A Narrative About Storytelling

I spent part of the weekend engaged in analyzing my creative writing journey. What has yours been like? Strangely, mine has gotten more difficult as I’ve gotten older.

My Writing History

My family has home movie footage of me reading a book when I was less than two years old. Given my hypothyroidism, which was not diagnosed until age 1, I struggled with my physical development. It is, therefore, entirely possible that I could read before I could walk. I was drawn (so to speak) to those black symbols printed on bound white paper. Apparently I was also interested in trying create my own. Grandma Leahy claimed I told her at age five that I wanted to be a novelist. (Is it possible that I’d even know that word at that age? Yep.)

The first piece of writing I had “published” was a set of “alphabet stories” we were assigned in second grade or something. It went into my elementary school library, and I fished it out of the shelves when I learned that the school was closing. In one story I wrote about Wally the Whale, who wanted to swim from one U.S. coast to another, so he swam through the Panama Canal. Because, yes, 8-year-old Bart was interested in transportation. In another of those stories, I wrote about the D word–divorce–that had happened in my home the year before. It was accompanied by a rather dark crayon image of a dead man’s corpse burning in a garbage dump. Guess who got to spend some time with the social worker soon thereafter?

As I progressed, I started writing Star Wars stories, transmuting my play time with my friend down the street into typed stories. Eventually, in my teens, I started writing fiction in my own world(s), which alternated between mainstream and science fiction. I got an IBM PC Jr. sometime around then and started writing more. A lot of my story writing was cathartic. Writing in the heroic mode in the Star Wars universe, I would transmute my adolescent (ages 11-20) struggles into wish fulfillment fantasies, in which I was a person with authority and respect. A person who could make an impact. A leader.

At age 18 or so, I got my own Smith-Corona typewriter with maybe 100 KB of memory. I bought a pack of paper and started cranking out short stories in between class papers or over breaks. It would be difficult to say that I wrote stories so much as character sketches or situations in which the main character learned something–I was in college, after all. After college, when I was in Florida and working for Disney, I had plenty of unencumbered time and wrote a startling number of short stories (narratives?) throughout my 20s (29 of them in just two years). Did I submit any of them for publication? Of course not. I was writing for therapeutic purposes. Plus, I also recognized that I was not writing stories so much as fictional narrated experiences. No antagonists, no concrete plots, no character development, etc.

I tried my hand at science fiction here and there. Again, I was writing about characters gaining insights or experiencing strange effects from technology. Conflicts and actual storytelling continued to elude me. I was 30 when I finally wrote my first novel–a Star Wars story, of course, rooted in those stories that were born out of my childhood playtime. That novel continues to be modified and improved right up until the present. I would not write another one until I was 42. I decided to try National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and write an actual story, an historical romance, for a change. Did a bunch of research, threw in a little character development, and everything. The problem was that the book just wasn’t very good (“Everyone writes a sh!tty first draft,” according to Anne Lamott) and I didn’t enjoy the writing process enough to make any revisions to it, probably because it was written as a way of venting my feelings about a previous romantic relationship. Draft? Written. Revisions? Neglected. Into the files it went.

My shift to novel writing and more serious, structured narratives coincided with finally getting work as a technical writer in the space business, a primary career goal of mine. I’d learn the mysteries of launch vehicles, crank out conference papers and other products. As a result, when I came home, I had two things happening in my mind when I sat in front of the computer: I was tired from work, and I was painfully aware that I needed more professionalism and quality in my work.

Two years later, I tried another NaNoWriMo experience, this one science fiction again. And, while more promising than the previous novel draft, this one also lacked traditional conflict, structure, or character development. I gave it to friends (one a published author), seeking inputs. I got the inputs…and then left them to rot in my files with all the other unpublished dreck. I didn’t want to do the work. The work filled me with loathing, self- or otherwise.

Despite this, I still wrote short stories here and there and tried another SF novel for NaNoWriMo four years after the last one. I ended up finishing it a year later because NaNoWriMo got interrupted by a vacation. I had a few people read that one as well…got zero feedback, and let it drop into the files with the others. My joy at writing was diminishing as well.

I met a new lady friend around the time I turned 50 and started writing short stories/anecdotes for her for fun as part of my courting ritual, but the relationship soured and with it my desire to write anything creative, for that matter.

So now I’m 53. I’ve written a lot in my career, from corporate training classes to conference papers, engineering documents, public speeches, news articles, and marketing/outreach materials. You could say I’ve done a few things, most of them without much fear or anxiety. So what’s going on with my creative writing?

My Current Problem(s)

It turns out that I am much more comfortable writing content for other people–customers, bosses, what have you. It’s writing for myself that creates anxiety in my typing.

My fears and excuses for not writing multiply and grow more complex the longer I consider them.

  • Fear of writing something terrible, scientifically incorrect, stupid, etc.
  • Fear of not living up to expectations (education, background, etc.).
  • Fear of criticism/mocking.
  • Fear of offending the always-angry Twitter mob and the perpetually offended. Will I say the wrong thing(s)? Will I be accused of portraying someone different from me insultingly? Will I express the “wrong” point(s) of view?
  • Will the angry people start attacking me online?
  • Will the angry people start threatening me online?
  • Will they not stop there, but show up at my house and threaten me or my loved ones?

Et cetera.

I even have some fear of success, on occasion.

So this morning I asked myself: Is writing something I even want to do anymore? Is this still a ‘passion’ that I need to pursue to feel complete? Is writing the way I will make my positive mark on the world? My legacy? Is there something else I should be doing instead?

One of the books I read to try and nudge me back into creative work was The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield calls all the doubts and fears I expressed above “resistance.” He says:

The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

Sounds great, in theory. In reality, I’m somewhere between feeling ashamed about not doing the work but also feeling ashamed about trying to write when I feel like I’m forcing myself to do something I ought to be doing, like a painful obligation. What the hell am I supposed to do with that no-win scenario?

My Path Forward?

I tried to imagine what writing without struggle would be like:

  • Not caring about scientific or engineering accuracy (at least in the first draft).
  • Not caring about how others might receive my work.
  • Not focusing on critical or monetary success or failure, just writing something that makes me happy.
  • Writing the truth fearlessly according to my lights, not the prejudices of whatever mob might find it objectionable.
  • Apply the skills and knowledge I do have to put together something good.
  • Be as ambitious as I care to be, even if it turns out that ambitious is not something I want to write.

A younger Bart remembered how to do most of that, even if his skills weren’t too polished. My older self has learned how to write better but is now afraid to share whatever’s in his head…or worse, won’t write because he has nothing to say.

Writer’s block sucks.

Where is Technology Taking Us?

At 6 a.m., my brain suddenly decided it wanted to write. More to the point, it wanted to discuss the future: which directions might we go, and where we were likely headed. I waited until I’d showered and had breakfast to do something about it because I don’t like writing on an empty stomach. That said, where are we going? Below are some of my thoughts.

Specifically, my busy mind was looking at some dichotomies:

  • More freedom or more control?
  • More efficiency or more redundancy?
  • More complexity or more simplicity?
  • More inclusiveness or exclusivity?
  • More community or more isolation?
  • More choices or fewer choices?

Some of these bullets are technological questions, some are social questions that could be embodied by our technologies. The originators of the internet wanted information to be free. However, ironically, the internet didn’t grow and improve technologically until government and businesses moved in to populate the virtual spaces. Government uses our patterns of electronic behavior to determine our potential risk to lives and property. Businesses use our online behavior to sell us products and services and sell our buying patterns to other businesses so they, too, can sell us products and services.

As my tech-minded friends like to remind me when I complain about mostly free online environments like Twitter and Facebook, “If you’re not paying for the service, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”

Users are aware of these dynamics, more or less. Some enjoy the convenience of having helpful, fun, or interesting products and services marketed to us (the Hawaiian shirt makers have started swarming my Facebook profile lately). Some migrate to other digital environments, either out of concerns about how their information is being used or because they feel their personal or political views are being censored by large social media platforms.

I can’t say that we’re moving in a purely utopian or dystopian direction. Our computers are watching us, but it’s mostly corporations tracking and shaping our spending habits rather than the government minding our propensity for thought crimes. On the other hand, if people participate in blatantly antisocial or violent actions, they’re likely to announce their intentions beforehand or brag about their “success” on YouTube afterward, giving the government plenty of evidence for making an arrest. Whose “fault” is that?

The sheer number of options for communicating or receiving information has enabled us to customize the electronic “world” we see. And the more we focus our attention in specific directions or toward specific ideas/topics, the more we find our perceptions filtered through our self-grown information ecologies. More choices, but less shared experience. More inputs, but less community.

We’re still moving in the direction of communities off Earth, flying or autonomous cars, and “smart”homes, but we’ve also got people becoming polarized by different views of the world and even different facts. What’s a valid source? Which facts are worth paying attention to, and in what order? These are the questions we are all forced to confront, though it might be harder for younger generations, which never grew up with a more limited print and television environment. How do they view the present? How will they view the future?

Is there a point to any of this rambling? I don’t know. I’ve been struggling (again? still?) with writing science fiction, and I was hoping these thoughts would lead to a story idea or a way of looking at the future, but all it’s done is add to my struggle and confusion. I am not particularly imaginative when it comes toward envisioning the future. I’m much too conservative (in the limited intellectual sense, not necessarily the political sense). Still, I try to understand the present by writing in a science fictional mode because people and their concerns in the present vex and often bore me. SF is about the future of our relationship with the universe and the technologies we use to cope with it. Mainstream/contemporary fiction is about people as they are and their current, personal concerns. I’m not interested in other people’s personal problems. That’s like traveling in gossip. Writing SF is about individual destinies, aspirations, and accomplishments. Technologies might or might not figure prominently in mainstream fiction–though it’s harder to ignore them, even for people focused on personalities.

Maybe I’m thinking about the future of technology as a proxy for trying to figure out my own, personal future, in literature and elsewhere. Where am I going? Where are any of us going?

To be determined. To be continued.

Expectations: Fiction vs. Real Life

I take my fiction experiences–whether they’re written, on a stage, or on a screen–very seriously. An interaction on Twitter this morning made me consider some of the ways my feelings toward fiction manifest themselves.

Here was the Twitter exchange I had this morning:

I didn’t appreciate having my attitude toward villains described as “simple minded” or immature, yet I responded politely as shown. Yet it’s true: I’m not interested in the motives of bad guys in books or movies.

This is an old habit, going back to my youthful love of the Star Wars saga. The fascination people had with Darth Vader or Boba Fett, for example, eluded me. Even Vader’s revelation that he was Luke Skywalker’s father didn’t move me that much. My 11-year-old self assumed that he was lying. The subsequent confirmation of Luke’s parentage made for an interesting resolution to Return of the Jedi, but I remained a fan of the heroes. Vader didn’t redeem himself until very late in the game.

The prequel movies depicting the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader was a narrative mess, and I still wasn’t that interested in Anakin’s fall from grace. What did bother me was the Clone Wars movie, which was set between Episodes II and III. There, Lucas had already set the trajectory of Skywalker as heading down a dark path. What, then, was one to make of this cartoon that depicted him as becoming better or more heroic? Were we supposed to feel that much worse when he succumbed to the dark side? Anyhow, it didn’t work for me, given the narrative arc shown for the character at that point in the series. I was also not pleased to read “there are heroes on both sides” in the opening crawl of Star Wars III. The original Star Wars trilogy worked because it depicted a straightforward morality tale of good-vs.-evil. Who the heck do you root for if there are heroes on both sides?

For me, fiction is about structure and meaning. This is probably because I read and wrote stories as a way to make sense of the world or to make the world a better, more just place, if only in my mind. I had enough examples in my adolescence of the bad, the mean, or the violent succeeding; I didn’t need or want that in my fiction. Call it idealism, call it escapism, call it what you will: to be satisfying to me, stories with obvious heroes and villains need to end with the hero triumphing.

I recall another expectation about fiction that created a great deal of amusement for one of my professors in graduate school. It was a hypertext class, and one of the reading assignments was a “novel” called If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. That had to be one of the least-satisfying reading experiences I’ve ever encountered. The book consisted of a series of episodes in different genres, none of which connected to each other, and all of which ended without resolution. I came into class infuriated that the author had wasted my time. The professor, amused, asked me, “Why are you so upset by this?” I replied, “Good fiction isn’t supposed to do that!”

Since I’m probably on the verge of being called simple-minded again, I’ll just state my objection here: If I wanted that sort of experience, I could turn on the news.

Much of the fiction that works for me takes the form of a structured morality tale. There are other works that are not conflict-focused or are more ambiguous, like man vs. nature–I’m talking here about man vs. man stories. There are also tragedies, such as the darker works of Shakespeare, but those don’t appeal as much to me, either. Again, I’m trying to make sense of the world and perhaps reinforce my rather naive hopes that good will triumph in conflicts. If I wanted to hear that “the world doesn’t make any sense,” I could read any number of columnists or bloggers. If I wanted to see conflicted human beings acting in a manner perceived as villainous, I could turn on the evening news. If I wanted to see evil triumph, I could read histories about some of humanity’s worst despotisms.

There are writers and readers out there who thrive on relatable, multi-layered, or even sympathetic villains. I wish them well. However, I am not the market for those sorts of stories. They don’t interest me.

Journals As Repositories for the Soul

I’ve been journaling since I was a college freshman in 1988 (go ahead and do the math; I know–I’m old). In that time, I’ve filled various paper and electronic pages with my half-baked philosophies, wishful ambitions, and angst-ridden frustrations. Aside from various conversations with people I know very well, my journal is where I’ve been the most honest about who I am, what I want, and why I do what I do. This morning I’m meditating on what to do with all that content.

Why Keep a Journal?


I’ve given serious thought to burning my journals before I die or (riskier) requesting in my will that they be burned after my death. Given that, one might wonder why I have not done so already or why I should get stressed out to learn that during my move from Virginia to Alabama or Alabama back to Florida, the movers lost (or gave to someone else) the first box of my journals.

The reason I refer back to them now is for reference or curiosity: what was I doing or thinking at X point in history? Do I want other people doing the same thing when I’m gone? Sometimes it depends on the day. Most of the time, I’m committed to burning the journals–ideally before any nosy people decide to dig into and publish them.

It all circles back to the same question: why keep a journal at all if you don’t expect or want others to read it? There are some obvious reasons. Writing in a journal (or diary–pick your word) is therapeutic, not just in the sense of relieving tension from particular situations, but often literally as a form of therapy. I started journaling in part as a way to sort out my own problems without resorting to talking to an actual therapist. I had a general idea of the sorts of questions therapists ask, as I’d been seeing counselors off and on from ages 8-18, so I figured I could ask those questions of myself and write the answers without talking to a professional. People in a great deal of personal pain are not eager to tell other people what they’re feeling or why–that’s how they ended up in therapy in the first place. Other times, therapists recommend keeping a private journal as a way to cope with ugly, nasty feelings.

So there’s a lot of therapy in my journal, which is to say a lot of thoughts and feelings that are private and nobody’s damn business.

Personal history

Occasionally I write about places I go or things I do. Some folks keep a journal so their children or future family members will know how they lived their life. Personal reporting for the next generation, as it were.

Mostly, though, I’ve journaled to map the contours of my soul. I don’t fill out the physical details much–also a failing of my fiction, which is why that remains unpublished. Should I just burn all that and leave my thoughts and my self mostly a mystery to others after I die?

Fuel for future fiction

I am a technical writer by profession. My fiction writing has fallen by the wayside in the last decade or two, but that’s not to say I’ll never try to publish my fiction at some point (150+ stories, 4 novels–it can’t all be crap, right?). I could probably sift through my journal for fiction ideas. I wrote down a lot of story ideas that I never actually completed. Or I could write fiction based on situations from my past. I was a different character in my 20s and 30s than I am in my 50s, by temperament and circumstances. Could I write about Younger Bart as a fictional character? Maybe.

Quite frankly, a lot of my journaling embarrasses my later self. I find it uncomfortable to go back and read about the feelings or situations Younger Bart got himself into. Sometimes I’ve written things down so I can get them out of my head. If it’s on the paper, I don’t have to think about it anymore, right? Again: therapy.

So why keep the journals around, especially when they’re taking up a substantial bit of space in one of my closets? Once I’m gone, I’ll live only in my works (training documents? engineering proposals? blog entries? Facebook posts?) and in the memories of others. Or I could create art, which is not my specialty. Right now my journals are the most accurate record I know of who I am. Some people have a significant other to share their life experiences with. I don’t manage such things well, so I have conversations with close family and friends. There are maybe half a dozen people I talk with on the phone regularly for purposes of baring my soul and letting my voice be heard in the world. I don’t write much fiction, and what I do write I don’t share with too many people. I suspect that’s on purpose.

For now, I still have the journals. Maybe I’ll share the contents with others in some form, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just burn the lot and let my soul remain a mystery.

The Wearing of Masks

Thanks to some crafty friends, I’m doing my best to stay lighthearted with my health-promoting masks. However, I won’t deny this simple fact: I hate wearing them. And yet, here I am, in the mix with everyone else, doing my very minor part to stop myself from inadvertently sharing anything in my nose or mouth that might get someone else sick (I hasten to add that I have no symptoms, but then like most Americans, I also haven’t been tested). Continue reading “The Wearing of Masks”

Forced in on Myself

I’m not expecting any great “transformation” or personal insights during this period of enforced isolation. They could happen, mind you, but I’m not expecting or forcing any. What follows are my thoughts about the state of my soul before and during this shared crisis called pandemic. Continue reading “Forced in on Myself”

What Are Emotions and What Am I Supposed to Do with Them?

I’ve mentioned a few times before on this blog that I’m a moody person. I’ve not always been thrilled with this trait. Boys/men are taught not to display their emotions (save for a few “acceptable” ones like sternness or anger or mild humor), and I’ve been going against that grain all my life. This morning, in the midst of an early-morning fog, I asked myself a useful question while journal writing: what are emotions? My answer lies below. Continue reading “What Are Emotions and What Am I Supposed to Do with Them?”