Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Story Behind the Story: Advent

Last winter was a very mild one, as I recall.  It had hardly snowed until one evening in early February.  Snow had been predicted all day and finally arrived in earnest not long after dusk.  I stepped outside in the still evening air and watched the flakes as they fell slowly to the ground... so slowly, in fact, I could imagine the snow suspended in front of me like a field of stars.  I thought that might make a cool visual I could incorporate into a story at some point.  I even wrote a couple paragraphs about it once I got back inside.  That moment didn’t fit into my current project though, so I filed those paragraphs on my hard drive for the time being.
A few months later I was fleshing out the germ of a new story, the tale of a man who is the victim of corporate cutbacks and subsequently tries to forge a new life path (something many of us can identify with, yes?).  I had the characters alive and vivid in mind. I knew the general the arc of the story and had, in fact, started writing it.  I also knew that it was lacking a compelling pivotal moment, something that would transition the main character from one phase of his life to another.  I started going through some of my notes, the random bits of dialog, character and incident that would often pop up on their own accord.  These notes would generally wind up being stored on my hard drive until such time something could be incorporated into a larger work.  I happened upon the vignette I wrote about the snowfall and knew that was just what I needed.  
Now that the final piece was in place, I finished the story the very next day.  The snowfall bit actually provided an effective transition from the reality of the story as a whole to... well, let’s just say a somewhat more fantastic realm, a place that would enable the main character to explore his life and move forward to the next phase.  I was very happy with the completed story, so much so that I made Advent the title of my short story collection.

“Advent” is just one of the fourteen stories that I’ve included in my new book, “Advent: A Short Story Collection”, now available on Amazon.com.  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Story Behind the Story: Norm

A couple years ago I found myself between writing projects.  I had started a novel (one that will yet be written, by the way!) but it fizzled and I didn’t have the wherewithal at the time to fix what needed to be fixed.  I knew I had more to say, but my writing mojo was nowhere to be found.  I was frustrated, to say the least.
I had gotten home from work one evening and took a call from a friend.  Given that it was an especially pleasant late summer/ early fall day, I opted to walk around outside as we talked.  I saw my neighbor Norm (not his real name, just the one I assigned him for the story), an elderly man who lived a few doors down from me.  I nodded to him, he nodded to me and he walked away.  I ended the conversation with my friend and thought about the last time I had talked to Norm.  It was the previous Christmas and he given me some McDonald’s gift certificates in hopes that my boys would enjoy going there.  I thanked him and promised we’d use them soon.  I later tried to thank him again and tell him that we enjoyed our meal, but as Norm was very much a reclusive sort I never had that opportunity.
So I thought about Norm and his hermit ways and his long beard and baseball cap and windbreaker.  I wondered what drove him.  I wondered if he had a family or close friends and what he did on the holidays.  It was unlikely I’d ever know, as Norm certainly wasn’t one for conversation.  
I suddenly felt a little spark of inspiration and grabbed onto it for all it was worth.  I started writing about Norm almost immediately.  It became the story of a young single mother and her interactions with an elderly man in her neighborhood.  It was an interesting exercise in that it was written first-person from the young woman’s point-of-view.  I hadn’t yet written from the female perspective at that point in my writing career.  I finished the story just a couple days later.  I sent it to a couple friends, who told me they really enjoyed it (kudos are very nice to get).
A couple days after that I was flipping through the local paper when I saw something that made my jaw drop.  The real-life Norm had passed away, in fact on the day after I finished my story.  Sadly, it was only through his obituary that I learned about his life.  He worked until retirement as a computer operator and left behind one brother.  The obituary also said that he loved children (that much I knew).
The clean up began weeks later.  When someone passes away, they generally leave a lot of possessions behind, and it’s up to the family to sort through everything.  I've been there (as most of us have) and know that it can be a laborious, emotional process.  The clean up was on a much larger scale in Norm’s case.  He left behind the duplex he lived in, another house on the corner and a two-car garage. It was even bigger job than I had imagined, as Norm was apparently something of a hoarder.  The garage alone was packed quite literally floor-to-ceiling.
Several months passed and while out on a walk I struck up a conversation with an older gentleman.  He was standing outside one of Norm’s houses and had just gotten done conferring with some laborers.  The man was, of course, Norm’s younger brother.  We talked for a good long time about Norm, his life and his passing.  He sorely missed his older brother and loved spending what little time he could with him.  He acknowledged that Norm was very much a hermit and suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, but that didn’t diminish their brotherly love.  We ended our conversation and bid each other well.

I was glad to have finally gotten to know the real Norm somewhat, even though it was after his passing.  I hope my story stands as a proper tribute to his spirit.

“Norm” is one of the fourteen stories that I’ve included in my new book, “Advent: A Short Story Collection”, now available on Amazon.com.  

I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick peek “behind the scenes”.  You’ll see more “Story Behind the Story” blog posts soon.

Monday, January 14, 2013

You and I Need To Have a Little Talk

You and I... well, I think we need to have a little talk.
First of all, I think you’re pretty awesome.  Smart.  Caring.  Funny.  You have a lot of great qualities and I have a ton of respect for you.  I really do.
But here’s the problem... I really think you’re selling yourself short in so many ways.  I’m not sure why.  I can’t be certain where things went off-track.
One thing goes wrong, then another, then maybe another; and you suddenly find yourself not living the life you used to, certainly not the life you imagined.  Hey, it happens to the best of us, right?
Perhaps there were some people in your life that weren't nearly as supportive and loyal as you would have hoped (in fact, maybe quite the opposite).  Maybe a person or two judged you based on your current circumstances, rather than who you were on the inside.  I know, that can hurt.
So you took some time to lick your wounds, change a few things and plot your comeback.  That’s to be expected (and actually not a bad idea).  I’m still wondering when you’re going to make that comeback, though.  I’m still waiting for you to come charging forward, away from the ropes, back to fighting in the center of the ring.
So you lowered your standards in a lot of areas and kept letting them slide.  You started expecting less of yourself and life than you used to expect.  You’re getting less and less disciplined as time goes on... and less hopeful... and less positive.  That makes me sad.  I really miss how you used to be.
So when does it stop?  When do you turn the tide?  Think about it... are you going to stick with this current trajectory of yours (more of a downward spiral, to be perfectly honest)?  Are you going to continue to let your standards slip?  Where are you going to draw the line?

I know, I’m not exactly telling you what you want to hear.  You know it’s the truth, though, like it or not.  Are you getting mad?  Good.  Use that.  This guy did...

So when are you going to step up?
How about now... I mean right now.  Today.  This second.  Set some new, higher standards.  Do something, anything to move forward and get out of that rut you’ve created by spinning your wheels.  We both know you’re capable.  Choose to rise above all that negativity, put the past behind you and GO.
Instructions: Look in the mirror and read this.  Repeat as often as necessary.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Self-Esteem and Then Some

First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I am not a licensed therapist or any sort of counselor (despite what some people seem to think).  I’m a regular guy.  A writer. A dad. A friend, a son and a cat owner.
In short, I am many things.  I am better at some things than others and that’s fine.  I am also a guy that struggles with his self-confidence from time-to-time.  To some of you, that may come as a surprise.  Others may not exactly consider that an earth-shattering revelation.
In any case, I have more than a few thoughts on this subject.  A recent conversation has caused me to do a great deal of reflection/ soul-searching/ etc. I’ve come to some interesting conclusions that I suspect will be of interest to many of you.  So come at me with your questions, people...

So what is this “self-esteem” thing anyway?
Self-esteem has three parts, at least as I see it.
Self-worth-  That’s your core.  That’s how you see yourself as a person in general.  Good?  Bad? Indifferent?  We’ll get back to self-worth in a minute.
Self-efficacy- This is where things get interesting.  Self-efficacy is more or less about how good you think you are at getting things done.  It’s generally not an across the board judgement.  You may think you’re good at some things and bad at others.  My personal example... I think I’m pretty good at this writing stuff, but not so much when it comes to home improvements.  So I have no problem popping out a blog post like this one, yet I struggle and get frustrated when it comes to changing the faucet on my kitchen sink.  Yeah, go ahead and laugh.  Then come over and change out my faucet when you’re done with chortling at my expense.
Anyway, when your self-efficacy is lacking in a given area, you will be far more likely to get frustrated and probably give up entirely.  This, by the way, is not great for your self-efficacy in that area.  
Strong self-efficacy usually results in more persistent effort.  Simply, when you’re confident your efforts will bear fruit, you’ll try harder and not give up.
Self-confidence- This is what you project out to the rest of the world.  I don’t mean walking around with some arrogant swagger, making sure everyone knows that you are the shiznit.  Actually, that sort of behavior is more often than not a smokescreen for someone with low self-esteem.  What I’m talking about is a quiet, effective confidence.  The kind of belief in oneself that doesn’t require public attention (unlike the aforementioned)... it just is and it just gets it done.  Period.  It’s intrinsic.

Intrinsic?  What’s that mean?
From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary...  belonging to the essential nature or constitution of a thing <the intrinsic worth of a gem> <the intrinsic brightness of a star>

Basically, built-in.  Permanent (in tech terms, firmware).  And certainly not contingent upon one’s income, job title or relationship status.  A person who has good, strong intrinsic self-worth isn’t buffeted around by life’s occasional smackdowns.  They can handle the disappointment, the job loss, the breakup.  They can take it when someone cuts them down.  Sure, they’ll  feel sad or hurt but they’ll recover and move on. That loss or disappointment won’t affect their self-perception.
The person with intrinsic self-worth will be better able to deal with a little fear, since the downside doesn't define who they are.  They’ll give their goals 100%.  They’ll close that sale.  They’ll tell someone they love them when they probably should, even if it’s a little scary to do so.

That’s all well and good for those people.  What about poor, neurotic me?
There is hope for you yet, my self-pitying friend.  Might I suggest making a couple lists?
First, a an honest accounting of your positive qualities (yes, you do have them).  Hard-worker?  Check.  Honest?  Oh yes.  Master of football trivia?  Not my thing, but whatever floats your boat.

Really think hard and make a good, long list.
Got it?  Good.
Now, read through your list and think that those are all yours.  For keeps.  No one can ever take those things away from you.
Feeling better?  Good.
We’re not done yet, though.  Now I want you to make another list.  Inventory all your accomplishments throughout your life, everything you can think of... just dump it all onto a sheet of paper.  And yes, I mean everything.  You learned to ride bike?  Put it on the list.  You survived Algebra I?  Write it down.
So again, read through your list.  You already did those things.  Nothing or no one (save for someone inventing time travel) will change that.  Ever.  So be proud of yourself... you earned it.  Bask in your newfound glory. Because you’re awesome.

Now I don’t presume that you’re suddenly going to be able to charge headlong into life and conquer all of your obstacles just because you’ve read this blog post.  That wasn’t my goal.  I merely wanted you to think about who you really are.  I wanted you to lift the hood, tinker around some, and see where the problem might be.
Now get to work on yourself.  You’re worth the effort.