The First Step

Surfing around wordpress, I ran into a post from thecrazywriter (j.j. melzer) about finding the time to write. He has a good attitude, which boils down to, if you love writing, you’ll find time to write.

If you’re a writer, you’ll run into people from time to time who get this sort of starry-eyed look and say, “Oh, I’d love to be a writer.” But it usually turns out they’re just too busy taking care of kids or whatever. This is often, I’m sure, an excuse that draws a veil over the feeling that they lack the talent. But taking them at their word, what I like to tell them is this:

As a writer, you’ll be called upon to solve hundreds of problems large and small. What to name your character. How to start the second chapter. Where to end the second chapter. Whether you’ve spent too much space describing the room and the furniture, or not enough. How to spell “coagulate.” Whether “coagulate” is the word you want to use here. Whether to break a long sentence in half or leave it the way it is. Which literary agent to approach next. What to say in your letter to the agent. Do you need a website yet?

It never ends. And the very first problem you have to solve is, When will I find a few hours to write?

Until you solve that problem, all of the other problems will remain hypothetical. But just because you’ve solved it doesn’t mean you’re good to go. It’s just the first problem in an endless stream.

The journey of a thousand miles begins when you fall flat on your face, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, swear at the person who left the great big rock lying in the middle of the road, kick the rock a couple of times, hop up and down on one foot while rubbing your broken toe, swear some more, sit down and sulk for a while, get up, step very carefully around the rock this time, and…



In the past few months I’ve really started enjoying reading short stories. Never paid much attention to them when I was younger. I’ve bought paperback anthologies by Chekhov and Eudora Welty and dug through my storage locker and pulled out anthologies by John Cheever and Wallace Stegner. I went down to the library and took out an anthology by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s all amazing stuff.

The challenge is to transfer this sensibility somehow into the realm of the fantasy story. Which means figuring out what those incredible authors are doing. It has to do with theme, and the careful use of language, and finding a moment in the lives of two or three characters in which something happens.

Well, that’s one of the challenges. There are others. I have a couple of new stories ready to send out, but the magazines are mostly sloooooowww to respond, so another challenge is to find more markets. Paying markets, that is. There are certainly websites that will splat your fantasy story up there where all and sundry can read it, but those “opportunities” don’t interest me right now. Maybe in five years, if nobody has bought some story or other.

I could submit stories to the mainstream markets, but that’s sort of like wearing a “Kick Me” sign. You want rejection slips? Send your stuff to The New Yorker. It’s not just that the competition is ridiculous; that’s only part of it. The other part is, their standards are stupidly high. I can write well enough to sell to the genre market (sometimes — I get plenty of rejections there too, though sometimes in the form of a polite note from the editor, which is nice). But is my language incandescent enough for my story to be rubbing elbows with one by John Updike? Clearly not.

Another challenge is to keep myself psyched up to write more new stories. Life presents so many distractions! I started working on a new story last night, and tonight I’m too beat to concentrate on it, I can feel this. It will still be there tomorrow. I’ll work on it then.

A good way to stay psyched up is to read great stories. You can read the whole thing in twenty minutes, or forty-five at most. And if it’s a good story, you want to go back to the first page and read it again.

Over the years I’ve read at least half a metric ton of mystery novels, but the only reason to read a mystery a second time is if you read it so long ago you don’t remember who done it. Even the best mystery writers don’t produce luminous prose or deep insights into their characters. Those elements would only get in the way of the plot.

A literary short story often doesn’t have much of a plot. Two people meet, and have a conversation, and then go their separate ways. And you get to sit there and think about what happened in that scene, and work out what the author was driving at.

That kind of story is like a painting, to my way of thinking. It’s a moment in time, captured by the artist. The moment has a certain texture. You can contemplate the balance and relationships between the foreground and the background. But beyond the motionless imagery, you can cast your imagination forward and backward in the lives of the characters, based on the hints the author provides.

Yeah, it’s a very special kind of painting. And it requires neither canvas nor turpentine.

Doing It Wrong

In the last analysis, playing a musical instrument is a form of athletic activity. Muscles, tendons, joints, posture — it all matters. When you’re young, you can get away with a few bad habits, because your body is resilient. Once you pass 50, though, the bad habits will start to catch up with you.

Right now I have what seems to be epicondylitis in my left elbow, presumably from playing the cello. The elbow is sometimes stiff, and occasionally it hurts. It seems vanishingly unlikely my M.D. will be able to refer me to a physical therapist who knows about cello technique, so I posted a message on the forum at the Internet Cello Society asking who to talk to in the Bay Area. I was referred to Irene Sharp.

In my lesson with her this afternoon, she recommended a completely different way of using my left arm. It feels awkward — like trying to swim while wearing a raincoat. But her approach makes sense, I can see that. At least it’s worth working on it for a couple of months to see if I can adapt to it.

Fortunately, I don’t have any gigs coming up. It will take a while for me to get used to these techniques and learn not to slip back into my old habits. Also, I expect that changing things will put some strain (temporary, I hope) on some tissues that aren’t used to what I’m asking them to do.

Just what I need — another adventure. Wasn’t I supposed to have worked through all my bad habits by the time I got to be this old?

The Fast Track

I’ve always been fascinated by human evolution — by how, against all odds, our species became what it is today. Aside from simple curiosity, I cherish the faint hope that if we know who we are, we’ll be able to figure out how do deal with it all.

One of the striking facts of human evolution is that our ancestors adopted a bipedal gait (that is, walking on our hind legs) two or three million years before our brains started to get bigger. Numerous mammals, from bears to prairie dogs, will pop up on their hind legs to have a look around — the view is better when you’re taller. But a bipedal gait is inefficient, and retooling the mammalian skeletal structure for something so inefficient is not something evolution would do, unless there was a reason.

It couldn’t have been to free our hands for carrying tools, because in those dim and distant days we weren’t carrying any tools! The working of stone into tools was millions of years in the future.

I’ve never read an explanation for the bipedal experiment in a book on paleoanthropology, but I’ve got one. As far as I know, this is entirely my original idea. It may be wrong — lacking a working time machine, we can only guess, we’ll never know for sure. But it fits the facts, and it matches my understanding of how evolution works.

Many species engage in fitness displays. The male peacock has an enormous fan of tail feathers, which serve no purpose whatever except to advertise his good genes to female peacocks (peahens, I guess you’d call them). Male moose batter themselves silly headbutting other male moose — again, for no good reason except to prove their fitness to female moose. The winner in the headbutting contest gets to pass on his genes to the next generation; the loser doesn’t. That simple fact ensures that moose headbutting will continue unabated for as long as there are moose.

So let’s picture a band of our simian ancestors. They’re sitting around in the jungle, eating papaya and picking the lice out of one another’s pelts — and one day a young male is playing around. He tries running on his hind legs, just for kicks. And a couple of the young females notice. So the next day he decides he’ll show off to the females specifically by running on his hind legs. He manages to run halfway over to the next tree before he falls. He attracts, perhaps, a mild interest among the ladies.

The next day, five of the young males are competing to see who can run the farthest on their hind legs. One of them actually makes it clear to the next tree before he falls over. He’s feted as a hero — a ceremony over which we will draw a discreet curtain, as it involves congress of body parts.

At some point, and more likely at a dozen key points along the way, random mutations will have given rise to changes in the anthropoid skeletal structure that made it easier for those who possessed the mutation to run farther or faster on their hind legs. And each mutation will have been passed on to the next generation and the next generation and the next, because in each generation the males who could best manage the awkward bipedal gait would have their choice of females. They would sire lots of babies. The males who stumbled and fell down — not so many.

Fast-forward a hundred thousand years. Our ancestors are still no smarter than their cousins the chimps, but they have a very different skeletal structure. And in every single tribe, the young males compete in foot-races.

If you think this theory is too cynical, you might want to ask a pro athlete. I don’t know any pro athletes personally, but my strong impression is that, you know, the ladies are powerfully impressed by their ability to hit a ball with a stick, throw a ball through a hoop, or whatever. It would be very surprising to meet a male pro athlete who didn’t have plenty of opportunities to sire offspring.

Being human is a lot more complicated these days than running foot-races. Once the brain gets into the act … but that’s another story, for another time.


If you have a blog on wordpress, your browser will display a little arrow button at the upper right corner. This button takes you to a random blog. (Apparently non-bloggers don’t get such a button. At least it doesn’t show up in Firefox.)

Clicking on this button a few times is an educational experience. Assuming that “random” truly means random (not guaranteed), you quickly discover that almost all of the blogs on wordpress are either incredibly lame or dead. Just by the fact that I’m posting actual stuff, and in a literate manner, it appears I’m in the top 5% of blogs. Well, definitely the top 10%.

You’ve got your high-school and college students who post one entry and then nothing for six months, you’ve got blogs that have nothing on them but a post that says “test message,” you’ve got pages full of personal snapshots, lots of brand new blogs that were just started yesterday (see why I think “random” may not be truly random?)….

I guess people feel a need to connect with the world. So they have this impulse — “Hey, I’ll start a blog!”

There are roses blooming outside my window. If you truly want to connect with the world, go smell a rose. Compared to blogging, smelling a rose would have some lasting value.

Pete Saw It Coming

I write mostly fantasy stories. The main reason I don’t write more science fiction is because the future can’t be predicted. No matter what you guess, you’ve got a 99% chance of being not only wrong, but foolishly wrong.

Read some SF from the ’40s and ’50s sometime. It’s awe-inspiring in its ineptitude. The men projected for the year 2000 wear hats, the women wear aprons and stay in the kitchen, and everybody smokes cigarets. Flying automobiles powered by tiny nuclear reactors are all the rage.

In Isaac Asimov’s much-ballyhooed robot stories, the robots’ brains are built out of positronic vacuum tubes. The transistor hadn’t yet been invented, you see, but the positron had just been discovered, so its properties were bound to bestow magical powers. (Oops — didn’t mean to mention “magic” there.)

And of course, nobody foresaw the Internet. Arguably more important than the printing press, and it caught SF writers by surprise.

But Pete Seeger saw it coming. Oh, not the Internet itself. What he saw was the social consequences that would inevitably follow. He saw what it meant.

In about 1980, I was working at Keyboard magazine. Down the hall was a magazine called Frets. Pete Seeger was a famous banjo player (still is, I believe…), so Frets put him on the cover. Shortly after that issue was published, Pete dropped by the offices, and I actually got to meet him. After five years at Keyboard, I had met a few famous musicians, but with Pete I wasn’t a journalist, I was just a fan. Wow, what a thrill to actually meet the guy!

Our offices had recently been equipped with ugly brown Kaypro computers. Every editor had one. By today’s standards they were laughably primitive. Even so, they were a huge improvement over typewriters. They had 64Kb (that’s kilobytes, not megabytes) of RAM and dual 5-1/4″ floppy drives.

Pete was interested in the computers, but maybe what impressed him was the fact that every editor had one. I wish I could remember his exact words; I’ll have to paraphrase. He said, “That’s what will keep the government from taking over everything: Ordinary people can have these machines.”

The governments of China, Singapore, and the Middle East will testify that Pete knew what he was talking about. If they could outlaw personal computers entirely, they would, because PCs are dangerous to despots.

Here in the U.S., you can still access any kind of information you crave. A few mouse clicks and you can check in on the latest 9/11 conspiracy theories or whatever. You may want to avoid thinking too hard about the giant robots that the FBI and CIA have monitoring your web usage. There are other ways of controlling dissent that don’t require crudely shutting off access to information. But we do still enjoy some freedoms — and Pete saw it coming.

Teaching Electronic Music

Late-breaking news: I may be about to start offering private lessons in electronic music technology and computer recording. The lessons will be through Fine Fretted Friends in Livermore.

Logistics remain to be worked out. It’s a bit different from teaching cello, because everybody will have slightly, or radically, different computer setups. Also, there are no method books, so the students and I will have to work out the curriculum as we go along.

Still, it could work out really well. I know there’s a need for it — nobody around here is teaching this stuff, and I’m pretty sure there are hundreds of musicians in the area who would like to be more in control of their home recording setup but don’t know where to turn.

If you’re not in Livermore or the surrounding area, this may not interest you — but if you’ve taken, or taught, private lessons in the technology and production techniques, I’d love to hear about your experiences, either positive or negative.

Pumped Up

To paraphrase Mark Twain, “Everybody talks about the price of gasoline, but nobody does anything about it.”

Sort of nationalizing the oil companies, what are you gonna do?

Of course they’re gouging us. Gouging the suckers is what capitalism and the free market are all about.

And of course we are going to run out of oil before too very much longer, and yes, burning the oil contributes to global warming, so we really ought to stop using so much — but the cost is not dictated by questions of supply and demand. It’s rigged.

Here’s a prediction: In October of this year, the price of gasoline will start to dip. The week before election day, it will have dropped back below $3.50 per gallon. Then, in mid-November, it will start to climb again. By January it will be over $4.50.

Why? Because the oil companies want the Republicans to win the election, that’s why. If people feel bad about the economy, they’re more likely to vote Democratic. But if the price of gas starts to drop, people will feel better about the economy, so more of them will vote Republican.

Before you start feeling too mungy about the cost of filling your tank, though, you might want to look at this graph of gas prices. It shows that in constant dollars (that is, adjusted for inflation), we’re paying about the same price today as we paid in 1979.

This too shall pass. Once the election is history, the price will continue to rise. That and other factors will continue to suck the American economy into a black hole. Putting a Democrat in the White House probably won’t help very much, if at all, because the problems are rooted in the system. Congress is utterly incapable of instituting meaningful reform, because Congress is owned by the oil companies, and the drug companies, and so forth.

Karl Marx and George Orwell were having a drink in the corner pub when Francis Fukuyama walked in, and….

No, that isn’t a joke that has a punch line. Sorry.

Passion & Perseverance

I’ve gotten a lot out of the books Eric Maisel has written on creativity. I’m on Eric’s weekly email list, and from time to time he starts a Yahoo Group devoted to a topic that will be of interest to artists, or that he’s planning to write a book about. (Picks our brains, he does!)

This week he started a group called ArtistBridge. I signed up. I don’t know exactly what he has in mind for it, but the main topic seems to be how artists can connect better with audiences. (That’s the bridge part.)

A common theme, among the two dozen or so people who have sent in the requested “Howdy” email, is that they’re failing to connect with audiences to the extent that they would like to. Some of us are just too busy living life (caring for aging parents, dealing with illness, whatever). Others describe themselves as lacking entrepreneurial skills. Still others are just plain shy, or worry that their work isn’t good enough.

One person mentioned friends of hers who have put a lot of effort and money into “making it big” as writers and have ended up very disappointed. I know that happens to most of us … but in thinking about it, I remembered John and Alis. In the late ’70s or early ’80s they both worked at the magazine publishing house where I worked. Both of them wanted to be novelists, and I actually read, in manuscript, the first novel (never to be published) by each of them.

John you may have heard of under his own name — John Lescroart. His hefty hardbacks show up at Borders and Barnes & Noble pretty regularly. Alis published a couple of fantasy novels under her own name (Alis Rasmussen) but later sold a lot more books as Kate Elliott.

What did John and Alis have that you and I don’t? Read the headline. Passion and perseverance.

My recollections of those manuscripts are dim and fragmentary (though perhaps not quite as dim and fragmentary as John and Alis might prefer). But I don’t think I would have been alone in thinking neither book was ready for serious agenting. And yet, both authors later enjoyed great success. (My two paperbacks, meanwhile, completely disappeared from the bookstores….)

What did John and Alis have that you and I don’t? Passion and perseverance.

Max Headspace

Last night I downloaded the latest release of Cycling ’74 Max. Or technically, Max/MSP/Jitter, since it’s all one program. Wow! The upgrade is amazing.

I’ve used Max in the past, though never for any serious creative work, mostly just reviewing it for one magazine or another. It’s a deep and sophisticated system for developing your own real-time performance software, both audio and video.

Unless you’re a diehard experimentalist, using a ready-made recording or performance platform (that is, a digital audio workstation, or DAW) would be a lot easier than digging into Max. But if you need to do things that a DAW won’t do, Max is the best ticket in town.

The new version doesn’t seem to be a radical upgrade in terms of the actual functionality. But the user interface is much, much nicer than before. Not only is it less geeky than it used to be, it’s actually sexy!

Max comes with a large set of excellent tutorials that will ease you, step by step, into the complex world of programming using graphic objects. The tutorials are not free of silly little errors, but even if you’ve never encountered anything like Max before, you’ll be up and running within a few hours of study.

The demo version is fully functional for 30 days.