked with before, though the bulk were to those I haven’t.

Some editors have answered with a “sorry, it’s just not happening now,” and some have answered with a “our freelance budget is locked down now.” Most haven’t answered at all, though what I read online tells me some answers: many major publications—Buzzfeed, Atlantic, Vox, too many to list—are cutting staff and wages. The bell tolls for all, writers and readers. I don’t have the sense that conditions will improve in the near future.

Not a one of my queries landed an assignment; I might not be a genius pitcher of articles, but I generally do much better than that. I did get a couple of assignments from editors I’ve worked with over the years, and have had a long memoir to edit for a client, but business as usual has been anything but.

Keep the Pitches Groomed Even If No One’s Coming Over

What to do? Look more closely at sites that have regularly updated listings for writing work of all kinds, like Pitchwhiz. Though I’ve been working on article writing more in the last year, go back and check out content writing opportunities. Look at the Twitter feeds of more editors and publications—it’s remarkable how many solicitations for pitches come from Twitter (though try to dodge the toxins on the platform if you can).

I’ll continue to look at book editing potentials—I just finished a developmental and copyedit of a long memoir on the assisted-living industry by an insider. The author is a witty, humane, skilled writer who was a pleasure to work with, bringing me back to enjoy work I’d started to lose my taste for. And I’ll continue work on my own memoir, about my high-school shoplifting years. I’m not certain if I’m as witty, humane or skilled, but it’s worth a shot.

One matter is that I don’t want to write about the virus. So many publications are doing so, and there probably are interesting angles and human-interest stories there, but I’d like to find something else to write about. I wrote about it once, in a whiskey context, and that might be enough for me. I was told by one editor of a general interest publication that they were basically only taking virus-related pitches, but that wasn’t enough to motivate me.

However, I have pitched articles where the virus situation is peripheral to the main story, such as distilleries making and giving away hand sanitizer, but where there’s a deeper story there to expand on as well. And I don’t want to be another white male fumbling around writing about how I’m not racist. The bell tolls for me there as well.

I keep a running list of article pitches, old and new, and I’ll look to refine recent ones, and look to refresh the story angles of the older ones. And I’m going to work on my attitude—I’m still a lucky guy to be able to work from home, and often on writing projects I enjoy.

My mom isn’t doing well, and I’m going to try and see her soon and savor the time that she has left. I’m working on savoring the little things and expressing gratitude in general. It’s not going to cure a pandemic and change institutional racism, but it’s a way forward.

Here’s to making the most of your writing life, no matter if it’s fiction or non, genre-neutral, genre-fluid, published or not, keyboard or quill pen.

Links

Here are a few links to my most recently published articles, followed by a couple of pieces from the net that I thought helpful.

The Shakespeare Society of America struggles to preserve its historic collection

My piece on a deep, eclectic collection of Shakespeareana (including some fabulously illustrated ancient books) in a tiny CA town. Published in the Summer, 2020 edition of Fine Books and Collections magazine.

Make Main Street SHINE: Add 101 Airstreams

Want to boost middle-America commercial and social prospects? Put 101 gleaming Airstream trailers on Main Street. Published in the Spring 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

California’s literary landscapes unfold in 9 — no, 12! — great books

I went through my library for capsule reviews on some selections where California is the setting (and sometimes a character). Published in May 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’ revisited (with a detour for COVID-19)

My piece about a writer on his quashed quest to recreate Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”. Gone viral in the worst of ways. Published in May 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Via Negativa: Adding to Your Life By Subtracting
“Not only can eliminating bad habits be a highly effective way to improve your life, it’s also often a lot easier than creating a new, positive habit. Positive habits take a lot of motivation and willpower to cultivate. But not doing something is much simpler.”

How Your Brain Creates Your Sense of Self
“Studies of people randomly pinged on their cell phone during the day indicate that the average person has a wandering mind about half the time. The more a person’s mind wanders, the more it tends to tilt negatively, toward anxiety, resentment, regret, and self-criticism.”

Nobody Knows Anything (So, Stay Safe, or at Least Well Hydrated)

It seems we’re all riding that horse named Chance (Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels)

There’s an old quote from screenwriter William Goldman discussing the film industry: “Nobody knows anything … Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

The quote has been used in many contexts, from weather forecasting to stock market predictions because, well, nobody knows anything. Not with bulletproof certainty. Fine time to trot that statement out now too, because with this effing virus plaguing the globe and with so many touted cures, predicted courses of spread and the outright lies from our government found out as diaphanous vapors, it’s hard to keep good counsel.

Thank the stars for heroic health care workers and for anyone saying “Let’s continue to be careful,” because—because we don’t know anything.

And instead of writing I’ve found myself looking at things like streaming virtual safaris, and famous old houses and buildings from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and strolling through the Musee d’Orsay, where scrolling through the paintings did soothe.

Even a live streetside cam outside the doors of Wrigley Park, where the viewing might echo the words of a Talking Heads song,

“Heaven
Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens…”

Writing, What Writing?

As for writing work, I’ve sent out a bunch of pitches and the only responses have been from publications telling me they are reducing staff and freelance budgets, and I’m ending emails to people I’ve never met telling them to “stay safe.” At least I’m getting some work done on my memoir of my spectacular high-school shoplifting career. More happens in that than in that Wrigley web cam.

People, stay safe. But if you find a way to dance around the Maypole today, do it. (And I just heard that my 97-year-old mom is in the hospital, test results pending. Hard days.)

Links

Here are a few pieces from the net that I thought helpful or provocative.

Build Self-Discipline By Forming These Habits
“It comes down to this: Do the right thing and have zero expectations of others. If some people don’t want to do that themselves, it’s not your problem. Keep on setting the right example.”

3 Strategies To Get Motivated
“The idea is simple. You want to reward yourself consistently for small accomplishments. When you’ve made progress on your career goals, buy yourself something nice. I don’t recommend materialistic rewards … When I talk about rewards, I limit myself to things that give me inner satisfaction. That’s what I mean by spiritual rewards. Often, those things don’t cost that much. For example, after completing a big project, I take a week off work and just read books, do chores around the house, meet friends, and relax.”

The Practice of Meticulous Attention
“Give the task, action, person or moment your undivided attention. Notice what this is like for you. See if you can deepen your attention even more. Let go of thoughts about the future and past, if possible, and turn toward what you’re facing even more.”

6 Strategies for Becoming a Better You from the COVID-19 Crisis
“One of the best “medicines” for dealing with a crisis is to take action, any action. It can be related to school, work, hobbies, home, or helping others. Instead of hanging around feeling sorry for yourself, take action on a plan to make yourself a better person, colleague, spouse, parent, friend, what have you.”

Freelancing Twists and Turns While Ducking the Coronavirus

Photo by Alex Fu from Pexels

Man, going viral has never seemed so lousy. I shouldn’t joke about it much, because it’s no joke, but it beats crying. Unless crying is called for. This is an unusual moment for long-time freelancers, because we are very used to working from home, thus presumed equipped to deal with (most) technology issues, and being productive when we could be eating bonbons. Or being productive while still eating bonbons.

Not being rabidly social myself, I’m not sharply hampered by the coronavirus lockdown; my sweetheart Alice and I still get out for some—socially distanced, of course—exercise, shop while veering away from other shoppers, as they do us, and since she is a freelancer too, both hang out lot at home.

My heart really goes out to those who are suddenly jobless, and particularly those with health issues. Or those struggling with kids at home and trying to be a productive remote worker on the fly, and trying to make their hair work for video. And to those people directly affected by the illness themselves—wow, this is as rough as it gets.

Viruses Throw Curveballs

Here are a few oddities, both positive and not, about being a freelance writer like me, one who often writes one-off articles for various publications, in a time of social disruption. Like I suggested above, I’ve got it easy compared to many people. But here are a few recent things that have happened related to my work that were unpredictable:

I had set up an article interview through Jameson Distillery’s PR people on a Prohibition-themed piece (Jameson almost closed for good then) for a spirits site article. At least I thought I’d set up an article interview. They’d wanted it to be through email, with their Marketing VP. So, I’d sent the emailed questions and then waited. And waited. Then waited some more.

My PR contact was professional and apologetic in a long email thread, but finally said that my interviewee was too busy, with all the recent coronavirus madness, to do it by deadline. Damn. But a week later, a bottle of Jameson and a bottle of a Jameson whiskey/cold coffee infusion arrived in the mail. I was sorry to not get the article in, but I was soothed by their offering.

Freelancer 1, Virus 1
Then, I’d sent a pitch on another subject to another spirits site I’d written for before. The publisher turned that down, but, virus-minded, asked me if I could find an infection specialist to discuss how many people had tragically died because of a mistaken belief that drinking large amounts of alcohol could stave off coronavirus infection or provide a cure.

I located a University of Nevada, Las Vegas epidemiologist through a ProfNet request (also asking that they be a whiskey drinker) and we did a Q&A on the subject. Whiskey drinkers are apparently whiskey readers too, because the article has 85K views and 1.6K shares.

You win on a virus article, you lose on a virus article: I finished a piece for Vox on the proliferation of profanity that you can see on all kinds—shirts, socks, books, desk calendars, pencils—of products now, which was assigned five weeks ago, turning it in last week. But right now, Vox is only publishing all-things virus, and my editor, who liked the piece, said it has to be shelved indefinitely.

They did give me a 50% kill fee, which is 25% higher than most publications, but still, it was a fun piece to write (including an interview with a marketing psychologist) and I’d love to see it out there. Virus-willing, maybe I will.

Freelancing has a lot of unpredictability built in already, but take an uncontrollable situation like a pandemic, and all bets are off.

Stay safe out there, and wash your hands. Really.

Links

Here are a few links to my most recently published articles, followed by a few pieces from the net that I thought helpful.

Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me
What better time to spill on death than a time of global terror? (Yes, I’m a riot at parties.) Some personal reflections on the cruelties of the passings of friends, and examples of how death works as a plot and revelation factor in literature. Published by the fine folks at WriterUnboxed in March 2020.

Whiskey Is a Bad Chaser for Coronavirus
Some people have some mistaken—and tragically dangerous—ideas about using spirits to prevent or help with curing coronavirus. Nope. This interview with a whiskey-drinking epidemiologist sets that straight. Published in March 2020 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Redwood Hikes and a Whimsical General Store
A hike in the redwoods should be part of the prescription to cure whatever ails you (let’s ignore the coronavirus context part of that). But you have to follow that redeeming stroll with a visit to the odd and unusual San Gregorio General Store. Mom and Pop’s it ain’t. Part of my Trail Mix series (note: pre-virus shutdown of the parks). Published in March 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Getting Steamed Has Never Been So Cool
Oh sure, sure, you can have a fancy TV in your Airstream, or a sink that rules them all, but a steam room? That’s cool. Or hot. Published in the Winter 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Freelance Writing Funk? 3 Mindless Productivity Hacks from a Pro
How scribbling a few vivid words or phrases—“word seeds”— on a story or article idea can prompt your brain to work on expanding them, often to a rich level, while you dawdle. Published in February 2020 on the excellent Make a Living Writing site.

From the Net

Want to Be Successful? Stop Thinking About Failure
“You put your mind through every scenario where failure is possible to the point where it feels real. You’re simulating these experiences so frequently, it feels real, even though nothing has actually happened. After a while, your mind tricks you into believing you have all this “experience” around failure, when you’ve never actually experienced it — just thousands of simulations of it.”

Neuroscience Reveals 50-Year-Olds Can Have the Brains of 25-Year-Olds If They Do This 1 Thing
“However, the neuroscientists also found that the meditators had more gray matter in another brain region, this time linked to decision-making and working memory: the frontal cortex. In fact, while most people see their cortexes shrink as they age, 50-year-old meditators in the study had the same amount of gray matter as those half their age.”

Why Happiness IS Just a Choice
“Happiness is not something that happens to some people and not to others. You get to choose.”

Writers Need Patience (or a Good Meditation App)

Photo by Min An from Pexels

It’s more clear than ever: rather than taking on the writer’s life, I should have been a Zen monk. One with patience aplenty. Besides looking good in robes, that ability to sit in stoic silence would give me a handy talent. As the Buddha-inspired protagonist said in Hesse’s Siddhartha, “I can think, I can wait, and I can fast.”

Me, I say, “I think that waiting for my articles to be published is not fast.”

To wit: last spring I spent a month house-sitting in Ecuador, and wrote a long piece about the interesting and wildly talented handicrafts artisans I saw there; I submitted it in early May to the travel section of the Los Angeles Times. They accepted it. And held it for a while, telling me they were waiting to put together an entire South American section. OK.

Then there was some unrest in several South American countries, so they didn’t want to publish any pieces on that topic until that died down. OK. And then, amidst newspapers consolidating and some dying outright, the paper’s managers decided that they were going to have the weekly travel section of one of America’s biggest papers go to a monthly format as of this March.

So, the editors are scrambling to decide where to put their backlog of articles, if they are going to put them anywhere. OK, sort of, but not really.

So, that article (which will only be paid for when published) has now languished for 9 months, sad whimpering thing I, er, I mean, it is. I’ve published 11 articles in the Times over many years, so I know the travel editors, who are reasonable and apologetic (and probably worried about their own skins). But dang, how can I pay for my monk’s robes if the dough just dangles?

The Rip Van Winkling of Writing

The Times deal/not deal is not an anomaly. Let’s look at the fate of several of my articles over the last year or so:

Popular Mechanics has held a piece of mine on a famous steam train since accepting it in October. The editor I’m working with there, a great guy, had published two other pieces of mine on historic trains (and another one on historic vodka) pretty quickly—the vodka one was published three days after submission. But this third train is late to the station, though I hear it’s scheduled for mid-March. One good thing about PopMech: they pay on acceptance, not publication, not the case for many publications.

That wasn’t the case for a piece of mine on pitching articles published in The Writer—they waited until WAY after publication, many months, to pay me. The editor there was profusely apologetic through our long email string, telling me that they were having trouble with incoming advertising revenue and couldn’t pay their writers until that was settled. This is a magazine that was founded in 1887, but being the old print guy on the block don’t get you much respect—or revenue—any longer.

A piece I wrote on Big Sur’s eccentric Henry Miller Library was accepted by Cathay Pacific’s in-flight magazine Discovery last June, but didn’t see print (or payment) until January. Henry’s dead, so he’s more patient, but I do fret.

I could include a couple of other stories from the past year about articles losing their knife’s edge in the current Pandora’s publishing box, but the above should suffice. But my whinging shouldn’t indicate that these situations are a rarity in a freelancer’s world—publications often hold pieces for a while and payment upon publication is not unusual. It’s just that patience until publication is—unusual, that is. For me, at least.

And even when a writer already has the dough, like with me for the Popular Mechanics piece, I still wanted to see the article get daylight. It’s as much the circulating words as the money, always. Writerly patience is a virtue, but goldurnit, these virtues take some work. I suppose I could pivot the dark energy of my impatience to sending out more queries, so I can get this cycle back in gear. In the meantime, I’m shopping for those robes, because clothes make the monk.

Links

Here are a couple of links to my most recently published articles, and a few pieces from the net that I thought helpful.

Fog’s End Distillery Has the Can-do Spirit

A quick profile of Craig Pakish, who works some grain-based alchemy in his one-man distilling operation in Gonzales, CA. And by “one man,” I mean this guy truly does it all. Published in the Winter 2020 issue of Carmel Magazine.

Do Happy Lights Really Work for Seasonal Depression?

The last couple of weeks I’ve been blasting my face with a light therapy box, to treat my winter blues. Does it work? Hah, you’ll have to read it to know. Published in January 2020 on The Bold Italic.

How to Get Major Life Decisions Right
“Second, don’t base decisions on something that may or may not happen in the future…There no way to know what unexpected and wonderful things may happen. Plus, serendipity has an amazing way of changing our lives.”

3 Ways to Manage Worry by Perspective Shifting
“Few things are certain in life, but at the time of this writing, death is still inevitable…It can be incredibly helpful to remember and contrast this fact with the smaller concerns that keep us from appreciating and enjoying our lives. It’s hard to hold too tightly to our more trivial problems when we appreciate our finite time on this planet.”

Curiosity Is the Secret to a Happy Life
“The more that experts examine curiosity, the more they find evidence to suggest that it’s the secret sauce in a happy, fulfilling life.”

5 Powerful Ways to Stop Worrying About What Others Think
“The truth is, other people’s opinions of us are none of our business. Their opinions have nothing to do with us and everything to do with them, their past, their judgments, their expectations, their likes, and their dislikes.”

First Paragraphs Crack the Dam, Releasing a Flood of Words

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Steven Pressfield has pointedly dubbed it “The Resistance”—that jumble of fear, miscast self-protection and paralysis that prevents us from stepping out of artificial boundaries. Where we tell ourselves, “No, I could never take an acting class, I’m too shy; no, I can’t do math, I’m bad with numbers; no, I can’t apply for that job or ask that person out—that’s out of my league.”

The status quo, even if it’s the drabbest of miserly things, is known—it’s safe, even if that safety is delusional, and doesn’t ask for you to reach, to explore your actual capabilities.

The key to smothering Resistance is getting that first paragraph written.

Well, it might not be the key to landing that part on Broadway, but I have to come at it from the writer’s point of view. When I have a writing assignment, no matter that I’ve been writing pieces for publications for 30 years, I still fret, fuss and dither.

I will begin writing—but only after I clean up that old paint spill near the garage, only after I make sure all the clocks in the house are set to the exact time, only after lunch. Which becomes dinner. Which becomes tomorrow.

But, get the first paragraph down—whoosh!

Avoidance, Anxiety—and Then Flow

For me, all the avoidance of the first few sentences of an article is a concentrated anxiety. So that when I finally get rid of all my old paint stains and my neighbor’s down the street, and set down to type, glory happens.

The dam breaks. Words, supple and galloping. This is not to say that that first paragraph might not be completely changed in the submitted draft, might not be the right words at all, but that getting that one chunk done, that is liberation.

The first paragraph is a tree in the clearing, a map, an open hand.

I experienced this just this past Friday, when I FINALLY began an article that I’d avoided for 10 days. I’d let the Resistance really dig in its heels because the deadline for submission was loose. Where are those paint stains?

But I wrote the initial first two paragraphs on Friday, felt good about them, and Saturday the next 1,000 words came out to completion (with minor editing later, of course). I knew how this would work all along, but still, my fears that the piece wouldn’t come out well, my writing would sag, I’ll never be able to buy a cup of fancy coffee again, those demons whisper yet.

You can beat the Resistance, my friends. Just write that first paragraph.

Links

Here are some links to my most recently published articles and a piece from the net that I thought helpful.

Walking on the Wild(er) Side in Santa Cruz—Plus Beer!
Taking a stroll above the dramatic cliffside ocean-wave carvings at historic Wilder Ranch State Park and heading north to a brewpub with great grub and beer. Part of my Trail Mix series. Published in January 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

In Search of Henry Miller’s Bohemian Legacy in Big Sur
Big Sur has many charms, not least of which is the Henry Miller Library, which is neither a library, nor a bookstore, but more of a cultural experience. Weirdos encouraged, as Mr. Miller encouraged them long ago. Published in January 2020 in Discovery magazine, the in-flight mag for Cathay Pacific airlines.

11 Mental Tricks to Stop Overthinking Everything
“When we don’t know something, we tend to fill in the blanks, often with garbage assumptions. Why? Many of us would rather be unhappy than uncertain.” Some mind tricks that seem simple, but actually implementing them could make a sea change.

Good Writing Requires a Guiding Light

And you guys can’t see the crossbow on the right aimed at my head to make me hit deadlines

History has it that Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day. It’s possible that writing The Human Comedy is worth the price of having a stomach shot with holes. I’m a coffee drinker myself, though I don’t bathe in it. But sometimes I need a bit more lift in my days, and I’m not interested in buying any meth.

The thing that needs lifting is my perspective, and here’s why: Lots of people feel sluggish, or moody or just out of sorts during the winter months. For some people who have an inclination toward mild depression, low-light winters can exacerbate the condition all the more. I’ve had mild depression on and off since adolescence, and have dreaded the seasonal smothering of the light for that reason. So, for the last couple of weeks, I’d been exposing myself to 20- to 40-minute daily doses of a 10,000 Lux light-therapy box.

Mild depression is like a winter coat that’s a bit too tight (and that covers your head too). You’re cloaked, but less in warmth than in something that is vaguely numbing. Not good for a dog, not good for a cat, not good for a writer. Interestingly, the device’s manual says you can have an overdose of sorts with the light, with symptoms like feeling squirmy, or over-caffeinated. Or, in the Mayo Clinic’s words, you can experience “mania, euphoria, hyperactivity or agitation associated with bipolar disorder.”

So far, no mania, even though I’m still drinking coffee as well. I haven’t felt like driving my car through the garage door, buying stock in Trump Towers, or starting a chinchilla farm. (Do let me know if these seem like good bets though.) You can see from the image that you need to position the light close to you, at an angle. It’s distracting at first, but after some minutes, I get used to it.

I was amused to see that the model is called a “Happy Light.” Ahh, if only it were that easy! But I’m going to try it over the winter months, and see if I can get a bit brighter, and perhaps have more motivation to write all the pieces that often only get to “I should write about that” before I let them drift off. And even if positive results are placebo-based or in some way psychosomatic, that’s OK too.

I simply can’t spend the same amount of time in which Balzac visited the bathroom after his 50 cups, so the Happy Light will have to do.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Good Festivus to All!

Links

Here are some links to my most recently published articles and a piece from the net that I thought helpful.

Boxing Up the Best of Homemade Nashville

Another script I wrote for Chris Guillebeau’s Side Hustle podcast, where he discusses people who have started successful and often fascinating side jobs. This one profiles who started a business selling subscriptions to homemade and small-production goods (coffee, bed and bath, popcorn, hand towels) made by 300 local vendors. They went from $100 startup costs to $2 million a year. That’s a lot of popcorn. Published in December 2019 on the Side Hustle School.

Adding Aluminum to a Garden of Glass

Dale Chihuly is a glass sculptor of world fame, with roots in Washington state. He established the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition near Seattle’s Space Needle a while back, which includes a glass-blowing studio housed in a vintage Airstream. Local students check out their mind- (and glass-) blowing classes for free. Published in the Fall 2019 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2019 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Texas Banker Teaches Classes on Painting Your Pet

Another script I wrote for Chris Guillebeau’s Side Hustle podcast, where he discusses people who have started successful and often fascinating side jobs. This one profiles a Texas woman who was a banker and MBA graduate who had a mild interest in art, leading to her teaching art in school districts to teaching dynamic painting classes on the side. And the popularity of those classes exploded. Published in November 2019 on the Side Hustle School.

6 Things Your Life Is Infinitely Better With

“An infinitely better life includes these six components: a clear purpose, a core team of business partners and close friends, full confidence and awareness in yourself and meaningful role models. It’s all attainable right now and you might be closer than you think.”

Freelancing Fluctuations, from the Gaps to the Gravy and Back Again


Photo by Lum3n.com from Pexels
 
Freelancing rolls in odd waves, sets of growth and sets of ebbs, but not as consistently (or mostly predictably) as the waves surfers rely on. The last couple of months I’ve had several articles published in national magazines, but not from my usual pattern of sending out flurries of queries and getting the standard higher percentage of “no thanks” or no reply at all—and the occasional “yes.”

Instead, out at dinner, I had a train enthusiast friend rave about the biggest steam train in America being restored after years of dormant slumbers. Because I’d recently seen a solicitation for pitches from an editor at Popular Mechanics, I queried and got a yes, thus this article steaming down the tracks.

And from that friend’s little story, now my collection of train articles on PopMech are three.

A little later, I thought the story of me selling an empty bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon on eBay might make an amusing tale. So when I pitched it to an editor at Vox, she countered, asking instead for a broader industry piece on the world of collectible whiskey. That was a much more interesting (and lucrative, for me) dip into a weird world.

Not long after publication, a PR person in LA who read the whiskey story pitched me (wonder of wonders) on the story of a company she represents that’s producing the world’s first carbon-negative vodka. Because I’d seen that Popular Mechanics had also been publishing some pieces on the spirit world, I approached the editor who’d done my train pieces, and he went for it.

That’s a strange, not-quite-round circle of call-and-answer, and none of it would probably have happened had I not eaten dinner with my friend who had the old steam train on his mind.

That breaker was rather a rogue wave in those steady sets of freelancing queries and responses and one that had unexpected ripples.

So, next time someone tells you an interesting story over your rigatoni, make a note or two. You never know where that tale will take you.

Lost Kitty Update

I wrote earlier about my sadness over my cat Malibu having gone missing, at that point 12 days in on her absence. As of today, she is gone two months, and it’s still hard to reconcile that we probably won’t see her again (though there are many tales of cats returning after longer absences). It’s startling to me how thoughts of her jump into my mind unprompted, and how nondescript things around the house remind me of her absence.

I hear of parents who are crushed, devastated when something happens to their children. I can only imagine, woefully the depth of that kind of loss. But Malibu was so much a part of our family that her absence is a harsh void. I’m happy to have known her.

Links

Here are some titled links to my articles mentioned above (and a bonus LSD trip!), and a couple of pieces from the net that I thought helpful.

This Is the World’s First Carbon-Negative Vodka

The weird world of whiskey collecting, explained

Why the Big Boy 4014 Is Such a Badass Train

Acid Rain Isn’t Always What You Think It Is

How to Become the Best in the World at Something

Four Ways to Calm Your Mind in Stressful Times

Good writing and reading to all!